Saturday, 24 June 2017

Three days in Porto

What’s the ideal amount of time to visit a city? To hit the highlights, see enough that you you’ve got a good feel for it, but not so long that you’re scrabbling around for things to do? I’m not talking here about that ‘You can never know a place too well’ thing, but more that when you come away, you feel you could tell someone else what not to miss and have had experiences you wouldn’t have had anywhere else.

I think it’s somewhere around three days. Of course, you can ‘do’ a place in a weekend too, but another day on top of that allows a little bit of wiggle room.

And so to Porto… Like Lisbon and San Fransisco, it’s all hills. You’re either going up or you’re going down. While going down might sound easier, in the back of your mind, you know it only means that soon you’ll be going up again. And, like much of life, the devil is in the detail here. So, while the broad sweeps are glorious, the azulo tiles round doorways or covering whole buildings are incredible, as are the bas reliefs on 1930s theatres or the small curiosities on a table top.

Casa de Chá da Boa Nova terrace
View from the terrace
We stayed in the Teatro Hotel, so named because it’s in the small theatre district. While it does have a great location, being just off the main Avenida dos Aliados and walking distance to the Ribeiro district by the river, cafés, restaurants and plenty of beautiful cathedrals, it was the lowest-lit place I’ve ever stayed. I think it was a design feature. Not to judge – just putting it out there.

An amusing amuse bouche
If you have time and money, book dinner at Casa de Chá da Boa Nova. It’s out along the coast, so a 20-minute taxi ride from downtown Porto, but in the most incredible position right on the rocks edging the ferocious Atlantic. A sundowner (try one of the house cocktails) served with amuse bouche on the west-facing terrace is a must-do. Dinner is a choice of one of the eight-course menus (€125) – I had the Atlantic, which is seafood from start to finish, served with molecular detail so that every plate is a work of art and makes use of just about every sea creature, from oysters to tuna to mackerel to squid to sea urchin to… I’ve forgotten them all, but by the pre-dessert it felt as if we tasted just about everything that lives under water. We went with the wine pairing (€85), which is worth it if only for the theatre of the sommelier and his amazing moustaches, explaining each bottle to us. Though it all tasted delicious and everything comes from Portugal. Someone tell me why it's so hard to find wine from this region outside of the country, please? 

Jacaranda (my fav trees)
Everywhere is uphill
Even if high, fine dining isn’t your thing, just sitting in the Pritzker Prize-winning Álvaro Siza Vieira designed building is an experience. For those who don't know, the Pritzker Prize is the world's top award for architecture. Built in the middle of the last century, it’s a study in wood panelling, sweeping concrete and vast picture windows that will put you in mind of Eames chairs and Frank Lloyd Wright.

What else must you do? Walk down to the Ribeiro area by the river and stop in at the train station on the way to admire the blue and white tiles, which will have you staring at the ceiling, marvelling that people once put the effort into making the everyday beautiful. 
Train station
The Ribeiro is both slum and chi-chi boutique district. Laundry is strung between windows that have million-dollar views over the Douro. Tavernas line the harbour, music plays – often live – sightseeing boats vie for your passage to give you the one-hour cruise of the six city bridges, seagulls caw and a market selling tourist tat – think tableclothes, tile trivets, t-shirts and cork fashioned into handbags, purses, wallets and bracelets – lines the waterfront. Of course you’ll come here and then you’ll probably take the funicular up to the start of the train bridge at the northern end, which has an exciting take on safety: there’s nothing between the steady stream of pedestrians and the occasional speeding metro except fear, but somehow it works. 

We also saw a sun dog while we were there: a circle round the sun caused by ice particles reflecting the light in very high clouds. Quite astonishing.

Sun dog
Once on the other side, you'll want to visit one of the port cellars that line the riverfront here. They'll give you a tour of their behind-the-scenes museum, a tasting and then lead you to their shop. You can also simply sit in one of their bars in the welcome cool and enjoy a glass of the local bevvy. If you just need a toilet, head to Sandeman's. It's clean and you can nip in without having to traverse the bar – it's on the left-hand side when you go in.

View from the Yeatman
While you're on this side of the Douro, do visit the Michelin-starred Yeatman Hotel for a drink with the best view in Porto. It's a climb up (or call an Uber if you really can't face it), but worth it to sit in comfortable luxury and be served by gracious waitresses and a doorman who treats you like you own the place. Oh, and the view. 

It may be a bit of a cliche, but the hop-on-hop-off busses get my vote. We went with the Yellow Bus Tour, which included a port tasting and an hour boat tour of the bridges, which was fun. It gives you an overview of the city, you can use it as transportation to all the sights and it offers a welcome respite if you just want to sit for a bit. We took one out to the city's nearest beach at Matosinhos, a one-time fish-canning factory area. While it's not the most beautiful architecturally, the beach is wide, sandy and there's a great promenade that runs alongside for walking and people-watching.

Final must-do thing: a riverboat trip on the Douro. For a one-day trip, this involves a two-hour train ride, either before or after your boat trip up or down the Douro. That's because they all start or finish in Regua, just over 100km upriver from Porto. We went for the train ride first, which feels like the right way round, and travelled with Rota do Douro, They start early in the morning, but it's worth getting up for. The train ride is scenic (and air-conditioned), the boat back was utterly charming. A nice, family-style lunch is served, the bar is open all the way, you go through two dramatic locks and there's both inside (again with air con) and outside seating, all for €60. A real treat. And the perfect way to round off a short break to this river-based city.

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