After 5 nights in Lisbon, it was time
to catch our train to Porto. There is a very convenient very fast train to
Porto. It is called the Alfa Pendular. These trains run on some lines with
special tracks. The train is comfortable and travels fast with speeds exceeding
200 kmph for long stretches. The Lisbon station was a mess. No proper indicators
of the trains or train numbers. The suburban trains and outstation ran from the
same station [like VT or Dadar] but the ticket booths looked the same. The
platforms had no boards stating which coach came where nor any indication of
where First class would arrive. Finally we found an official who guided us as
well as several other equally anxious and confused passengers.
Our hotel in Porto was extremely
charming. Built sometime in the 1950 but with an even more old world design.
Delightful. Not my taste in style – which is modern – but nonetheless very
good. When we got in there was a drizzle, so we collected umbrellas from
reception and headed out to get bearings. I knew that photography would be impossibility
and would have to wait for sunshine, which was promised the next day onwards.
Porto was far more pretty as compared
to Lisbon. The buildings and monuments seemed better. However, there was a big
feeling of decay all over. Several abandoned buildings, closed and shuttered
shops and several buildings completely collapsed from inside with only the
outside shell standing. The Jewish area was positively dodgy and probably
dangerous at night. Not nice at all. Reminded me of Dublin which was similarly
run down when we visited it in 2012.
Porto is Portugal’s second largest
city and is probably best known for its most famous product and export – Port
Wine. Port Wine is made from grapes grown in the Duoro Valley, which, is one of
the oldest grape/wine producing areas in the world. Port is unusual in as much
it is sweet and is fortified with a neutral spirit thus giving it an alcoholic
strength of about 30%. Port comes in many styles and colours, but all of them
are sweet. Port is drunk as an aperitif or digestive, Port is often served with
cheese as it combines deliciously. White Port is sometimes mixed with Tonic and
makes a delightful drink, sweet, but great for a glass. The English have a
strong association with Port. In the 1600’s British wine merchants had sent
representatives to Porto where they tasted the excellent sweet wine. To everyone’s
delight they found that Port with its higher alcohol content could easily be
shipped from Porto to England without
damage or loss of quality. Then, during the French war in the 1700’s English
merchants were permitted to import Port with a lower duty. The English citizens
who were deprived of French wine consequent to the war, lapped up Port. Today,
because of the historical English association many of the Port wines are sold
with very British names – Taylor, Cockburn, Sandeman and so on.
Porto has been declared a World
Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996. In my view, despite Porto being a World
Heritage site, I did not see much indication of it. Signage at sights was
minimal at best. The condition of the sights was rather ordinary. HRH the Queen
of Kutch told me that Angkor Wat which she had been to, and was a World
Heritage Site, was in worse condition. I have no explanation.
If Lisbon was 7 hills, Porto was
worse. It is really hilly. You are continually going up or down a slope. If not
a slope, it was steps. I have not climbed as much. Porto is very popular with
tourists. It is very hard work being a tourist. We are reasonably fit and we
walked no less than 10 kms every day, at times going up to 17 kms. This is
actually measured and not a fib. We were worn down by Lisbon and Porto every
evening. We felt we had earned our evening beers and they went down well. The
maps were a little better as compared to Lisbon. That was partly due to the
fact that the sights of Porto are in a more compact area. We did get lost a couple
of times. Getting lost in Porto or Lisbon is not romantic. Perish the thought.
Getting lost means you have to walk up 100 feet extra and climb down too. It is
Why not throw in a few statues for good measure.
Azulejos or the famous Portuguese blue
tiles are everywhere. Churches have them and the Train Station is particularly
beautifully decorated with these tiles. You will see from the photos that many
of the Churches are so decorated. The Churches, like in Lisbon were plain,
heavy stonework but plain. Of course with a magical blue cloudless sky in the
background you got picture perfect postcard photos.
The central square Aliados has some
really beautiful buildings. Many of these buildings are bank headquarters and
are in excellent condition. Really very attractive. At the top of the Aliados
Square is the Town Hall which was completed as recently as 1957. This is really
a beautiful building, and I am surprised it was constructed so recently.
Imagine that this design, architecture and style were used in 1957 when the
Empire State Building was constructed in the 1930’s.
Porto proper is situated on one bank
of the river while Gaia where the Port Houses are located is on the opposite
bank. The two sides are connected by several bridges. One of the bridges, now
not in use, was designed by Gustav Eiffel. You can clearly see his style.
Another bridge is the Maria Pia Bridge which has two levels, the upper for the
Tram and the lower for cars. This bridge also had inputs from Eiffel however it
is believed that his partner actually designed the bridge. One point I forgot
to mention is that in Lisbon there is an elevator leading up to a viewing
platform. This entire steel structure was designed by a student of Eiffel. You
will clearly see the same style here too.
You can walk across from one bank to the
other, which is what we did, giving you some really fantasatic views of Porto
as it rises up from the river bank. To get better pictures we decided to walk
from the upper level which entailed yet another very steep, very high climb.
But the results and view were well worth it. Lots of photos were taken. We also
took a river cruise which was pleasant. Not the most magical but pleasant.
Porto has another claim to fame. It is
said that JK Rowling spent a lot of time in a café called Majestic when writing
her breakthrough book Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone. Whether she
actually wrote there or was inspired when sitting there I do not know. It is a
very beautiful café indeed and with this, shall I say, folklore around it,
lines of people wait to enter.
In India we often use a phrase “Note Chhaapne Ka Machine” or to
translate a machine that prints currency. This phrase is used when someone is
sitting on goldmine making money hand over fist. There is a bookshop, very
beautiful, but thoroughly useless, known as Livraria Lello. This has been voted
“best bookshop” by two Jholawalla
publications, you guessed them – The Guardian & Lonely Planet. To add to
the mystic Ms JK Rowling is said to have frequented the bookstore when writing ………….
You have to pay 4 Euro for the privilege of entering. Most books are in Portuguese
which for us is gibberish, and the other books are coffee table books. Useless
books in a beautiful building. Of course HRH the Queen of Kutch an MA in
Literature insisted on going in. On entering my only thought was “Note Chhaapne Ka Machine”.
For some reason, there were 3 stunning
Art Deco buildings in Porto. 2 were movie theatres, which were on very narrow
streets so I simply could not photograph them as I was too close. The third was
a department store of all things, sort of run down. Strange and incongruous.
Porto was quite nice. But, I maintain,
nothing compared to sights and cities that are real stars in Europe. My frank
advise, do not go to Portugal unless you have really exhausted the rest of
Europe. Overall, I maintain my earlier position. Portugal is sub-par and “Thakela”. Not worth the money.