Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Porto - Better than Lisbon but not by much.

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 painful.

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.      

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