We landed in Porto after our detour of Morocco, the weather was drastically different, the scenery too. Our flight landed in the evening. We made our way to the AirBnb in Villa Nova de Gaia, a fairly large suburb of Porto proper on the southern bank of the River Douro and the actual area where Port wine is made. We were very happy to meet our very gracious AirBnb host, who although unable to speak english we somehow understood thanks to our moderate fluency in Spanglishtugese and her generous comprehension skills. The long travel meant a quick dinner was all we had energy for on our first day.
The next day, we headed out to town to check out the riverfront area that Porto is famous for. A short metro ride had us on the bridge over the river. The Douro River cuts through the middle of town, making for beautiful vistas. Buildings, old and new, stradle the steep banks while bridges stretch across the urban ravine holding the city together. Riverboats, tours and even some larger ships steam up and down the windy river. Dotting the banks are traditional Rabelo boats, that once upon a time used to transport the Port wine, produced further upstream in the Duoro Valley, down to Porto. Now though, these are marketing props used by winemakers, as most of the transport duties have been taken up by railroads. After taking in the views from the bridge, we decided to make our way down to the river bank. It turned out that the easiest way down was the cable car that skims one side of the valley; we rode down while watching the beautiful porto skyline on the opposite bank. Our arrival into the valley was welcomed by a duo of violinists performing a particularly good rendition of Despacito. Owing to it’s worldwide fame, the song has, begrudgingly I must add, been a recurring unwelcome soundtrack for our journey so far. Everywhere we arrive, so does Despacito, it’s the Imperial March to our Darth Vader.
We spent the day walking around the bank, admiring the grafitti and street artists on a gloriously sunny day. Across the river colorful buildings with red shingled roofs crowded the sloping banks with church steeples and crosses poking through, to get a glimpse of the sun overhead. We had a Port wine tasting, which was mostly a taste-and-then-hopefully-buy affair before heading towards the main town. This was the first of two tastings we had, before confidently professing our appreciation and love for the wine that this city gave a name to. In order to get to the Porto side of the river, we walked through many merchants selling tiles and curios to all the tourists. We had to cross the bridge we had just been on top of, but luckily the two-level bridge meant we didn’t have to find a way back up to the metro level. Young men, in Speedos, had climbed up onto the railings of the bridge while their friends buzzed through the throngs of tourists trying to collect money. Once enough money had been collected, the stuntmen on the bridges would dive into the Douro flowing beneath them. This spectacle would then continue with the cashiers switching places with the leapers. The same diving scenario was playing out on the other side of the bridge too. We joined all the other wide-eyed tourists starting at them.
The town is a labyrinth of cobblestone roads and narrow alleyways for one to get lost down. The old churches and portugeuse buildings are a throwback to the country’s imperial past. Several buildings are covered in the famed blue and white tiles that can also be collected as souveniers in Porto. Some of the buildings have obviously had “modern” modifications in order to fulfill the needs of a growing town. One of the curious places we visited was Livraria Lello, a historic bookstore with an absolutely stunning facade and an interior made of ornate wood carved shelves, a magnificent stained glass ceiling and a large curving staircase dominating its center. The bookstore has become famous (read: crowded) thanks to a certain Rowling who used to frequent the place, and who subsequently wrote some magical books that were well received and noted upon by audiences worldwide. One of the inspirations that Porto provided for Hogwarts was their school uniform and house livery that the students wore. A group of students, dressed in clothes that seemed a tad bit too warm for the sunny days here, were in the middle of one of the cobblestone alleyways raising funds via a song and dance performance. Their capes took the cake and added an air of serious mystery. The school I went to did not have fancy names for the houses, so I’m guessing these students were in house purple which has no equivalent house at Hogwarts.
A discovery we had made at the airport was that of a group of restaurants around town that had got together to celebrate a tapas festival, which made for a good roadmap for our wandering and sustenance needs. In the evening hours, we walked around town with our tapas map finding places that would serve us beer and food, and prompty stamp our “Tapas Passport”, that we could then show-off to nobody (we could have won a trip to Barcelona, however ours was already booked – certain restrictions apply).
The following day we visited a Port wine manufacturer, Real Companhia Velha. We saw the mashing and the fermenting tanks capable of holding millions of liters of unfinished wine. Port wine is a fortified wine, which means that the fermentation process is stopped earlier than in other wines by adding distilled grape spirit to partially fermented wine. This makes the wine sweeter, thanks to more sugars remaining unfermented, and stronger, thanks to the spirits that were addedd to stop the fermentation. This also provides an interesting way to say “I’m drunk”, you could just say “I’m fortified” which seems like it should be a more socially acceptable way to phrase it. Then, depending on the style of wine being produced, the wine is aged in glass bottles, huge steel tanks or gigantic wooden barrels the size of a room. A truly fascinating part of the tour we got while at the winery was a look inside their crypt. This is where they store their most precious, and oldest wines, a few of which are actually for sale for unspeakable amounts of money. The place is dark, a musty aroma betrays the existence of the mold and fungi that call this place home. The rows of shelves make the place look like a library from a horror movie with the books having been replaced by wine bottles, and the Dewey Decimal being replaced by a Dampey Decimal. These shelves are covered from top to bottom with a layer of fungus, the corks poke their mushroomy heads from within the webbing of organic growth. Tiny gold bugs and critters crawl around, scurrying away from the light our tour guide uses to show us the bottles. Some of the bottles are several centuries old and from the looks of it, so is some of the mold. The tour ended with the customary buy-if-you-like wine tasting; we liked so we bought a bottle of the Tawny Port and started making our way to the coastline to see the sunset. However, about half-way to our intended destination we figured we would miss the sunset, so instead, decided to walk up to the castle area, which was nearby. We found a comfortable ledge to sit on and began to fortify ourselves as the sun made its way towards the horizon. After, we dined on the Mozambican throwback Peri Peri chicken, which originated here. We went back to our AirBnb where our host and a few of her friends were busy fortifying themselves, not wanting to be rude guests we joined in the revelry.
The next day we went down to the coast where the Douro meets the Atlantic. The waters were rough and a good breeze was blowing, while above us clouds looked like they were ready to let loose. We walked up the coastline, having a packed lunch by the seashore, and then walked up the riverbank where sandbanks had formed over the years. From here the whole town presented itself up and down the steep sides of the valley and all the bridges lined up above us. We crossed the river using the Flor Do Gas boat, which used to supply gas, but now ferries passengers across the Duoro. The crossing was suppose to be a scenic way to see Porto from the river, however the rain had picked up in force and we had to remain huddled indoors. With the weather remaining uncooperative, we decided that the best course of action was to get back to the room and pack ourselves for our flight to Valencia the next morning.
Valencia was an unplanned stop as we made our way to Barcelona. Our trade-off between the cheapest and quickest travel route had left us with a flight to Valencia followed by the train to Barcelona. We added an overnight just to have a look around town since we were there. We spent the little time we had walking around town. We went to the market, which is a large old building that demands your attention as soon as you see it. Unfortunately, we got there a little late and the buzz of activity was dying down as the merchants were wrapping up their wares for the day. In the evening, we made our way over to the river, and by river I mean greenspace. The town has, in an impressive feat of urban engineering, managed to divert the entire river around itself in an attempt to avoid seasonal flooding that used to occur. The old, and now riverless, riverbed has been converted into a sunken greenspace that meanders through the city. The riverbed has walking and cycling paths, parks and activity centers. It also had the Arts and Sciences center, which we went to see in the evening. The center is a beautiful collection of ultra-modern buildings that look like alien space-ships designed by local architect Santiago Calatrava and Felix Candela. The complex has an Opera House that looks like a sleek cycling helmet with a precariously balanced sunroof atop. The entire structure of steel and concrete was a sight to behold in the waning sunlight and the added effect of concealed neon lighting. There is an IMAX screen/planetarium that looks like a steel and glass eyeball completely submerged in a crystal clear pool of water wearing some form of crazy contact lens. There was also the science museum building that looked like a gantry crane and pump-jack (nodding donkey) had babies, lined those babies up in a row, and stuck glass between them to seal the science in. The side of one of the buildings is concave and made in such a way that if you stand on the opposite ends of the cavernous wall, probably about 50m apart, face the wall and speak, you can have secret conversations with your friend on the other end.
Our detour to Valencia was only a day long, the next morning we packed up and headed to the railway station to catch our train to Barcelona just a few hours away.