As air travel has regressed into these days, our trip to Porto began with a 3 hour flight delay at SeaTac airport. Fortunately for us, we had a 5 hour layover before out connecting flight in Amsterdam. So, our plan was safe so far. We took the Seattle light rail to the airport. It usually involves a bit of walking downtown and at the airport, but with traffic jams at SeaTac these days, it’s the safest way to get to the airport. With that and the extra 3 hours we had at the airport, waiting for our flight, I noticed that we had already logged 3 miles walking before we even left town. I wonder if you can buy replacement wheels for roll-around luggage?
On the flight, they kept rebooting the audio-video system, because it was malfunctioning. Every time they rebooted, a different part of the cabin would fail to operate. Ours was working fine, initially. After the 4th reboot,without success, they decided that they would not reboot any more. That was the time our part of the cabin stopped working! Dang! I was in the middle of a movie when this happened. I guess I’ll have to finish it on the way home. To make up for this problem, a flight attendant comped us each 15,000 extra miles on our Delta mileage plan. I guess there is some kind of justice in the world.
Arriving at the Porto airport, the plan was to take the light rail into the city and walk to the hotel from there. We often do this and it usually works fine. However, the tricky part is always figuring out how to acquire a transit ticket in a foreign city. We often use public transit wherever we go, if it’s available. But, the ticket machines are all different and always a challenge. There was a bit of a crowd buying tickets, so we decided to observe how everyone else did it and see if we could learn enough to proceed. After a while we decided to give it a try. The machines were very old mechanical clunkers and offered no English. We stepped up pressed some buttons and thought we had bought two single tickets. Only one ticket came out. Hummm……. Time to seek help. We looked around and found a young Portuguese woman willing to help us, who spoke English. She looked at our receipt and told us that, instead of 2 single tickets, we had purchased a 2 day pass on the metro system, for $14. Well, we were making a little progress. She helped us purchase another single ticket, for $2, to get us on our way. In our travels we constantly rely on the kindness of strangers. It always seems to work out for us. So, 2 tickets, with an average cost of $8 each, for a ride from the airport? That’s not so bad. Some places cost $25 or more to get into town from the airport.
With 23 hours on the road from home to Porto, we were a bit tired and jet lagged when we arrived, but the first thing you must do when arriving in Porto is sample the port wine. Our hotel must have read our minds because they left us 2 “miniatures” of port in the room. Hallelujah! As you may have guessed, Porto is famous for Port, the fortified wine. They have many producers of the Port here and the river bank is covered with Port tasting rooms.
Porto (Oporto in Portuguese) is a city that surrounds the mouth of the Duro River, in NW Portugal. The river is far below the surrounding land. This results in a city built on steep hills around the river. No matter where you go, you are either ascending or descending steep roads or steps. We are giving our legs a real workout here. One day we gradually worked our way down to explore by the river bank. When we were done we had to walk up 19 flights of stairs, 291 steps to get back home. There isn’t much in the way of funiculars or elevators to help you up the steps, like the wealthier countries have. But, living here sure will keep you in shape.
The actual city has about 300,000 inhabitants, with about 1.3 million in the surrounding area. We arrived here on the day before a major holiday celebrating independence from the Monarchy. It’s almost impossible to travel in several countries on one trip without crashing into a holiday somewhere. Everything was closed except a few restaurants. Sounded like a good day to take a 2.5 hour free walking tour of the city. One highlight of the tour was seeing the most luxurious McDonalds in the world [just kidding]. It is located in the former Imperial restaurant, complete with beautiful stained glass and crystal chandlers. It seemed out of place, with no Golden Arches, but I guess the burgers taste the same. Our tour guide, who spoke perfect English, said he learned English watching Sesame Street as a child.
Porto used to be a poor, run down city, with virtually no tourism. Then, in 2012, Ryan Air started daily flights there, from various locations in Europe, for as little as €20. They promoted it as the cheapest place to travel to, with beaches and historical interest. It quickly grew its tourism and the new money allowed development and improvement. It’s now the second most popular place to visit in Portugal. The most striking thing, visually, about this city is the many very tall bridges that cross the river to its high banks. The most famous among them is the Dom Luís I Bridge, that has light rail crossing high on top and vehicles on the bottom. It is made of small pieces of iron, riveted together, much like the Eiffel Tower’s construction. They nicknamed it “The Iron Bridge.” You can walk across the top, where the rail cars run, as long as you get out of the way when a train comes. It is very crowded with Tourists walking all over the upper deck and very scary when a train whisks by. We even saw a couple getting their wedding pictures taken up there on the tracks, between trains, of course. The Iron Bridge’s full length is about a quarter of a mile and stands about 156 feet above the river. There is a photo of it in the accompanying picture gallery.
There are lots of shops here selling things made with cork. Most of them covered with a paper thin coating of cork. We saw a bicycle covered in it, an umbrella, lots of shoes, handbags, hats and even sunglasses had cork covered frames. I don’t know how to tell real cork from fake, but, of course, they all claimed theirs was the real thing.
To find out more about Port, we took a lovely narrow gage railroad trip up the Duro River, to a village called Pinhão, for a couple of days, to see the finely cultured terraced vineyards. While we were there, we walked a 2.5 mile hike, descending 1100 feet, through the vineyards and olive groves. There are some pictures in the photo gallery.
One evening while walking in Pinhão, we came across a restaurant called “The Writer’s Place.” It seemed appropriate for Carol. Normally restaurants don’t open until around 7:30pm for dinner, but we approached it anyway to check it out. An older gentleman came out the front door and said that the restaurant was not yet open, but, if we wanted to, we could come inside and have some refreshment on his terrace, overlooking the river, while we waited. He led us into the courtyard to a nice table with a delightful view over the river. He said it was the table he brings his wife to when they eat there. We ordered some drinks and waited while enjoying the view. After a few minutes a waiter came up and said we could order dinner now, even if the restaurant was not open. We ordered some Portuguese specialties and then the waiter started spinning a yarn to us about all the places he had lived in the world etc. A little bit later another waiter brought us our food and told us not to believe anything that previous waiter had said because he lies a lot. So, there we were, sitting in a restaurant, eating a Portuguese chicken specialty, watching the sunset over the river, BY OURSELVES. It turned into a private dinner with the whole restaurant to ourselves. It doesn’t get much better than that. Serendipity at its finest.
The last thing we did in Porto is take an excursion to the Paiva Walkways and the “Arouca 516” suspension bridge. The 1/3 mile long bridge crosses the Paiva river valley at almost 600 feet above the water. They claim it is the second longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world. At the end of the bridge starts the Paiva Walkways. This pine wood boardwalk starts with lots of steps and then eases into a downward walk for 800 feet down in elevation over 4.5 miles, along side the river. It’s a beautiful walk in the wilderness through Eucalyptus and cork tree forests. Unfortunately, the fast growing non-native Eucalyptus trees are displacing the native Cork trees in alarming numbers. The walkways are inside the Arouca Geological Park, a UNESCO world geological site. They are working on finding ways to discourage the growth of the Eucalyptus trees, to save the slow growing cork. There are some pix in the photo gallery if you would like to see it.
Last, but not least, a little comment on the food here in Porto. There is this special sandwich called the Portuguese Francesinha (Little Frenchie). It’s a gastronomic delight or a heart attack, depending on your perspective. With 5 kinds of meat, toast, cheese, fried egg, sauce and French fries all around, it’s “Delicioso”! Check it out in the photo gallery. The sandwich was an experience and people actually eat them regularly, but our favorite food specialty here was the Nata. It’s a small sweet egg custard tart, with crust made out of many layers of crispy Phyllo dough. It’s great with coffee. The local prescription is to have one every day.
And one final comment, before I finish. Almost all of the public restrooms here have IR motion sensitive switches on the overhead lights. Now, that is a good thing to save electricity. However, the implementation needs a little work. The lights stay on just long enough for you to go in and step up to a urinal, then they go out, leaving you in the dark. If you are lucky, a little wiggle will turn them back on. But, in many of them, the urinals are out of range of the IR sensor and you are left in complete darkness to finish your business and find your way back to the sensor. [Note to self: always remember to bring a small flashlight when using a public restroom in Portugal.]
That’s about it for our adventure in Porto, Portugal. While walking around here we never felt afraid or threatened by anyone. There were no beggars, no gangs hanging around, no worries about pick-pockets or thieves, not even at the train station. It’s a delightful place to visit. We highly recommend it.
We’re off to Bilbao, Spain next. The Internet has been challenging, but we hope to connect with you again from there.
And, you take a look at Carol’s Porto blog at:
Later, your favorite travelers……….… Tom and Carol