My first visit to Porto was fast, fleeting and full of other distractions. I attended a conference there and only wandered the streets when on organised tours or events. Any free time I had I spent working because I still had clients to keep happy while filling most of the hours in my day with seminars and workshops.
This time - a last minute trip that NewMan half-surprised me with (he made the mistake of asking "Err, what's Porto like this time of year?" before he booked the flights) - I made sure to give Porto more time and more freedom and it paid off. I have stories to tell about the people I've met, the food I ate, the things we've seen.
Here are some of them...
We arrived in sunshine. Stepping off the plane into warm rays that as a British woman residing in Amsterdam I didn't expect to see in November, I found myself smiling at each one.
The taxi driver was very small, wore no coat - a good sign, I thought!- and he walked with a limp. I thought him very sweet until he changed the price of our fare from 22 Euros to 27 Euros when he realised he didn't have a 5 Euro note to give us as change. We shrugged it off, I assume because of the sun's happy effects on us.
Our hotel is a palace. Literally. But it doesn't cost what I would assume a palace would cost. More on that here.Within an hour of checking in, the hotel had arranged two bikes for us to hire and we were equipped with a map of the area. They suggested the route that would take us along the River Douro all the way into Porto and out the other side towards the wide open Atlantic ocean. I ignored my tired eyes (it had been a late night and early start) and we climbed on to our bikes, cursing them for being "proper bikes for proper cyclists" not the upright town bikes we faux cyclists were used to in Amsterdam.
Still we succumbed to their racing style and we chased one another along the river as Porto revealed itself. It was bigger, brighter and better than I remembered. There was more to see and more to appreciate.
The bridges are spectacular in size and shape - I remembered them but not with the awe they deserved.Porto's old town waterfront is a feast for anyone with a love of old architecture, especially the type that looks like it needs a good scrub. Across the river there were the big signs of port caves and everywhere the Zoro-like Sandeman figure seemed to lurk, waiting with his cape and a glass of blood-red port.Beyond the town centre things became more modern and more open. The river widened and cycle lanes popped up out of nowhere, only to then disappear just as unexpectedly.
We stopped just before the road curved away to reveal miles of beach. We sat for a few minutes with a view of the sun, the sea and a lighthouse that people were bravely walking along a sea wall to get to. I say bravely because the sea was rough, crashing against the sides and spilling its guts over to occasionally drench them."Do you remember when we did that in Coffs Harbour?" NewMan asked me. I did and I smiled.
If we had waited another hour we would have seen the sun sink completely, but I made the unusually sensible decision to get back into town before the light faded having noticed that we didn't have lights on our bike.Saddle sore already, we returned to the waterfront in Porto's Old Town where the Sunday evening market we'd snaked through earlier was still in full swing. Hungry and thirsty, we took a risk choosing one of the cafes in the tourist-heavy Praça da Ribeira but it paid off. We shared four small tapas dishes and drank two large glasses of vintage port each... and what do you know? When we got back on our bikes the saddle sore was gone! In retrospect, I'm just grateful we got back to our palace in once piece. (Now there's a sentence I took great pleasure in writing!)During our cycle ride and our port-fuelled dinner in Porto there was one observation that really sticks as my first impressions of Porto (or second if you must include my visit last year). This city is full of sociable people.
From the moment we left the hotel to the moment we reached the sea, we had to weave our way around couples, families, groups and then more couples, more families, more groups. People were outside, enjoying each other's company as though it was a special occasion and not just a mild Sunday evening. Fishermen lined the riverfront in pairs and families gathered around any number of people selling roasted chestnuts - quite the popular snack in Porto this time of year.
I assumed it was because of the weather, but I hoped it was simply because it's just the way they are; the Porto people - or perhaps the Portuguese people in general - love company.Deck chairs were put out along pavements so groups could share a view of the sunset. Children were racing around playing hide and seek between the legs of extended family members and couples of all ages - from 16 to 70 - held hands as they walked along the waterfront. And as we ate our tapas and sipped our port, more groups of Portuguese dotted themselves in between the tourist majority. At our table we could also hear regular loud laughter streaming out of the cafe next to ours and when we left, wobbling down the hill to our bikes, I looked inside. I didn't see a big party or a gaggle of giggling girls; I saw three women going about their work - one behind the bar, one collecting glasses and one sweeping - all laughing like life was one big joyful joke.
I've not noticed so much "community", albeit on a small and scattered scale, in a long time. I'm happy to say in the days that followed as I wandered around Porto aimlessly and ticked off a long list of things I wanted to eat and drink, the groupings were just as visible and just as vibrant, even though the weather had turned and a determined drizzle kept going for two days.
I want to finish this post with a smart, snappy summary of my first impressions of Porto but the words fail me (I am 10,000 into NaNoWriMo if that can be an excuse). Instead I'll leave you with this photo. It was the first sight to pull on my heartstrings in Porto... but it wouldn't be the last.
Frances M. Thompson
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