Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Tale of Two Portos

Rob and I agree that the best and worst moments of our trip were in Porto (or more correctly, the Porto region). Inspired by a friend's blog, which always includes the good, the bad and the ugly (although she actually has real excuses for life's stressful moments, while Rob and I only have ourselves to blame :), I thought I'd share the highs and lows of Porto.

Most of you know that I like some control over my environment. A huge understatement, I know. Traveling in a non-English speaking country was testing my own limits a bit. And in any new city, there's also the matter of not knowing where you should or shouldn't be... which no guidebook really tells you. We arrived in Porto early Friday evening and Rob had picked out two possible restaurants from our guidebooks for dinner. We checked into our hotel and set out on foot, as the restaurants were (in theory) just a couple blocks away. The short story is that we found ourselves wandering in a semi-inhabited area of downtown Porto with sidewalks full of dog poop, not so welcoming strangers around every corner, and two boarded up buildings where the two restaurants we sought were supposed to be. We eventually (after much wandering in worry and frustration) headed back towards our hotel, eating in the over-priced, underwhelming restaurant on the ground floor.

I asked our hotel for some recommendations for Douro River cruises. Porto sits on the Douro River just before it reaches the Atlantic Ocean. Heading east on the river you run into wine country, which we absolutely wanted to see. That night we figured out that the better cruises (including a vineyard tour) seemed to be on Saturday and not Sunday. We tried to make a reservation online, but it wasn't clear if it worked.

The next morning, we headed to Vila Nove de Gaia, across the river from Porto, to the boat's departure point. We arrived there to find no one in charge, no one who could tell us if we had a reservation, but a massive crowd of people waiting to get on a boat that could handle that number of people, but not well. My neurons were firing. See above. I hate unnecessary chaos. Why was there no line? Why was there no employee to answer questions? Why was there no order? We wandered around looking for an office to no avail and my stress increased as I realized that even if we got on the boat, we'd be sardines in the middle for the whole six hour trip.

It was probably the jet lag, but my crankiness made Rob cranky and it kept going from there. Grumbling steadily at each other, we decided to head to the office of another tour company, which was highly recommend by both our guidebooks and for which we'd seen signs the night before, so we could book a Sunday tour. We got in a taxi and gave the driver the address. He had no idea where it was. He drove until we spotted one of the signs for the place with an arrow and we jumped out to find the place on foot. We didn't stop to consider that these signs were in the not so friendly neighborhood we'd wandered through the night before. We followed them anyway, as they led us through darker, narrower alleys. But how could huge blue arrows saying "Porto Tours" be lying? Our irritation with our not-so-safe surroundings and each other grew. We stumbled upon the creepiest dog I've ever seen. In hindsight, the dog was probably more miserable than creepy, and Rob insists it was harmless. I was (admittedly probably irrationally) freaked, convinced the dog was going to eat me. Rob was storming ahead, so I yelled until he turned around and walked with me past the demon dog. The morning was not going well.

We were lost. There were no more blue arrow signs. We kept wandering and about 10 minutes later were able to triangulate our location by way of our vaguely accurate guidebook maps. Another ten minutes and we figured out the building that should have housed Porto Tours, but of course didn't. A couple more minutes and we found a locked building around the corner with a tourist information sign that said the office was (contrary to our guidebooks' statements) closed all weekend. Our irritation with each other lifted as we bonded over our mutual and newly found distaste for all things Porto. Why did this city hate us? And what was up with our guidebooks' lies?

As we wandered back to the hotel, we recalled another tour company office we'd passed the night before and stopped in just as it was opening. We looked through their offerings and, pondering the pre-boarding boat cruise stampede, thought it might be worth the splurge to get the more expensive driving tour of the Douro region in a small van. We dropped a credit card, reserved the tour for Sunday, and headed back to our hotel. It was not even 10am. Rob wanted to sleep for a bit longer and so we planned to take a train to a nearby fishing village/beach town for the afternoon to escape the black hole of Porto.

As Rob settled back into bed, I realized that there might be some things I wanted to see in Porto. Surely it wasn't all this bad. I told Rob I'd be back in an hour and set off for a nearby cathedral -- not in the scary neighborhood. It was beautiful. (For the record, I can't even count the number of times Portugal made me whisper "byoootiful," just like that, upon stumbling onto a new sight.) I climbed the 200+ steps to the top of the cathedral tower (let's hear it for Operation Portugal) and was treated to stunning views of the whole city, the river, Gaia. Porto could not be as bad as we thought.

I made a new itinerary for our afternoon, which involved a taxi to our first well-known tourist attraction to avoid landing ourselves in another dark alley. Around noon we set out. We visited the Ingreja de Sao Francisco. Byootiful. You step through a Gothic style entrance and find yourself surrounded by one of the most stunning church interiors I have ever seen. Everything was covered in ornate carvings gilded in gold. Baroque and Rococo (sp?) styles, to be technically correct... I think. It was breathtaking. Porto was looking much better. Across the street we stumbled onto the end of a wedding, as the bride and groom emerged from another church with an exterior covered in gorgeous azulejos (Portuguese tiles). Next up was a guided tour around the corner at the Palacio de Bolsa, which housed the government's commercial operations for a time (and still today to some extent). The highlights included a gorgeous old courtroom and an exquisite hand-carved table made entirely from the scraps left over from the building's wood carvings. Next was the Casa do Infante, also just around the corner, which is not only where Prince Henry the Navigator was born, but also where archaeologists have uncovered Roman ruins now partially on display.

We then made our way back across the river to Gaia where we had some amazing Indian food at a restaurant called, I kid you not, Real Indiana. We have the picture to prove it. Gaia is where the big port companies have their port cellars, many of which are open for tours and tastings. You just have to climb Gaia's hills to get there. Still not recognizing the extent of our guidebooks' betrayals, we followed their advice to visit Barros first. Up, up, up the hill in the heat only to find the doors sealed. No sign of tours or tastings. We wandered around a bit towards where Burmeister was supposed to be, according to our guidebooks, and miraculously, it was there and open. We got an excellent tour, saw a giant wood aging cask from the late 19th century that is currently full of aging port, and very much enjoyed the tasting. We left having purchased a bottle of port. Next it was off to Taylor's, also highly recommended by both our guidebooks. But, contrary to the hours listed in both guidebooks, it was closed when we arrived at 3:30pm. Taylor's is way up in the hills so we were exhausted on the descent. We stumbled onto Offley's who had an English tour at 5pm. We enjoyed it, although it was much less interesting than Burmeister's. We tasted port there with a couple from the Netherlands (who live in France) and a couple from New Zealand (who live in Ireland). Oh, and they all think America attacked itself on 9/11. Seriously. But that's another story.

We stopped in quickly for a tasting at Croft, bought one more bottle of Port, and headed back to our hotel. Porto was not so bad after all. We had dinner at a nice Italian place in Gaia and went to bed looking forward to Douro the next day.

This post is getting long, and our Douro trip deserves more attention than it would get right now. But suffice to say, it was my favorite day of the trip. The Douro region is stunning beyond words. Truly truly truly.

We had a lovely dinner on Sunday night after the tour in Porto on the riverside. (We had found the good restaurant area!) Then we had another half day in Porto on Monday. We wandered to the Sao Bento train station, with enormous walls of azulejos. Then we took a taxi to the far west side of Porto (a newer area) to the new, famous modern art museum that (contrary to our guidebooks) was closed on Mondays. Of course. :) But the museum's restaurant overlooking the museum's gorgeous park was open, so we had a nice early lunch there. An excellent meal actually. One of our favorites. Then we took a long walk to Porto's Boavista Football Club's stadium. The city's underdog. Arriving a little before 2pm. We expected the stadium to be closed, but also the stadium's store was closed for lunch from 1pm to 2:30pm. Of course. :) We went back to the hotel so Rob could relax a bit while I did some shopping before we took the train back to Lisbon. I wandered through an open air market, the main shopping district on a road called Santa Catarina (nice), the University of Porto, and a few small parks. It was crazy hot, which was all the more noticeable because every street seems to be headed uphill. But I actually had a lot of fun.

Despite all the wrong turns, the closed sights, the frustrations, we really did leave loving Porto and the Douro region... although we weren't so enchanted with our guidebooks. It is a gorgeous city well worth the trip. Just stay away from the alleys of the Ribeira.

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