Visiting Porto

This was the view from the hotel room the morning of our first full day in Porto. There is nothing particularly noteworthy about it. It could have been a view in some random city in the world.

The bus that we boarded that morning was being used for the first time on a tour. We would be on this bus for the entire tour. It was a Mercedes Benz vehicle, and it was set up quite comfortably for tours like ours. The seats were comfortable, there was plenty of storage for the luggage in the lower level of the bus, and there was overhead space for hand luggage. The air-conditioning system had individual controls for the air flow. There was a PA system for the tour guide to use, a container up front for cold water bottles supplied by the tour company, and even an emergency restroom (that they discouraged us from using because it meant additional cleaning work for the driver). The bus was so new that they had not yet affixed the seat numbers to the individual seats.

Our driver for most of the tour was Helder. He was fluent in English, and was always smartly dressed with a tie and jacket and black shoes. His driving skills also turned out to be impeccable! Rui and Helder worked as a good team. Because of a regulatory limit on the number of days that a driver could be driving continuously in Portugal, he was not able to drive us on the last day of our tour.

Our local guide in Porto was Katerina. As we departed the hotel, she started talking to us about he city of Porto. The population in the metropolitan area of Porto is about 230,000 people. Porto developed as an industrial city along the river Douro. It is known for its Port wine.

We started driving towards the beach area of Porto. It is called Foz (full name Foz do Douro – Mouth of the Douro).

We got a glimpse of different parts of the city along the way. We drove past an older upper part of town from the later 1800s. There were lovely villas. The newer part of town is more more modern. They seem to be very conscious about pollution and the environment. The Metro buses are being converted to run on hydrogen. There is a lot of focus now on transportation as a part of city development. The younger population has 2-year free bus passes. The weather in summer is supposed to be very pleasant, not hot.

Our drive took us past the City Park that is popular with the locals. The 200 acre park is home to the Primavera music festival in summer. 

Housing can be expensive in parts of town, with houses that cost about 1 million euros and apartments that cost around 6 hundred thousand euros.

We arrived at our first destination at an area next to the Atlantic Ocean.

We circled a roundabout with a statue of King John VI (John is spelt Joao in Portuguese) in the middle.One of the things that John VI is known for is the fact that he fled to Brazil in 1807 when it seemed that foreign invaders might take over the country (I think it was the French that he was concerned about). Brazil declared independence from Portugal in 1822. The move was led by the king’s son, who became King Pedro I of Brazil.

(The history of the royal families in Portugal is interesting but too convoluted for me to try to remember. Rio Pacifico, our tour manager, studied history in school. He felt motivated to give us a lot of historical background, again and again, but it is all too much to remember. There seems to have been a lot of intrigue both within the royal families, and across nation states in Europe. This should not be a great surprise!)

We saw the She Changes sculpture by the American artist Janet Echelman, The sculpture changes shape depending on nature of the wind!

We got off the bus at the roundaboutbeside the Fort of San Francisco Xavier. For some reason, the fort is also called Castello de Queijo, the cheese castle.

In the distance we could see the Porto Leixoes Cruise Terminal.

We were told that surfing was popular in that area, and that there were many surfing schools there.

After this stop, we started driving along the ocean side back towards the mouth of the Douro river. We would then continue the drive along the northern bank of the river to the city center. It was pointed out that trees in Foz neighborhood were brought from New Zealand. Foz used to be a side resort for the rich initially.

The beaches that we were passing had different names like Beach of the English, Beach of light etc.. They are public.

At the mouth of the Douro river, we passed a Fortress – Fortaleza de São João da Foz. The fort was set in that location to protect against Spanish attacks. Trees in the area are from Australia – Norfolk pine.

Also at the mouth of the Douro river, on the other side of the river, we saw the little fishing village of Afurada – with all of its small fishing boats. This village had become a tourist destination, and is easily reachable from Porto. They have summer festival there every year in honor of St Peter, the protector of the fishermen.

On the Porto side of the river we saw the little houses for the fishermen,and even one of the old trams running along the road beside the river.The oldest tram lines in Porto are from the 1870s. They were drawn by mules at that time. The original electric trams used in Porto were from America. The whole setup with the trams, including the streets and the neighborhoods that they ran through, looked very inviting. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to ride them. There is a similar network of old trams in Lisbon.

Across the Douro river is the city of Gaia (full name Vila Nova de Gaia). The port cellars for the port wine that Porto is known for are actually located in Gaia. Gaia has an ancient history even before the times of Christ. The original name of Gaia was Cale. Porto used to be called Portus Cale, no doubt influencing the name of the country today!

We passed under the Arrabida bridge, built in 1963, one of the six bridges that cross the Douro. An additional new bridge is planned in the future for the Metro.

We took a detour away from the riverside through the historical section of Miragaia, an older section of Porto, before returning back to the riverside.It was interesting to see that there were rails for the trams on the narrow street going up the steep hill to the section of Miragaia we were visiting. We even saw some of the trams.

As the road climbed up from the river side, we passed an area of street art subsidized by the city. We were passing by too fast for me to take a good picture. I found this page on the Internet with a sample of this artwork. The paintings are replaced regularly.

We got to a park in a square with trees with wide tree trunks at the bottom. These are sycamore trees which got a disease.The park is called Jardim da Cordoaria.

We passed close to what we were told is considered one of most important towers in Porto. the Clerigos Church tower (construction completed in 1763). (We would walk to the church and climb to the top of the tower later in the day.)

We drove close to the Lello bookshop that JK Rowling used to visit when she lived in Porto. According to the Wikipedia article, she worked a few chapters of her first Harry Potter book in Porto.

One of the things that Portugal is known for are buildings with tile work on the outside. This has been going on for centuries. The tile panels on this building that we drove by were supposedly from the 1900’s.

We drove by the Carmo church (construction began in 1756).and the University of Porto.Both are landmarks in Porto.

We passed the Hospital Santo António, a part of the university’s medical school. We were told that it was one of the best medical schools in Portugal. I was on the wrong side of the bus to be able to take a picture. The building was noted to be in the Neoclassical style (the sign next to the place used the term “Neopaladian style”. The architect was John Carr and the building was built in the late 1700s. Here is a picture from the Internet.

We then drove down back to the road that ran beside of the river. As we waited for the lights to change to get on to the road beside the river, I saw people with backpacks. They were preparing to start the about 240 km long Portuguese Camino de Santiago.

We continued to see the trams running beside the road and the river.

We drove next to a part of town closer to the Ribeira to start our walking tour of the city. We were stopped next to a square with a statue of Henry the Navigator in the center.

We toured the mercantile building, also called the Palacio da Bolsa or Stock Exchange Palace. There was much information about the building that was shared, but I will simply show the pictures from some of the impressive rooms. The building was originally part of a convent. There is a lot of history here that one can read about elsewhere. Hopefully, you can sense at least a little bit of the grandeur of the place in the pictures.

We walked next to the Church of San Francisco. The altar was under reconstruction and was blocked off from view. The two altarpieces on the sides were notable.This is called the Tree of Jesse. It was created by Filipe da Silva and António Gomes in the 18th century and features twelve images of the kings of Judah, on a tree that grows from the lying body of Jesse, and culminates in the Virgin and Child, preceded by St. Joseph.

This altarpiece is dedicated to the Franciscan Martyrs of Morocco and Japan.

There was too much gold to be seen all around in the church! It is ironic, considering that St. Francis lived a very simple life. While the design of the outside of the church is gothic, the insides are all baroque.

We heard about Henry the Navigator as we walked by his statue on our way to the Ribeira after the stop in the church.Henry the Navigator is an important figure in Portuguese history because he is the one who commissioned the construction of a new fleet of lighter and more agile ships that started the Portuguese age of discovery – when they began exploration of other parts of the world in earnest. It started out as an attempt to control the trade routes to the east. The colonization of other parts of the world was ultimately a very unfortunate result of what transpired in history. It is interesting to note that Henry the Navigator did not embark on any exploratory voyages himself.

We walked down to the riverside area of the Ribeira. Across the river was the town of Gaia.

We then walked along the river toward the Ponte Dom Luis 1. The buildings and the general atmosphere in the area were really nice. It would be a good place to hang out for some time.

Katerina, our local guide, left us about this time.

We then crossed the Dom Luis I bridge on foot to the town of Gaia, on the other side of the Douro.

Gaia is known for its port wine cellars. We stopped at the Calem Wine Cellars for a tour. There was wine tasting at the end – which was not a very healthy exercise on an empty stomach. They did not even give us munchies to soak up the wine. It went straight to the head.
The information that we received during the tour was actually quite interesting, but I am not capable of remembering much.

We walked back into the sun after the tour, and after some shopping,and then we walked along the waterfront towards the western end of town where the bus that would take people back to the hotel was parked.

We had good views of the Ribeira along the riverside. This is one of the shots.

Some of us in the tour group who were booked for the Douro river boat ride later in the day, in the evening, decided that we did not want to go back to our hotel immediately. We were going to do some sightseeing on our own until the evening time.

The first order of events after leaving the bus was to get some lunch at the food court that was nearby.

We then took the Gondola ride up to the top of the bridge.We got good views of the Ribeira, Gaia, and the Ponte Dom Luis I as we rode up.

We crossed the bridge on foot. There were views from both sides of the bridge.

The bridge is used by walkers and by metro trains on the D Line. I got a view of the funicular running between the top and bottom levels of the cliff next to the bridge as we were crossing. The bridge in the last picture above is the newest bridge in Porto across the Douro, the Infante Dom Henrique bridge. It was completed in 2003.

Once across the bridge, we continued our walk along the Avenue Dom Afonso Henriquestowards another historical landmark, the San Bento train station. The tiles in the waiting hall of the station are famous.Regional, InterRegional, and Urban trains leave from this station.High speed and international trains do not come to this station. This website has some more information with regards the stations in Porto and the train lines they serve.

We then walked past one of the landmarks in the area, Igreja dos Congregados, noted in guides for the blue and white tiles on its facade.Then it was on to the Clerigos Church on the hill.The direct route to the church was blocked by construction. We took some side roads to get there. It was a steep climb on some of the roads.Once at the church, two of us climbed to the top of the tower to get a view of the entire town. The climb was dicey, getting more and more tricky as we got closer to the top. There was only enough space in the upper sections for one person to get by. The other person had to squeeze into the corner. Towards the top, we walked on steps fashioned out of metal plates instead of the original stairs. This is one of the views that we got.

We walked back down to the Rebeira and the Douro river from the church to wait for the rest of the Gate1 tour group that was coming for the Douro river boat ride. This was the scene on the Ribeira.The landmark at which were to meet the rest of the group was the only pine tree on the shoreline. We relaxed at a table across the pathway near the tree while waiting, watching the foot traffic and other activity.

And then it was time for our boat ride. The boat ride included people who were not a part of our tour group. We passed under all six bridges of Porto, with background commentary being presented in three different languages during the ride – English, Dutch and Portuguese. The last leg of the ride was when the boat turned east at the mouth of the Douro before returning to the Ribeira. The ride provided a different perspective on the views of the cities of Porto and Gaia.

Dinner, after the boat ride, was at a restaurant in the Ribeira.They had the Portuguese version of tapas for appetizers. Bacalhau à Brás and a sliced chicken dish sitting on top of a bed of salad were served as the main dishes. W enjoyed the meal – and the atmosphere.
We did have wine with dinner. In case you are wondering, it was served in the ceramic jugs that you see on the tables. We had some fun speculating about whether one of the employees was from Goa, a former Portuguese colony in India!

After dinner, there was nothing left but to head back to the hotel and go to bed. As you can see from the nature of this blog, it was a full day of varied activities and experiences. There was a lot of information to be absorbed.

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Kuriacose Joseph

I am an engineer by training. I am exploring new horizons after having spent many years in the Industry. My interests are varied and I tend to write about what is on my mind at any particular moment in time.

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