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.

The First Day in Portugal

We were accompanied by our friends from Virginia during this trip to Portugal. We have made a few other trips to other parts of the world with them in the past, always traveling with Gate1.

We flew in to Porto, via Brussels. We took an overnight flight from Dulles airport to Brussels, and then we had a short wait in the sprawling Brussels Airport before boarding the final leg of the travels to Porto.Brussels Airport was quite busy even in the early hours of the morning, with people heading in every which direction – quite of few of them appearing to be stopping by the coffee shops and restaurants for their morning pick-me-ups. You could even get beer at that time of the morning, I think!

Large groups of young people passed us by as we rested in a waiting area – listening to the entertainment provided by passers-by playing on one of the grand pianos placed around the airport for their personal playing pleasure.I saw at least two of these pianos in different spots in the airport concourses. The guy in the picture above was playing some complicated classical piece. The second gentleman was waiting to play the piano himself!

This was the scene next to the boarding gates.
Almost all of people that I saw in the airport were not masked, an indication, I think, of the exhaustion in the minds of people regarding COVID.

We were still adjusting to the difference in time zones.

The flight from Brussels to Porto was short and uneventful. From the aircraft tails that I saw on the tarmac at Porto, I got the impression that the city was probably a popular tourist destination for tourists from Europe.

Once disembarked from the plane, we were able to do directly to the baggage carousel to pick up our bags. We did not have to go through an immigration process, and only then realized that the passport stamp for our entry to the European Union had taken place earlier in Brussels.

We were the only folks being picked at that time up by Gate1 for transportation from the airport to our hotel. Once we left the highways closer to the airport, I could not help but notice that we were were being driven over some cobblestone backstreets closer to the hotel. The common presence of cobblestone streets and sidewalks in towns was something that one eventually got used to during our travels in Portugal. I found it charming.

The hotel was located in a part of town that was somewhat commercial, but not too busy. Unfortunately, it was not within walking distance of City Center, the place where most of the tourist activity was centered.

We were met by our tour manager, Rui Pacifico, upon entry into the hotel. The cheerful young man with his long hair and smiling face was super friendly and helpful. We got to know him better during the rest of the trip.

It was too early in the day to check in to our rooms. We went out to lunch. We had our first dining experience in a restaurant. We started our process of getting used to the way things are handled while eating out in Portugal. I ended up over-tipping, but that was not necessarily a bad thing. The staff was very nice to us – welcoming us to their country.

Since we still had time before check-in, we went to the local grocery store to get some supplies for the next few days. Would bananas and chocolate be considered essential? Perhaps, in some families!

Both shopping and dining were convenient in Portugal since our credit cards worked without any issues.

We had thought about going to the City Center before the welcome dinner that evening – just to kill time and get our first experience of the city, but we changed plans and decided to rest up in the rooms that we were about to check into instead. We did not want to be too rushed on the first day.

The welcome dinner was a nice event. We got to meet a few other folks who were traveling with us for the first time. It was also the beginning of the ongoing wine-drinking sessions at meals, and the ongoing making of new friends. The cod fish that was served was great. Portugal is known for its fish, and that is what we consumed a lot of the time during the trip. I cannot remember what the dessert was that night, but I am sure there was some. There was always dessert with dinner!

We had the group orientation after dinner – getting more specifics about the nature of the tour, and also learning about who the other travelers were in the tour group. There were 42 of us, another large group just like during the trip to Morocco. The biggest sub-group in our tour was from Los Angeles. We also got our badges and our audio units for listening to the guide when we were traveling and off the bus. We headed back to our rooms after that. Our bodies were still in a different time zone – earlier in the evening than our normal dinner time – but we were tired after our travel.

As is normal with Gate1 tours, we were going to get a very early start for our activities the next day. Our tour bus was going to leave the hotel at 8:30am. We were expected to be on the bus by 8:15.

Portugal

We returned a few days ago from a visit to Portugal. We were on an organized tour exploring the country from north to south, starting from the city of Porto and ending up in Lisbon. We stopped at many interesting places along the way, learning about the country, and experiencing it. We spent hours wandering leisurely through narrow old cobblestone streets of many an old medieval town, streets that were lined with old buildings of character – with their distinctive metal railings and the occasional laundry hanging out to dry. We also visited bigger and more developed cities and experienced the difference between the new and the old. There is something fundamentally similar about the tourist experience wandering the streets of both the older and newer towns in Portugal regardless.

We visited many old churches – in different styles, monasteries with their dormitories and cloisters, palaces, and castles – all over the country. We even passed through a national park, drank many a bottle of wine with our meals, and also sampled the unique cuisine of this small country, which we were told was about the size of Maine! We learnt about their history, which perhaps bears some similarity to the history of many other countries in Europe – the movement of people, the conquests, the local kings and queens and their kingdoms, the development of nation states, the nature of their explorations of the rest of the world, etc.. We learnt about the kind of things – their stories, products, etc.. – that are a part of their culture and their economy.

The towns that we visited were typically full of tourists just like us. The towns centers and their squares were full of shops for tourists, cafes, bakeries, ice cream stands and restaurants – with outdoor seating under the large umbrellas that provided shade. There were the street entertainers. There was generally a atmosphere that I typically do not experience when visiting towns in the US. I especially enjoyed having that cold beer with my lunch, perhaps concluding the lunch with a shared dessert and a cup of espresso.

And, all along the way, there were other unique experiences and quirky stories that added additional sparkle and spice to our travels.

One has to eventually breakdown the details of these travels further, but a list of the places we visited, with a few sample pictures is perhaps a good place to start.

Porto and Gaia

Guimaraes and Braga

Bussaco Park and Palace Hotel

Coimbra

Fatima

Tomar

The Convent of Christ on the Hill

Castelo de Vide

Evora

Lisbon

Cascais and Sintra

Alcobaca, Nazare and Castelo de Óbidos

They have a saying in Portugal that the Portuguese go to Porto to work, Braga or Fatima to pray, Coimbra to study and Lisboa to party! They have it all covered!

It was a fun trip, and quite a different experience from that of the trip to Morocco.