Porto – first impressions

My wife and I arrived in Porto on the 20th September 2016.  Our birthday.  Blue skies and warm weather greeted us.  We checked into Boavista Palace serviced apartments, lovely, modern, clean….and in a decent location, 5 minutes walk from the Rotunda da Boavista and all its shops, and the Casa Da Musica, which is probably the most modern building in Porto, a skaters meeting spot, and a place of urban cool which hosts live music every night.  Around the corner from the Boavista palace is the closest metro  – Carolina Michaelis, which takes you to the centre of town (Trinidad) in two stops, or three if you change at Trinidad and get the yellow line to Sao Bento.

This is our new home.   Not Boavista Palace, but Porto.  I’ve been living in Asia for 14 years.  This is a big change.  I’ve never even been to Portugal, nevermind Porto.  The only Portuguese people I know are Cristiano Ronaldo, Jose Mourinho, and Andre Villas-Boas.  All good-looking and arrogant, and, while most achingly hip chaps here are good-looking, arrogant they are certainly not, I was to find.  The only Portuguese word I know is Obrigado.  Here we were.  Starting afresh.  No contacts, no mates, no welcome party, absolutely no idea.  Exciting stuff.

We dropped our many bags off, and headed out into a climate I was unfamiliar with.  The air was fresh, not muggy.  It smelled differently.  The colours were somehow sharper.  There was a sound of seagulls in the air, some people were wearing coats and light scarves.  Nobody was wearing shorts or sandals.  Everybody was wearing sunglasses.  There were no Asian faces anywhere to be seen.  We got on the metro by buying an Adante card from a machine for a single trip in Zone 2 by reading the Portuguese words and making a rough guess based on some of the vocabulary being similar written down to Spanish.  We had to tap our card before getting on the train.  We got on the train.  It was quite full.  Full of people of all kinds – hipsters with big beards hiding behind big Ray-Bans,  hippies with tattered clothes, dreads and piercings, business people dressed in smart suits, old people huddled together trying not to fall over, crazy looking men with wild hair and eyes shouting the occasional profanity in Portuguese and being ignored, tourists with their maps out looking a bit bewildered.  Everyone but the tourists dressed in earthy colours. And it was loud – people talked animatedly to each other.  It wasn’t the silence I was accustomed to on the metro in Singapore.

We got off at Trinidad and changed to the yellow line for Sao Bento.  Again we needed to tap our card before the journey to validate it.  It’s a bit of an unnecessary extra step.  There are a lot of unnecessary extra steps in Portugal, I was to discover.  We got out of an exit and headed towards the heart of the historical centre….but first up for a view point, to get our bearings, to the huge Cathedral, the See – its construction dating back to the 12th Century.  It wasn’t planned.  We had no map, no real idea of where to go, and sometimes you get lucky that way.

Impressive as this building certainly is, the views of the historical district, the UNSECO World Heritage designated Ribeira, a labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets flanked by tall thin colourful buildings – many adorned with the famous Portuguese blue tiles, azulejos – that is the most breathtaking, and beyond it glimmered the mighty river, the Douro.  We began walking down through the neighbourhood – a living, breathing place, not a sterile, preserved memory.  Locals sat outside their houses chatting or arguing (with the new sounds of this new language I can’t tell yet if people are having a normal conversation or are angry with each other), and many tourists milled around too pointing their cameras at every plant pot, every door, every azulejo, every cobble in the streets.  The streets and the houses haven’t changed much over the centuries – you can even still find examples of original architecture from the end of the Middle Ages (14th Century).  It felt amazing to be walking through living history.  The place has character, and characters, that’s for sure. We came out upon a more open street peppered with street-side cafes, which most streets in Porto are peppered with.  The people of Porto do love a street-side cafe.   Resisting the urge to stop for a quick coffee, we carried on down towards the river, and when we found it, stopped for a sangria opposite the tram stop.  It was a wonderful scene.  The gleaming river, the Port houses on the other side, the old churches this side, trams trundling up and down….

I popped across the road to a tourist information kiosk to ask about the tram.  Apparently it goes to Foz, the upmarket seaside town.  I also asked about the hop on hop-off bus, the best way to get to the other side of the river, where to eat the best local food….the woman at the kiosk was a little bit cold at first.  I was speaking to her in Spanish.  When I gave up on my Spanish and switched to English, she warmed up tremendously.  She was very patient, and began chatting away about her favourite restaurants, the best place to eat codfish, what she usually does at the weekends.  She didn’t seem to mind there was a huge queue of people behind me.  A couple of things stuck with me from this encounter.  The Portuguese don’t like the Spanish as they consider them rude for not attempting to speak any Portuguese, but they really like the English and will happily chat away in the language.  Another thing I realised is that here in Portugal encounters with service staff of any kind are not just transactional.  In fact, just proceeding directly with the business side of things is rude.  It’s far more important to engage with the person first.  The relationship is more important than the transaction, the human touch valued over business efficiency.  I’d experience this time and again over the next few weeks, from opening  bank account to renting an apartment.  It’s not like that in the cut-throat efficient world of Asia.  I liked the human element, but it takes more patience.

Information gladly received, Vero and I took a  set of stone steps that led us down to the river bank, and a narrow walkway full of restaurants with tables looking over the river.  We settled down at one of the tables looking at the rabelos bobbing on the water.  Feeling brave, we ordered a Portuguese speciality – a francenshina –  a kind of Portuguese sandwich with chorizo, beef, ham, topped with egg, smothered with cheese and gravy….at least 2,000 calories on a plate. We washed them down with a delicious Superbock – a crisp and refreshing local lager.   Service was good once you got the attention of a waiter.  In some places I noticed, you could be sat for ever and be ignored.  Being proactive is the way to go in a restaurant here, generally.

From here we continued to stroll along the river bank.  People were everywhere.  Some were just lying down sunbathing perilously close to the river’s edge.  Others were sitting watching the river with a beer or a bottle of wine.  There was a buzz in the air.  Sounds of chatter, seagulls, water, glasses clinking, music from various buskers drifting in and out on the breeze.  It was a glorious lazy summer scene.  We crossed the majestic wrought iron D Luis I Bridge which takes you to the Vila Nova De Gaia side of the city (although some consider it another city altogether).  This place offered beautiful views of the Ribeira face-on, and we strolled down the river, stopping occasionally at little cafes for a small coffee – or a pingo as they are called here (though their size belies their strength – coffee is like rocket-fuel here), and feeling like this move to Porto might just be better than we’d imagined.

There is a cable car here – the Teleferico de Gaia, which, for 5 Euros takes you to up near the General Tores metro station where you can catch the metro back to town.  We rode it, and the ride over the rooftop bars, the Ribeira across the way, the sun setting, was magical.  From up here you could see the mouth of the Douro, where it meets the Atlantic ocean.  My dream had always been to live in a city that is near the river or the sea.  Porto has both.

We watched the sun disappear, and the changing colours of the clouds, and took the metro back to Trinidade, then back to Carolina Michaelis.  What a great day in Porto, and what a start to our new lives in this historical, romantic old place.  It had already exceeded our expectations.

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Author: Neil

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