It was still the middle of January when my lady came home and told me the bad news – that she would have to go away for a medical congress in early February. But immediately afterwards, she told me the good news that I could go with her for the simple cost of the hotel extra person supplement (about ten euros) and whatever my transport costs were.
Not having been to Porto as a proper grown up and it being somewhere I sincerely wanted to see and get to know, I enthusiastically accepted the offer. Consulting train and flight times though, we established that it would mean a grand total of twenty-five hours in Portugal’s second city. Not a whole lot. Fortunately, though, TAP Portugal’s prices for their Ponte Aerea service (link in Portuguese), connecting Lisboa to Porto multiple times per day, were actually a tiny bit cheaper than the fastest trains on the way up. With a flight time of around forty-five minutes, it seemed like the best bet.
I bought my ticket, checked in a couple days before and then it dawned on me: these flights were on tiny twin-propeller planes, the likes of which I’d never flown on. Would it be deafeningly noisy? Would it suffer from immense turbulence and end up being something of a ‘vomit-rocket’? It was too late now.
I arrived at Lisbon airport from work, grabbed some water for the flight and boarding opened almost immediately. The flights run on a fleet of ATR72-600 aircraft. The pamphlet in the seat back advised me that they are some of the quietest, most fuel efficient and most comfortable aircraft in the world over short distances. Still, not being able to stand up straight, as it was so small, I was unconvinced. My fears were utterly unfounded. The flight was extremely comfortable, quiet, rapid, and the on-board service from TAP was typically very good. I received a little pack of Italian crispbreads and a glass of more than adequate Douro red wine. Bear in mind this is on a flight that cost less than 29 euros. I landed in Porto ten minutes ahead of schedule and the rain that had rendered Lisbon so soggy for the previous few days had been well and truly behind. Porto was basking in winter sunshine.
After disembarking from the plane in Porto, getting to the city really couldn’t be any easier. As it was an internal flight, there was no need for passport control. There is a metro connection to the purple line, running from the airport in the north west of the city right the way through the centre to the Estadio do Dragao (FC Porto’s stadium) in the east. Tickets are cheap at just under two euros each and can be bought from any of about ten machines. In fifteen minutes, I was hopping off the metro – more of a tram system, really – and into a small cafe to have a snack, as I’d missed lunch. Then it was on to our hotel.
Because we were placed for my girlfriend’s congress, we stayed in a business hotel. Called Hotel Bessa, it’s located next to the stadium of the famous Boa Vista football club. A giant, imposing wall of the stadium faces on to the side road where the hotel is located. The hotel was very well equipped, had efficient reception staff, great rooms (including really top quality toiletries, and a TV which allowed you to play your own music via bluetooth. Beds were also comfortable and breakfast (more on that later) was outstanding.
After recharging my batteries and cleaning myself up, I was off into town to meet my girlfriend for dinner. She’d decided to take me to a restaurant that she knew well, close to the Ribeira area of the city, called Cantinho de Avillez. The proprietor is in fact from Lisbon, so the food was more classic Portuguese rather than specifically northern. Nonetheless everything we ate and drank was terrific, while the staff were that brilliant blend of always on hand but never in your face.
After dinner we took a walk to the river front – somewhere I was later told is quite a rough part of town, but I didn’t see any trouble. The river Douro is a really strikingly beautiful place and never more so than at night, with the Port houses and bridges all beautifully illuminated.
After that we wanted to see more of the city lit up, so we walked back up, first to the railway station of Sao Bento, with its famous azulejos in the ticket hall, round to the old town hall in Avenida Dos Aliados, and finally to see the Torre Dos Clerigos. All were quite magnificent when lit.
After that, the cold got the better of us and it was a quick Uber ride back to the hotel and much needed sleep.
Waking up relatively early the next day, we went down to check out the Hotel Bessa breakfast and were not at all disappointed. The range was top, including a vast array of hot options, very fresh fruit, pastries, cereals and everything else you could ask for from a breakfast, really. Even the coffee was of a decent standard.
Well breakfasted, we showered and then stepped outside. Our plan had been to walk to a nearby park, but the rain clouds had decided otherwise and it was really coming down by the time we left the hotel. So we dived into another Uber and were dropped off at São Bento station, with the plan to cross over the Dom Luis bridge, both to take in the views and to get over to Vila Nova de Gaia, the land of Port wine. With daylight aiding me, I decided it would be a good time to get a shot of the famous São Bento azulejos in all their glory.
From here, according to google maps, it was a short walk to the entrance to the Dom Luis bridge, via a beautiful cathedral. So we began the walk over. We followed the map directions, turned through myriad narrow side streets and, finally, came out exactly where we had begun.
Second time lucky though and we found ourselves exactly where we wanted to be, on the grand Dom Luis bridge, with its incredible views over the Ribeira district on one side and up river into the hills of Douro country the other. We stopped to take a couple of photos and then the rain came back with a vengeance.
With the rain now pummeling us, we needed a way down to the riverside without getting wet. And then we saw it, the Teleférico de Vila Nova de Gaia. It’s basically a cable car ride down to the riverside, from the far end of the Dom Luis bridge. We decided to give it a go. It was a great ride and, even with the rain blocking the view to some extent, it was great to zoom over the river and the Port Wine houses.
Landing at the other side, it was still pouring, but now some three or four hours from breakfast, it was time we ticked another box in the essential Porto list. Time for a Francesinha. We had been recommended various places to try a francesinha, but with the rain preventing us from walking too far, we decided to go somewhere close by and reviews on Trip advisor told us that the restaurant, Ar do Rio, did a pretty good job. So we dashed through the rain and were quickly seated next to the panoramic window.
When the francesinha arrived, I have to confess to being a tiny bit disappointed that it all fit on one plate, as I was used to Francesinhas arriving on one plate for the sandwich and another for the fries, such is the scale of the thing. But, far more importantly, the quality and taste were excellent. I polished it off with a beer on the side, while my good lady had a steak.
Evidently it was not too small, as I had no room for dessert. Looking at my watch after lunch, we had about four hours until our train was to depart for Lisbon. We quickly paid up and made our way up hill towards the Croft Port wine cellars. The rain had finally abated, so it was a pleasant walk up the historic, cobbled streets.
Walking into the Croft winery, you are struck by the history of the place. No doubt that is their intention, but nevertheless it feels entirely authentic. The staff are excellent and quickly filled us in on what times the different tours were, in which languages and how much everything cost. We elected to take the Portuguese language tour, for which we had a forty-five minute wait, with a cost of ten euros per person. This also included a taster of three different ports. The first up was a chilled ‘pink’ port, a new creation that was fresh and is designed for aperitifs or cocktails. We sat and drank it by the roaring fire in the corner as we waited for our tour to begin. After that, we received a ruby port, which was also delicious, if very different from the pink.
The tour of the cellars was fascinating, explaining everything from the origins of port wine – where brandy was added to maintain its condition as it made the long journey across the Bay of Biscay to England – to the different soil types in the Douro region and the way in which this affects the flavour of the grape. We also learned that vintage port is so delicately balanced that it should usually be consumed within a week of opening, which was a big surprise for me. After thirty minutes or so, we left the cold cellar and, leaving the best til last, we got to try a fantastic tawny port. With the tasting done, we then bought a bottle of the pink port to serve to guests at the lady’s birthday dinner in March and jumped in another Uber to Campanha station.
It was with heavy heart that I left Porto. A beautiful city with much to do and see and, even in the cold and rain of February, a place that I felt quite sure I would want to revisit with more time on my hands.
If you’re planning your own trip to the Porto region, take a look at the Rough Guide to the area for Kindle, here: