A Travellerspoint blog

Now the fun begins: driving Roman roads in Portugal

sunny 15 °C

Before leaving this part of the world, I really wanted to go further up the river to where the grapes are grown, and because I'd heard that the river itself was worth exploring. There are trains which go up it - they had gone all the way to Spain but now stop just short of the border - but they don't follow the river very closely at the beginning, aren't very useful if you want to hop out and wander around on a whim and taking photos through grimy train windows is less than optimal. On the other hand, the advice I received was that the best part of the river was up near the Spanish border but the road doesn't go near the river there whereas the rail line runs along its banks. The solution was to rent a wee car - a diesel Ford Fiesta for 31 euro for 24 hours - but dump it along the way and swap for the train.

I really had no desire to just get on a motorway: this was very much about the journey rather than any destination (which turned out to be just as well), so declined the kind offer from Avis for a toll pass, which would have only cost a couple of euro. Instead, I took the minor road that ran, more or less, along the south bank of the river: every few kilometres there was a sign indicating this was a road built by the romans. The rest of the signs were not very helpful - in the numerous villages I had to pass through, I could not see the river so at several intersections was reliant on roadsigns but they would only indicate the next village, rather than any name I could recognise: it turns out my intuition was pretty good as I never made a false turn. These little villages tended to have no parking spaces, so people would just stop their vehicles at random points and quit them to do whatever it was they had to do, and it was rather a narrow road, possibly not widened since the romans built it - all in all, it made for an interesting drive (particularly as I had no idea what the road rules might be). But it was wonderful - I liked the wee villages clustered along the river and the way they optimised the use of the rather hilly terrain through terraces and saw my first quinta not far out of Porto. Obviously, since I was driving, diving into a quinta to taste some port was not an option (although I suspect most were closed for the winter anyway).
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Quinta de la Rosa, Douro Valley

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Quinta do Noval

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It was in Pinhão that I dumped the rental car outside the railway station - I couldn't see any signs indicating there were parking restrictions and I had to just hope that it would be safe there until after dark. The railway station had a wonderful set of tiled murals, but I couldn't hang about because the next train up the river was due to leave. I can't say it was the most modern or fastest train I've been on, and there were only a handful of passengers - maybe half a dozen in total made it the whole way to Pocinho, which is the end of the line. The river between these two towns (apart from the fact there was a railway line running along it) was pretty remote - hardly any signs of habitation, although every so often a road would snake over the hills to connect a quinta or the occasional hotel to the outside world.
Pinhão Railway Station

Pinhão Railway Station

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Technically, Pocinho was my destination, but apart from the station, a few houses, some sort of processing plant across the river and a very closed social club for railwaymen, there was nothing there: very much the end of the line.
End of the line @ Pocinho

End of the line @ Pocinho

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I had about an hour's wait before the train headed back, and was very much at a loss for what to do, so after taking the five minutes to see the sights, I just got back on the train - mysteriously, there were quite a few more people leaving than had arrived. Things did not go very well on the journey back to Pinhão: it was very dark, so I had only just been able to work out we had arrived in Pinhão when the train was on its way again. Luckily, a family as well as a couple of other solo travellers had also failed to get off at Pinhão: they could alert the conductor to the fact we were still on the train (he really should have been able to work it out). This led to prolonged phone calls by the conductor - he arranged for us to get on the next up train at the next station: 35 km down the line at Regua. At least there was time at Regua for a quick snack and a beer before finally arriving in Pinhão. My travails were not quite over: I was staying in a quinta on top of a hill outside Pinhão and had created detailed directions for myself, but they didn't seem to correspond very well to the realities of the roads leading out of town. I knew I had about 9 km to go: it turned into a process of trial and error, going up a couple of roads for 12 km before I found the right one.

Luckily the receptionist at the Quinta Manhãs D'Ouro was able to put together a scratch meal of delicious local cheeses, breads and charcuterie and pour out a couple of slugs of port for me to enjoy: in fact, the evening ended up going so splendidly that I deemed it to be New Year's eve.

Posted by NZBarry 16:47 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

New Year's @ Porto

sunny 15 °C

Naturally I visited some libraries during the 10 days or so I was in Porto. The central public library was just a short walk from my first hostel and not much further from my second: I went past it a total of four times and only once found it open. Its a 19th century building built around a courtyard - originally endowed by some convent libraries and private collections. These manuscripts are in a fine reading room upstairs - I had got myself settled in and was admiring the place when I was hustled out by a stern librarian: she spoke no English and I speak no Portuguese but it was clear I had to leave because the room was for those consulting the old texts. The University library was considerably further away and apart from being deserted and therefore very quite, had little to recommend it: I was expecting a glorious old building, but no, it was a pretty innocuous building which I suspect has been recently reclad.
Central Library

Central Library

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University Library

University Library

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There is quite a lot to do in Porto in terms of cultural activities: unfortunately the two I picked to undertake turned out to be duds, with the buildings housing the exhibits being the star of the show in both cases. Serralves Museum is a highly rated modernist art gallery, miles from the city centre, built in the 1990's in the former grounds of the Serralves Estate. The museum building has all sorts of contrived angles and has lots of glass, so is worth seeing in its own right but as for the contents, precisely nothing interested me and quite a bit produced a WTF reaction. I wanted to get out, and fast, but turns out that none of its angles resolve themselves into an exit into the grounds: for that you retrace your steps through all the objets d'annoyance to where you came in. At least once outside, I found a very pleasant teahouse overlooking the estate tennis court and could calm down over a nice cuppa. The grounds are a mixture of formal gardens and grassy areas with plenty of trees.
Serralves Park

Serralves Park

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The Serralves Villa is where the family of the Count of Vizela lived - it took 20 odd years to complete and they moved in in the mid 1940's but moved out again a few years later: sadly, its furniture was sold off at various auctions. It came into State ownership in 1987, and had exhibitions of modern art while the museum was being built: when I went in, it was completely empty. I think it really needed its furniture, because it is very starkly decorated, although they spared no expense on mirrors and bathrooms.
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Serralves Villa

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After leaving there, I made my way down to the Douro river - a couple of miles out from the city centre: in the late afternoon sun, it was very peaceful - a few kids playing and old blokes fishing but mostly signs of rest.
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My other expedition into Porto's cultural scene was to the Centro Português de Fotografia - there was a big collection of photos of people involved in World War 1 on the first floor and a huge range of cameras and related equipment on the top floor but here the building is the star: built in 1796, it was the main Porto prison and remained in use until the 1970's. It even had its own internal court of appeal. Apparently, photography has been important in this building for at least a century - in the very early 20th century, there was a project to photograph the prisoners and subject their photos to various tests to try and prove some sort of correlation between appearance and criminality.
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There was one image I liked so much I took a photo - it is called New Year Postcard with Hilda, and dates back to 1908
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I had a third change of location, thinking that it would be interesting to get out of the heavily touristed centre and stay in a pensione in the suburbs. My host was very amiable but had not a word of English. I found the same in the bar next door. And this is where I saw in 2015! Pretty much nothing was open where I was but luckily I had a plan for New Year's day - I wandered further into suburbia to a shopping mall, finding a few places open so I could have some more charcoal chicken for a late lunch (it was either that or the random offerings from a bar or an American styled restaurant I noticed). Now I didn't undertake this wandering because I wanted to see what a Portuguese mall looks like on New Year's day (surprisingly busy despite all the shops being shut - mainly because of the food outlets) but because it had a cinema and in Portugal, most foreign movies are subtitled in Portuguese rather than dubbed, so I was able to watch Richard Linklater's lovely movie, Boyhood. I think this is one I'll be watching again when I get home. Its a long movie so when I came out, I was pretty hungry but really did not expect to find much open at 11:00 at night so am afraid that for the second time on the trip, I succumbed to the charms of McDonalds for dinner. I'd have rather had this burger (something I had a few nights earlier):
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To finish, after my big port drinking day in Vila Nova de Gaia, just as it was getting dark, I came across the Casa Barbot, also called the Culture House because it houses the city's Cultural Department - I liked the way it was lit at night and its style.
Casa Barbot

Casa Barbot

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In the nearby railway station, there was a very fitting tiled mural
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Posted by NZBarry 16:49 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

More Porto

sunny 15 °C

I was initially surprised by the large number of East Europeans I encountered in Porto but eventually it dawned on me that the Portuguese language doesn't sound like the languages used in the neighbouring countries: it has the cadences of languages from much further east and s is pronounced more like a soft z.

After Christmas, I moved out of the world's best large hostel into the 5th best small hostel in the world, the Rivoli Cinema Hostel, to get a different perspective on Porto. This one is right in the centre of Porto, just off the Avenida dos Aliados which is kind of like city square except that it's not square. The city hall is at its head and it is flanked by grand buildings.
City Hall

City Hall

Avenida dos Aliados

Avenida dos Aliados

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When I first arrived, it was set up with quite a few chimes - people were playing them a bit like a xylophone - but by the time I moved on just before the New Year, everything had been emptied out and a stage set up - there was going to be a huge, noisy New Year's eve party, attracting thousands.
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The hostel was quite exceptional, and the people running it made a real effort to make people feel at home, organising a communal dinner each night: despite their best efforts, I was not persuaded to join in for the feast of francesinhas (bread topped with steak, sausage and cheese and a beer-flavoured sauce). The chicken night I did go for - marinated in something delicious and cooked in a local churrasqueira over a charcoal grill, it was so good I had to hunt down the churrasqueira and have some more. There was a bloke at dinner who dominated conversation - I kind of got the idea that he was full of shit so badly that I ended up fact-checking a couple of his more definitive statements of fact, and they turned out to be wrong. This, plus the fact there were so many great places and things to eat (including a delicious Ethiopian stew) around Porto, meant I only had dinner once in the hostel. One of my favourite places was the Majestic cafe, which opened in 1921 and is the "most beautiful cafe in Porto" - slightly more flash than the random churrasqueira I visited.
francesinhas

francesinhas

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I guess it will come as no surprise that there are a LOT of churches around Porto - I'd have liked to visit the Cathedral but the couple of times I was there, it was in use. A lot of the churches took on a fairly standard aspect, but I felt a bit sorry for the Church of Saint Ildefonso (built 1730), because it has obviously seen better days, and I was never sure if it is still being used - never saw any sign of life as I walked past.
Porto Cathedral

Porto Cathedral

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Church of Saint Ildefonso

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There are other great buildings to be seen - the Palácio de São João Novo, Palácio da Justiça and, of course, Livraria Lello & Irmão - which is in all the lists of most beautiful bookshops. The shop was jampacked with sightseers when I went in, and they have a very stringent no photo policy - I only had to glance at my camera to be reminded - so the photos are off the internet. I at least did buy something from them - a map of the Douro valley. The central hospital is a rather grim looking place.
large_IMG_0892.jpgPalácio de São João Novo

Palácio de São João Novo

large_270_IMG_0881.jpgPalácio da Justiça

Palácio da Justiça

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Central Hospital

Central Hospital


I was impressed with the sculptures in the park opposite the hospital and courthouse (Jardim de João Chagas) called "Thirteen laughing each other" by Juan Muñoz - they inspired a cheerfulness in me. I also quite liked the whimsy of the bicycle hanging on the wall above the Children's market and the market itself. And then there was the fish, just around from where I had my Ethiopian meal.
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Tiles like this are the predominant form of decoration in Porto - railway stations in particular use tiles to create pictures which occupy entire walls.

Old Porto used to be entirely walled, but there are only a couple of pieces of the wall left and, if I read the Portuguese right, just the one gate survives. They also have some very old trams rattling about the place.
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Finally, two pictures I failed to include in earlier posts - the world's tiniest cappucino and the rather nice box my macarons came in.
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Posted by NZBarry 16:10 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Christmas in Porto

sunny 15 °C

I'm not quite sure when I formed the plan to spend the Christmas and New Year period in Porto, picked largely because it looked like somewhere I could expect the warmest weather in mid-winter Western Europe. I've run into a few people in my travels who assured me I'd find it wonderful, although some suggested that it might take a little while to get acquainted with the place in order to find it wonderful. Having spent close to two weeks there, that seems like a fair enough comment - it was by poking about in its nooks an crannies and walking for my miles that I came to really appreciate it. And the weather, being sunny and at least 15 degrees, helped.

Getting off the train, I found myself on a cramped and rather scruffy sort of street, but things became much better when I found the hostel - the Tattva Design Hostel was voted best large hostel in the world in 2014. Outside it was pretty nondescript, but inside, was very welcoming and stylish. Once I'd checked in, the first order of business was to acquire some of the local product.

Christmas was pretty quiet - luckily I'd been told that there would be nothing at all open and that the shops would shut early afternoon the day before, so I could get some provisions in: my dinner was not very Christmassy but very Kiwi: a big pile of roast veges and lambchops. In the morning, I took a wander along the Douro River, which runs along the south edge of Porto (a whole different city, Vila Nova de Gaia, is on the south side of the river - in fact, Portugal gets its name from these two cities run together - in Roman times, Vila Nova de Gaia was called either Cale or Gale, depending on how you chose to spell it).
Douro River, looking east

Douro River, looking east

River Douro, looking west

River Douro, looking west


Whoever said there was nothing open was not quite accurate - I found a kebab restaurant where I bought the world's tinest cappucino, and then on the waterfront, I found a couple of cafes open, but that was about it.
Cais da Ribeira

Cais da Ribeira

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Vila Nova de Gaia is where all the Port cellars are: I can't remember the reason, but the powers that be at some stage decreed that they would not be in Porto. Of course, I had to take a look at one, but which one? I was told that the best experience comes with the more traditional, English ones, rather than the Portuguese cellars, but that still left quite a few to choose between. I decided to take a wander across the bridge and see how I felt when I got there. There are quite a few nondescript cellars lined up along the river
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Of the few I had in mind, Taylors was the first I came across: for about 10 Euro, I had four ports to try and a good tour of the cellars, with lots of information. It turned out that Taylors was a good choice: it isn't quite the oldest game in town, but has the longest history of continuous ownership. It also employs traditional methods - for its better grapes, it still uses people to stomp on the grapes to extract the juices, as that means less skin and stems gets into the wine - but it is getting harder and harder to find people willing to mill about in a pool of grapes for several weeks.

What I did not know is that port is not a Portuguese wine at all: back in the 17th century, there was a bit of a trade war between France and England, which escalated to the point that it was illegal to import French wine into England. The English needed their wine, and they had strong links with Portugal, so that became the new source. Of course, Portugal is a fair bit further away than France, and there was a tendency for the wine to spoil on the way, but that could be prevented by adding a bit of alcohol, normally brandy, to the wine which stopped the fermentation process and left more of the natural sugars untransformed, plus it was stronger and more aromatic. The English went "we like" and the trade in port flourished. My tasting of the ports established one thing: I'm not that classy - I preferred the sweeter, younger ports to the drier ones which have been aged for more than a decade.
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The kid in the last photo impressed me: he'd tell long, complicated stories to his parents and behave with the sort of gravitas you'd expect from a grand-father, but then next minute he could be rolling on the ground having a tantrum like any kid of his age might.

The grapes themselves are grown further up the river, and it is just the juice brought down to the city - originally in cute little boats - and processed and then stored in the cellars - the method of storage would depend on how exclusive the final product would be.
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I went for a bit of a wander further into the district and came across one of my other choices, Crofts. After dithering outside for a bit, I thought what the hell and went for another tour - their cellars were considerably darker than those at Taylors and their barrels were rather more disordered, but it was quite a similar experience (I learned that Taylors and Crofts are owned by the same people, so that is probably no surprise). Here, I had another four ports, plus chocolate.
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Although I was pretty much ported out for the day, somehow when I came across this, I was tempted - luckily there didn't seem to be signs of activity
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I continued to wander - the whole area is almost exclusively devoted to the wine trade, and evidently has been for a long time, judging by the state of some of the paths.
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Quite a few of the buildings were just for storage, with no sign to show who occupied them, let alone any sort of welcome given to random passersby.
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I really enjoyed my time in the two cellars I visited and wandering about their neighbours, but what I was told made me wish I was here during harvest, which is a rather more dynamic experience than looking at a bunch of barrels in a warehouse!

Posted by NZBarry 17:40 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Santiago de Compostela

overcast 10 °C

I was hardly off the train and I was already lost. I had a carefully hand-drawn map of where I needed to go, complete with landmarks near the station, but I could find neither the street I needed nor the landmark. An older couple, taking an evening stroll hand-in-hand, were dubious - either I could not make the street name I needed clear to them or they just didn't know - but when I mentioned my destination, they pointed up the one street that was not named. About a couple of blocks up it (and I mean that literally, it was a steep uphill climb, lugging my significantly heavy possessions) I finally saw a sign confirming it was the street I needed, but then after another couple of blocks, it terminated. This was at a very nice looking cafe, so I went in for a drink and to ask for further directions - I had to go up the pedestrian walkway which went past the cafe; they warned my that the path bifurcates several times but told me how to navigate each branch, and so further on up I trudged until I had convinced myself I was well past my destination. I noticed a chocolate shop and bakery which had the same name as the square I sought, so for a third time asked for directions: I had to go straight out of the shop, through a narrow alley and I'd be there. Luckily the Hospederia Tarela was worth the agony: one of the nicest rooms I've had so far, and a very cool bar downstairs where the beer was cold and the tapas were very generous.
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Hospederia Tarela

Hospederia Tarela


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In my wanders around town, I came across the most delicious thing - it is called a Rosquilla de Alcalá, and is doughnut shaped but made from delicate layers of flaky pastry, bathed in egg yolk and then covered with a sugary glaze. They are rather more substantial than a doughnut, but although I was only in town overnight, I managed to down a couple. Of course, the big deal here is the Cathedral, because it holds the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great and is at the end of the Camino de Santiago, a walk of about 800 km (although there are several starting points) so as a sort of penance I spent some time taking a look around. It is so big and the surrounding area is quite built up that I could not get far enough away to get a photo of the whole Cathedral. First I found the back entrance, then wandered around its main side, but the main entrance was being renovated, so had to go in through a side entrance.
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Inside, I actually found there was a service - it probably did me no harm to sit in for a while, and it gave me a chance to notice that while there were signs saying "photos not allowed" and a security guy, this was not stopping people. I did visit the shrine but it didn't seem right to take a photo.
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Santiago is on a hill top and was built a long time ago, so there are lots of little alleys and small squares, most with tiny bars - it seemed a most delightful place to chill out.
large_270_IMG_0844.jpgPraza de San Miguel dos Agros

Praza de San Miguel dos Agros

large_270_IMG_0803.jpglarge_270_IMG_0806.jpgPraza Random, Santiago

Praza Random, Santiago


The other side of the Cathedral, there's a big square, La Plaza del Obradoiro - at one end there is the Hostal dos Reis Católicos, which was originally set up in the late 15th century as one of the finest medieval medical centres there were, and then took on the role of housing pilgrims. In the 1950's, it was taken over by a hotel group and now, ironically enough, provides 5 star accommodation although apparently it still houses some pilgrims for free. Across the Plaza from the Cathedral is the Pazo de Raxoi, a Palace originally built to house (I think) the Bishop but is now the town hall. There's another building opposite the hostal which had something to do with the University, which is the next group of buildings down.
Hostal dos Reis Católicos

Hostal dos Reis Católicos

large_270_IMG_0827.jpgPazo de Raxoi

Pazo de Raxoi

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The University was founded in 1504 - I spent a bit of time in its library, and enjoyed the central square around which it was built: it pleased me much more than the public library just around the cornder.
Biblioteca Universitaria de Santiago de Compostela

Biblioteca Universitaria de Santiago de Compostela

large_IMG_0839.jpglarge_IMG_0842.jpglarge_IMG_0843.jpgCentral Library

Central Library

Posted by NZBarry 15:23 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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