A Travellerspoint blog

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


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

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.
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.

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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Hospederia Tarela

Hospederia Tarela

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.
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.
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

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)

Saint-Émilion and on to Spain

The middle of winter is definitely not the greatest time to go visit the vineyards but I really thought that I should get out of Bordeaux to where the grapes are grown because Bordeaux itself, while it has warehouses, negociants and wine shops, showed few signs of wine production. I picked Saint-Émilion, because it was easy to get to on the train, and probably was one of the better places I could have gone. It has been inhabited forever, has had grapes growing here since the Romans planted them in the 2nd century AD and is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and, when I was there, almost completely deserted.

The train station is a bit out of town, which suited me fine, as I could walk past some vineyards, and get a glimpse of Saint-Emilion on its pedestal. There are many chateaux around here, but everything I could see was locked up, maybe just for Christmas or maybe for winter generally.

I really didn't think the town would be as quiet as it was - I often try to minimise the number of people in my photos, but here I didn't even need to try, there was just no-one about as I entered.

I was getting a bit anxious, as the plan was for lunch, but when I got to the town "square" (it wasn't really square, but that is its function) I found a cafe, which actually had about three tables occupied. One of the dominant features of Saint-Emilion is its monolithic church, so called because it is partly built into the rock. Apparently there was a real chance that the bell tower was going to topple over - digging out beneath the church probably meant its foundations were not the greatest - and so late last century a lot of strengthening work was done. Unfortunately, the place was locked up when I was there - it is no doubt an interesting place to explore.

I really enjoyed the sense of age that this town evoked - I don't recall any building at all being in any sense modern, and several of the buildings were ruins or well on the way, including a fairly large warehouse right beside the church.

There were some very nice places, however - the town hall and a posh looking small hotel, the Hostellerie de Plaisance, were probably my two favorite buildings. Apart from its wine and its church, Saint-Émilion has another string to its bow: macarons have been a bit of a fad for the last few years, but in Saint-Émilion, they've been a thing since 1620, when a local religious community started making them. The shop I visited is still using the recipe first developed by that community: unlike those I've seen in my travels, there are no garish colours or weird tastes, just a single type in which coconut is the main flavour.


And so my time in France was done: time to head south. I had this idea that the train would take me around the north coast of Spain, and so instead of catching a direct train, I did it in hops so I could see everything in daylight. My first leg took me to a town on the Spanish border, Irun, and I did get to see a bit of the French coast. There wasn't much to Irun - I found a couple of really old fashioned cafes I liked, and was quite excited to find a bar that was promising me 8 lamb-chops for dinner: there were 8, but they were sliced as thinly as cheese, which really is not optimal. I stayed in a pension near the station, notable only for being above a bar which was exclusively patronised by rather elderly gentlemen who seemed to have a lot of time on their hands. The next hop was to a town in Galicia called Vigo - but I never saw the coast because the line cuts through the interior. I probably should have done some research about the train, and indeed about the hostel I stayed in in Vigo: it was a beautiful hostel, brand new, so no problems there - but when I was only making a quick stop between trains, I really shouldn't have picked a place two miles uphill from the station. I had to pause half way in a bar, and had my first experience of proper tapas - my two euro yielded enough food to just about qualify as dinner.

Posted by NZBarry 15:24 Archived in France Comments (0)

Bordeaux - la deuxième partie

One of the things I really liked about Bordeaux was the coherence in building styles - sure, there are a few modern buildings, like the courthouse and the glass block that is the public library, but most of the central city is built in a similar neo-classical style, of the same materials and at the same time. In the poshest part (where I took no photos for some reason) it is gleaming white. Around where I was, they tended more to the grey: apparently many of the buildings had turned almost black but the whole place was given a good cleaning a few years back.
large_270_IMG_0555.jpglarge_270_IMG_0585.jpglarge_270_IMG_0586.jpgSaint-Pierre Square

Saint-Pierre Square

I had one of the best meals in St Pierre Square, in a very traditional bistro, pretty standard entrecôte steak frites but cooked beautifully, very friendly service, casual atmos - even though I was only in Bordeaux for a few nights and was never short of somewhere to eat or drink, I was tempted to go back for seconds.
Musée d´Aquitaine

Musée d´Aquitaine

It wasn't until I visited the Musée d´Aquitaine that I learned about why Bordeaux has such a consistent style: its all down to Louis XV, who sent two successive Intendants (Royally appointed civil servants, kind of like a Governor to carry out the Royal will in the provinces) to re-arrange the town planning in Bordeaux early in the 18th century. They pretty much tore the CBD down and started afresh, constructing around 6,000 buildings, most of which are still standing. The spot it occupies has had inhabitants for something like 600,000 years - the museum did a good job of presenting its recent history: there might have been older artifacts, but the oldest I noticed was this 25,000 year old Venus of Laussel, which was found carved into the walls of a nearby cave. Unfortunately, I didn't record what the next two are (I think they're quite old), and then there are echoes of the bronze age.
Venus of Laussel

Venus of Laussel

Moving forward a bit, into the Roman era, I noticed statues of Jupiter and Diana
Jupiter 1st century

Jupiter 1st century



Montesquieu (or, more properly, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu) is perhaps Bordeaux's most famous inhabitant, known to some as the originator of the theory of separation of powers. The Americans, Brits and other Europeans loved him, but in France, the church saw to it that his most prominent work - The Spirit of the Laws - was banned. His funereal monument is in the museum
I have to say - I blame Montesquieu for the biggest dud of my entire trip. Since the local University bears his name, and with Bordeaux being a UNESCO world heritage city and the joy I took in what I'd seen, I thought the University must be something special (it was founded in 1441) so took a long tram trip out to the edge of town to see it. I think the buildings were probably built in the 1970's, and they obviously lacked a design budget - my only recollection is of ugly rectangles lined along the tram tracks.

One of the things that made me a little uncomfortable about the architecture in Bordeaux was what drove its prosperity in the 18th century - it had a triangular trade - sending slaves from Africa to the West Indies, bringing sugar and coffee from there back to Bordeaux, and then sending arms and wines back to Africa. Repeat. The museum had a pretty extensive account of this trade. Another thing I liked in the museum was a 19th century shop set up - it was one of the last things I saw.
Outside again, I found myself on Intendant Street - quite a few boutique shops selling things like fountain pens and chocolates, and stretching on for quite a distance. At its head is the magnificent Grand Théâtre, built in the 1770's, and the less magnificent Sanna, by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa, a cast-iron 7 metre high female head - apparently it operates on an intuitive level, but mine wasn't up to it, so took solace nearby.
Cours de l'Intendance

Cours de l'Intendance

large_IMG_0650.jpgGrand Theatre

Grand Theatre


There were a few things I spotted from before the 18th century rebuild - some of the old wall has been left intact and a couple of the 13th century gates. The Cathedral is from the 14th century, with its bell tower sitting on the ground beside it, to protect the Cathedral from the vibration of its bells (is that normal? I don't recall seeing this sort of thing before).
large_IMG_0565.jpgGrosse Cloche, Porte Saint-Éloy

Grosse Cloche, Porte Saint-Éloy

La Porte de Bourgogne

La Porte de Bourgogne

Bordeaux Cathedral

Bordeaux Cathedral

Pey-Berland Tower

Pey-Berland Tower

Funnily enough, pilgrims would go through the Porte Saint-Éloy to Santiago de Compostela, which is in my own future, although there won't be much walking involved. The bell itself has huge cultural significance for Bordeaux - it was rung to signal the start of harvests and people were so attached to it that the King could punish them just by taking away their bell. My French reading isn't so good, but if I understand correctly, following a peasant revolt in 1548, it was taken away for 13 years.

There were a few more modern things which caught my eye. I got caught up in the middle of some sort of photo shoot - I hope it wasn't a modelling session, as whatever was being modelled wasn't obvious. Then there were a couple of signs I liked - I think when I go back through Bordeaux on my way home, I'll pay a visit to the cafe signified by the second one.

Posted by NZBarry 15:55 Archived in France Comments (0)

Bourdeaux - la première partie

sunny 8 °C

The plan was breakfast in Brussels, lunch in Paris and dinner in Bourdeaux. Unfortunately, it didn't work so well: I had to get up so early to catch the train, I didn't feel like eating. I did have a nice break of about four hours between trains in Paris, and enjoyed a very traditional French lunch of andouillette (a sausage with a very coarse, basically lumpy grain), mash and a large glass of bourdeaux (in anticipation of my destination) in a typical cafe opposite the Gare du Nord.
Changing stations was easy enough, just a quick trip on the subway and an interminable walk though tunnels and up and down stairs, to catch the TGV south. I remember when these things came in - they were quite the marvel, I think that only the Japanese bullet train would beat them. I remember being on one in the late 1980's and thinking it was as fast as an aeroplane, and kind of had the sealed in feeling of one. Now, many other countries have caught up, so they should perhaps rebrand as le train de la vitesse assez moyen (or TVAM - sounds alright). My particular train was going nowhere fast - we had a halt, then there were some announcements, nothing in English and finally a conductor came through but he couldn,t or wouldn't speak English. Luckily the woman beside me translated: the train ahead had hit a car: three hour delay. It took most of that time just to get a beer from the cafe onboard. So I had no dinner, unless some chocolate out of the vending machine at my hotel counts. The mention of a French hotel probably conjures up images - cobbled streets, quaint cafes, boulangeries, maybe even some music. Hah! I stayed my first night in the Formule 1, which was on the wrong side of the river: a few wine warehouses were the closest to the cafe scene I saw, and they weren't glamourous.
The price had tempted me to stay there for the week, but thankfully I found a cool place on Airbnb in an apartment above the Place du Parlement - a Square created in 1760 which has never actually housed a Parliament, but gained its name some time after the Revolution to honour the Bourdeaux Parliament which sat from 1462 - 1790.
My lodgings were in the one building which was not cleaned when the city recently polished up the majority of the buildings. At night, when there'd been a bit of rain, the Square was very atmospheric.
It was a brilliant place to stay - the people (a mother and daughter) were nice, there was a great cafe on the ground floor called Karl where I went every morning for breakfast before going up to spend the morning working. The coffee they made was a bit crazy - definitely not a Wellington cappucino.
Every side of the square featured restaurants, and I spent half an hour one day watching a couple of blokes removing the furniture from one of the houses. It was a third floor house, and everything came out the window and down a portable funicular. I had my first dinner just down in the next square - a brilliant entrecote washed down with some of the local product. Bourdeaux is, of course, a bit of a foodies paradise, and I ate enormously well every night - fusion Asian one night, great Indian another and more local foods like the magret de canard (they make lots of foie gras around here, so ducks are plentiful).
The Garonne River was about two blocks away, and my place was in behind the customshouse (now a museum) and bourse.
large_IMG_0576.jpgLe Musée national des douanes

Le Musée national des douanes



This is one of the little connecting streets, and the kind of bus they run through these narrow streets
I bet that no-one who hasn't been here knows what the next couple of photos are (but the game is given away in the third, if you squint):
That is the High Court - the wee pods are courthouses! Makes our Supreme Court look very normal. I wish I had gone in and taken a good look around, but the security at the entrance kind of put me off.

Being in Bourdeaux, I thought that apart from drinking the stuff, I should explore the history as well and went to the Musée du Vin et du Négoce - a wine museum set up in the cellars of a wine merchant. I have to say - it was lame, just a few static displays, although it did include some tastings and a bit of a talk about the local wine production and marketing systems. This was done one-to-one as I tasted the wine, which was nice, but I wish the person doing the talk actually knew something - she was a student from an island off the coast of Africa, in Bourdeaux for a few weeks and with a rehearsed speech.
Entrance to Musée du Vin et du Négoce de Bordeaux

Entrance to Musée du Vin et du Négoce de Bordeaux

large_IMG_0684.jpgNegotiant's records

Negotiant's records

Cooper's tools

Cooper's tools

Cooper's art

Cooper's art

One of the things that amused me about Bourdeaux (and I imagine they are elsewhere in France) was the variety of vending machines - not quite up there with Japan, but still it is unusual enough to have machines which vend inkjet cartridges and e-smoking apparatus.

Posted by NZBarry 15:51 Archived in France Comments (0)

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