07 December 2006

O Porto

I am sitting in our hotel suite (they ran out of regular rooms and so had to give us this one…what a pity!) at the Sheraton in Porto, surveying the buffeting winds and pouring rain, wondering if I’ll even venture out today. Perhaps I’ll catch a bus and go to the big contemporary art museum, where at least I’ll be dry.

Besides, yesterday and Tuesday evening I had plenty of time to explore the old city, and enjoyed it very much. In fact, I think I walked for something like seven hours yesterday! It’s a gorgeous city, built on steep hills overlooking the Douro river. All of the different areas I poked my nose into had their own charm, and the buildings everywhere you look are covered in the characteristic blue painted tiles, or colored with glowing yellows and ochres.

It is quite clean, and peaceful, and full of churches and palaces that suddenly appear when you top one of those long hills. The metro (really a tram) is fast and modern, and we’ve been able to get from the hotel to downtown pretty easily with it. From any vantage point in the old city, you can look over to the other bank of the river, where all of the port makers have their bodegas, with signs prominently displayed on the hills, lit up at night.

There’s a big, graceful bridge that crosses from one side to the other. I haven’t been over to that side, but I’m sure it’s possible to visit the wine cellars and yesterday I nearly went to the Port Wine Museum, but went to the photography museum instead. We’ve had port in several places, which is such a lovely, sweet and mellow wine. We also are liking the local “green wine,” which is a dry white wine that is perfect with all the seafood.

The photography museum was cool, in part because I was literally the only person in there besides a group of schoolkids. It’s in an immense, mostly empty palace, and on the ground floor was an exhibition of photographs made in the 1880s by expeditioners who traveled the entire coast of South America and even up to California, with their nineteenth-century butterfly nets and penchant for collection. There’s also a large library (also entirely empty), and on the top floor, an exhibit of hundreds and hundreds of cameras, from the earliest to novelty cameras of the 70s and 80s. The best thing was the view from up there; I had a great vantage point from which to see across the city towards the cathedral, and even the bridge.

Another cool place was the Lello bookstore with a beautiful interior and a fabulous staircase right in the middle. The exterior is amazing as well, done in a sort of art-deco white and gray.

It’s been surprisingly difficult to find places to eat, because while there are tons of cafés and bars and pastry shops, it seems that all the restaurants are congregated in one area, lining the river. So for lack of any insider knowledge about other places to go, we’ve ended up there for several of our meals, and they’ve been consistently tasty. Yummy local olives, salt cod, sardines, a sort of musky cheese, and other fish. Tuesday night M had a fish called “robalinho,” which was baked in a coating of salt and was unbelievably tender and delicious. Last night we dined on “seafood rice,” a sort of paella, at the Majestic Café, a nineteenth-century café in the grand style (probably built by the British port investors; many of the port brands have English-sounding names), covered in mirrors and gilt curlicues. The food prices in general have been cheaper than Barcelona and definitely cheaper than Brussels, although they tend to charge you for food that they bring in the beginning that you think is free, like olives, bread, and tuna paté.

Last night there was an Arsenal-Porto soccer match, which explained the presence of tons of burly British people that we had noticed the previous evening at the restaurant. What with the soccer game, and a five-day weekend holiday in Spain, the tourists seem to be predominantly British and Spanish, although I imagine there are consistently a lot of Spanish visitors. Most of the people we’ve talked to, waiters, etc., seem to speak Spanish, although as M pointed out it’s sort of a pity to expect them to be able to speak Spanish, since the reverse would certainly not be true. The doorman at the hotel told me there's also a big horse jumping event, and what with the two socialist congresses, and another conference, the traffic has been snarled like crazy.

That, so far, has been our visit here in Porto! We have the rest of today and then tomorrow, and Saturday we fly out at 6 am. Today M switched from one congress to another (they deliberately put them back-to-back, profiting from the fact that everyone was already here), and it looks like he’ll have less time today to join me for meals and wandering around the city. Tomorrow hopefully he’ll have some free time.

[Note: Instead of M joining me, I got to join him for a trip to one of the port wine bodegas, Taylor's. It was an immense and beautifully appointed place, and they bussed hundreds of socialist politicians there, across the river and through the narrow streets of Vila Nova de Gaia, to enjoy a massive spread of food, wine, and of course, port. Plus several local singing groups, called tunas, made up of either boys or girls with guitars and beautiful harmonies. A very lovely evening, and I guess I owe my thanks to the European taxpayers.]

1 comment:

Aaron said...

aren't you a european taxpayer?