Travel slowly, staying in vacation rentals (villas, farms, cottages, apartments)
Report 1425: Portugal and Bilbao
By Andrew from Missouri, Summer 2007
Page 2 of 5: Porto, Douro Valley Cruise, Braga
Porto: Crowds gathering for air show practice
The next morning, it was off to Porto, and I’d made my plans to go on the slow trains that didn’t take reservations. In both Coimbra and Porto, most of the faster trains only stop at the peripheral stations, so I would have a total of two changes to get between the more central stations. I thought the connection leaving at 10:04 and arriving at 12:25 worked well in going at decent times and minimizing worries about hotel check-out and check-in times.
So, after checking out, I walked to Estação Nova and bought the ticket. Even though the trip took a little longer that some other options, it went fine; the connection at Aveiro just meant that the arriving train stopped behind the departing train and we needed to walk down the platform. The commuter train offered dramatic views of the river between the high bluffs as it entered the Porto area. It arrived at the central São Bento station; I took my first glance at the lobby amply decorated with azulejos. I exited to the right and went up the steady slope of rua 31 de Janeiro.
I had wondered about the adjacent rua da Madeira, and I investigated it later; it’s not worth taking, a back street with weed-infested steps. I reached the Praça da Batalha at the top, with my hotel, the Quality Inn. The great thing about this hotel is that I got five free nights there at 6000 Choice Privileges points per night. This is their lowest point rate; many run-of-the-mill Choice hotels in the U.S. charge more than twice that many points. I was directed to a small but decent room.
Porto has had some occasions for construction in recent years: being capital of European culture in 2001, and the European soccer championship in 2004, but there was still plenty of construction going on in this area. Praça da Batalha was largely torn up, and it extended to the top of rua 31 de Janeiro. In my walk up, I’d noticed a place marked “Creperia,” which could be a good place to go for a light lunch. I saw the description of francesinhas; would these be crêpes? They listed a large amount of meat for this to be likely, but I ordered one and found that it was a sandwich covered with gravy. That was still okay in this small lunch place.
I had studied extensively the Porto transit system, learning that the Andante card was needed for any ride on the bus or metro. I figured that for my plans it was best to get the card loaded with 11 rides for the price of 10. I went to the São Bento metro station and found that the vending machine didn’t take paper money. I went to the train station, where there was a joint information office for trains and city transit. I took a number based on the type of help I needed, and got an English-speaking agent who sold me a loaded Andante card at €8.50 for the 11 rides plus 50 cents for the card. This was for a Z2 card, meaning rides within the zone where I started (central Porto being one zone) and one adjacent zone.
After a first stroll north to look at the Rua Santa Catarina shopping street, I returned south for a first look at the Ribeira riverfront area. I went there by taking the Funicular dos Guindais down from just below my base, Praça da Batalha. This called for my first use of the Andante card, passing it in front of a card reader. I took the funicular, reopened in 2004, down and arrived at the entrance to the lower roadway of the landmark Ponte Dom Luiz I. Police were blocking the bridge to vehicles and pedestrians, and there were large crowds gathered along the Douro river. Was it a regatta? I learned that it was the Red Bull Air Race. There were pylons on the river, known as air gates; small planes were to come and do daredevil maneuvers near the river surface. This Wednesday was a practice day before the big race on Saturday. It was disorienting to see such crowds.
I determined that I should see the Palacio da Bolsa. It needed to be seen on a guided tour, and the first one available was in Spanish. The woman conducted it in “Portuguized” Spanish, with every "s" at the end of a word becoming sh, and needing to make herself heard over the loud planes flying nearby. The highlight of this neoclassical stock exchange building was the Arabian Hall at the end, with lavish designs standing out. The bridge was just reopening to traffic, and I found a long line at the funicular entrance for the return trip uphill. There were complaints, and I saw that I could bypass the ticket purchase with my card; I just needed to wait to be in the small number admitted for each ride.
For dinner, I made my way to one place where I’d jotted down a recommendation, but it was closed; summer closings were common enough with August coming to an end. I looked around for a bit to find a place that looked right, and came upon Regaleira, rua do Bonjardim 87, which I later determined was also on a list. I had a good sardine dish there, and wine that the waiter made a show of pouring from a height so it foamed as it entered the glass and stopped right at the rim. This meal cost €16; in general I was getting into a groove of getting good meals for around €10, for which I comfortably paid cash. Although I generally prefer to use credit cards, I went with the sense that in Europe cash is preferred for smaller charges, and for this trip for cash I had an ATM card that took no conversion percentage, as opposed to the 2-3% that the credit cards took. (NetBank, which issued this ATM card, has subsequently shut down.)
For Thursday, I was booked on a train-cruise trip on the Douro Valley. I had the hotel’s included breakfast in my free stay; there was a nice buffet. The breakfast area in the basement was crowded before 8, and I noted that many of the guests could be fashion models. I had booked the cruise through Douro Azul, making the first contact about a week before departure when I was on a new American Express billing period. When I did this, I didn’t see a credit card option for payment, so I checked cash. The e-mail response invited me to make a credit card payment if not doing it by bank transfer. I asked if American Express was allowed for payment; they said not, and I got my Visa information to them for the reportedly reasonable cruise price of €59.
So I reported to the nearby São Bento station at 8:30. The tour leader, Lurdes, checked me off and said we were waiting for the 9:15 train to have its track number posted. The crowd gathered, and the track was posted only shortly before departure. We went to our reserved cars at the far end. There was a nice picturesque ride through the morning, arriving at Régua at 11:30. Then there were a few buses for the short trip to the dock. I was in the back of the crowd, and I eventually saw that Lurdes was calling roll, and I boarded.
I took a place on the deck; the ship departed at noon, and they promptly invited us to lunch in the dining room. I was assigned to a table and there was a very full meal, with a pork main dish and lots of wine. I noted that the group was predominantly Portuguese (maybe some were Brazilian); I wouldn’t expect to see an Italian predominance in something similar in Italy.
There were seven hours scheduled for the cruise; I wondered if there would be a stop at a Port vineyard. No, we just looked at the terraced vineyards from the ship, and Lurdes reported on a few landmarks, such as the bridges, and we went through two locks, for one of which we needed to take cover while the ship was showered. The people happily stretched out, singing songs, and overall it was a happy time. There was a good view of Porto and its bridges on the approach. At lunch, Lurdes had said that because of the air show we couldn’t get to our scheduled dock at Vila Nova de Gaia, commonly known as Gaia, across from Porto. We would dock short of Porto and she took a count of how many people wanted to be bused to Gaia. But then we finally could get to Porto but docked on the Ribeira side. Although I was trying to avoid going there again until the air show was done, I took another funicular ride up to Batalha and my hotel.
Then on Friday, I had a day to get around Porto. First I went down some small streets to look at the Sé. I’d made something of a plan before leaving on my trip, charting public transportation routes in advance, on Porto Transit (see Web Resources at the end), which I learned worked better in Portuguese than English; I needed to rework the plan when I wanted to stay away from the Ribeira until Sunday, and many bus lines were rerouted during the air show. There was a tourist office near the Sé and the panoramic terrace, where they advised me on getting to the Fundação Serralves: walk to Praça Dom João I and catch bus 207. I had a chance to look over the bus map at the stop and figure out when I’d be getting close to my stop. I boarded and passed the Andante card over the reader (good for an hour of travel with a change of vehicle). This bus had a display and voice giving the next stop; mine didn’t give the Serralves name, so I think I got off a stop late. But that was fine, just a short walk in a residential neighborhood.
The Fundação Serralves, in its own park, features a modern art museum that is one of the top designs of local architect Alvaro Siza, who had been featured in a recent New York Times article. I had a look at the library (one of my reasons for going on a weekday) and the collections on display, overall not too memorable; it was a nice minimalist building. I looked around the park, which included farm animals. I went back to the museum and had lunch in their interesting dining room. The hostess quickly explained that at one price there was a choice of taking a main dish or the buffet of other dishes, in addition to a dessert buffet. I mistakenly took a main dish and a few buffet selections (which would be a higher price) before I saw the menu card explaining the choices, but I was charged the lower price and it was tasty. It was a popular place, with a line quickly forming outside.
I took the return bus and got off at the Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis, which gave a sense primarily of 19th-century Portuguese art. I had dinner at the Café Embaixador, off Avenida dos Aliados, a large place with good value.
Saturday was the day of my day trip to Braga; it was reaffirmed as a good choice on the day of the air show, which 600,000 people were gathering to see along the riverfront and panoramic terrace, and I wasn’t too interested in being with those crowds. I took the train out of São Bento at 8:45, buying the €2 ticket from a machine. Crowds were on the arriving trains, and there were signs about special trains. My train made over 20 stops, arriving just before 10am. I found my way into the old town and the Sé there, the oldest in Portugal, with a jumble of architectural styles. The guidebook warned me that crowds would make it slow going through the treasury; in fact I went around all alone. I wandered around the city some more and visited the Museu dos Biscainhos, an azulejo-covered aristocratic palace. A guide quickly showed me around rooms with interesting furnishings; it was getting close to lunch closing. I was invited to look around the gardens on my own.
After that, I went to the Praça da República, its openness and green space contrasting with the small old streets where I’d been. I looked for one restaurant from the guidebook and found it closed, so I went to the Bragashopping Centre, a somewhat tired mall, and found a place for a cheese omelet standby. Then I made my way to an outer part of town to find the new archaeological museum, which mixed with an archaeological site; it was a pretty interesting setup. I made my way back to the train station for the 5:30 p.m. train. I saw some air show coverage on the television at Braga station. I saw some of the crowds when the train reached the outer Porto station; when we reached São Bento the people leaving the train had to contend with the packed platform of boarding passengers. I made my way through a gauntlet as I left the train, being lifted momentarily between people, and I dealt with the terrible crush as I left the station. Settled back after that, I had a few small things to eat at the food court of the Via Catarina shopping mall, where I was leaving my laundry.
On Sunday my first destination was the Casa da Música. With a detour in my walk I boarded the metro at 24 Agosto instead of Bolhão as planned. I passed my Andante card over the reader and made my way to the platform, getting a look at this new metro system. Several lines used this track, and any of them was fine for getting to the Casa da Música station. I got there to see the new large concert hall designed by Rem Koolhaas. There was a tour in English shortly after I got there, at 11am. A British couple and I were on the tour, which couldn’t go into the main auditorium because a rehearsal was going on, but we could see it through soundproof glass; we saw many super-modern spaces on this tour.
At the end, I asked the guide about buses to Ribeira or Gaia; she wasn’t sure but suggested taking a bus to Aliados where many lines converged. Ultimately, looking at itinerarium.net, it looks like I should have taken the metro to start. Instead, I went to the bus stop near the Casa, which didn’t have a system map, but I knew that the 900-series buses went to Gaia. So I took the first one, and when it crossed the river I thought I would see if went towards the quay with the wineries, where I had in mind to go. It started in that direction, but then went through some small streets and then the other way. I’m not sure why I stayed on, other than that I wouldn’t know which bus to take afterwards. Eventually I noted that some of the passengers were wearing wraps over beachwear and we were going to the beach. That was the end of the line, so I took the time to get a look at the Sunday beach scene there.
I went back to the bus stop, where a man was giving bus advice and getting across without a common language. I learned that there were Gaia buses going to Cais de Gaia, where I wanted to go, but my Andante card wasn’t good on them: I would need to take a 900-series Porto bus and change during a brief segment where lines to the quay ran the same route. I did this, during the quiet Sunday lunchtime, and got to the active quay. I found a restaurant for a nice late lunch. Then for my main objective: to join a Port wine tour, with not many wineries open on Sunday. I found Cálem open; once again the first tour open was in Spanish, and I joined it. There was a brief look around barrels, before we sat down and had some nice tastings.
After that, I finally had the chance to walk across the historic bridge to the Porto (Ribeira) side. The main site was the Casa do Infante, where I remember a courtyard with glassed-in historical displays. Then I had a sample of the two functioning lines of historic trams: one following the river to the shore and back (I skipped the chance to see the museum of transport), and another line back uphill. After a brief stop at the hotel, I went up rua Santa Catarina to see everything closed on Sunday, including the Café Majestic where I had hoped to stop. That is until I got to the Via Catarina shopping mall where all shops were open until 10pm including – I’d made absolutely sure by learning the words – the laundry where I’d left my clothes. So that ended my visit to Porto, very interesting, leaving me wanting to see more and hang out longer.
On Monday morning I went to the breakfast room at the opening time of 6:30, exiting the elevator into complete darkness. The lights came on promptly, I had a quick breakfast, and checked out. I walked up the quiet shopping street to the Bolhão metro station to catch the train to the airport. My Andante card had one Z2 ride left, worth 85 cents. The ride to the airport called for a Z4 ticket at €1.35. I figured that I could pay the 50 cents to get the upgrade or, at worst, add a full Z4 ticket. The station had no staffed ticket window, only a machine; I put the card in and it asked “How many Z2 tickets do you want to add?” I did not see a way to tell it that I wanted a Z4 ride. Before my trip I had asked on online boards if a card loaded with two Z2 tickets at €1.70 would be good enough for this trip; I didn’t get a definite answer but it appeared not.
Now the only thing I could figure out to do was buy the Z4 ticket on a new Andante card at €1.85. I was kicking myself that I didn’t ask about it at São Bento the day before, or maybe I should have passed the card over a card reader so the last Z2 ticket would be used. After buying the new card, I wondered if I could have just passed the old card over the reader right there and it would have been empty and rechargeable with a new value; maybe it wouldn’t have worked because I’d have been considered still using the ticket for an hour. Anyway, different lines used that track; I took the one that went to the airport and got there. There was no further inspection of my ticket, not that anyone should use less than the proper ticket.
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