Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Portugal - My Voyage of Discovery (Part 2) - Porto

I was waiting at Porto's Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport, pacing around in frustration and sheer bloody fatigue after enduring the worst 24 hours of travel in my life.  

First, a 12-hour flight from Changi to Istanbul (how on God's green earth does a flight to Istanbul take 12 hours, when you could just as easily fly to Paris or Rome in that time?), half a day seated next to a professional sumo wrestler and in front of a noisy, long-limbed kid, on a seat so short that the headrest cut into my neck, having to endure a full bag and bodysearch at Ataturk Airport even though we were merely transiting and thereby almost missing our connecting flight to Lisbon, and then almost missing the connecting flight to Porto when some daft gap yah girls got held up at the security scanners.  After security, I literally sprinted through the cafes, past the duty-free shops, down seemingly endless corridors, and finished up literally bent over with hands on my knees, dry-retching in front of the gate lady.  Not exactly my finest moment.

Now, in staunchly Catholic Portugal, on a Sunday lunchtime, most of the shops at Porto Airport were closed, and I found myself staring at steel shutters all around the arrival hall.  My driver, assigned by my kind hosts / trip sponsors at Vini Portugal, was a grumpy old bastard who clearly resented having to work on the rest day ordained by our LORD, but who clearly welcomed the overtime thirty pieces of silver as worthwhile recompense.  It clearly wasn't worthwhile enough, however, to endure small chit-chat with his guests and make them feel welcome in his home country.

After 60 minutes of frustrated pacing, my publisher C arrived on her Lufthansa flight (us plebs flew Turkish), and we finally made our way to our hotel.


The sun shone brightly over Porto's historic Ribeira District, the salty tang of the Atlantic wafted overhead.  Local families talked and laughed as they lunched after Mass, washing down garlicky sausages and hunks of country bread with finos of Sagres (pronounced Sha-grssshhh in the local patois).  The girls had let their hair down, bare shoulders exposed to the sun’s glare while a busker’s saxophone blared out, startling the very well-fed seagulls. The Sandeman cocktail bar, a converted shipping container, was doing a very brisk trade in small bites and port-based libations, clearly having not received the memo that Port wine had become incredibly passé.

In my black mood, I wanted to find an excuse, any excuse, to just lash out and hate the place.  But how could I?  From the open windows of my fifth-floor room at the Pestana Vintage Porto, the laughter and bustle below were infectious.  

View from my room of the Ribeira promenade and the Dom Luis I Bridge
The energy was real, so tangible, so electric.  And in that livewire moment, my doorbell rang, heralding a housekeeper bearing a gifts of a deconstructed dark chocolate brownie and a decanter of port (which, with the benefit of hindsight, I now recognise as a reserve ruby) from across the river in historic Vila Nova de Gaia.  I smiled.  The crying brat who kicked my seat for what felt like an eternity suddenly seemed light years away…

View from my room of Vila Nova de Gaia
Not wanting to waste a minute of our "free day", C, Daisuke and I went for a walk across the Dom Luis I Bridge to Gaia.  Of course there were the usual tourist touts there, selling cork wallets, cork glasses frames (really guys?), cork handbags, cork tapestries, basically anything cork-related except for corked thighs and actual wine bottle corks.  The vista from Gaia back to the Ribeira was breathtaking, almost as breathtaking as the fact that you could get an espresso for just over a euro at any of the excellent riverside cafes.  

The historic Ribeira District of Porto
I keep harking back to the energy of the place, and there was something about it that made me just feel alive, more alive than I have felt in years, an instant connection to a foreign land that I have not felt anywhere except in my spiritual home of Alsace.  Was it the clean Atlantic air, the cloudless blue skies and glorious sunshine, the cool nip of the fresh autumn breeze that raised the barest goosebumps on my skin?  Or had I tapped into something deeper, the main vein, as if I was fulfilling a destiny in being here, at this time, on this day?  It didn't really much matter in the end, nor did the fact I had literally zero sleep the night before.  I was in Porto, baby, and I was loving it!

We walked the historic streets, back to Porto across the top of the Dom Luis I Bridge (which, given my morbid fear of heights, gave me seriously wobbly legs) and just kept on walking and taking in the vibe of the place.  Finally, my feet cried out for some rest and we returned to the Pestana.  After a cheeky go at the chocolate dessert and port wine (good to keep the blood sugar up), I dressed for dinner, or at least I tried to.  Now I probably shouldn't admit this but I couldn't find my toothbrush in my bags anywhere.  Nor would I have the chance to buy any in Porto because our itinerary was so packed.  This was a bit (lot) of a problem, as dinner would be our first meeting with our chaperone-for-the-week Cátia, who worked for our generous trip sponsors Vini Portugal.   Whether we liked it or not, we were ambassadors for Singapore, and I owed it to everyone around me not to have 24-hours of plane breath on me at the dinner table.  Screw it, I thought, and quickly rubbed some Colgate on my teeth before heading out.  So if I later post pictures of me with purple / black teeth, you know why.

Cátia had booked dinner at our hotel's restaurant, RIB Beef and Wine, run by Rui Martins who was named Portugal's Chef of the Year 2016.  Frankly, dinner was a bit (lot) of a damp squib.   Now don't get me wrong, it was a really nice restaurant and I appreciated that they booked us somewhere classy and really quite expensive by local standards, especially with all the imported beef preparations rolling up to our table.  But no one travelled all the way from Singapore to Porto to eat the "Tomahawk Irish Black Angus with its intense oculus" (lifted from the hotel website), the wines were a struggle and to be honest, I found Cátia a bit standoffish on that first encounter.   And why wouldn't she be?  Daisuke and I met C for the first time that afternoon, and I hadn't had a proper chat with Daisuke in some three years.  We were four strangers in a strange land with virtually nothing in common, not even a first language, and I think dinner pretty much reflected that.

That wasn't enough to kill my mood though, and I still felt the lingering lightness in my step as I walked back to my room.  And sure enough, the Port wine lodges at Gaia at night presented a whole new delight for the eyes.

We had an early start tomorrow, breakfast before a Masterclass at Vini Portugal's Porto headquarters at the historic Palácio da Bolsa.  I emptied the decanter for my nightcap, and tried to get some sleep.  

Praça da Ribeira, nº1, 4050-513 Porto, Portugal
Tel: +351 22 340 2300
Score: 17/20
Summary: A brilliant little hotel, built across 17 historical buildings in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Ribeira District of Porto.  All the in-room mod cons are here, but it won't suit if you are looking for additional amenities like a gym, swimming pool and spa.  Rather, come here for the brilliant ambience, superb location and excellent service.  A welcome glass of Taylor's Ruby Port seals the very sweet deal.  

To be continued...

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