Ah, pretty city Porto, you beautiful place, you. All glowing in from dawn til dusk in a tumbly, jumbly terracotta haze and reflected Harry Potter glory.
With your giant gondolas from the port trade, your azulejo tiles and your steep streets to a thousands scenic viewpoints, you wear your prettiness with a bit of grit. A boot in the substance vs style side of the debate.
But what about the unsightly? Or the downright ugly but still important?
Never fear, I am here!
Let’s gloss over why I feel the need to do this (something in common perhaps?) and talk for a while about all of the things there are to do in Porto, pretty and otherwise.
It’s one of the reasons why it got a major name drop in the write-up from Lonely Planet this year: they named Portugal as one of the best places to visit in 2018.
Singling out the city of Porto as a highlight among highlights, the suggested itinerary launched forth with the Casa da Musica, an often overlooked stop on the Porto tourist trail (for more on how to eat in Portugal’s capital city of LIsbon, head over here.)
Surrounded by skaters, the Casa’a swerving walls of white and glass play with the idea of perspective. Inside, the vision of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas becomes even more clear – and cool.
Nine storeys of an asymmetrical polyhedron blend and dip sound and sight through mirrors, open spaces, closed stairs and concrete.
Often described as Porto’s “Guggenheim,” a term with which I wouldn’t quite agree, there’s no doubting that the main art form here is music.
It houses Fundação Casa da Música and provides a base for no fewer than three orchestras: Orquestra Nacional do Porto, Orquestra Barroca and the Remix Ensemble.
If you can’t manage to catch a concert, follow my lead and chill out in the delicious basement café. Watch skaters create a different art form using the physical slopes of the wall and mingle with artists in between rehearsals.
At the other end of the architectural scale is Porto’s historic Ribeira, part of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site Centre.
Like the Casa da Musica, there’s no mystery in the name.
Ribeira means riverside, which is where you’ll find the district.
But the river in question, the Douro, carries a little more mystique when it comes to the details of its name.
One translation of Douro means “river of gold” and on a gilded summer afternoon, the water does appear to shimmer that way.
A more likely explanation, perhaps, reflects the wealth spread from the Douro valley, the port wine that travelled along the waters to the Atlantic and beyond.
Running for more than 200 miles, the Douro River may begin in Spain, but its climax is unquestionably Portuguese.
Today, atmospheric rabelo boats still bob on the water, like inky black gondolas made large for a Tim Burton Halloween movie.
The port-wine lodges (they should be called porteries!) process visitors with precision: herding queues through cool dark vaults, clinking port into tasting glasses and propelling port-hazy visitors back out to the sun with a wave and a price list.
But the port barrels and the area that surrounds them, the Vila Nova de Gaia, live on the wrong side of the tracks.
To get back to Ribeira and its curious hipster-mainstream-UNESCO vibe, you need to walk back across the utterly spectacular Dom Luis I Bridge.
Not often one to fall in love with a bridge, with Dom Luis I was Juliet to Dom’s Romeo, Torvill to his Dean, Beavis to… No, wait, I think I’ll leave it there.
In short, it was love at first sight.
Constructed in 1886 to connect town with industry, in and of itself, it isn’t all that pretty.
But the height of the arc and the gorgeousness of the gorge it stretches across makes none of that seem important.
You can walk over it. You can metro over it. If you come to Porto by train (as I did, from Coimbra) you can glide metal over metal over it, spilling Porto’s prettiest landscape into view before you’ve even arrived.
And at the time it was the built, it was the longest of its type in the world.
Who can ask for more from a bridge than that?
On Friday afternoons, buskers make sweet music in its shadow and on pretty much every day through the summer, revellers float beneath his curves to travel upstream to the verdant Douro Valley.
Back in the narrow, shaded streets of Ribeira, the pace of life seems as loud or as quiet as you’d like it. While the Dom and the Casa strike a pose, the joy of Ribeira is found in the smaller, quieter details.
Sure, it has its masterpieces, like the Sao Francisco church. But it’s the faded shutters, peeling posters and clean laundry hanging from small stretches of string that signal that time here is to be protected, that time here is special.
Porto has undergone a renaissance over the last few years. J.K. Rowling was inspired here, the European Capital of Culture award landed here.
And it’s easy to become overwhelmed by its postcard-pretty beauty.
By its viewpoints.
By its enviable and unenviable current position at the height of travel fashion.
But there are plenty of not so pretty things to see and do in Porto, too.
So, go, travel, enjoy.
Wear comfy shoes and tackle those steeply sweet streets.
And when you catch sight of the Dom, say hello from me.
He’ll know what it means ;-)
The first I’d heard of G Adventures was through their work with colleagues I greatly respected; the second was when they partnered with Lonely Planet.
I paused before accepting the assignment. Wasn’t G Adventures for gap year students and backpackers and wasn’t it budget-driven rather than boutique or luxury?
Well, yes and no to all those things.
G Adventures did used to be Gap Adventures (it changed in 2011) but now runs trips for all ages. Indeed, I was probably one of the youngest on the tour I joined, the Highlights of Portugal.
The accommodation is more “get the job done” than luxury or boutique but still much better than in my backpacking days. Most people on the group were repeat customers, one up to 17 times which is about a good as endorsement as you can get.
Now to the heart of the matter.
I’ve long since believed that it’s attitudes and outlook that mark out individuals and character, far more than basic demographics like age, race (budget!)and sex.
So, although we were a mixed group, the outlook was broadly the same: the desire to travel to explore a place, not simply to go shopping or flop on a beach.
And as for my concerns for privacy and solitude, there’s a “My Own Room” option and there was plenty of free time, which you could either spend in a group or alone.
It was clear to me that people had formed friendships for life through travelling this way, with many openly saying that travelling with G had changed their lives and got them bitten by the travel bug.
For those well used to travelling around Europe independently, perhaps the assistance offered in getting from A to B isn’t essential.
But already, by day three or four I realised I had found something I’d never realised was missing: the feel of company, and, though it sounds so presumptuous to say it, family.
I was the only one working on this trip, other than our guide (G calls them CEOs.) Everyone else was on holiday and in a holiday mood. That was one benefit.
But also, as a freelancer, how often do I hang out with the same people who aren’t friends or family day by day?
But actually. I liked going down to breakfast and knowing I’d have someone to sit with.
It was interesting to hear different perspectives, to see the things I was seeing through the filter of those with different backgrounds to mine, different travel experiences to mine.
And I was glad to have someone to mind my bag, to check I’d made the train, to share wine with over dinner and grab a coffee for the next day.
So should you book a trip with G Adventures?
If you’re looking for luxury, then no.
But if you’re looking to see culture and history, with a helping hand and free time, and to meet people beyond the world in which you live, then yes, yes, yes.
And what do I gain from writing this?
Nothing at all. It wasn’t part of the assignment – and in any case, I always keep the right to write what I like here on the blog.
I just thought you might find it useful, and that’s why I wrote it down.
Happy travels everyone,
Disclosure – I travelled through Portugal on the Highlights of Portugal tour as part of my work with Lonely Planet and G Adventures. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, there’s just no point. For all the pastries in the world.
Some of the other recommendations were hosted, some were not, but all were only included because I like them and would gladly do them again.
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