Porto is surprisingly easy to explore, especially on foot, and there is a great inexpensive metro system that allows you to get to any location to begin your local journey. There are six lines identified by colour, red, green, blue, yellow, orange and purple; they all converge at Trindade station, and so, if for example you find yourself at the beautifully tiled station of São Bento, take the Yellow line up to Trindade and choose an area to discover.
We are not focusing on the main tourist-sites here – you can find details of the good and the grand easily – but rather concentrating on the quieter, less frequented parts, away from the madding crowds.
Gardens with a view
In 1865, Porto hosted the first International Exhibition in Iberia in a grand edifice called the Palácio Cristal which was inspired by the Crystal Palace in England. The exhibition was attended by over 3,000 exhibitors from across the globe. Six hectares of ornamental gardens were laid out around the Palácio that remain to this day. However, the building fell into disrepair in the early part of the 20th century, and was demolished in 1951 and replaced by a concrete dome building called the Sports Pavilion.
The naming rights were attained by Super Bock but the correct title of this building is Pavilhão Rosa Mota named after Portugal´s first female Olympic gold medal winner. It was decided to rename the area Jardins do Palácio Cristal to deflect from the unpopular design of the building, and these days it is a quiet retreat away from the bustle of the city. The gardens have views over the river and are best enjoyed in early morning and at sunset. Take the blue line to Casa da Música, then walk through the park on the Rotunda da Boavista with its monument to the Peninsular Wars, and then down Rua de Júlio Dinis to reach the gardens.
Down at the river, head west either on foot, bicycle or on the historical Line 1 tram, in the direction of Ponte da Arrábida, the concrete road bridge that spans the river. There is an unusual attraction just here, a guided walk, complete with safety harnesses up the arch of the bridge to a point just under the road carriageway it´s not for the faint hearted but the views are unique to say the least.
Back down on terra firma, and still continuing west along the road, you will come to a point where there are two jetties on the riverbank. Not many casual visitors to Porto know this but the small passenger boat, Flor do Douro, moored on the water will take you and your bike for €1.50, across the river to São Pedro da Afurada on the south bank of the river.
The crossing gives a great perspective of the river ,as you look upstream to the historical city and downstream towards the open sea.
Once you arrive on the dock at the other side you have a sense of being in a place that has not changed fundamentally in decades. It´s a fishing town and it might as well be a hundred miles away from Porto because of the sense of self that this buzzing little town possesses.
If seafood is what you’re after, you have landed at the right dock. There are eating places everywhere and all within the sphere of great value. The smell of cooking fills the streets and everywhere you look someone has a brazier lit and is barbequeing something delicious; the locals have even modified their barbeque boxes so that they slot neatly on top and swivel on the metal pedestrian barriers on the side of the the street, working at a perfect height of 90cms!
If after a sumptuous lunch you still have the energy, it is possible to walk back to the iconic Dom Luís bridge along the south bank. Taxis are plentiful so that´s an option, too, and along the way you will come to a sandy cove that is the location of a special boatyard. It is here that repairs and modifications are made to the wooden Rabelo boats that once transported port wine from the Douro Valley to the trading companies’ cellars on the quays. Although the train has taken over the job of transportation these days, the Rabelo is still in use as an important reminder of the city’s past.
The route continues up river past the wine cellars and at this point it is possible to take a well-earned break. Hop on a cable car and ascend to Jardim do Morro which has perhaps the best views in the entire city as it overlooks the pastel coloured houses on the Ribeira, and the Port Cellars of Gaia. There is a metro line (yellow) right beside the gardens that can take you back to Trindade, São Bento or Aliados in time for you to consider drinks, dinner and other entertainment.
Once again, using the metro as your driver, take a short hop to Heroismo station and look for one of Porto’s best tascas which is located on Rua do Heroismo; it’s called Casa dos Presuntos Xico. This place caters for a mainly local trade, so no hoardes of tourists here. Their speciality are Sandes de Presunto, where the meat-to-bread ratio is a winner, washed down with the regions Espadal wine. A cold-weather favourite is Papas de Sarrabulho which is a type of porridge from the Minho region and is made from pigs blood, chicken, sausage, chouriço, cumin, lemon, bread and cornmeal , served in a bowl and accompanied with red vinho verde.
Back in the Aliados neighbourhood, if a Francesinha is your meal of choice then Restaurant Pontual is the place to go. It is another no-nonsense local tasca offering great food and a friendly atmosphere. Perhaps one of the most intriguingly named family owned restaurants is on Rua do Bonjardim close to Trindade.
It is called Sai Cão which means ‘get out dog’ (origin unknown) It is considered to be the best steak restaurant in town if not the entire north of the country, and at an average price of €6.50 it is definitely the best value. Honest, homely and buzzing, with a wonderful lady running the room it is well worth seeking out. For more great local food and occasional Fado sessions, head for Casa das Balsas near São Bento train station. The streets around Cedofeita and Cordoaria have plenty of pubs and bars to choose from and are not rowdy or boisterous. Adega Leonor is a bustling bar beside another green open space, the Jardim da Cordoaria, whie Pipa Velha and Aduela in Cedofeita both serve good food and host live music.
If you want to escape the street for an hour or two, and cinema is your pleasure, then check out Cinema Trindade on Rua do Almada. Don’t be put off by it apparently being a Bingo hall( which part of it is), because sharing the same building is a classic small movie theatre specialising in non-mainstream films, and it feels just like a cinema should. Listings can in found at cinematrindade.pt
This city is certainly unique in Europe and deserves a more respectful title than Portugal’s second city, but the local citizens know that it is number one. And by the way, try not to call it ‘Oporto’ when you are there: it sounds pretentious.
Words: Brian Redmond
Read more about Porto in the March issue of AlgarvePLUS