October 14th, 2012

(no subject)

So, Porto is a funny city. It's more ramshackle by far than I expected; sort of faded glory, architecturally. Presumably this is partly due to the UNESCO heritage requirements: if a building's roof falls in, it must be rebuilt to historic style, and all the construction work I've seen here looks fairly labour-intensive (all brick and cobblestone).There are a huge number of seemingly abandoned apartment buildings in the 3-6 story range, sort of chock-a-block amidst everything visible from the many high vantage points.

I'm not as fond of the omnipresent ceramic tiles as many people apparently are- and the old-church styles are less architecturally interesting to me than elsewhere in Europe (though I've not yet been to Spain to compare). The tourist sites are somewhat meh- with exceptions. The stock exchange building was amazing- photos and more details to follow, hopefully. The port caves were spiff. As was the port itself.

It's hilly. The tourist areas are amazingly steep; it's unremarkable near our hotel to enter a building, go up two flights of stairs or escalators, and exit on a ground floor. If there were more whole-block buildings one could imagine the same for five or more floors. I have photos of some regions that are charmingly densely packed- looking from one intersection, there is a tunnel through the hill in front of you, with rock face topped with either four floors of housing or an ancient town wall / barricade, topped with the main city cathedral (beyond a setback). Out of sight next to the cathedral there's a two-level bridge across the Duoro river, some 50 meters between the top level and the bottom. Just off to the side by the tunnel is an alley which was not easy to find- but it led us to Kyodu, an amazingly good sushi restaurant we ate at.

Streets connect plazas, at all sorts of angles, often with at least five coming out of an intersection; and often what you think is a blind alley turns out to be the one road that gets you where you want in a straight(ish) line. And other times they are blind alleys. And a few of the named streets I've found are stair-cases.

The first few days of being a tourist involved getting quite lost. In this modern world, I was able to fix that with an app on my phone of walking tours. $5 well spent. Also, I bought two days on a hop-on hop-off tour bus, which helped get me a lay of the land. And got me out to see "Castle Queso": Cheese Castle, to the west of the city centre, built like half a round of cheese (to protect merchants from brigands in the 18th century).

Off to lunch and then the airport. To be continued..

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Porto, 2 of 2

Yesterday we took an all-day excursion up the Duoro River, 100km into the wine-producing areas. While the temperatures in Porto during the day in October were around 20°C, and nearly always humid, we were told that during the summer in the Duoro it often reached 35°C+, and there were cacti growing on some hillsides. But there were also lots of grape terraces, and we were told the conditions are perfect for the hardiest of hardy grapes.

So the grapes are grown there, they are picked in September and processed (one cellar claimed they preferred the traditional foot-stomping method because it doesn't crush the seeds along with the fruit; the other said they only use stomping for sentimental reasons. Who am I to say? Except if I were more investigative, it might have been the perfect opportunity to find out for myself, since they had JUST finished picking at the beginning of this month). After crushing, they are only fermented a day to a few days, and then they are housed for a year or two before they are trucked down to Porto to the appropriate producers where the wine spends many years aging in oak barrels or 40,000-liter (!) vats. They call the cellars "caves" which is sort of accurate, though they appeared to be actually damp, dark, stone warehouses. Built into the side of hills. Oh, and I did see a bat in the one. (So  OK, caves.)

Anyway, the caves were earlier in the week. Back to the tourist boat from yesterday. 

We started in thick fog, with six or so other participants in the tourist company we were using, and a 75-member party of Portuguese taking the same boat, some who knew each other, many of them boisterous. Dan suspects it was a wedding party, but I didn't see any hallmarks of wedding, only large-group tour. Anyhow, they sang along with some of the traditional songs piped over the speakers, and were very jolly. I would have enjoyed having a bit of the language, but the few times I said something in English to someone, they tended to give a friendly smile and reply in Portuguese. 

We chatted with a British couple, but mostly each did the social introvert thing and sat quietly looking at the world.  From the top deck, watching the coastline speed along at close to 20kph was fun. There were a few very pretty towns and vineyards we passed. For me another high point was passing through two locks, one raising the boat over 35 meters, which turns out to be the highest lock in Europe. 

From the arrival at Regula town at around 5pm, we spent 45 minutes in a regional wine museum, which was interesting enough for the local growing history; and had a port sample, and then walked with our tour agent to the train station for the two-hour trip back to Porto. There wasn't really a plan for dinner. The train station had a cafeteria, where dan got a ham sandwich (contents: a bun; a few slices of ham). The tour agent (OK, technically "guide" since she did tell us to follow her; just not really why or where to) bought us tickets and made sure we knew what to do when we got off the train.

The train had the grungiest smelliest seats of any train I've been on. Here's a thought- if your paper head-rests are YELLOW you should probably change them! Oy.

But we made it home, and today had a morning to wander around a bit and then head to the airport. The good: dan discovered a food-market near the old stock-market building, and we then discovered a restaurant above the market that was really tasty, and the scenery was nice too. A pleasant finish to the trip. And then we caught a cab to the airport.

The bad: our flight is delayed three hours, which means we arrive at 9:30pm, aka 2:30am body-time. But  there are worse  airports to be stuck in, for certain- I've found  a quiet corner to write this and and I'll use 30 minutes  of free boingo wifi to post this and catch up on mail. 

Samples of port tried: 14. Ones that I liked: about 2/3. Ones that I *really* liked: 3 or 4, including a 20-year-old tawny from Taylor, and a 10-year-old white port that we're bringing home with us. Ways I don't like port: as port-and-tonic, and part of sangria.

We are both feeling rather travel-worn, and looking forward to our own bed and seeing Rover in the morning. But I'm glad I came on this trip, even if one visit to Portugal turns out to be the right number. And hey, my brain may end up merging the Porto transit system and rabbit-warren buildings into my standard "lost in the New York City transit-system" dreams... 

See you on the flip-side!