We had been looking forward to Porto for various reasons, but mostly for the port. We expected it to be a nice and interesting city but I was surprised about what a fantastic, liveable city it was. The route of my long run is a good way of describing why.
Our Airbnb was in an old area of the town that is slowly being “gentrified”. There are many grand old buildings, still ripe for renovation, interesting shops and bars but ne’er do wells shouting at dustbins are common. I ran from here some 7km down the wide Avenue da Boavista that leads to the sea, passing increasingly big villas, posh shops and restaurants. It was a misty morning, so all this was shrouded in a glowing orange light. Just before the beach is a large, semi formal, park with ponds and ducks……… and chickens……. and one pack of stray dogs that made me change my route and quicken the pace.
The sea front is a collection of clean beaches, all with reasonable looking bars and cafes. These beaches run to the mouth of the Doruo river and the old fortifications that protected it. The riverside is varied. On the Porto side it has parks, a small area that holds an obviously productive fleet of small fishing boats, old warehouses, new apartments and some big public buildings. On the other side there are the grand port houses of the brands we all know and love, then I hit some less well kept old warehouses, and, finally, a new marina and a bunch of cafes. Once back across the river it was up a bloody horrible hill to the old town, with lots of great old buildings, some narrow lanes and some broad roads and squares containing magnificent statues and more grand buildings. Joining the two sides are a number of bridges; each represent some great engineering, but the Ponte Luis I and the Ponte Soa João represent the best of their day. It is beautiful, vibrant, varied and well set up to enjoy on foot, by bike or by public transport. It was a really lovely 36km and it helped me renew my enthusiasm for running which had been severely depleted by too many cobbled bloody hills. In hindsight it would have been even better had I remembered to put the insoles back into my trainers before I started out. Bugger.
The city is a solid reminder that, whilst Portugal has been through a tough patch, it was once perhaps the most powerful, and certainly the country that lead the way in exploring the “ new world”. Like every great nation in history, there are ups and downs, driven by a change in technology, different political decisions made at home or abroad, or, sometimes, just bad luck. Being great once doesn’t mean a nation will always be great, only that it has the potential to be great again if the right decisions are made at the right time. Until that time we can be great through the way we behave and Portugal is a great example of this, welcoming all, and looking after rich and poor. They didn’t choose austerity, (cutting services to the less well off). Rather they chose to invest wisely and create an environment where small businesses can thrive and are growing well. I think my old country sometimes looks to its past too often and doesn’t understand the importance of the present. We are meaner for it.
The FTs did FT type things. Firstly we went to Graham’s Port house for a tour and a tasting which is very much worthwhile. We were shown around by a charming and knowledgeable 26 year old who claimed to survive on a diet of port, whiskey, cigars and beef, and we learned a lot. We also observed that the port industry has a touch of the Raj about it. Men of British origin, driving around in Landrovers, hopping out to exchange pleasantries with the exceptionally hard working locals who do the harvest (and also travel to France to do the wine harvest there as they get a better wage and French people are lucky enough to be able to choose to not do such back breaking work.). It seems to work well, by all accounts though, and the owners are said to take a very responsible approach to their duties to the land and those who work for them. I would like to own a port vineyard! I have chinos, blue shirts, a hat and love to chat, so am completely qualified.
At the tasting, I discovered that port can be worn as a perfume. I don’t know what I said, but at some point I said something funny enough to reduce J to snorting whilst she had a gob full of some fine port….. so I got to wear it. The smell is great…..the stickiness, well that’s less great.
We also popped our cherry with Airbnb “experiences” and booked ourself on to a tour of Porto’s secret bars and a class to learn how to make Pasteis de Nata The first was fine; the bars were all in the area we stayed in, they were ok but not amazing and the wine was interesting but not outstanding. I am pretty confident we would have found all the bars and all the wine on our own over the course of our stay.
The Pasteis de nata class was great fun though, and I look forward to baking them back at home (😂😂😂 – J) We all got to do bits, and I got very anxious if people were not following instructions for their bit as I was looking forward to the end product. ‘For goodness-sake, whisk faster! You heard what the lady said will happen if you don’t. It’ll go lumpy and I don’t want lumpy nata!!!’ Six year olds nowadays eh!
Whilst the creations were in the oven, I popped out to get the perfect accompaniment to them, Ginja, much to the delight to three Korean girls in our class who seemed to be as big fans of Ginja as I am. The Nata were ok, the Ginja good and the experience lots of fun…….. except if you were a lazy 6 year old.
We took two day trips. One to Viana do Castelo, an hour to the north, a place that I last went to in 1992. As part of training at Sandhurst, each cadet must spend a week of the first leave on an adventure training course to get a qualification (the unit expedition leaders course mentioned earlier) and a week of the second leave on an expedition. For me, this second one was being on the crew of a 55ft yacht, sailing from Lisbon to Gosport…… in December. The weather was truly awful and we were the only yacht out on day one. Even the ferries had stopped. We had to run back to port after a few hours, but on day 2 went out again and time meant we had no option than to keep going. By the time we got to Viana do Castelo, after 3 days and nights of tacking into wind hitting 55 knots and huge waves, our courage had been truly tested. The paratrooper who had never been sailing before and declared it ‘a bit of a poofs game’ on the flight out to Lisbon had been reduced to shouting ‘this is fucking crazy’ as he crawled along the deck back to the cockpit. The ships doctor had been put ashore as he was so ill, the SAS man had been ripped off the helm when a huge wave broke over us, that also took away our down buoy, which took an hour of battling to recover, and all but me and the skipper had been dealing with violent sea sickness. The calm water of the port of VdC was one of the most welcome sights you could imagine. The sun came out the next day, we walked to the large church at the top of a large hill and drank cold beer in the nearby hotel, we ate ashore and learned Portuguese traditional dancing in the evening. From that day, the place had a special place in my heart and I couldn’t resist going back. It is a nice town, and the hill gives great views over the Atlantic, but they say you can’t cross the same river twice, and the memory was better than the return. There are lots of very lovely towns in Portugal and this one is only in the top half. I did enjoy a 10.30 am beer in the same spot that I had enjoyed one some 25 years before.
As I sat drinking my beer, remembering in reasonable detail the previous visit, I rather indulgently asked myself the question ‘what would I tell the 22 year old James to do differently if you could jump back in time to that terrace 26 years ago?’. The answer. Very little. I would have liked to be kinder to some people, and I now know my rather basic humour was often offensive, but the people I know and love have not held that against me. I would have liked to properly know my father better than I did, and spent more time with him in his final days, but I learned to do things differently because of that mistake. There have been challenges along the way, but the cliché about the things that don’t kill you making you stronger is very very true and I know those challenges have been as important, or more important than the easy stuff. I enjoy a very special life, living in a great place, working with clever and interesting people, married to someone I love who is also a great friend and companion. The fact that I get to do stuff like this, to me, shows that the path taken to date has been a good one.. I am indeed very fortunate. Perhaps there is just one bit of advice I would have passed on…….. never turn down a blow job………. (FFS —Ed.)
Perhaps I need to still work on the humour…….. ( yep – Ed)
The other trip was along the Duro valley to Pinhao, the centre of the port vineyard area. The journey is beautiful, and for most of the way, the small narrow gauge train hugs the side of the steep river valley (sit on the right on the way out for the best view). At Pinhao we ate well, visited another port house and took a trip up the river, sharing a sailing boat with a lovely couple called Hydie and James, with a skipper who was the son of a family who owned a small ‘subsistence’ port vineyard. This is a great way to see the valley.
We also had a very very small world moment. As we walked to our port tasting I saw a couple trying to get a picture of themselves so, as I nearly always do, I offered to take one for them. We then got chatting and through a series of questions discovered that they had stayed in Fulford Folly in Bundanoon. What are the chances of that! Nerds, please don’t give me the formula for the answer…
The train trip back was less good as we had to stand nearly all the way. Top tip. If you do the same, get a taxi one stop up the line from Pinhao and guarantee yourself a seat. Pinhao is carnage.
On the edges of all this, in Porto, we got to sit in a beach bar and watch the sunset, enjoyed listening to some incredibly talented buskers (I will now stop and take time to listen to good buskers in my home town, rather than scurrying by because either our busy lives dictate we must, or in fear of being mistaken for a bloody tourist rather than a fortunate local), realised that food and booze costs 3 times less if you stay away from the tourist areas, that Uber’s are the only way to travel in Porto (new cars, great drivers who all speak English and have an interesting back story and it’s very very cheap) and I realised that I really love a good 10 or 20 year old Tawny port. This last point is important, as, whilst I have always liked port, I have been scared by drinking huge amounts of cheap port at the end of mess dinners and have had some incredibly bad hangovers as a result. Drinking truly lovely port has allowed me to slay those demons.
Porto was our last call in Portugal, a country that we knew very little about when we arrived, know slightly more about as we leave, and one of the things we know is that we really, really like the country.
It has some quirks (like Avis saying that they never answer phones in the rental offices and to alter your booking you must go in…..), but it is welcoming, easy, has great food and wine, is seeping with history, is very affordable and is stunning.
From Porto it’s off to Bordeaux………. On Ryanair.