easycruise one







Basics - Getting There - Getting Around - Places To Stay
Where To Get Drunk - What To See And Do

The Duoro River and Ponte Dom Luis I


Porto (apparently nobody refers to the city by its full official name, Oporto, any more) is the second largest city in Portugal, and is an important economic and commercial centre. There has been a settlement on this site for around 3000 years, and later on the city was ruled over by the Romans, who called it Portus Cale, from which the name Portugal derives. The city went on to become a major port; Henry the Navigator was born here, and Porto became rich on the back of trade links with the Portuguese Empire in Brazil, East Africa, and India, and also with England. When the Napoleonic wars meant that Britain could no longer import wine from France they started importing it from Portugal instead, in particular the fortified wine that became known simply as port. Even today most of the port companies in Porto still have recognisably British names.

Although many parts of the city centre have undergone thorough renovation since being granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996 and being made European Capital of Culture in 2001 the city can still sometimes feel appealing shabby around the edges. Porto is proud of its reputation as a hard-working city, and while there is plenty here to attract the tourist even in the historic and picturesque Rebeira district nearly all of the buildings are still homes or shops for ordinary Portuguese.

The food here is great, and a lot cheaper than you might expect, the wine and port are superb, even the beer isn’t bad. The locals are hospitable and welcoming, and the historic links with Britain mean that English is widely spoken.

What more could you want?

Getting There

We flew to Porto from London Stansted on RyanAir. The flight time each way was around 2 hours. I know that RyanAir attract more than their share of criticism, but our flights were in clean, new planes, the RyanAir crew were friendly, there was no hard-sell of food and drink (or scratch-cards), and both flights left and arrived on time. And I love RyanAir's policy of not having reclining seats; why should I have to put up with some selfish bastard crushing my knees for the duration of the flight on the off-chance that it might help him to sleep a little bit better for an hour or so? For our return tickets we paid a grand total of £18 each (to put it into perspective, our coach tickets from Heathrow to Stansted cost £30). So how in the hell can I possibly complain about that?

From the UK you can also fly to Porto with TAP from London Heathrow or Gatwick, or Birmingham, Bristol, or Liverpool with RyanAir. Outside the UK RyanAir fly to, among others, Brussels, Dublin and Paris, as well as several places in Spain. TAP fly to Amsterdam, Rome, and Zurich, and further afield they fly to New York (Newark), Sao Paulo, and Rio.

For trains, the only international trains serving Porto are to and from Vigo in Spain, via Valencia. The journey time is just over 2 hours to Valencia, just over 4 to Vigo. Surprisingly there are only a couple of direct trains per day between Porto and Lisbon; otherwise the journey involves changing at Entrecampos. The Direct trains take2 hours 45 minutes, those involving a change at Entrecampos can take up to 3 and a half hours, depending upon the connection. The website of the Portuguese national railways is here.

If long distance coaches are your thing Eurolines have services to Porto from Paris (just over 24 hours), Strasbourg, Nice, and Zurich (31 hours). There are plenty (around 19 per day, according to the timetable) of coaches between Porto and Lisbon. The timetable claims the journey takes 3 and a half hours. The Portuguese national coach company is here.

Getting Around

The river Duoro runs from east to west through the city. Technically the southern bank of the river is a separate town, Vila Nova de Gaia. Porto is located on a gorge in the Duoro, and is only a few miles from the sea. The river is spanned by 5 bridges, the most central and recognisable of which is the 2-level Ponte Dom Luis I. Next to the northern end of this bridge is Porto’s cathedral, and the steep, narrow streets and alleys that lie between the Cathedral and the Duoro is known as the Rebeira. North, and uphill of the river is the modern city, centred on the Avenida dos Aliados.

The Duoro. And a boat.

The city centre is fairly compact, and most of the places of interest are within easy walking distance. The main problem is that being built around a gorge the roads leading down to the river are very steep, not too much of a problem when you’re walking down them, but it can be extremely tiring making your back up, especially if like us you spend most of your time around the river, and even more so if like us you’ve generally had a drink or three before hiking back up to your hotel. We ended up getting knackered rather frequently (which at least gave us an excuse to recuperate with a beer equally frequently). The seriously fat, unfit, or infirm may not enjoy all those hills.  Although most of the streets and paths are in a good state of repair, you should keep an eye out for the many piles of dog crap.

Anyway, if you need it Porto has a pretty good public transport system. There are buses and a modern metro network, as well as a few trams (although these are mostly antique trams that ferry tourists around the city centre, but you can also use them to head out to the coast). We only used the metro, and we only used that to get to and from the airport. All the ticket machines have on-screen instructions in English as well as Portuguese, you can either buy a single ticket for your journey, or buy an Andante card which can be topped up with extra credit as needed. If you’re buying a single ticket there’s a list of all stations on the ticket machine telling you what kind of ticket you have to buy to get to each station (basically, each journey uses a certain number if zones). It’s very straightforward too, if a pair of clowns like Dave and I can figure it out then just about anyone should be able to manage it.

The airport, Francisco Sa Carniero, is about 8 miles north of the city, and is a really cool modern building; it reminded us of a sort of grounded UFO. On arrival there are cash machines, a bureau de change, and a café, as well as the usual car rentals and tourist information places. When you’re leaving there are plenty of shops in which to kill time and spend your last euros, the main duty free shop sells a pretty wide range of port (although it’s more expensive than the wine shops in the city), as well as a bar and a bigger café. The airport has its own metro station, only a minute’s walk from the main terminal building. The metro journey in to the city centre took us around half an hour, and a one-way ticket cost us less than 2 euros. The metro was impressive, with sleek modern trains, and very clean stations. There seemed to be at least one uniformed guard on each train and on each platform too, so it felt very safe. The metro runs according to a proper timetable (none of this London Underground “trains every 5 to 8 minutes” vagueness) and our journeys to and from the airport both left bang on time.

The main long-distance train station, Estacao de Campanha is over a mile east of the city centre, although it’s also on the metro network, as is Estacao De Sao Bento, an amazing building, which is the main suburban and short distance railway station. Estacao de Sao Bento is right in the city centre, only a few minute’s walk from Avenida dos Aliados. There are also regular trains between Campanha and Sao Bento stations. We saw plenty of taxis in the city centre, but unusually for us we never used them. A metered taxi from the airport to the city centre should cost around 20 euros. So they probably charge 40.

Places To Stay

We stayed at the Residencial dos Aliados, which I booked through Octopus Travel. The hotel is in an ideal location, about half way up Avenida dos Aliados (although the entrance is actually on Rua Eliseo de Melo), and a one minute walk from Aliados metro station. From the hotel it took us about 10 minutes to walk down to the river side (and about double that on the return journey when we were walking up hill and had generally had a few first).

The hotel is housed in a very impressive 1930s art nouveau building. Our room was round the back of the hotel; the rooms at the front have a balcony and views down the Avenida, while those at the back tend to be quieter. It was great, light and spacious, although I would have been happier with slightly more distance between our beds (usually I'd prefer at least a mile between mine and Dave's beds, or failing that a good solid wall). We had a remote-control air conditioner, satellite TV (which included BBC World, surely the most tedious, mind-numbing, repetitive TV channel of all time; Dave couldn't stop watching it. I preferred the webcam channel with a live feed to a camera looking out on Avenida dos Aliados). The beds were very comfy, judging from the amount of time Dave spent in his, and the wooden floor and carved wood furniture and headboards added a touch of class. The en-suite bathroom was pretty big too; we had a bathtub, complete with a shower attachment. The toilet itself was located next to a window for improved ventilation, a feature we both came to appreciate. Our room was on the fourth floor, and the hotel only has one small lift (the sign said it was suitable for 4 people but I think the sign lied....) but we were happy enough to use the stairs. By the way, you have to climb up one set of stairs anyway to reach the lift, and the hotel reception is on the second floor. There were a few features that I felt put the Residencial dos Aliados a cut above some of the other hotels we've stayed in, for example as well as having a breakfast room there's a separate sitting room, complete with TV, sofas, a decent selection of books and magazine, and a couple of computers (I think you have to pay a bit extra to access the internet, and it'd probably be rude to start perusing pissingmidgets.com there...). There was at least one set of bookshelves, complete with a multilingual selection of books and magazines (no porn) on each floor, giving the place a slightly intellectual air that we weren't used to. But it was nice. Breakfast was included in the price we paid, but for reasons that don't need going into here I never made it down in time (actually, that's not true; on our last morning we had to leave to catch an early flight at the airport and we were actually too early for breakfast. That has never happened to me before). Dave made it down a couple of times and apparently it's a fairly standard continental buffet, although I did notice that the coffee smelled quite nice when I was waiting for him). As a final bonus, everyone we dealt with at reception was friendly, helpful, and spoke perfect English.

For 3 nights in this hotel we paid a grand total of £140, which I thought represented exceptional value for money. The hotel has a website; it plays Chopin to you. That's how classy this place is.

Where To Get Drunk

On our first evening in Porto we ate at the Cafe-Restaurante Guarany, which we chose on the quite reasonable grounds that it was right under our hotel! By the time we arrived at our hotel it was past 10pm, so we didn't really fancy wandering round a city we'd never been to before in search of somewhere to eat. The girl at the hotel reception told us that the Guarny was open until midnight, and they had the menu posted in the hotel lift, and it looked pretty good to us. Anyway, it was a great choice. Guarny is a very classy place; expensive-looking pictures on the wall, lots of mirrors, and very attentive and professional waiters. So not really the kind of place that we'd normally go to. They also have live music most nights, ranging from a pianist tinkling away in the corner to a full-blown band.

At first glance the menu appears quite limited; there are 3 main meat dishes, and 3 main fish dishes, plus one special of each everyday. There's also a larger section of snacks, some of which aren't really snacks, but I'll come to that later. On our first visit there we were obviously in a meat kind of mood; Dave went for the fillet steak, which came with chips and salady bits, I had the grilled veal which came with mini garlic jacket potatoes, and more salady bits (which all got eaten, surprisingly). To drink we started off with a beer (Super Bock) to take the edge off, and then switched to a bottle of wine, a Portuguese red from the Duoro, which was a lot cheaper than we were expecting. The food was all excellent, and 2 empty plates were sent back. Considering Guarany is such a classy place 12 euros for our main courses seemed pretty good value. Inspired by the classy surroundings we finished off our meal with a couple of glasses of Graham's 20 Year Old Tawny Port, at 6 euros a pop. It was delicious stuff, and we developed quite a taste for it, visiting the Guarany for at least one glass a day (and buying a bottle of the stuff to bring home from the airport).

We went back there the next day as we thought it'd be a good place to meet up with our friend Jonesey who was flying down to meet us. After a few beers apiece on the tables outside in the street (or "the terrace", as it's grandly described, a great spot for people watching) we switched inside for a bite to eat. Intending to only have a snack we went for something from the sandwich menu, a francesinha, a sort of grilled sandwich that's one of the local specialties of Porto. What we actually got was a bloody enormous 3-layer ham, Portuguese sausage, and steak hot sandwich, totally smothered in melted cheese, which was then covered in some kind of spicy sauce, and for some reason had a great big juicy prawn popped on top. And it came with a big bowl of chips. So, not exactly the quick snack we'd been expecting but it was absolutely delicious, and it would have been bad manners not to eat everything, so all 3 of us pigged the lot. At around 10 euros the francesinha here is definitely a meal in itself.

Anyway, the Guarany is a great, popular place. It has a website here.

We tried Tripeiro (195 Rua de Passos Manuel) because it was close to our hotel, and thanks to Dave taking one of his little naps we needed somewhere that stayed open late. Apparently the restaurant is renowned for its tripe (one of Porto's culinary specialties), hence the name, I suppose... To be honest, none of us could face the tripe. Dave and I had steak, mine just a plain rump which was very tender and cooked to perfection, and came with side-dishes of chips and boiled cabbage (basically, the servings are so big here that all the food comes on side dishes which you can then shovel on to your main plate as required; if they tried putting everything on one plate it'd never fit). Dave also had a steak, his topped with a fried egg, that came with a huge bowl of shredded crispy fried potato. He didn't eat his greens and was so pissed that he left half his steak. Our friend Jonesey was a bit more adventurous, he went for some kind of salt-cod and potato dish, which was absolutely enormous, some kind of cod-whale hybrid maybe. He scoffed everything, not an unusual occurrence, but he recommended it very highly, and this is a man that knows his food. To begin with we washed everything down with a beer (we were pretty hot and bothered when we first arrived), before switching to wine for a touch of sophistication. Tripeiro has a pretty extensive wine list; the waiter initially tried steering us towards a bottle at over 30 euros, but for those on a budget there are several wines available for less than 10 euros a bottle. We settled for a Duoro red that came in at around 18 euros, and it was lovely. The puddings looked tempting, but we were all stuffed by this stage. The service was quick and very friendly; we were the last people left in the restaurant when it closed, but at no point did we feel that we were being rushed into leaving. Tripeiro seems to be a place that's popular with big tour groups, but they managed to fit the 3 of us in with no problems. Including the tip I think we paid around 60-70 euros for the 3 of us, which considering the quality of quantity of the food, and the fact that we'd gone for a pretty decent bottle of wine, we thought was great value.

We ended up in Adega e Presuntaria Transmontana (80 Av Diogo Leite; basically on the main street by the river in Vila Nova de Gaia) because we were waiting for the Sandemans port lodge to re-open after their midday break, and we'd just spent an hour walking up the side of the hill and back down again to no good purpose in attempt to kill some time and so were feeling a bit thirsty and sweaty). After a quick read of the menu outside we decided to go for some kind of snack rather than a huge meal (although some of the main meals of the menu did sound delicious, such as grouse with chestnuts, and the fact that they can be ordered as either normal or half-sized portions suggests that the normal size portions are huge).

Our plan to order something like one of the cheese or cured ham selections "served on the plank" was a bit thwarted when the waiter brought us a big wooden try of cheese and smoked meat without us even ordering anything, as well as a bowl of olives, a plate of anchovies, and some really fresh bread. I suppose we could have just ignored it or sent it back, but as it was pretty much what we'd been planning to order anyway (apart from the olives and anchovies) we just ordered a "plank" of Portuguese cheeses and one of sausages to add to what we'd already got. It was all lovely stuff; fresh, tasty, and high quality, but somehow this turned out to be our most expensive meal in Porto, even though we stuck to the beer in here. Although they did give us a mini-bottle of port each with the bill.

On our last night in Porto we went to Antunes at 525 Rua do Bonjardim. It doesn't look much from the outside, but stick with it, you won't be disappointed. Inside it was a very pleasant, welcoming, family-run type of place. Apparently the house special is a roast leg of pork; I tried ordering it and was told it was for 2. Dave doesn't dig on pork (not after an unfortunate constipation-related incident in Prague) but I was tempted to try ordering it for myself anyway (surely one good look at my gut would have convinced the waiter that I could tackle it). Our first two attempts at ordering weren't successful as we were told they didn't actually have what we wanted (cod for Dave, chicken for me) in that day. Actually, I usually take this as a good sign as it means they only cook what's fresh, and don't have food hanging round the kitchen for days waiting until someone orders it. Dave had a steak instead, which came in a big bowl, served in some kind of gravy and covered in crispy sliced potato. I had roast pork, which was 5 really big slices, served with small roast potatoes, some kind of mashed green thing (I'm not entirely sure what it was, but it was very tasty and I ate the lot) and a big bowl of rice. The pork was beautiful, almost pink but very moist and tender. Both of our portions were enormous, but we did our best to send empty plates back to the kitchens. With all that we had a delicious bottle of Portuguese wine which set us back 12 euros, and that was one of the more expensive bottles on the menu. This turned out to be the cheapest meal we had in Porto, but was definitely the one that enjoyed the most.

OK then, drinking. Apart from the Guarny we did most of our drinking down by the river on the Cais de Rebeira, where you'll find plenty of bars, nearly all of them with outdoor tables. There's no better spot for people watching, and just watching the world (and the river) drift by. For such a prime touristy location the beer was surprisingly reasonably priced. A half litre of Super Bock set us back 2 euros (all the bars here seem to charge pretty much the same prices). I can't remember the names of most of them, although I can tell you that one bar was called Prioridade; you can find it in a little courtyard behind one of the arches close to the Ponte Dom Luis I. It's nothing special, a small indoor bar with lots of tables in the courtyard (all the tables have big umbrellas, and there's also a plastic canopy that can extend if it's really pissing down). The main reason we went back to this place a few times was that it seemed to stay open later than most of the other bars around here. For some reason they served beer (Super Bock) in plastic glasses (they must have had Brits drinking here before!), half a litre was 2 euros (Dave could tell you how much the smaller, lady-sized portions cost). But they also had an even bigger glass, I'm not entirely sure how big that was, 2 thirds of a litre maybe, for 3 euros. Guess what I was drinking? I can tell you that the waiters here were really friendly too, even though a couple of them looked as though they should have been having an early night to get ready for school the next day.

What To See and Do

I’ll start off with the Avenida dos Aliados, as it’s generally considered to be the centre of the city, and it’s also where our hotel was so that’s where we started off. The Avenida is a grand, wide boulevard, lined on all sides by some very impressive Art Nouveau buildings that now house hotels, banks, and some up-market shops. At the top end of the square is the Camara Municipal (city hall) which is apparently an ornate neoclassical building, although most of it was covered in scaffolding while we were there so it could really be a concrete hut for all I know. Although traffic runs down both sides of the Avenida, the centre of it is mostly pedestrianised. Here you’ll find a series of statues, one of a poet/politician (Almeida Garrett) one of a naked woman (usually covered in pigeons; surely there’s scope for a one-handed website there), an imposing one of King Pedro IV on horseback, and one that we couldn’t really tell what it was supposed to be. Something modern then. At the bottom of the square there’s a red post box (looking remarkably like the ones we have in the UK) with an attached statue of what appears to be some chap holding out a newspaper. Was it a real post box, or only a part of the statue? I have no idea. Dave, in a rare moment of coherence, pointed out that the Avenida dos Aliados looks and feels a bit like Wenceslas Square in Prague, only without the attendant layer of sleaze. Not that there’s anything wrong with a layer of sleaze….

From the bottom of Aliados, which is known as Praca da Liberdade you find yourself at a sort of crossroads. Head right up the hill and you’ll reach the Igreja dos Clerigos. Left, also uphill, will take you to another church, the Igreja de Ildefonso. Head straight on past Porto's main railway station, the Estacao de Sao Bento and you have a choice of streets all heading down hill that will eventually take you to the river.

The Igreja dos Clerigos is unusual for a Porto church in that the outside of it isn’t covered in azulejos, the characteristic blue and white painted tiles. The church was completed in the 1770s, and was designed in the baroque style by an Italian architect, Nicolou Nasoni, who designed several important buildings in Porto but liked this one so much that he became a member of the clergy and chose to be buried in it (after he died, obviously). The church is probably best known for its tower which at 250 feet still dominates the city centre, and at the time of its construction was the tallest structure in Portugal.

Needless to say you can climb up the tower, and so purely as a service to readers of this site that’s just what I did. Actually, it wasn’t too bad; the stairs (225 of them apparently; we didn’t bother counting) aren’t too narrow or steep (although I had to breathe in when we passed somebody on their way down), and there are plenty of openings on the way up to provide light and ventilation. Although we were still sweating like pigs by the time we reached the top. At the top there’s a platform running all the way round the tower, and needless to say the views are amazing: You can see a stretch of the river and the old town stretches out below you, while to the west are some of the buildings that make up Porto University. It would have been even more impressive if we’d gone up there on a clear, sunny day rather than the drizzle we chose to ascend in.

the view from the Clerigos tower. The cathedral is in the top left hand corner.

Once we reached terra firma again we had a look inside the church too, but I think that we were too busy getting our breath back to be able to fully appreciate it. The church is an oval shape, and richly decorated; the walls are mostly plain stone, but there’s a very impressive marble main altar, a few ornate balconies, lots of big oil paintings, a plethora of statues and sculpture, 2 huge sets of organ pipes, and some side altars most of which had strange glass boxes under them housing effigies of blood covered dead people (I think one of them was probably Jesus). And some confessional boxes that looked more like a portable toilet. All in all it was very impressive. Apart from the confessionals. I don't know what they were thinking there.

The Igreja de Ildefonso seems much more characteristic of Porto. Nasoni also helped in the design of this church, but it was finished in 1739, over 30 years earlier than the Igreja dos Clerigos.  The church has a graceful, much simpler, less ornate design than the Clerigos. The azulejos on the outside weren’t added until 1932 and depict scenes from the life of St Ildefonso. As I’ve never heard of St Ildefonso I cannot tell you whether they’re accurate or not.

Igreja de Ildefonso

Inside it's very pretty, surprisingly bright with stained glass windows, a big gilded altar, marble sculptures on the ceiling, and a few statues and oil paintings. The church isn't always open and we timed our visit just right as because we'd just finished looking around when the caretaker started asking eveyone to leave (he was very polite about it though). That must be what comes of working in a church.

From the Praca de Almeida Garrett, heading down Rua Mouzinho da Silveira towards the river don’t neglect to have a quick look at the railway station, Estacao de Sao Bento, built in the days when railway stations were buildings to be reckoned with and reflections of civic pride rather than soulless concrete and glass sheds; the outside is grand enough but inside the main concourse is covered in azulejos depicting the history of Portugal and the history of transport.

The narrow street that runs almost parallel to Rua Mouzinho da Silveira is the Rua das Flores, once one of the most desirable streets in the city and where the nobleman and richest merchants vied to build their palaces. Nowadays it’s a bit more run-down, but still picturesque with multi-coloured tile-covered houses and iron balconies. The street used to be famous for its silversmiths, and it still houses several jewellers, and an eclectic range of other shops including bookshops, clothes shops, shops selling religious tat (candles and icons), and a couple of very well-stocked port and wine shops. Guess which ones we spent most of our time salivating outside? We were having a competition to see who could spot the oldest bottle of vintage port; the oldest one we saw was one from 1918, a snip at almost 800 euros for the bottle. Also on Rua das Flores is the Igreja de Misericordia, first built in the mid-16th century, the totally over-the-top façade featuring crowns, crosses and what appear to be pineapples, was added by Nicolau Nasoni in the 1750s. There are also some nice azulejos in the porch.

From Rua Mouzinho da Silveira going downhill on either Rua dos Mercadores or Rua de Sao Joao Novo will take you to Praca de Rebiera on the banks of the Duoro, originally a medieval market square it’s now lined by outdoor cafes, with a couple of fountains, one antique and one modern. Guess which one wasn’t working? I guess they really knew how to make a proper fountain back in those days.

Running along the riverbank from here is the Cais de Ribeira, a long row of multicoloured 4 or 5 storey houses built on an arched arcade; this was probably where Porto was first settled and later became the commercial centre of the city, but when the merchants moved out it became one of the poorest and most neglected parts of the city. Nowadays it’s been restored and is home to lots of little bars and restaurants, or at least it is on the ground floor. Judging by all the washing hanging out of the windows and balconies the upper floors are all still lived in (many of them by people who wear absolutely enormous pants), and among the tourist shops and restaurants there are still food shops serving the needs of the locals.

the Cais de Ribeira

The houses were originally built on arches because this area was subject to regular flooding but now that the flow of the Duoro is a bit more regulated these arches and the courtyards behind them have been pressed into service as bars and restaurants. You can still see a stretch of the medieval Fernandine (built by King Fernando) city wall along here, and even a last surviving gateway in it. Also on the Cais de Ribeira there’s a small church, and the Almhinas da Ponte (“Souls of the Bridge”) a sculpture commemorating the thousands of people who died near this spot in 1809. When the French army under Marshall Soult invaded Porto many of the city’s inhabitants tried fleeing across the Duoro on a temporary pontoon bridge; the bridge collapsed under the weight but the crush of people trying to flee was so great that many more were pushed into the river by the sheer weight of people behind them, thousands are believed to have drowned.

The Cais de Ribeira was probably our favourite spot in the city; the views across the river to Vila Nova de Gaia and of the Ponte Dom Luis I are stunning, especially when everything is lit up at night. And with so many bars to chose from we couldn’t help but spend time here. And the place has a different atmosphere depending upon the time of day you’re here; when we came in the morning the river was still hazy with overnight mist, while the Cais was crowded with pensioners chatting and doing their shopping. Later in the afternoon the mist had burned away, the sun was beating down, and their seemed to be lots of families out for a stroll. And us sitting down for a beer. Later at night things were a little livelier, with the bars full of students (and us) out on the piss.

the Ponte Dom Luis I, see from the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river

Dominating the river at this point is Ponte Dom Luis I. The bridge was completed in 1886, a few metres north of the Ponte Pensil which used to span the river here, of which only a couple of stone towers still remain. It’s made up of a huge iron arch between the 2 main levels of the bridge, the lower level being for cars, the upper level (60 metres above the river) has a metro track running across the top of it, although there are also pedestrian pathways on both sides on both levels. We ended up crossing the bridge many times, in each direction and on each level at various times of the day. The views from the top level of the bridge really are stupendous, almost certainly the best in the city, but it definitely felt much higher than 60 metres above the river to me. Anyway, I’m not too keen on heights, so the barriers on either side of the bridge were a bit low for my taste, and the bridge also had a nasty habit of juddering a bit whenever a tram went across, although that could have just been my imagination.

the view from the top of the Ponte Dom Luis I

By the way, I'd like to take this chance to apologise to everybody that I sent a postcard to claiming that this bridge was designed by Gustaf Eiffel; it wasn't, the bridge that he designed is a bit further up-river, but I'll come to that later.

Crossing the river takes you to Vila Nova de Gaia. Here you can have a very pleasant stroll along the river front; the views over the Duoro to Porto are amazing. Many of the port lodges have boats moored along the river here, they all look very picturesque, and apparently once a year there’s a big race between the port lodges that’s taken extremely seriously by the crews, but sadly we weren’t around to see that.

Porto as seen from Vila Nova de Gaia

Vila Nova de Gaia is the home to most of the city’s port lodges. Most of the lodges now have some kind of visitor facilities, although in some cases that might be limited to nothing more than a glorified shop. Sandemans however offer a full guided tour, so that’s the one we decided to visit.

The Sandemans lodge is on Largo Miguel Bombarda, on the river front in Vila Nova de Gaia. You really can’t miss the place, it’s the only building in this part of the city with a 10 foot man-in-cape sign on the roof (even more distinctive when they light it up at night). I think we timed our arrival just right as there was already quite a large group waiting and the tour started almost as soon as we’d bought our tickets (3.50 euros each). I don’t whether the tours set off at specific times, or whether they wait until a certain number of people have arrived before starting the next tour. Our tour was conducted in English; according the Sandemans website there are tours in other languages (including Japanese, Dutch and Italian);if you don’t speak English (in which case you’re unlikely to be reading this) whether these cost any extra or have to be booked in advance I really don’t know. The lodge was built right at the end of the 18th century, and bought by Sandemans in 1811. Inside it’s wonderfully atmospheric, dimly lit (which meant that most of my photos didn’t come out!) with creaky looking old rafters, quite cool, and with the wonderful, all-pervading smell of yeasty fermenting port.

Inside the Sandeman's port lodge

The guided tour lasts just less than an hour; we started off looking round some of the storage rooms with stacks of enormous barrels, I don’t know whether all these were full of maturing port, but if there was ever a fire in this building it’d probably be visible from space. We also passed the locked and barred room where the vintage bottles of port are kept; the earliest I saw in there was one from 1907. Along the way our guide explained the history of Sandemans and of port-making, the port-making process, and the different varieties of port. We were then shown a short film that went over pretty much the same information, although it also showed the vineyards further up the Duoro valley where the port grapes are grown. At the end of the tour we got to sample 2 different ports, a white aperitif and a ruby port, and there was then the chance to visit the  shop, where although it was possible to buy your own Sandemans hat and cape there was a disappointing lack of tacky tourist tat for sale. But one observation. Surely it only makes sense that if you’re going to have some pert young lass conducting guided tours while wearing a long Sandeman’s cape that she shouldn’t actually be wearing anything underneath it? Just an idea… If you don’t fancy doing the whole tour there’s also a small free museum just on the right as you come in through the front door which gives a bit more detail about the company, and its advertising campaigns.

Heading back across the river to Porto proper, if you go across the top of the bridge on your left on the Porto side you’ll find the cathedral, or Sé, while on the right hand side of the bridge is a long section of the 14th century Fernandine wall which has been very well restored and preserved, and next to that is a short funicular railway leading down to the river level. Sadly we never got to ride on it as we couldn’t find the station at the top, and later when we wanted to try riding up it we discovered that the bloody thing closed at 8pm in October.

We actually spent quite a while looking for the Sé because we actually thought it was in a different location, so it came as a bit of a surprise to us when we came off the bridge, saw a big church, and then realised that it was actually the cathedral. The was originally built in the 12th century, bits were added in the 14th century, and the interior was completely done up in the 18th century. At the front of the building there are 2 massive square buttressed towers, with quite a narrow nave between them. Unfortunately while we were there the front of the cathedral was covered in scaffolding, which also meant that the front door was locked so we didn’t get the chance to have a look inside either, but apparently somewhere under that scaffolding was a very decorative rose window and 17th century portal. We did get a better look at the side of it, where we saw an ornate baroque extension (believed to have been designed by our old friend Nicolau Nasoni) decorated with panels of azulejos.

the Cathedral

To the south of the cathedral is the Paco Episcopal (archbishop’s palace) originally built in the 12th century, enlarged in the 16th century, and then almost completely rebuilt in the 18th century by the ubiquitous Nicolau Nasoni. Unfortunately it’s not open to the public.

The Sé and palace are built on a terrace that seems to totally dominate the surrounding city, and it's a very pleasant linger to for a while as there are excellent views down across the Ribeira district and down to the river, and there was a nice cooling breeze when we were up there, which was most welcome to us as after climbing up and across the higher level of the bridge to get here we were both sweating like Garry Glitter on a bouncy castle.

Just below the Sé, and part of the Rebeira district is another church, the 16th century Igreja dos Grilos, originally built by the Jesuits. This one's a bit strange as the facade seems to be twice as tall as the actual building behind it, but it looks very attractive anyway, symmetrical and graceful. Inside it was very cool, so we lingered for a while. The interior walls are mostly plain stone although there's also plenty of decoration like statues, paintings, and a bloody enormous gold-coloured altar that takes up nearly the whole of one wall (I'm assuming it's gold-coloured rather than real gold; if it was real gold I think they'd have kept the door locked).

Spreading out down the side of the hill between the Sé and the Duoro is the Rebeira, a medieval neighbourhood of steep, narrow, cobbled alleys, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site, and the most distinctive part of Porto. Most of the atmosphere from this area comes from the fact that nearly all of the houses are still lived in by local families, or contain small shops serving their needs. As a result none of the houses, some of which are very old, dating back to the14th century, are exactly alike; some have been renovated while others are a bit more dilapidated, most of them are painted in a riot of different colours, and no two are the same size and shape. You'll find washing lines stretched out across the streets (with lots more big pants), and plenty of sunbathing cats. Add to this the locals going about their daily lives; kids playing in the street, old ladies out shopping, or just sitting in their living rooms with the front door open watching everyone else pass by.(I think I can now guess the Portuguese phrase for "Did you see those 2 fat sweaty bastards?"). This is a great place to just spend time wandering around, and luckily, despite the confusing street plan you can't really get lost; just keep heading down hill and you'll eventually hit the river, and if you're too stupid to manage that some kind soul has painted little yellow arrows on the walls showing the way down.

a street in the Ribeira

We ended up visiting the Museu das Alfandegas on a rainy afternoon in a bid to keep dry. It’s housed in an absolutely enormous building, a former customs warehouse, which can be adapted to hold all kind of temporary exhibitions. It also houses 2 permanent exhibits, firstly a transport museum the highlight of which is an impressive collection of beautifully preserved vintage cars. There are a couple dating from the 19th century, as well as well as selection of Model-T Fords, vintage Jaguars, Rolls Royce’s, and other European and American cars. I think this part of the museum also told the history of motoring and the car industry in Portugal, but to be honest I was too busy ogling the cars themselves to pay any attention to that. The other permanent exhibit tells the story of building itself, how it was transformed into a museum, and of the customs service that used to operate here. This was all in Portuguese, but we got the gist of most of it. Basically, if you were a customs agent in early 20th century Porto you got a while uniform, a sword and a rifle, but in return you had to grow a big, preferably pointy, moustache. I think that it must have been in this very building that somebody came up with the idea of the Village People. The museum is on the riverfront at Rua Nova de Alfandega, to the west of the city centre.

On our way back from the museum we passed through the Praca do Infante Dom Henrique. In the middle of this square you’ll find a dramatic 19th century statue of the eponymous Dom Henrique, better known as Henry the Navigator, who was born in Porto in 1394. Actually, Henry himself looks a little bit thin and weedy, not helped by his effeminate “pointing-out-to-sea” pose, but the horses and stuff around the base of the statue are dramatic.

The Praca is surrounded by some interesting buildings. To the north is the iron-roofed Mercado Ferreira Borges, previously the fruit market it is now used to house exhibitions and events. On the west side of the Praca is the massive neo-classical Palacio de Bolsa, Porto’s former stock exchange. Apparently it’s even grander on the inside, most of which you can only see on a guided tour. Just below the Palacio de Bolsa is the Igreja de Sao Francisco, built in the 14th century its exterior still retains most of its original Gothic appearance, making it one of the few really old-looking buildings in Porto. In the 18th century the interior of the church was thoroughly renovated in the baroque style of the time, a sort of 300 year old version of “Changing Rooms”, with just about every available surface being covered in intricately carved gilded and painted wood. There’s also a 13 century statue of St Francis, a survivor from an older church originally on this site, and the tombs and chapels of several prominent Porto families of the 15th and 16 centuries. On the south side of the Praca is a church much more typical of Porto, the tile-covered Igreja de Sao Nicolau, rebuilt in the 1750s after a fire burned down the original medieval church. Funnily enough the Palacio de Bolsa is built on the site of cloisters that used to be attached to the Igrejia de Sao Francisco, until they also burned down (albeit around 90 years later). Coincidence or insurance job? You decide.

Porto owes its existence and development to the river, and today it's possible to go sailing on the Duoro. There are some offices along the river front in Vila Nova de Gaia where you can book longer cruises, such as all day trips up the Duoro. But if you fancy something a bit shorter there are plenty of boats sailing from the Cais de Ribeira. We went with Porto Cruz, mainly because their boat was sailing in half an hour's time which gave us time for a quick beer first. Our voyage was described as a "6 bridges cruise", but I only counted 5 of them. Perhaps they counted the Dom Luis bridge twice, unless they were including the remains of the Ponte Pensil? We started off by going up-river and under the Dom Luis I bridge, then the modern concrete Ponte Infante Henrique (Henry the Navigator again), which apparently the longest span of any bridge of its type (Maillart arch, for any engineering/bridge enthusiasts who happen to be reading), then up to the Ponte Maria Pia, a railway bridge that was designed by a certain Mr Eiffel who apparently later went on to design some kind of big metal pole somewhere in France, and finally just a bit further upstream its recent replacement the Ponte de Sao Joao.

the Ponte Maria Pia

We then swung round and headed down-river, back under the Dom Luis again and through the city until we passed under the 1960s Ponte de Arrabida (also a record-breaker when it was built). At which point we were heading towards the river estuary and only a couple of miles from the open sea. We then turned around again and headed back up to the city. See, I only make that 5 bridges. Even with the possible short-changing over the number of bridges the cruise was fun, and a great way to see the city. It lasted for about 50 minutes, cost us 10 euros each, and the boat even had a small on-board bar (bottled beer only, Super Bock at 2 euros a bottle), although I noted that our party of 3 were the only ones to make use of the bar on our voyage. Why does that not surprise me?