Porto and Lagos: Rock the Boat

We finished our last night in Lisbon by visiting some Fado clubs.  Fado means “fate” and is a style of music unique to Portugal.  Fado is often described as the Portuguese version of the blues – it is sad and soulful and tragic, which actually sums up pretty nicely how we were both feeling after our night of Fado club-hopping.  Our train ride to Porto the next morning was just horrendous.  We both thought that we’d be able to sleep off the night before during the trip, only to discover that we had been seated in the only seats in the carriage that faced backwards (sitting backwards in any vehicle makes me want to vomit almost immediately) and faced two passengers sitting opposite (envisage a little 4 person booth).  The elderly man facing me obviously hadn’t got the memo that it’s creepy and weird to watch other people sleeping, and I could feel him watching me every time I tried to drift off.  After about half an hour we admitted defeat and slunk off to the bar cart (not ideal given our state) and promptly curled up in the fetal position and fell asleep with our heads on one of the dining tables.

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As you can imagine, our first night in Porto was pretty uneventful.  We went for a bit of a wander, but were really just killing time until it was acceptable to go to bed.  Campbell did manage to tick one thing off the itinerary by indulging in a Franceschina for dinner.  A Franceschina is a Porto speciality and is effectively the mother of all sandwiches.  You start off with a regular sandwich filled with ham, a piece of steak and chopped up sausages.  That sandwich is then encased in cheese and grilled, before having a spicy sauce of beer and tomatoes poured over the top of it.  In case that wasn’t enough, it’s served up with fries.  Legend has it that the Franceschina was developed by a Portuguese man who, upon returning home from a lengthy stay in Paris, was dismayed at how conservative the ladies of Portugal were.  Playing on the traditional French Croque Monsieur, he set about developing a spicy sandwich that would get the girls hot under the collar, reaching for a refreshing beer, and subsequently getting their kit off.

Porto is the second largest city in Portugal.  It is situated along the banks of the Douro River and is incredibly picturesque.  Its primary claim to fame is that it is part of the exclusive and legally demarcated zone for producing Porto wines.  It’s also getting good mileage out of the fact that JK Rowling lived here for some of the time she was penning the Harry Potter books (the Hogwarts school uniform is modelled on the one worn by Porto University students).  Porto has the same type of shabby chic feel that Lisbon has with the additional edge of being a student city.  Current estimates are that 20% of all buildings in Porto are abandoned – due in large part to the inability of the Port wine industry to sustain an entire city, and also the impact of historic rent control measures, which have resulted in landlords earning such poor rents that they are unable to maintain their properties.  There is quite an eerie feel to the place as a result.

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We learnt all of this during the walking tour we did on our second day.  Our tour took us through the commercial centre of Porto and also down into Ribeira, the historic heart of Porto.  We had great views of Porto’s various bridges on the way, and stopped for cake and dessert served by an old lady from her back door (you’ll note there’s a bit of a theme here with old Portuguese women feeding us in back alleys during these walking tours).  We hopped across the bridge from Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia after the tour to wander the shops and have a bit of lunch on the promenade.

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Our final day in Porto was another busy one.  We decided to hire bikes in the morning to see more of the river and make our way up to Praia de Matosinhos, an urban beach frequented by Porto locals and tourists looking to surf.  It’s not an amazing beach by any stretch of the imagination (it overlooks a container port), but the ride was fun and we got to see a bit more of the city and its surroundings.  We’ve also decided that when there’s an option to combine sight-seeing and exercise that we’ll get into that, rather than parking ourselves on a bus or a train.

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By the time we got back, it was time to hit the showers and get ready for our Port wine tasting at Sandeman Cellar.  It’s pretty much mandatory to do a wine tasting when you’re in Porto and all of the major cellars have tours on offer.  In addition to tasting the wines, you learn about the history of the particular cellar and the process of making the wines.  Neither of us really liked the Port wines, so we avoided any tricky discussions about how much we could carry, how heavy our bags were etc.  We finished the day with a boat trip along the river to see Porto’s 6 iconic bridges.

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On Saturday morning, we left Porto and picked up a rental car to drive to our final stop in Portugal – Lagos in the Algarve region.  The Algarve is a cluster of beautiful towns and villages that run along Portugal’s southern coast.  It is a massive tourist hub, full of resorts and exclusive holiday homes.  Luckily for us, summer in the Algarve doesn’t properly kick off until July/August, so it’s been busy, but not unbearable.  The fact that it is so incredibly beautiful here also means that you’re prepared to put up with a bit to be able to enjoy it yourself.  Our time here has been really relaxing and probably just what the Dr ordered before we head further into Europe.

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The one organised activity of this leg of the trip was a kayaking trip around the coast to see some of Lagos’ famous beaches and sea caves.  It was a lot of fun, albeit we had to have a few “team talks” to get our paddling in sync .  The photo below accurately sums up some of the early “syncing” issues.

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The highlight of the trip was when we had to paddle our kayaks up to the shore of a beach where we were going to spend some time hanging out.  The sea had started to get a bit choppy and it was touch and go whether it was safe for us to paddle ashore.  We were in favour of giving it a crack and persuaded (or maybe rail-roaded) the rest of our group into agreeing.  There was one American girl who was particularly reluctant and was threatening to derail things.  We used all of our Kiwi charm to convince her that things would be fine – “what’s the worst that can happen?”, “you’ll be great”, “just give it a go”, “don’t be an egg”.  What we didn’t equip her for was the reality that we would catch a massive wave into shore, T-bone her kayak, then ride straight over the top of her, banging her on the head and knocking her off the kayak and into the water.  Cue much screaming and hysteria as she flopped about on the shore pretending to drown in an inch of water.

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When it came time to leave the beach the swell was even bigger.  Given we’d orchestrated the trip ashore, we decided we’d have to man up and be the first kayak to attempt to get past the breakers.  We rolled our kayak on our first attempt, but then navigated an enormous wave to make it out of the bay.  Having witnessed us spill out of our kayak, our American friend decided she was not having a bar of it, and channelled all of her American-ness into an epic temper tantrum on the beach.  We couldn’t hear much (I was really trying!), but there were a lot of hands waving around, people storming off, placating boyfriends and other theatrics.  Twenty minutes later our little group was reunited and we began the trip home.

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Today was our last day in Lagos, so we took the rental car for a spin to see some of the other villages in our neck of the woods.  First stop was Sagres – a rugged coastal spot known here as “the end of the world”.  Sagres has huge towering cliff faces and beaches loved by surfers and kite surfers.  It reminded us both of the area around the Twelve Apostles in Australia.  We carried on from there and picked up some souvenirs from a pottery studio and had lunch at Portimao.  Portimao was pretty, but didn’t have nearly as much charm as our little village of Lagos.

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Tonight will be a quiet one as we get ready for our early morning bus trip across into Seville, Spain.  I am beyond excited to get into the tapas action – stretchy pants will also be on the menu.

A&C

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