Travel: From cliff tops to port caves – Day 2

Full set of photos

After a relatively lazy start to my day, I headed off in search of Porto’s famed Majestic Café. Opened in 1921, it is a pretty little spot living in the splendour of the Belle Epoque era, with marble table tops, gorgeously engraved leather banquettes and liveried waiters. I ordered their “Majestic” French toast  along with a pastel de nata and a hot chocolate, and happily people-watched while I ate my tasty treats. I didn’t mind that most were other tourists because the interiors were pretty enough to keep me occupied (and the goings-on of other tourists is always fascinating). After I’d had myself a lovely brunch, I made my way up Rua de Santa Catarina, a largely pedestrianized shopping street lined with a mixture of moderately-priced international brands and what looked like local shops. I did pop into Massimo Dutti, a Spanish clothing company I just love that I discovered when in Hong Kong (we don’t have a brick-and-mortar store in Chicago), but ultimately my credit card made it out unscathed.

Majestic Café
Majestic Café

I continued up the street to the striking Cappella das Almos, clad almost entirely in azulejos. It was definitely the most abundant use of exterior tile work I’d seen thus far. I wandered my way down to check out the nearby market (Mercado do Bolhaõ), thinking I might pick up some cheese or other tasty treats for the road. Ultimately, it was a little underwhelming, as there weren’t a huge selection of stalls and felt a little run down. I made my way back past the train station and up a rather arduous hill (did you know that Portugal was hilly?) to check out another azulejos-clad church (Church of Saint Ildefonso). I had originally planned to go back past my apartment to climb to the top of a church tower to get a view of the city, but I was in full wander mode and ended up discovering, somewhat by happenstance, the entrance to the upper deck of Ponte Luís I to cross the river as well as Sé do Porto (Porto Cathedral).

Church of Saint Ildefonso
Church of Saint Ildefonso

Sé is such an imposing, fortress-like building (I had originally thought it was some kind of fortified castle). It’s actually a little foreboding from certain angles. It was also high enough to afford some pretty darn lovely views of the city–all my hill-climbing had paid off I suppose–so I nixed my plan to climb a church tower and happily admired the view I’d found. The interior of the cathedral reminded me a lot of York Minster, with these massive, tree trunk-like pillars soaring upwards. The cathedral dates back to the 13th century but was worked on until 1737. The chapels were fabulously ornate, with a combination of marble and gilded-wood carvings, which seems a popular choice here. The Gothic cloisters were probably my favourite, as they were lined with azulejos, giving them a distinctly Portuguese flair. I spent a fair time wandering my way through the various rooms, gaping up at ceilings and admiring the often elaborate fixtures. The sun had also come out at this point, which instantly elevated my mood, and I found myself walking around with a smile on my face (because sunshine!).

azulejos depicting life of Virgin Mary and Ovid's Metamorphoses
azulejos depicting life of Virgin Mary and Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Since the entrance to Ponte Luís I was literally around the corner from Sé, I figured I should just commit to making the trek across the bridge. It had turned out to be a brilliantly beautiful sunny day, if not rather windy atop the upper deck, which was thankfully only open to pedestrians and trams. I did realize that I probably have a mild phobia of heights, not enough to prevent me from actually going up high things, but definitely enough to give me this bizarre sensation in my legs when I approach the edge (I’ve noticed this before when I’ve gone up high church towers). The wind didn’t help my sense of stability, so I made my way across rather carefully. I did enjoy the spectacular views back of Porto, with the town draped so elegantly on all those hills I’d been climbing.

a view of Ponte Luís I and Porto
a view of Ponte Luís I and Porto

I eventually made it across and thought it might be fun to ride the urban gondola, which essentially takes you from the high hilltop that connects with the bridge to the other end of the waterfront. I’d noticed them buzzing across the skyline when looking over from the Porto side. It was a short ride, but it did provide a lovely view of Porto. Vila Nova de Gaia, which is the town across the river from Porto, is home to the famed Port wine cellars (known as ‘caves’ here). I figured I’d go to one of the wineries and have myself a tour. I’m not really a Port drinker, but when in Rome right (or Porto in this case)? I’d heard that Taylor’s was a good tour, so I hiked up the hill in search of it. However, after much upward trekking, I couldn’t seem to find it. Hot and sweaty, I ultimately gave up and went down to another winery that I’d passed on the way up, Cockburn’s (pronounced “Coburn’s” before anyone gets too amused).

riding the gondola in Vila Nova de Gaia
riding the gondola in Vila Nova de Gaia

Unfortunately, their English tour wasn’t for another hour and a half, so I amused myself with their free wifi for a time (I love the wonder of technology these days that allows me to make a free voice call via FaceTime to David halfway around the world!). I still had another hour or so to kill, so I took a walk around the area, as I didn’t really want to trek back down the hill again. I stumbled across a random park just around the corner (Parque da Quintas das Devesas) that looked to be almost completely deserted. While the grounds looked to be kept up, there were some beautifully dilapidated old buildings on the grounds–something so elegant about their crumbling state, nobly sitting there marking the slow passage of time. The park itself was peaceful and pleasant, though out of season, as there were many beds of rose bushes that were no longer in bloom. I amused myself by playing with my camera timer and doing an impromptu outfit shoot in the park, since there was no one around (check out the results of my efforts here). All the camera balancing on my purse/wallet and running around within 10-second time limits did serve to pass the time. It also made me appreciate even more having my fabulous husband photographer do that work for me normally (it is truly much more cumbersome without a tripod and a remote to do it oneself).

dilapidated house set in Parque da Quinta das Devesas
dilapidated house set in Parque da Quinta das Devesas

It was soon time for my Port wine tour at Cockburn’s. We were taken around by Gabriel, our animated tour guide, who explained the differences between ruby and tawny ports and showed us the different barrels and vats that they’re aged in. We talked about the (brief) fermentation process and the differences between regular Port and “vintages”. The tour finished up with, of course, a wine tasting. I’d paid a little bit extra to try three (rather than just two) different Port wines. It was definitely the most Port I had ever consumed in one sitting, and I was left pleasantly warm from my efforts. I actually quite enjoyed them, particularly the ruby ports, and ended up buying a bottle of Quinta dos Canais Vintage Port (2007) to take home with me. A slightly pricier option than their regular Port wines, but we often take home a nice liquor (think Scotch or gin) when traveling, and there is nothing more quintessential to get from Porto than Port.

tasting delicious ports at Cockburn's Port lodge
tasting delicious ports at Cockburn’s Port lodge

I ambled my way back down to the waterfront to take in the Porto view, bathed in a ruddy sunset glow. It was a breezy walk down the esplanade, watching the boats come and go and some adventurous boys diving off the lower deck of the bridge into the Douro River. I made my walk across the lower deck (which is open to traffic) along the rather narrow pedestrian walkway. As it had been a fairly long day, I didn’t really feel like going around to different restaurants and reading their menus to try and find dinner, so I beelined back to a restaurant I’d passed by on the first day, nearer to my apartment, called Traça. I grabbed a seat on the outdoor patio and enjoyed the sounds of a clarinetist jazzing it up in the nearby square. I ordered myself a green wine (vinho verde), which is their “sparkling” wine, though it wasn’t terribly effervescent (tasty though!). I started with some delicious croquettes filled with prosciutto and eventually had a main of boar loin stuffed with foie gras and goat cheese. I was being adventurous (for David’s sake) by having boar. I imagine my adventurousness was spurred on only slightly by the promise of foie gras and cheese.  I say eventually had my main, as the only thing that really marred the meal was the exceptionally slow and somewhat absent-minded service (forgetting my drink, taking ages for food/the check). I’m a fairly patient person when it comes to service, but even I was eventually craning my head around to try and spot my server. Normally, such things don’t bother me as one usually has a dining companion, but when traveling alone, you are very much aware of the passage of time (I made it through many games of solitaire on my phone, needless to say). Nevertheless, the food was tasty, and one must focus on the positive! I’m dining on a patio in southern Europe for goodness sake. There really isn’t much to complain about in the end.

ready for dinner at Traça
ready for dinner at Traça

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>