We are disembarking our cruise ship today in Lisbon. We were here in May at the conclusion of our transatlantic cruise. We stayed on for a few days then and even took some day trips out of the city. The one place we had really wanted to visit was Porto, aka Oporto. It was far enough away and had enough to see, that we needed more than a day trip out of Lisbon.
Since we found ourselves in Portugal again, we decided to extend our trip through a long weekend to enjoy the city of Porto and the nearby Douro Valley where the grapes of the city’s most famous product are grown and in some cases produced. We are taking the train to Porto. Porto is the second largest city in Portugal, following Lisbon in size. It sits on a estuary of the Douro River.
After disembarking the ship, we took a cab to the train station. The driver said that all city destinations leaving from the cruise terminal were a fixed price of 35 euros. Outrageous, but Boris just wanted to go. I had researched the trains and knew the direct and fastest trains to Porto left from the Lisboa Oriente Station. You enter on the bottom level of the station where services are available. Go up one level for the ticket booths.
Unfortunately nothing is sign posted at this station in English. We figured most of it out. There are ticket booths at each corner of the upper level, but they service different trains. The booths are not necessarily on the side you think they are. We walked right past the right one on the first go around. Luckily one of the station workers offered help and spoke English.
The direct trains from Lisbon take about 2 hours/35 minutes to 3 hours (depending on the departure time you choose) to reach Porto. We were on one of the high-speed trains called Alpha Pendular that go directly to Porto’s main railway station. The current cost is 28 euros ($31 US) for second class and 42 euros ($47 US) for first class. The ticket agent spoke English and they take credit cards. There were two young men with passes who were having a difficult time getting tickets to Paris. They were there before we arrived and after we left the booth 20 minutes later. The line had really grown and they finally got another agent to sell tickets. It moved swiftly for all the other passengers. Make sure you go to the booth for international and longer routes.
Boris decided we needed first class tickets, so we could sit together. We would have been separated in second class. I didn’t complain. We had a coach with fewer, wider seats; electrical outlets (European plug); a drink cart that comes to your seat; free newspapers and headphones; and a nice, clean bathroom. Usually you don’t need to reserve early, especially on a Thursday. I guess we are still in the season in Europe and Porto has become much more popular. So for this route, I recommend pre-booking; the prices quoted on-line were the same as at the station.
It was a scenic ride. We arrived into Porto’s main railway station, the Campanha Train Station, passing over one of the city’s six main bridges. I didn’t know to be ready, but I recommend getting out your camera about 30 minutes before your arrival into the city. After the long tunnel, look to the seaside and you will see a wonderful and very long wooden boardwalk and the beach; it was lovely. Just before our arrival at the station you pass over the Douro River and have wonderful views of the city riverfront. That is where we were headed.
It was a short cab ride to the Gran Cruz House. The road down to the riverfront was blocked. After our cab driver hit the speaker button one of those pylons was lowered so we could drive right down to the hotel. They will let cabs through, but not UBERs. We unloaded and paid a very reasonable fee for the ride. It was a little tough to find the main entrance to the hotel and the staff was at lunch but they came right down when we called. The entrance is on the side of the building by the sidewalk cafe’s drink station. We were greeted with our choice of one of four of the Cruz ports.
We were shown up to our gorgeous room overlooking the river. We were so glad it was ready even though we arrived before check-in time. The desk manager was great about helping us with restaurants, scheduling a tour to the Douro Valley for the next day, early breakfast arrangements given the time of our tour departure, and even reservations for some of the most popular Port Wine Cellars across the river.
We rested for a while and then went out for lunch nearby. The restaurants along the waterfront are not particularly good, mostly just tourists traps. Our concierge said he knew of one exception just up the street, Taberna dos Mercadores. It was very small; it only had 8 tables for 2 persons each (although they will push tables together to accommodate a group of 3 or 4). The restaurant was full and there was a group of three already waiting. We decided it was worth it; we only waited about 15 minutes and enjoyed watching the dog that had accompanied the couple with the open window seat table. Taberna dos Mercadores does not take same-day reservations.
The food was fabulous. I had the traditional salt-crusted cod. It was brought to the table whole and flaming. The server deboned it table side. It came with a side of potatoes and vegetables. Boris had steak and side dish of traditionally spiced rice which he also thought was wonderful. We enjoyed lunch with some of the local wines and sparkling water. The bread was also very good.
Boris loves his desserts while on vacation so he opted for chocolate and I went with the coconut. Of course we had to try some port as well. I think the servers were a little frustrated with Boris regarding getting a table when we first arrived, but by the end they loved us since it was obvious how much we appreciated the food. Leaving a tip probably didn’t hurt either. Taberna dos Mercadores is a definite keeper and worth the wait for a table.
After lunch we headed uphill to the see some of the special sights near the hotel. We are staying in the medieval Ribeira (riverside) district with narrow cobbled streets. It was an extremely hot day, so we really didn’t want to sit atop a hop on/hop off bus and fry. That bus had been the original plan for the afternoon. After our touring on-foot, we looked into one of the tuk-tuk tours in English, but they were full for the rest of the day.
We passed the city’s historic square, Jardin do Infante Dom Henrique and the Palacio da Bolsa, the 19th century building that was the city’s commercial center. It was once part of the 13th century St. Francis Convent. Dominating the Jardin do Infante Dom Henrique is the statute of Prince Henry the Navigator. The statute was dedicated in 1900 to celebrate the five centuries since the birth of the “main figure of Portuguese discoveries.”
Next to the Palacio da Bolsa (formerly the St. Francis convent) is the beautiful Franciscan church and monastery, São Francisco. Secular and other religious groups did not accept the Franciscans and life for them in 13th century Portugal was very difficult. According to the Church’s guide book, “it was in Oporto that they suffered most.” However, the friars’ devotion and generosity appealed to the people and a follower donated the land where the Gothic Style church sits. Construction began in 1245, but was not completed until 1410. The architecture in this part of Portugal was mostly Romanesque at the time and the Gothic style church was a novelty. The church itself “is known for its lavish baroque interior with ornate gilded carvings.”
You can tour the monastery and the church, but photographs are only permitted in the monastery. The monastery chapel and the rooms were very opulent (although nothing compared to the church we would tour after). For me, the most interesting part was the friars’ graveyard on the lower level underneath the friars’ private church. I made this part of the visit alone. Boris once got lost in the catacombs in Rome and now refuses to go into tombs.
After touring the museum, we went into the St. Francis church. No photographs, but what a sight! The church is covered with carved wood that has been gilded. The effect is overwhelming. Each of the side chapels, tombs, and altars are detailed and quite impressive. Definitely worth a visit on your trip to the Ribeira district of the city.
We walked down along the tram line that stops just outside the church. After we had no luck with securing a tuk-tuk tour, we decided we would try the boat tour of the bridges along the Douro River and the sights along the Ribeira district. No luck at the booking agents by the square; the openings all conflicted with our dinner reservations. We headed down to the waterfront where we had better luck.
Next to its connection to the production and distribution of the fortified wine known as port, Porto is perhaps best known for the “stately” bridges that cross the River Douro. The short river cruises focus on these bridges. There are multiple companies that offer the tours continuously on the whole and half hour most of the day. There are also full day tours to the Douro Valley that depart from the riverfront right in front of our hotel.
We chose one of the 50 minute tours; the cost was 15 euros/person. The most famous bridge is the Dom Luis I Bridge that we can see from the window of our hotel. It crosses from Porto to the city of Vila Nova de Gaia, the residential community with a commercial waterfront dominated by the port wine cellars. The bridge has two levels. We walked on foot across the lower level. There is also vehicular traffic on this level. The upper level serves the city’s metro. The bridge was constructed in 1886 by a disciple of Gustave Eiffel.
Gustave Eiffel himself designed the city’s oldest bridge. Raised in 1877, the Maria Pia Bridge was named for the then queen of Portugal. Also known as Dona Maria, the bridge was a railway bridge. Although out of service since 1991, the bridge is a popular tourist attraction and remains in place. It’s replacement, São João, was built between 1984 and 1991. It sits nearby and is the one we crossed over into the city.
Farther down the Douro is the concrete Arrabida bridge that opened in 1963. At the time of its opening, it was the concrete bridge with the longest arch in the world. Although it is “[c]onsidered by some the least attractive of all the bridges in Porto”, the Arrabida bride was one of my favorites with its interesting design on the underside.
All along the way, we saw wonderful sites of the city and the buildings that line the river’s edge. It was a hot ride, even in the evening, but I had some favorites along the waters edge. There was a beautiful white-washed church from with amazing title work (so traditional for Portugal) along the water’s edge. The Monastery of Serra do Pilar was at the top of the hill at the Gaia side of the river. The station for the sky ride that climbs along the Gaia side of the edge of the River Douro is just below the Monastery. The Jardim do Morro offers an amazing lookout point citizens and tourists go to for a striking view of Porto and a fabulous sunset.
We noted the young boys who liked to jump off pilars along the river. It looked dangerous, but at the same time I envied their chance to cool off in the Douro. It is also not usual to see young boys jumping off the Dom Luis I Bridge to the cheers of the tourists and in the hope for a “tip”. I did see one boy on the edge of the bridge holding on with one hand and egging on the crowds. I did not see him jump, but when we walked by later he was sitting on the side, soaking wet. I missed the good part, but was glad he was ok.
After a full day, we headed back along the waterfront to our hotel for a break and to change before dinner. A shower never felt so good. We were eating in the wonderful hotel restaurant, Casario, on the second story balcony overlooking the Douro waterfront. From our hotel room we could see the buskers on the water’s edge. Every 30 or 45 minutes the entertainment changed. We only had to open the shutters (and even the window for more volume) in our room to enjoy the show.
Dinner at Casario at the Gran Cruz House was wonderful. We enjoyed three courses, and port of course. We lost the light, but the entertainment and excitement on the boardwalk was maintained. The flame juggler was my personal favorite.
We have just seen a little, but Porto is everything we hoped for. Tomorrow we are off to the Douro Valley to see the special region of Portugal where the grapes for the fortified wine are grown. Great start to our visit to this special region of Portugal.