When arriving at Porto Airport you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve arrived at some tourist mecca with streets paved in gold, or at least marble and granite; acres and acres of it. Porto must have one of the Europe’s most impressive airports, with its slick design and all the granite, it points to massive overspend for a city of 1.1 million people. Not that I’m complaining, or that it should be a reason to put anyone off, it was bliss arriving there, after all it has been voted the world’s 10th best airport – which isn’t bad going for such a relatively small city.
Equally impressive is the Metro system, just 50 metres walk from the arrivals hall, which takes just 30 minutes to get into town. It does everything a metro system is supposed to do with no frills and with clean, spacious carriages. My eventual return to London provided a stark exposure of the failings of the Underground.
Travelling to Porto in the winter months will always carry a risk that you’ll encounter rain at some stage during your stay. This was certainly true of our visit during the valentine’s weekend, it was heaving down as we arrived, but as my luck with the weather continues, the sky was clear the following morning. A thick sea mist so nearly spoilt the party, but it cleared at midday to expose Porto at its most beautiful, in the fresh sunshine of a glorious spring day.
We were staying at the Tiara Park Atlantic Hotel, a five star establishment situated close to the Casa Da Musica, or the city’s main concert hall and on the Avenida da Boavista. The Casa da Musica Metro Station was about 400 metres from the hotel so easily walkable. As a predominantly business standard hotel, with its city location and its conference rooms, it’s mostly empty during the week. This all adds up to great value for money for the leisure traveller, and to get five star luxury at the comparable price of a three star in many cities was a real win as far as we were concerned. We were particularly pleased to be handed a glass of port each at the reception, how appropriate is that?!
We were given a room on the 14th floor, providing a panoramic view of the area and down to the old city about a mile away. It was even more impressive given the dramatic weather we received during our stay, the room just seemed even more comfortable when the wind and the rain was lashing against the window. The bed was pristine, perfectly laid out and totally comfortable. In all you had everything you could reasonably expect from a five star hotel, but most importantly for me at least, it was really quiet up there with just a distant sound of a barking dog audible in the evening.
As Saturday morning broke we could see that it was going to be a sunny day, but also on the horizon was a belt of sea mist which within an hour plunged the whole city into a dark greyness, thoroughly unhelpful to my video-making intentions. The upshot was that once I got down to the Ponte Luis 1, the central attraction of the old city, I could take ethereal shots of the metro disappearing into the murk and coming out at the other side. In fact the mist was so thick I couldn’t even see the Rio Douro down below. Impressive as the fog can be for photography, I was begging the sun to burn through to expose what I had travelled to see – the medieval city protected by UNESCO and the river meandering through it.
My prayers were answered by about midday, and I wasn’t disappointed at the result. Porto is truly a city with beautiful vistas and a totally calm atmosphere. It’s difficult to think of a city with such a laid back, chilled out feeling to it, perhaps it was because it was the weekend, but to get a seat at one of the waterfront cafes and restaurants is surely one of the best ways to wind down from a busy week.
Having discovered Porto, it’s hard to see why this historical city has been so overlooked by British visitors. Many of the voices I heard as I was walking along the waterfront were European, in fact mostly Portugese, very smart and affluent looking ones at that. I got the impression that this was the place that Portugese Yuppydom went for a Valentine’s weekend. The only reason I can think of is that the city of Porto seems decidedly down at heel, a city which needs a good lick of paint and tender loving care. It is known as mostly an industrial city, but it looks much less well-off than Lisbon. Take a look down when you walk along the end of Luis I bridge and you will see a neighbourhood quite obviously living in some poverty.
The world’s oldest military alliance, the Treaty of Windsor was signed here in 1387, signed by John of Gaunt when his daughter married John I of Portugal. The Duke of Wellington booted Napoleon out of Porto in 1809, only for the English to be expelled in 1820. Before all that Porto’s history goes back to Roman times and was also dominated by the moors for two centuries.
Porto was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996, for the old city area surrounded by the Romanesque walls. The main architectural sights are the Oporto Cathedral, the oldest surviving structure in the city, while the Palacio da Bolsa attracts lots of interest. All sights are within short walking distance of each other, and with Porto being such a hilly place that’s just as well.