Thursday, March 24, 2011

Porto Day 4 (23 March) Suffering

Last day, and a walk up to the Sacred Art Museum, actually a church, with a dozen or so wooden statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The ‘suffering’ of Christ is central to Spanish and Portuguese art, and these statues, worked by both sculptors and painters, strove for realism. The statue was an object of devotion and the wounds, with their trickles of blood drove home the sacrificial nature of the crucifixion. Christ is seen being flayed with horrific skin wounds, on the cross with streams of blood flowing from open wounds and in his tomb. No one can doubt the artistry, but it’s a horror show designed to induce fear and subjugation. It’s the art of the Inquisition, where the torture of Christ became a model for the torture of one’s theological enemies.

The Sao Bento station was a surprise, with its vestibule covered in blue and coloured tiles. It really is worth a visit, along with what must be the nicest Macdonalds in the world, inside an Art Deco building with original stained glass and relief structures on the walls. It doesn’t seem like a Macdonald’s at all.

On leaving Porto news came in of the impending collapse of the Portuguese government, as the opposition had refused to ratify Jose Socrates’ minority government budget. This most likely means an election and a bailout by the EU, namely forced austerity measures as in Greece and Ireland. Our departure was perhaps a sign of the problem. A spanking new metro system to the airport at very cheap, obviously subsidised fares, and a huge airport with very few passengers and flights, empty shops, but lots of staff. We went to Egypt three months ago (revolution), Gulf two months ago (mayhem), Syria three weeks ago (crackdown) and now Portugal (economic collapse) – off to Iceland in 10 days, now surely that can’t fall further than it already has.

The Pestano Hotel was a real find. Big rooms on two levels, friendly staff, and a breakfast restaurant overlooking the river. I like Lisbon, but honestly, I like Porto more. It has a more relaxed ambience, fine river, is less touristy, quirky, cheaper, has better wine and food, and port! Obrigado.

Porto Day 3 (22 March): Baroque, peasant food and Foz

First up, St Francisco church, a Gothic structure with a riotous Baroque interior. Almost the entire interior is caked in wild, gold wood carving, chapels, pillars and roof. Each chapel tries to outdo the other with encrusted ornamentation. Gold leaf covered wood may be the result of the Spanish/Protuguese gold-rich S American colonies, and in this case the entire church interior seems gold lined. Baroque tips easily into Rococo here. In fact, the only respite, is the best piece, on the right hand side of the apse, as it’s more constrained. The bloody and lifelike statues of Christ and beheaded monks, takes northern sensibilities by surprise, but the death of Christ is important in these parts and realism is all. The crypt contains wall space for burials and an ossuary lies below the floor, which you glimpse through windows beneath your feet. Cemeteries were only legislated for use in the second half of the 19th century. Before that everyone was buried within or under churches. This naturally led to storage and health problems. This is one of the real sights of Porto.

The centre’s a lively residential area and not too slick (which I like), with lots of tiny cafes and an inordinate number of Pastilerias – how many cakes and biscuits can the people of Porto eat? But the streets are walkable with lots of interesting shops (I say that even although my interest in shopping is marginal.)

Lunch at a Chouzziro (the ‘Central’) at the top of Rua de Fabrica, a peasant, fast food joint with authentic home-made soup, sardines, whiting, chicken, pork and so on, with good wine and beer at rock bottom prices. (There’s the ‘Moura’ round the corner with more delicacies such as pig’s ear.) A gravy boat of chilli oil and a brush is available if you like your food picante. You get your fill of food, wine and expresso for under a tenner a head. Everyone seemed to be drinking the Adego de Molerna (half bottle four euros). And you’ve got to be impressed by a proprietor who’s a little bit grumpy then jokey, and a chef that drinks lots of red wine while cooking your lunch!

Off to Foz, at the mouth of the Douro, a couple of kilometres to the west, for the afternoon and it was gloriously sunny. Promenaded along the promenade, out to the lighthouse past the fishermen (never ever see fisherman catch fish), whereas the skuas were dive bombing the fish and catching them with ease, attracted by the boundary between the river water and sea. A walk around the fort that guards the Duoro river mouth and back on the No 1 tram. As you can see, I’ve become a tram addict.

We knew our final meal would be a long one as the restaurant was filled with one large party of Potuguese, who were clearly up for a party (on a Tuesday), as there was live music. We settled down for the long haul with some wine and finished the bottle before the main courses arrived. The singer/guitarist was excellent and one man did a guest spot, to full applause from the entire restaurant. Our second bottle saw us through the marathon meal. Huge fun.

Porto Day 2 (21st March): Tripe, lamb and a seven course meal

A sunny morning and up the steps to the Cathedral, which is a uneasy mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque. The doorway alone is an architectural crime and looks as though it’s been put together from an architectural salvage yard and the towers are topped by flattened meringue domes that do them no favour. The exterior is saved, however, by a tiled cloister on the south and tiled outside wall on the north. This blue tile technique on the outside of churches seems common in Porto and quite striking, especially against the grey granite. The cloister is firmly gothic and worth a stroll. It’s a great city for a stroll, and stroll we did, past several of these blue tiled churches, mostly closed, and into the huge fresh produce market.

Then up to Lelo’s the world’s loveliest bookshop. It has this grand double curved staircase that turns back on itself all inside in the tiny hall of a shop, as well as rails for a book train trolley. We then caught the 22 tram back down the hill and a funicular that literally falls off a cliff down to the river.

Lunch was a huge pan of tripe with haricot beans, chorizo and ham for Gil and six lamb chops for my good self, washed down with a mug of well-deserved Segres beer. Then off to Gaia for a Port wine tour at Taylors. A sweet smelling walk through cool warehouses of giant barrels of the fortified wine, followed by a couple of free glasses of port, (one white and one red) before staggering down the hill. Walked out, so we took a three-tram looped ride through the city and watched the world go by. I love these old trams, and became a real fan of them in Lisbon. It’s the sounds (bells, grinding, and rattling), jerky movements and slow speed that I like. Cooled through an open window you just sit back and literally watch the world go by.

Back to the hotel to watch Tripoli being bombed. Although we shouldn’t be so high and mighty about democracy, as it wasn’t that long ago that southern Europe was ruled by dictators in Spain, Portugal and Greece. No accident, perhaps that they remain fiscally unstable, despite huge subsidies from the EU. Portugal’s in some trouble with debt and there’s obvious signs of homelessness and unemployment. I had some insight into this phenomenon four years ago on a trip to Spain to monitor the ‘entrepreneurial’ progress in Seville. It was clear what was happening. The large infrastructure projects had led to a boom in construction, but not in sustainable business. A hangover from the days of dictatorship was the funnelling of educated graduates into public institutions, through degrees in ‘Public Administration’. Almost everyone we met over a period of constant meetings over a week, had such a degree and the young people we met socially all wanted this degree, as it meant a great salary, pension and holidays. We struggled to find and ‘entrepreneur’. Without reforming the educational system and government incentives, these countries, I fear, may continue to struggle.

After giving our digestive systems a rest, we were off to O Commercial, a rather posh restaurant in a Palace, no less. Decided to go for broke with the six course taster menu, here goes; veal carpaccio (see through) with parmesan and rocket, mushroom soup with mushrooms on toast, boar, black-pudding and apple dumpling with sausage roll topped with a quail’s egg, basil ice-cream with port, pear and vodka (refresher), confit of duck with spinach mash and lemon ice cream with chestnuts. A meat-heavy meal, so a rich red was recommended, which turned out to be the black pudding of wines, as black as night, aromatic and almost chewable. Felt like royalty as we were the last to leave through the Palace corridors and out through the main entrance. A traveller marches on his and her stomach!

Porto Day 1 (20 March): Bridges, rabbits and vinho verde

We left our front door at 10 am and were drinking white port and in Porto by 2 pm. Not often you get a welcome port and tonic as a welcome drink in a hotel (see left)! This is a place that feels more like a town than a city, and the Pestano Hotel is in exactly the right place, in a UNESCO protected site, on the river looking across to the port wine district at the foot of the huge arch of the Eiffel built bridge.

Ventured out to walk along the river, which flows at a fair speed as it’s an eroded a gorge through the rock, so that Porto is a warren of very steep streets and alleyways. A walk across the lower level of the Eiffel bridge takes you into the Gaia area, which is packed with port warehouses, then up through the alleyways to the monastery (now barracks) at the top of the hill to watch the sunset. As darkness fell we walked back to the north side across the upper level of the bridge and through the Cathedral grounds to zig-zag down lots of steep steps back to the Pestano. Lots of high single arch bridges traverse the gorge –it’s like a Newcastle but with a café culture and sun. Looking back across the river at night you see the Port house signs lit up; Kopke, Calem, Sandeman’s, Offley, Croft, Ferriara, Ramos and Cockburns.

Our first meal was in Chez Lapin. Gil was far from disturbed by the real caged rabbits at the door, and ordered, you’ve guessed it – rabbit. She ordered Porto’s famous ‘tripos’ (tripe) dish for lunch the next day, (liver’s her favourite dish) so is clearly a fearless diner. She only flinched once in Porto, at fried gizzard. Chez Lapin was a cosy place by the riverside and the Vino Verde was badly needed after our marathon walk. My fish soup, beef in a Porto sauce and triple dessert were all superb. First impressions of Porto – impressed.