The Port Run – Festival, Freeloading and Frazzling

 To visit the first post for The Port Run click here.

The next to last night in Porto was their big annual festival  – celebrating the city’s patron saint, St John.  It seemed that the main idea was to go round the city doing one of two things; either stick a huge garlic flower up your neighbours nose or hit people over the head with a plastic hammer.

Hammer for St John's Festival

Hammer for St John’s Festival

And they say Morris dancing is strange.  The significance of the irritation is to try to expel the devil from your body; and seemingly fill it with beer and sardines.

I acquired my hammer from a local shop in Gaia and we followed a whole bunch of people down the main street to watch the traditional firework display over the river.  Whether it was the coolness of the night, the effects of the river, or the smoke from a million sardine barbeques, the fog which descended over the gorge came in to about 100 ft. We could just make out the ghostly outline of the bridge crossing the Douro by its lights, the occasional bus inching across in front of the crowds.  All down the street in Gaia we had seen thousands of people trooping down the hill, many of them linking arms, so huge human chains would block the entire road. Occasionally a chain would run down at breakneck speed, sometimes losing a link here or there who would spin off into the crowd.  But the atmosphere was generally peaceful.

 We worked out after staring at this fog for an hour that the fireworks must have been cancelled, and we split into smaller groups to enjoy the parties.  We headed off into the old town, down many steps into the little courtyards,  The place which had looked so dingy now was lit up with fairy lights and festooned with garlands.  The activity was amazing, barbeques were all over the place, and there were bands, both ancient and modern, playing music, and people dancing, showing garlic up your nose or hitting you over the head with a lightweight mallet.

 We drank and drank, we ate hamburgers and sardines, we danced and chatted and soaked up the atmosphere.  At about two in  the morning we headed back up the hill to the relative calm of our dormitories back in the school.

 After the festival we got up late and our last day in Porto was free.  I was heavily hung over and it had been about three in the morning when we finally got to bed.  Most people had decided to go to the beach.  I finally stirred very late and decided to go down to the station to catch up with the others.  I had better go back a little to explain my actions.  Including our Portuguese speaking tutor, Jim, we had all turned up at Villa Nova de Gaia station a few days before to catch a train to Espinho, about ten miles down the coast.  He took a long time at the ticket office explaining how many he wanted, and the train had already arrived in the station before he completed the transaction.  Some of the girls shouted at him to hurry up; he replied – stand in the doorway , they cannot go.  But the doors were automatic and when they started to slam shut, none of us wanted to get squashed.  About six of us ended up on the train with no tickets and the others were left watching us.  But we managed to explain what had happened to the ticket collector and he let us buy tickets on the train.

 Now on this day, the train was again pulling in to the station as I arrived, so I naturally assumed that I could buy tickets as we went along.  So I got on the train with the rest of the guys who had already bought tickets and off we went.  Two stops along, the ticket inspector came into our carriage.  I had borrowed Alison’s Berlitz guide (much better than mine) and already had my phrase ready “Uno retournez et douz a Espinho” or something like that.  When I said it to him, he grunted, and held out his hand.  I started to explain, first in terrible Portuguese then in even worse English that I did not buy my ticket.  He waffled something at me I didn’t understand.  I tried again, again he waffled back.  Then we stopped at a station, the doors opened and he pointed outside.  I understood that, and with his heavy hand guiding me through the doors, I got firmly put off the train.  My friends were left to watch as the train pulled out of the station with me standing there alone on the deserted platform.  I was midway between home and destination, and there was no other train for over an hour.  I think something inside me worked fast that day, and the adrenalin took over.  The back of the train was a dark green first class compartment, and instead of the automatic doors of second class, they were just open to let some air in.  I grabbed hold of the handrail as the train accelerated out of the station and swung my legs through the doorway and scrambled to my feet.  I spent the next ten minutes cowering in first class hoping the inspector had not got to the front of the train and would not come back to find me here.  With the best luck in the world, he didn’t and my friends were amazed to see me stroll along the platform to meet them at Espinho.  I was still hungover and now drained of energy from the rush, and was quite happy to sit on the beach in nothing but a skimpy set of trunks.  My body was bright red when we got back to the dorms, and I remember about a week later, peeling off whole sheets of skin in the bath.

 The next day we headed for home.  I was travel wise, or so I thought, and I enjoyed the flight back, very clear as we flew over Brest and Selsey Bill.  About seven of us took the Gatwick Express up to Victoria,  four of us took the Victoria line tube.. I left a couple still on there, including Samantha who I got very close to on that trip, and we hooked up as a couple soon after, at Euston, and went up to buy my ticket back to Liverpool.  It was mid afternoon midweek and the train was fairly empty.  The good weather finally deteriorated as I headed north, but I enjoyed every inch of that last leg of the journey.  As we went through the ripening wheat fields and thick summer railside vegetation, I absorbed it all…my love of travel had been pushed to a new step, and I started getting the wanderlust to see elsewhere.  I remember that I could hardly wipe the grin off my face on that rail journey, and I saw my beaming face in the window as we came to a halt in the summer drizzle outside Crewe.  It’s a face and a set of feelings I have had many times since at the final stages of a good trip, but where it still has not quite ended.  I had it then, and it has never left me.

The Port Run – Heading back to Porto

 The point has probably been overstressed, but from that visit to Taylors in the mountains, we had a wonderful time.  The bus ride back to Lamego, the next day where we did our individual projects, and then our final night up there, terribly sorry as we looked from the utmost balcony of the staircase down on the fairylit market square, as we never really wanted to leave this place.

 Leave we did, but we did it in style, and our luck with transport continued.  We had to catch a narrow gauge train from Regua up the Tua valley to Vila Real.  A little two car diesel train was laid on as usual, but as well as the usual mix of Portuguese peasants, there was our entourage, and a group of twenty or so British train enthusiasts.  We crowded onto this little train which then strained out of the station and started to rise up the valley.  The scenery was breathtaking for the whole route, the railway wrapped around the contours instead of bridging any gap, so we twisted and turned in amongst the woods and terraces.  It lurched over rough track and struggled up the steep gradients.  But the combined weight of train enthusiasts and students with the usual was too much and at a little station 18 Kilometres from Regua, we paused, and stopped, and everyone got off, and the news filtered back that the engine had overheated.

Breakdown at K18

Breakdown at K18

Although an actual station it was truly in the middle of nowhere, and there seemed no way that people could get in or out.  Our coach had left us at Regua and was to meet us at Vila Real at the other end, and there were no mobile phones to ring around then.  So, in the heat of the day, with crickets buzzing around, we stood and waited for the engine to cool down.  The driver finally decided to give it a go, and we all trooped back in like something from a Reverend Awdry story and he got the engine going.  He eased us gently out of the station and rattled along for another hour before arriving, safe and sound in Vila Real.

 The coach now started to head for Porto , but as with our trip up, we took a circuitous route.  We stopped for lunch in the lovely little city of Amarante, its neat little cathedral next to a sturdy bridge, everything from the fountains and walls to the plant pots and gargoyles made of the same brown granite.  On the wide stretch of river beside us, a few day-trippers paddled the strangest boats around, basic flat planks with two seats and an umbrella sticking up.

The afternoon heat was dreadful, and we stopped at a park atop a hill, a long avenue of wide shady trees affording us some comfort from the worst ravages of the heat.  Then we headed back to Porto.  It must have been less than thirty miles, but the roads were dreadful.  Most of the gang were tired by now, but somehow, I had been left with Mike’s two little boys sitting next to me.  We started chatting as you do to young boys, them telling you the most ridiculous stuff about the toys they are playing with, but we progressed on to telling jokes.  Unfortunately, some of the best ones they told to their mother, and she was not amused when one of them went up to her and said “What’s green and goes backwards”, and then did a huge sniff.  I got told off for that.  I thought it safer to think of some old campfire songs I knew from my scouting days, and taught them “Going on a lion hunt”.  Alison in our group told me that she learnt it I the Guides as “Going on a Bear Hunt”, but it worked just the same with a lion.  You stick your tongue against the back of the bottom lip and sing.  The leader tells you what to sing and everyone else repeats it.  This great work goes like this:

 Going on a lion hunt

(Going on  a Lion hunt)

I’m not scared

(I’m not scared)

Got me gun by me side

(Got me gun by me side)

Bullets too!

(Bullets too!)

Coming to some mud

(Coming to some mud)

Can’t go round it

(Can’t go round it)

Can’t go over it

(Can’t go over it)

Have to go through it

(Have to go through it)

Schlup Schlup Schlup

 This gets repeated with a tree (one potato, two potato type movements)  and some grass (Swish swish swish swish) before

Coming to a cave etc.

Ooh its dark in here

I can feel something furry

It’s very warm

It’s got a big mane

IT’S A LION

Dum dum dum dumdumdumdumdumdumdum Swish swish swish dumdumdumdumdumdumdumdum  Plop plop plop plop dumdumdumdumdumdumdum Schlup Schlup

 It then finishes with everyone vowing never to go on another lion hunt………

 You have to be there.  Whatever, the kids loved it, and although almost everyone else was supposed to be asleep, they all overheard me keeping the kids entertained and insisted I taught them Lion Hunt in a bar in Villa Nova de Gaia that night.  We got thrown out soon after.

The Port Run – Moulding of the family

 As for our lecturers, we felt at the start that we had been short changed.  Our original partnership was to have been Ian Simmons, an eminent biogeographer and ecologist, a wonderful and provoking lecturer and a hugely likeable if somewhat tangential professor, and Helen Goldie, an inexperienced, young lecturer, who was also extremely likeable.  Unfortunately, Ian had to pull our almost at the last minute, and two other lecturers had to come in.  Dougie Pocock was one of my heroes at Durham.  Slow moving but quick witted, he was involved in teaching dry social geography, but his passion, which he passed on to me, was in humanistic and perceptual geography.  Perceptual geography dealt with how we perceived space and the world around us, a topic I still wish I had more time to look into.  While most geographers drew maps to scale and found facts on their nearest hillside, Douglas showed us how we see our space differently, throughout the seven ages of man, and wherever we have come from.  The best example I remember was a Christmas card that Doncaster Borough Council sent to MP’s in London.  It drew a sketch of Britain, and had a thick line showing the M1, petering out into a cobbled road and finally an arrow saying, Donkey carts from here, finally reaching Doncaster.  Humanistic geography took it one stage further, instead of how we perceive our space, it looks at how we feel and express space, through our words, thoughts, music and art.  Although it got bogged down in its own language, I also felt it was a much misjudged branch of the discipline, and should have been more pivotal as themes such as appealing, preserving or creating landscapes, tourism, culture, roots and background are all central to the way we live our lives.  But Dougie was thrown on us at the last minute, and I always felt he was less prepared for Porto than the rest of us.  He worked in an interesting way, very pedantic, carefully and cautiously.  But he also just did what he wanted.  I remember that he said to my tutorial group one time “No-one seems to notice that I am just here doing my little area of geography for my own pleasure.  I like it, I love Durham, I need never go anywhere else, and I just hope no-one else notices that I don’t really contribute to anything apart from my own little world”. He then put his finger to his lips “ Don’t  tell anyone will you”.

 He could not stay the whole time and there was an overlap between him and Jim Lewis.  I found Jim a youngish arrogant lecturer of human geography.  He forced arguments down your throat, and reminded me of Mel Smith in looks, temperament, actions and words.  He came out to Portugal an old hand, he was a visiting lecturer at Coimbra University to the south of Porto, spoke fluent Portuguese and knew everything there was to know of the place.  But even he, who I thought I could never get to like, and I am sure he thought I was never to be someone he would have the time of day for, seemed to mould himself in the group, and as his bravado diminished he began to appreciate the cogs of the team.

 With all the tensions, age differences, backgrounds and origins, it was amazing that we ever got through the first week, but by the time we thanked Taylor’s boss and some of us got a lift back along the precarious track in a minibus, others walked and most of them drifted back to the road by boat, we were one big happy family.

The Port Run – Growing the grapes; Living with your colleagues

 But the finest part of the whole time in Portugal was the prequel to the port story.  This was the day that we went right up into the interior to the Quinta Vargelles, the jewel in the crown of the Taylor’s empire.  We drove the few short miles down to Peso de Regua, the road winding more than any other we had travelled down.  Regua is the cross roads of northern Portugal; three rivers meet at the bottom end of town, roads follow each valley and it serves as an important rail junction.

Regua Station

Regua Station

We boarded the train east towards Salamanca.  Hugging the river’s edge, we got some spectacular views at every stage.  The heat was so intense the trains doors were left open, and we sat on the steps a few inches from the ballast as we trugged along.  Mile after mile of rocky outcrops, green slimy river and little farms.  In amongst this landscape, huge vineyards clung to the valley side, terraced where possible.  In some places the terraces were well made walls, old hand made structures, in other places they had just been bulldozed into the hillside; faster, more modern, more efficient, but less elegant, and with uncertain consequences for the soil budget.

 We trundled across a girder bridge and pulled into a neat little station.  No roads nearby, just a track that wound steeply up to a white villa – the name “Quinta Vargelles” pasted across one wall.  We met the owner of Taylor’s, Bruce Guimaraens   – one of my lecturers at Durham had been in the air force with him.  He was a larger than life, thick jowled man, at ease amongst a bunch of students, hospitable without compromising his status.  He took us around the great tanks in the estate.  The traditional image of wine making has been lost here to a certain extent, although he insisted that many of the best ports are still produced by treading with feet rather than crushing with machinery.  On the walls around the room, a series of murals by Willie Rushton, the Private Eye cartoonist,  made fun of the Englishness of Taylor’s – one was a good reproduction of the railway station with a bunch of striped suited bowler-hatted commuters waiting for the 7:45 to Victoria.

I never realised what went in to making port until I was taken around the vineyard, how they separated the skins from the pith to make a kind of brandy that they then remixed with the rather poor quality wine to provide the fortification.  The stainless steel vats and automatic crushing bowls kind of took the magic off the drink, but we saw the huge vats where much of the harvest is still crushed by feet.

 A walk in the midday heat took us around the vineyards and we heard how the right combination of soil, water and aspect made the best grapes, and we learnt this and we learnt that.  I just saw the wonderful views and got a better suntan.  After an hour or so, I was ready for some siesta.  We finally headed back to the villa, and were treated to a wonderful lunch.  The cheesy meatloaf and salad was wonderful, the fruity pudding was delectable, but what caught our imagination the most was the way that two bottles of wine and one bottle of ten year old tawny Taylor’s port was placed between four people before the meal began.  The party really relaxed that afternoon, and many of the tensions that you get from forcing a bunch of cliques and strangers together in a confined environment for ten days evaporated in a drunken haze.  For the last three days of the trip we acted in a unit.  And we were a strange bunch.  I was already friendly with several from our group, but there were a number of less familiar people.  For a start we came from all over the country – Durham always had a curious mix of northerners and southerners, and the late 80’s were the last years of the Thatcher regime which had protected the interests of London and the Home Counties while stomping on what remained of the other parts of the country.  The North East had suffered particularly badly from this, but the presence of Oxbridge dropouts, and genuinely adventurous southerners, the university had a strange mix.  (My own reason for going to Durham was nothing to do with me applying to Oxbridge and failing, or from Durham’s profile in geography.  It was purely because I had never been to the northeast before).  In Portugal, as well as the north south mix (and a couple of midlanders who never knew which side of the fence to come down on), we had a mature student – a rare specimen in the late 80’s – a few year-outers and a couple of people who had been on exchange the year before so had never met any of our year.  We also had every shade of action from a lovely lass from Cardiff who was a devout Jehovah’s Witness through to outrageous drunkards, deep thoughtful people who would always sound interested in what you said even when you knew they couldn’t give a toss, to the kind of antisocial freak who you could never understand and they could never understand you.  And the mature student had brought his kids and wife with him, which had started out as a real pain.  In spite of not being a student, his wife would incessantly ask questions when we were out in the field, much to some of the other student’s annoyance, probably because she was showing them up.  The kids took time to learn the ground rules of the field trip, and caused a lot of disruption to start with, and her husband, Mike was the gentle, compromising Ned Flanders type who you could do nothing but like.  And heaven knows what they made of me!

The Port Run – Staircase and life in the Mountains

 The staircase leads up to the lightly ornate pilgrimage church of Nosa Senhora de Remédios and you are supposed to walk up on your knees.  Preserving my joints for future adventures, I walked it a number of times over the next few days.  On each wall a mural depicting many biblical scenes, at each level, some ornament, statue, pond or fountain.  But as you rose, the decoration would become more intricate.  The top and bottom of each individual stairway was marked by a statue, to start with just a stone spike on a ball, but as you rise, statues of biblical characters adorn a few, and at the top, every base is adorned with a large detailed statue.  To each side, features were set into the woodland.  Again, at the bottom, these were simple, a bench or a wooden shelter, but as you rose, they became more glorious; a well or fountain, a statue in its own stone setting.  At the very top the combination of artefacts bring you closer to heaven, and to aid your adoration, the church lies across the square.

 Our hotel lay just to the left, and the view back down through the wood to the town, the ghostly statues glimpsed through the trees, was quite breathtaking.  Compared to the stark conditions of Villa Nova de Gaia, Hotel de Parc was sheer luxury.  Even today, I am sure I would be very comfortable in this small villa.  The only problem was they had double booked a coach party of Germans, and us students had to double up, so instead of the nice soft beds, I ended up on a floor for two of the next three nights and got fitful sleep.  But the breakfasts and dinners were wonderful, the manager even went out and killed a goat for us so we could try it out.  When the German’s arrived, they were entertained by a Portuguese folk group.  A few of us were out on the terrace overlooking the staircase when we heard the music drift from the dining room.  We went and sidled into the room. To our surprise, we were welcomed in and the touroids shared their wine and snacks with us.  And we sat and listened to some hauntingly beautiful tunes.  Most music fades unless heard a number of times, but I still find myself humming a lilting tune that a large lady sang that night.  In their brightly covered costumes, they danced around, we joined in, we shared the company of the tourists, the staff joined in and at the end of the evening, we were presented with tiny straw hats.  I still have mine – I have kept  my loose change in it ever since and reminds me of an enchanting evening.

 The work up here seemed much more enjoyable than down in Porto.  I remember a day where we measured the size of the granite boulders (don’t ask me why now, it was all our lecturer’s , Helen Goldie’s, idea).  Apart from some of the phallic shapes the boulders took on, what struck me most was the space up here.  The heat and dryness was intense, and we trekked over several miles of grassland and scrub atop the mountains,  The other thing I remember were the churches.  Three or four churches were visible for most of the day, usual blue and white tiles with granite steeples.  And every hour, on the hour, the church bells rang out.  Except they didn’t.  Instead of the clear ringing sound of a well stuck peal, what we heard was a recording of a peal, or at least an amplification, through rather ancient speakers that stuck out of the steeple’s upper level.  The sound was awful, and shattered the peace.

Slightly suggestive granite boulder

Slightly suggestive granite boulder

The Port Run – Heading inland

Our day out in the Minho was amongst the most enjoyable of those first few days.  One forgets that although Portugal is part of Iberia, it faces the Atlantic, and the north is subject to the very wet weather blown in from the west.  The Minho is the greenest region, a rich farming country in theory , but in practise one of the poorest areas of Western Europe.  I saw my first draught donkeys there, and many of the farmers looked haggard.  The Minho, basically the area between the Minho River and the northern suburbs of Portugal, is famous for producing Vinho Verde, as the name suggests, a green wine.  There is no real standard for Vinho Verde, it is grown mainly as a local wine, the vines lining the fields as hawthorns line British fields.  Some grow on traditional poles, but many of them were on crooked concrete pillars, the green floppy leaves softening the stark grey walls.  The wine ranges from a reasonable crisp fresh wine to vinegar.  I only really found one or two glasses of the stuff I enjoyed.

 On the whole, though, our time in Porto was a drag; we rummaged around the back streets of seedy townships, not particularly finding much of interest.  Some people saw more than I did; Every day we split into groups and went our separate ways, always different parts of town.  I always seemed to get either the grottiest or most tedious parts of the town.  I would get glimpses of another Porto, one with vitality, commerce, beauty and trade, and although I have a deep seated love for this city as it was the first place aboard I had ever been to, I did not get the overview of the place I have always sought of other places thereafter.  After nearly a week, we finally moved out of the dreary dorm and boarded an old coach for Lamego.  Lamego is only about fifty miles inland from Porto but it took us nearly all day to get there.  Instead of taking the direct route up the Douro valley, we started south out of Villa Nova de Gaia and turned down a relatively newly made road through the pine forests we had seen from the dorms.  Barely ten miles out of Gaia the bus leaned to one side; the back axle having given way. Broken Bus  We offloaded ourselves and our luggage and sat on the roadside for over an hour while a replacement bus was found.  We then descended to the Douro valley and crossed at the first dam.  Once the river was free flowing and the navigators who steered the port barges through a series of hazardous rapids must have been very brave or foolhardy.  Now the river is a series of narrow lakes dammed every twenty miles or so.  Motorised barges still ply up and down, but much of the trade is the series of long holiday cruisers that sail up and down from Porto.

Cinfaes Main Square

Cinfaes Main Square

 On the north bank of the river, we rose steeply to the main road, and stopped for a coffee overlooking the gorge.  The twisted rocks of the gorge jutted out into the river at various points, and the road wound precariously up the valley.  At various intervals, stone breakers had their little shacks clinging to the roadside, a pile of large rocks on one side, a pile of small chippings on the other.  We crossed the next dam and instead of following the Douro any further, we headed up towards a narrow pass, stopping briefly for some lunch at a small town called Cinfaes.

Above Cinfaes in the haze

Above Cinfaes in the haze

Above the town, we rose into the sheep grazed moorlands reminiscent of the driest Yorkshire moors, the little patchwork of fields in the valley below gradually petering out to be replaced by rockier and rockier ground.  At the head of the pass, the haze stopped us from looking back, but beyond us, the mountains continued larger and more wild to the east.  Every so often a little blue and white tiled church pierced the sky with its steeple.

 We dropped down a dry valley, and although the green farms of the west never reappeared, the scenery became tamer.  The road eventually led to a wide tree lined market place, the stalls being shut up for the day.  At the end of the square was the most amazing set of steps I had ever seen.  In the now familiar blue and white style, staircases concertinaed back and forth, the centres containing murals and the like.  We actually drove up through a wooded parkland to one side to the hotel at the top of the stairs, but let me explain it from the base.

The Port Run – Settling into routine

 Feeling rather warm inside, we went off up in to the streets up the hill from the Rio Douro.  Villa Nova de Gaia had two main central areas, one was the port lodges and the rabbit warren of streets and dilapidated squares; the other was a wide boulevard which seemed to climb never endingly up from the main bridge.  To the left of the bridge, an ornate group of white buildings were a fortified monastery, and gave some for the best views of Porto on the north bank.  This street bustled at any time, with buses, trolley buses and huge amounts of traffic, and every sort of business could be found.  Above the road where our school lay there were a series of restaurants, and about ten of us went in here.  We got some wine in and tucked in to the breads, breadsticks and delicious fish balls sitting on the table while we ordered.  We waited a while for our meals and were delighted when the waiter brought us more bread and balls.  We were less pleased to find out the price of these “complimentaries” when the bill came.  We were very careful in restaurants after that not to eat anything till our meal arrived.

 Eating out was fun, as we only got breakfast in the dorms.  In this depressing school the breakfast followed the trend.  We tended to get some very stale bread in various shapes, a saucer of margarine and a thick strip of orange sugary stuff.  It had the consistency of jelly concentrate, but looked as if it had been dragged around the floor to pick up every piece of dust and grit.  However, it turned out to be the best part of breakfast, even when I discovered we were eating carrot jam.  The coffee was served in wide bowls and was the bitterest I have ever tasted.  The surly guy who served us every morning looked like the type you would not argue over the food quality or safety, and it was as much as I could do to say “Obrigado” to him.

 I learnt a few words of Portuguese to get me by but I am never very good at new languages, and the book I had bought was probably the worst phrase book in the world.  It seemed more targeted towards visitors to Brazil than the motherland, and insisted that “please” was “Faz Favor”, which I never heard said in all my time there.  I hate European languages that have to distinguish between masculine and feminine word endings, and got my self in a tizzy regarding who I should said Obrigado or Obrigada to.  My tongue tiedness got me into trouble.  One day at Sao Bento station I asked for a rail ticket.  When he asked whether it was single, I said, “oui, I mean si,I mean Sim” as if I were the little constable that followed Clouseau around in the Pink Panther cartoons.  The man smiled at me and said in perfect English “you mean yes”.  Asking for a return ticket got me into trouble later on another occasion, as you will see.

To be honest I remember little of the actual work we did during those days – it was tedious stuff, mainly recording all sorts of useless information and then coming back to long evening classes on uncomfortable seats.  Everybody usually had to give a presentation some time during the week, and the day I had to do it I had the worst sore throat imaginable, and croaked my way through stuff.

The Port Run – Introduction to the drink

 The gorge of the Douro was impressive enough with its steep sides and the granite houses almost growing from the bedrock, and with the huge metal bridges spanning the width, but Porto’s most famous commodity also dominated the scene, and particularly at night, revealed itself.  Across the river, on the Villa Nova De Gaia bank, were all the cellars of the Port operators.  It was the first exposure to the creation of a drink I had always enjoyed.  Across the river, I could spy some familiar brands – Cockburn’s and Sandeman’s, some I had faintly heard of – Graham’s, Taylor’s and Offaly.  Their names were pasted across the walls of the lodges all over the hillsides, neon lights brightly shining at night.  Sandeman’s was the most obvious, a huge advertising hoarding in the shape of the man in the black hat and cape that is emblazoned on every bottle stood high above the houses.  But in amongst these were a whole load of others that I had never heard of.  What I was to learn was that Port is not just a traditional English drink, although many of the vineyards were operated by English families.  The Belgians, Dutch and to a lesser extent the French, all love their tipple of Port.  And whereas the English love either their rubies or tawnies, I discovered the whites, which in 1987 were hardly heard of in Tescos or Sainsbury’s, and the very sweet wines that were produced for the Low Countries.

 We visited Taylor’s caves when we were in Villa Nova de Gaia.  Both Porto and Gaia were very dusty cities, and Gaia was even more run down and haphazard than the old town in Porto.  In the searing afternoon heat, we trudged up these narrow lanes; high stone walls doubling the effect of the sun on our bodies.  We eventually dropped into the gates of the Taylor’s city estate.  Once beyond the gates, we were in a different world, a cool overwatered garden, scattered with wood sheds, trelliswork , verandahs and huge stone sheds.  At its centre a massive pink villa set in amongst a rose garden dominated the scene and linking it all together vines of every sort gave some much needed shade.  We were taken around by a rather lovely girl in a skimpy pink summer dress, one of the owner’s daughters, and a Portuguese guide.  They showed us the processes, the casks and of course, the wine, but we were starting at the wrong end.  The grapes are grown high in the mountains, on the slopes with the right Schist soils, just enough sunshine and water.  They get shipped down to Porto, no more on the barges, or barcosrabello, which are now ornaments and curiosities in the centre of the river below us, but by rail and lorry.

 But it is here that the port really takes on the character.  Not only do they sit in the caves for however long, five, ten, fifteen, forty years, but are kept in barrels of different types to help the maturation.  One sort was kept in old whisky barrels made of oak, the remnants of the scotch flavouring the port as it aged.  I learnt about the ages of ports, how the rubies are almost fresh, how the tawnies get left for a range of years and gradually become paler and paler until something like a forty year old tawny is like a very pale whisky colour.  And I learnt how a ten year old tawny is not necessarily ten years old, but because most port is a blend of different casks, ten year’s old is the average of all the component wines.  The expert tasters, who sample and mix each blend till they get the right consistency, bouquet and flavours, carefully put the wines together.  We tasted every type, starting with the white port; a dry sherry like drink but crisper, the ruby – useful for nothing but mixing, a couple of tawnies and finally the Late Bottled Vintage – the best us lowly types could get to.  These were a new invention in those days, but basically it was supposed to be a step down from vintage, when a particularly good year of grapes is not blended, but kept in the cask for six years or so before being bottled – hence the term late bottle.  Snobby wine drinkers now say this is just a gimmick for port producers to sell a product at a higher price but not as good taste, but for a bunch of undergraduates, it was a good stiff drink.  We were never even allowed a sniff of a vintage port, which is a different creature altogether.  When the conditions have been just right, the grapes produce the perfect fortified wine without needing blending, and a vintage year is declared.  Only the best grapes are kept as vintage, and these ports are not left in casks for more than two years but are bottled early on, and allowed to mature within the bottle.  The result is a rich dark drink, but the process of maturation leaves waste products in the bottle and the wine has to be carefully decantered before you can drink it, the muslin holding back the crust.  We were shown a couple of sheds where the best ports of the future had already been laid down.

We were allowed a taste of one of the ports produced for the Belgian market. It was a pale tawny colour and was a thick sucrose drink which made me feel ill, but then again, it was never made for my palate.

The Port Run – Exploring the Old Town

A peculiar beauty existed in these narrow streets.  The repetitiveness of the doorways, mainly simple wooden slats with a number painted on, or with a small blue porcelain plaque nailed to the wall to one side.  Washing hanging from every spare place, terrace, balcony, across the street.  Behind the grubby exteriors you got a glimpse of the back rooms through open doorways; children playing, women washing, old men contemplating from amid their cigarette smoke.  Some houses looked packed, others deserted. Some were as grubby on the inside as out, others were clinically clean, modernised, occasionally gleaming.  Inside this labyrinth it was often difficult to navigate, but if you kept on rising, eventually you arrive in the modern city.  The old town, known as the Ribeira district, was where Porto had started; where many of the old sailing ships would have pulled in and disgorging sailors good and bad who were provided for by the businesses and services of the district; some commercial, others carnal.

 We rose through street after street from the harbour front, eventually emerging from the old town close to the cathedral.

Porto Cathedral

Porto Cathedral

Squat but very solid, it does not follow the usual tiled fashion of many churches of the region, as the sturdy granite blocks are unfaced.  Beyond the cathedral we headed towards the main railway station, Sao Bento, also as tiled as the churches, and the main square.  Here at last I saw some civic pride but the office blocks and other buildings that led up to the town hall at the top of the long thin square were all early 20th century or earlier and looked grubby –most of the windows were unwashed.  Nowhere did I see any large shops, or new buildings, or anything that told me that Porto was thriving.

 Even from the top of the Clerigos tower, which we climbed for a modest fee, we only saw a faintly quaint city, nearby were some almost Parisian Squares with neat setts, fenced off grass and flower beds and the obligatory ornate fountain.  The Clerigos Tower itself was peculiar, it seemed to be a tall thin wedding cake covered in dirt.  The steps were very narrow and the space at the top claustrophobic.  Although it gave a very good view over the western city centre towards the river bridges, it was not too visible from other parts of the city, and from the ground, looked no higher than the surrounding buildings – a sort of vertical TARDIS.

 My misconceptions about Porto turned out to be the way we had approached the town.  Using the waterfront of the old town as our starting point, we had neglected the fact that the centre of the city now lay up the hill and to the north east.  Only about ten days later did I finally get up here and saw the very modern office blocks and large shopping centre I would expect of a city of over half a million people.  And my other mistake was to think, like many British cities that the centre of the city was where most people worked, but, industrialisation occurred late here, and the city centre factories hardly existed.  Almost all the industry was based in large estates on the edge of the city.  True, Britain has many of these now, but we lived through the Victorian age where factories dominated many of the town centres of the north of England and elsewhere.

The heart of Porto

The heart of Porto

We ate in a small restaurant on the front that night; on the menu was tripe.  Being a scouser rather than a woolly back, I decided to avoid the chance to taste it, and had the fish instead.  I wish I hadn’t as we walked back to our beds.  I saw a bunch of young boys diving into the Douro river off the edge of the landing stage, screaming and shouting at each other as they played in the water, ducking each other and splashing water in each others’ faces.  Some were angling and reeling in fish which looked like half scale sharks.  I was amazed that they seemed to be pulling them out every minute, until I realised they were aggregating near a good food source; the open sewer from Ribeira which emptied untreated at this point.  I wonder if any of those boys are still alive and healthy?  I had wondered what the slightly sweet smell was for a while, putting it down to “foreignness”, I learnt.  Actually, it was not only the sewers which smelt.  Almost everywhere I went in those two weeks, I smelt this rather sweet sickly smell.  I could not place it at all, but I thought it would remind me of Portugal for the rest of my life, until one day in England I was going out into the heat of a summer’s day, and it was when I rubbed some cheap Boot’s suntan lotion onto my shoulders that I realised where that smell had actually come from.  More wrong impressions.

On the waterfront

On the waterfront

The Port Run – Stepping out

Why some people in Britain call it Oporto I am never certain.  If you wanted to anglicise the name it should be, simply, Port.  The port on the River Douro is Portugal’s second city.  I fell in love with it immediately, it is situated well, with a magnificent skyline of large white and blue churches, tenement style houses clinging to hillsides.  At the bottom is the deep Douro gorge which winds between the city and Villa Nova De Gaia (which happens to be third largest Portuguese city by population if not importance).

Villa Nova de Gaia - the main street from the bridge

Villa Nova de Gaia – the main street from the bridge

High above the cliffs on the Gaia side is the huge fortress which turns out to be a monastery, and two bridges spanned the river, reminding one of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.  It is not surprising, since they were both designed by the same man at about the same time.  Near the centre of the city, the first bridge carries two roads over, at high and low level, both with trolley bus wire gantries delicately woven into the bridge design.  A massive semi-circle of iron holds the bridge in place, and the views up and downstream from the top in particular were spectacular.

Eiffel's Bridge - two tier

Eiffel’s Bridge – two tier

 Upstream, about a mile away, was the second bridge.  Less elegant but more precarious-looking, it carried the main railway line to Lisbon from Campanhã Station on the outskirts of the city.  Trains tightroped on a single line across the gap.  To the east again, the pillars of a new rail bridge were rising up, modernity in a city that had stopped fifty years before.

 It was hardly mid morning when we pulled up at this massive school in Villa Nova de Gaia.  Kids were out in the playground screaming away at each other in Portuguese.  We hauled our luggage up to the seventh floor which gave us a view to the south and the green mixture of pine forest and farms beyond the jumble of outer suburbs.  Two red and white radio masts dominated the horizon.  It looked ghastly.  Our accommodation was Spartan to say the least – two dorms for the lads – five in each.  One central light, no wardrobe (I lived out of my suitcase for the whole time), and the kind of hollow feel that you get in so many underfunded schools.  The showers at the end of the corridor were communal, cold, and dribbled through the night.  My first hour ever abroad and I already hated it.  But we were going to explore the city so we changed our clothes; got into shorts and went dancing down.

 A whole bunch of gorgeous Portuguese teenage girls were hanging around outside the gates as the break still seemed to be going on.  They took one look at us and laughed their head off.  Ten pale English men in their outsize shorts and baggy T-shirts were no match for the sleek looking, tight denim clad, over manicured boys further down the road.  Several of our group went straight back upstairs and changed back to jeans, vowing not to be seen out in public in their shorts.  I intended to get brown, whatever the sacrifice to fashion.

Old Town Porto from Villa Nova de Gaia

Old Town Porto from Villa Nova de Gaia

 Wandering around Porto, it seemed that when the industrial revolution petered out that Porto stagnated.  Primarily an industrial city with a maritime past, it maintained its status as an important regional centre, but there appeared no novelty, no new drive which was moving the city towards the 21st Century.  I was proved wrong later, and it goes to show that you should never judge a city by either your first impressions, nor even your second or third.  You have to see it from a distance, get in amongst it and understand its parts, then step back again to assess the whole.  Our problem was that we started our exploration from the wrong point and tried to use our geographic presumptions of UK cities in a Portuguese situation.

Lovely Tiled House in the old town of Porto

Lovely Tiled House in the old town of Porto

 We started at the massive slab of granite that formed the waterfront of Porto’s old town.  Although picturesque from a distance; a group of tightly fitting tenement style houses, once inside they were a medley of dwellings, restaurants, shops, businesses and dereliction..  The roads were, at best, setts, at worst, potholed gravel tracks.  Again, my inexperience of visiting new places made it difficult to get a grasp on what this was.  Liverpool, Durham, London; so many places in the UK had their problems, but this was a level of poverty I had not seen (it was tame to what I have experienced since).  The sweet smell of sewers pervaded the air, the rubbish at every corner, the little children, the big dewy Mediterranean eyes shining out on their grubby faces.  All the clichés of poverty here, and many of them ringing true.