Bridge of Size Porto

April the 12th has arrived, happy Christmas everybody!

OK, not everybody, but happy Christmas Helen. For the last couple of years we’ve bought one another mystery weekends away as gifts; in 2017 she bought me the Cornish railway carriage stay that we did in January, and I bought her a trip to Porto in Portugal.

Preparation could have been a bit better. After a year of attempting to buy a flat together and it falling through just before exchange twice, we gave up and refurbished the one I’ve been living in. Moving is stressful enough and not helped when one of us acts like a selfish dick, nor when work is getting to both of us, nor when the upstairs neighbours decide to invite a herd of elephants and screaming children to stay, which also makes the cat nervous as fuck. Leaving him alone for the best part of four days – albeit with a cat-sitter coming daily – was not an appealing idea.

Thankfully, by Weds Buster showed significant signs of getting used to the noise (and my “t-shirts and Wii controllers” wardrobe).

So our stress levels retreated from the enormous high they’d reached, and combined with a moderately fatalistic attitude of being unable to do much even if we cancelled, the trip was still on. Moreover, Helen made a start on the Rough Guide to Porto and realised there’s tons of ace stuff to see and do. For my part, I just wanted to escape the constant shitty weather London has had this year and go somewhere that I can wield shorts.

Oh for fucks sake. Thanks, Mauro, for sending me that article the evening before we go away. So. Much. Fail.

Thursday arrived and there was lots to do. The tiniest of lie-ins compared to a working day then a scramble to do a bunch of “we keep this flat clean and tidy now” chores, pack, and source some diet coke and a £2 coin. My sense of urgency was not helped by the “hey, WWE UK championship tickets are on sale” email I got which obviously required immediate attention.

We left later than intended, but that’s OK because it’s public transport and not a cab. Being school holidays we suffered a precocious-children ridden journey up to Clapham Junction, where we bought some expensive but somewhat satisfying Lands End pastry goods during our platform change. A late running train to Gatwick was handy for us. As we sped along under bleak, dismal, grey skies I mused which of “get a train through Croydon” or “get a tube through Hounslow” is the worse “welcome to London” people who arrive for the first time have to experience.

Less than an hour after leaving the flat we’re at Gatters, for a much more reasonable price than we’ll pay to get back in a few days time. After a “fuck that, it’s too far” backtrack on the pop-outside-for-a-vape idea we go through Fast Track security, which is actually fast, and then the secret passage into the terminal proper.

I mean, it’s not hugely secret, but we are the only ones taking this route. It said the lounges were this way and they are, but really it’s just a way of bypassing the enforced retail corridor route that the escalators down involve. Helen buys a bunch of euros mostly just because some miscalculations have meant she’s got way too much sterling at the moment. Skirting round past the Flying Horse wetherspoons we carry on following the signs to the BA lounges, plural.

Hello, new lounge! Never been to a BA lounge in Gatwick South before, only ever North - but afaik they’ve now consolidated all their services into this terminal. The man at the desk scans our boarding passes and we enter the tranquility of the First Class lounge. Despite some fear, based on a “for 2 weeks in April you can take up to five kids into the lounge for free” thing BA are doing right now, it really is quite peaceful and tranquil. There’s plenty of seat choice, and some people are drinking champagne. That sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it?

It is. It really is. We each pour ourselves a big fuck off glass and cheers one another. Things are looking up, eh? I go to eye up the buffet but am not particularly taken by it. Rather, I suggest, we should up sticks and go sit at one of the tables where they’ll come bring us food from the menu.

We’ve only been sitting for about 10 seconds when someone comes to take our order. Helen opts to go back for a plate of self-service stuff, while I order the BA burger. A momentary flash of “hmm, do I want to spend the extra £3” goes through my mind when the attendant asks if I want cheese and bacon added to my burger, but obviously I’m not in some hipster pub and I can have what the fuck I like for free.

It is hipster enough to not come on a plate, though.

It’s a decent burger. Nothing amazing, nothing terrible. The fishcakes are not to Helen’s liking but I don’t see the problem. The orange and poppy seed cake is a bit rubbish, but I scoff the whole damn slice down anyway. We return, via another stop at the champagne bar, to seats in the main lounge area and minutes later our flight is allocated its gate.

Take off is not for almost 50 minutes, but we’re both unfamiliar with Gatwick South so I nip to the desk to ask how long they’d recommend giving it. She says at least 35 if not 40 minutes, so fuck it - we might as well just neck what we’ve got, eat the chocolate cookie, and wander down, taking just a brief moment to admire the lawsuit-inducing branding of the medical equipment on the wall.

At 2am that morning I’d received an SMS and email from BA saying the flight today was properly busy, so we might want to consider checking our hand luggage and that doing so would be free. Much to our surprise then, at gate 28 there did not appear to be a plane’s worth of people hanging around, despite boarding having not started. Hmm.

When boarding did start, they announced groups 1 and 2 first. This is my first experience of the group system: BA now put your group number on your pass, based on class, seat number, shiny card holding, etc. It makes for a more efficient and less confusing mess than “Club Europe, oneworld Emerald, Sapphire, and Ruby” and all the other inscrutable terminology that only FlyerTalk nerds like me really understand.

I had hoped for a comedy moment of group 1 being announced separately to group 2 because I was in the former and Helen the latter but, alas, we boarded together. Seats 7A and 7B, the first seat behind the curtain for guaranteed envy – except there was no-one in row 6 to be envious of. And, in fact, no-one in seat 7C despite the seatmap suggesting otherwise. As it goes BA’s SMS and email had been outright lies, unless a ton of people missed their flight because it was only about 40% full.

We took off about 25 minutes late, after some attention outside from ambulances and fire staff. Apparently someone had fallen at the gate and was being cleared, or not, to fly by medical personnel. It gave us enough time to read through the interesting bits of the in-flight magazines; I popped onto my team’s Slack channel at work asking if I could claim half a day back by reading about Zoopla and proptech in Business Life. Apparently not.

The flight was about as nondescript as you could get. No welcomes for being shiny card holders, just a fairly stark “want anything from the M&S menu?” The answer was yes, a beer and a vodka and orange please. Drank those with the blinds down, blocking out the relentless view of nothing but white cloud outside, and we concentrated on solving puzzles in The Room: Old Sins. Another round of drinks, a solitary turbulent bump, and then the hey, we’re landing soon announcement.

At Porto we’re around 25 minutes late. Helen’s suitcase has the noisiest wheels of all the wheely suitcases. The oyster-style gates for passports aren’t working so instead we have to suffer the friendly smiling exuberant man at the desk instead. By baggage reclaim we spend euro shrapnel on a Pepsi and have a loo break. There are strict rules on who is allowed to take a piss here.

Not “no smoking”, but “no smokers”.

Once we’re through customs we pop outside so Helen can have a vape, and then make our way to the metro station. This is kinda well sign-posted, but our journey there is punctuated by “let’s buy a ticket from this machine!” at what is actually a machine for the multi-storey car park; going down one escalator too many; and a bizarre moment queuing at a cashier’s desk in said car park, before finally the concourse of actual metro ticket machines.

These machines also cause a great deal of confusion, for everyone around. We’re not quite as bad as most, though do initially manage to buy a single card with two journeys loaded rather than the two singles we’d wanted. But, no matter. Moments later we’re out on the platform waiting for one of the frequent E line metro trains into the city.

I say “frequent”, but for some reason there’s no train for 20-odd minutes (and there are already a fair few people on the platform). This seems particularly annoying given the ticket instructions are very clear that you must not tap in more than 10 minutes before you start your journey. Hmm.

Eventually a metro turns up. I’d expected it to look less like a tram than it does. It actually turns up on the opposite platform, depositing people, and takes 5 or so minutes to turn around up at the end. Eventually we’re on, seated, and heading into the city.

En route I check out the metro system’s website, and discover the amusing reason why we had to wait so long: there’s a strike, lasting our entire time here, and frequencies are severely reduced. Hurrah! Or something.

At Bolhao station we follow the nearest sign to the exit, which leaves us waiting for a lift rather than take 6 flights of stairs. The first 2 lifts which arrive are going down, but eventually an upper comes along and we’re dumped outside some shopping centre wondering which way to go. Had we come out the main non-shifty exit things would have been much simpler.

And once we figure it out, simple it is: we only have to walk one pedestrianised block to reach our accommodation, the Grande Hotel do Porto. Oo-eck, it looks a bit posher than I expected. At the desk I check us in, deftly explaining why I’ve got individual bookings for all three nights by saying I did so for “crazy reasons”.

A porter takes the suitcase and leads us to room 116, which he says is one of the newly refurbished and beautiful rooms. There’s not even a hint of wanting a tip, which is good ‘cos we’ve no tip-worthy cash handy anyway. En route we’d walked past an amazing looking bar and through beautiful corridors, and the room is tiny but similarly lovely.

There are way too many pillows, but there is a reasonably priced minibar. The TV has tons of channels but BBC World is inexplicably silent. Enough about that though, the sun sets in about 90 minutes and I’d like us to at least get our bearings and find the local off licence or diet coke vendor, and maybe even somewhere to have some food.

Down the pedestrianised shopping street there’s a place with a shelf full of owls for sale, which I figure Helen would like but she’s pretty dismissive of them all. A couple of blocks further and we’re inadvertently doing tourism, stumbling across the Teatro Nacional. There’s a big fuck off church too, and one of the old school trams trundles past us. This wasn’t part of the plan!

We do spot an off-licence though, which is good. Taking a route that proves rapidly fruitless in both tourism and usefulness terms we do at least find a nice looking restaurant called Nandos. I mean for fucks sake, Portugal.

Back to where we saw the tram and down a different road that seems to head towards the river, there’s steps descending to the funicular railway and our first sight of that big fuck off bridge built by Eiffel’s mate. Near the local Jehovah’s Witnesses place we get a view of the funiculars going past one another. I like this.

We carry on on foot, winding down through streets comprised of staircases and with each corner providing a new and intriguing view.

Our legs get a proper work out here. It’s a shame it’s been raining all day but it’s at least dry now, and the sky looks kinda dramatic.

This bridge is one of six over the river, and by far the biggest hitter. The metro goes over the top, road vehicles across the bottom. Both of them are walkable.

We get to the base of the bridge and gurn for a selfie.

So, now what? Well down here by the river is the district called “ribeira” which, I think, means “river”. The architecture is quite nice as are the views across the water to Villa Nova de Gaia, but that can wait.

There’s a bunch of places to eat and drink but neither of us hugely hungry, and I’m making a case for not drinking too much more today lest I ruin our first full day with a brutal hangover. What’s more, the funicular shuts at 8pm which is only about 40 minutes from now. We don’t know how else to get back up the hill (because fuck walking it), and we’ve got our bearings, so decide to head back up.

It’s €2,50 to go up and we’re briefly thinking we’ve got the carriage to ourselves, but by the time we come to leave it’s full enough that the moderately worrying siren that goes off makes us wonder if we’re too heavy.

It’s a slow climb up with excellent views. The lack of a guard rail on one side feels a bit perilous, but whatever.

Port lodges and a monastery, I think.

I don’t know why the crossing point tickles me, but it does.

Back up top and we take a different route back to the hotel, intending to complete a loop. By now we really are in the mood for a drink and something to eat, if not a full blown meal. Various cafes and restaurants are either empty or heaving and none particularly appeal. Something interesting seems to be going on outside a picturesque church on a winding side-street; walking past, it’s revealed to be a soup kitchen on the edge of what seems to be a red light district.

Most cafe-restaurant places look like upmarket-ish greasy spoons. We get back to the pedestrianised bit and right by our hotel there are 3 consecutive places that all look half decent. Entering the middle one a friendly waiter seats us, speaks perfect English, and offers us cheese olives and bread while we pick from the menu. Go on then.

There is some amazing food in Porto that I am desperate to try but not this time, even though it’s on the menu. We order three small plates to share, and beer. The cerveja section of the menu is initially confusing until we figure out they only sell Super Bock, and the names are sizes. There is a stout on the menu though, hurrah!

Food arrives, and there’s way too much of it. I very much dislike the ham in the ham salad, and my “codfish, bras style” seems to be a posh version of fish and chips. The garlic mushrooms are excellent but there’s a ton of them.

Ham aside, it’s all very nice. And we’ve clearly found a “the outside world is scary” bolthole should we need one. Others have done so too, evidenced by the English family on the table by the wall and the French folk up the way. Paying is easy, we know to walk to the till rather than try and attract attention and have a bill brought to us. I’m reasonably sure throughout our time there I’ve said the wrong form of obrigado/obrigada repeatedly but hey, I’m an ignorant foreigner, I’m allowed to.

The hotel bar is empty at 9pm, but we’re both yawning anyway so retire to our room. The minibar is opened, and the mini-ness is revealed. When you open the fridge door and see all the stuff available it looks perfectly reasonable and sensibly priced, but there’s an optical illusion: proportionally all the contents look totally normal. It’s only when you take the beer out and think, hang on, this is light and small, that you realise the bottle of beer is not 33cl but a paltry 20cl. Barely a gulp!

But, whatever. I really don’t want that hangover. We try and make sense of the hellishly confusing bus tour pamphlet reception had given us, trying to figure out what to actually buy. I rely on Helen to remember the answer because it’s all too much for me. We finish the night fighting with electricity, moving all the excess furnishings onto the window sill, and turning off 8 lights without figuring out the trick for the 9th.

Created By
Darren Foreman

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