Sunday, April 26, 2015

Walking tour reveals grand and not so grand buildings

The next morning we set off on a short walk along Santa Caterina Street to the old market, Mercado do Bolhão, a traditional market of fruits, vegetables, fish and meat. It is known as one of Porto's most emblematic places but we could smell the fish before we entered, a bad sign. The actual market was a big open space surrounded by a wrought iron balcony. The strange thing about this hundred-year-old market was that the central part was open to the elements, so stalls had to be covered with awnings. The produce didn't look very appetizing as most things were a bit wilted. Other stalls were selling tourist tat. Upstairs there were more fruit and vegetable vendors and some permanent butcher shops. Much of it looked vacant. Certainly, locals weren't flocking there to buy anything. It was a quaint spot but not really worth the visit. I wonder what will happen to it?

We continued our walk through large squares and narrow, cobbled streets to Livraria Lello near the University of Porto. It's a famous old bookshop with an Art Nouveau exterior. There were hordes of people inside and you really couldn't move but it was lovely to see with an amazing interior and spiral staircase. It wasn't very big but you could have a coffee or glass of port. I'm not sure that you could browse here as is was so crowded. However, it was lovely to see this shop that is over one hundred  years old and considered one of the most beautiful bookshops in Europe. Lonely Planet has classified it as the third best bookstore in the world.

Outside once again we meandered through the streets with lots of little shops, jazz clubs and restaurants. Since it was lunchtime we started looking for somewhere to eat and ended up sitting outside at a restaurant filled with locals. This is always a good sign. I ordered from the Portuguese lunch menu that didn't come in English but I knew that I had ordered grilled grouper with something. Sometimes you just have to take risks with the food and hope for the best. What a lovely surprise when my food arrived. It was a huge fish accompanied by a bowl of something thick and delicious that tasted of wine. After a quick consultation with the waiter I found out that this dish was called Açorda de Marisco, or Portuguese Shellfish Bread Stew. This wonderful, traditional dish was made with stale bread, lots and lots of white wine, cilantro, tomato, onion, shrimps and mussels. All of this for just €5. The one thing that I haven't mentioned is the wines from the Douro Valley. The reds are very tasty and not too strong. Some of these wines are now known as the best in the world.

After all the food we needed to walk. Once again we followed the cobbled streets, with a variety of shops and restaurants, downhill. The buildings were always interesting, some in very good shape while others were abandoned and in ruins. In fact there were quite a few of these buildings in Porto. Apparently many had been inherited by families who couldn't agree on selling or upkeep. Sometimes there will be one remaining tenant in the building and no one wants to buy because of the tenant. The owners of our guesthouse had bought the first part of their building from a family of twenty people. They were concerned about another nearby abandoned building owned by thirty people. They had even written the town about settling what was to happen with the building, something the town has the right to do. It is six years later and still nothing has happened. As we walked around we found the strange mixture of buildings always very interesting.

Finally we arrived at the Ribeira, or Riverfront. We wandered past lots of restaurants on one side and the river with the old port boats moored alongside. Looking up was one of the six bridges across the river to Gaia on the other side. Finally, we reached Funicular dos Guindais our transportation to the top of the hill, since by this time we had no wish to walk up the steep streets of Porto.

When we got off the funicular and were waiting for an old fashioned tram, there was a group of first-year students being put through their drill by a fourth-year student dressed in his Harry Potter black outfit complete with cape. The students were having to lie on the ground and stand up and sing and clap. Of course I took pictures and suddenly I was surrounded by the students, who had been told to sing a song to me. I don't know what the song was but it was all in good fun even if a bit alarming to begin with.

By now the city was beginning to make sense to us and we could see how close things were. We walked down a street that may have been a bit like Diagon Alley with its twisting cobblestones, little shops and strange mixture of fine and derelict buildings. It was here we spotted the dingy looking Voldemart store. We were headed for the ornate thirteenth-century Sao Francisco church. Outside were lovely views over the city.

Our day ended with more nighttime exploring on foot. In fact we walked just over 20 kilometers today. And it was all very interesting.


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