Our adventure in Portugal began in a taxi with a friendly Uber driver. Despite speaking next to no Portuguese, we managed to fill the twenty minute journey with interesting conversation. This was in a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese and the occasional word of English. Luckily, Portuguese is very similar to Spanish, so we could understand one another even though we were talking in two different languages. I spoke in Spanish and our driver replied in Portuguese. Then, of course, there are international phrases in English which are understood across the globe. For example, ‘okay’, ‘football’ and ‘no problem’. We spoke about food, the city of Porto and famous people. Being British, it was only right to bring up the beautiful weather.
On arriving at Tattva Design Hostel, we were greeted by yet another friendly Portuguese citizen – despite the fact that it was midnight. Then we checked in, met my Scottish pal and enjoyed a light snack with some hostel guests before collapsing in our dorm room.
Rising bright and early, the hostel provided us with a delicious breakfast: unlimited pancakes, cereal and bread rolls. My Scottish friend wanted to make headway with the trekking, so I bade farewell to her and her crew at the main cathedral in Porto.
I returned to the hostel to join a free walking tour to begin at 10.40 at Praça da Liberdade in front of the statue of Pedro IV with Porto Walkers. Our guide named Nuno was wonderful, telling jokes and giving us a greater understanding of Portuguese history.
He began by teaching us that 94.5% of Porto is Catholic. We stood on one particular road and could see six churches from this one point.
Historically, Porto was not ruled by a monarchy but by the church, with bishops ruling the land. This meant that when the king visited Porto he could only stay for a limited time because the taxes were so high.
From the 12th century, the Romans, Barbarians and then the Moors ruled Porto. You can see each of their influences in the city’s architecture
Next was my favourite stop – the São Bento railway station. It was here that Nuno told us an ancient story behind Portugal’s independence.
It began with the son of the countess of Porto. He was born with a terrible curse. His legs were bowed and he couldn’t walk properly. What’s more, his father had died. His mother was distraught and not sure what to do with her son. He was the heir to the land but would not be able to fight or lead with his dreadful curse. A man in Castilla (Spain) offered him tutoring services, and managed to train him. By the time he was 16 he returned home to Porto with many riches. But his mother disapproved of her son’s decadence, and as a result, he threw her in prison and proceeded to rule the land. The tutor felt so guilty for raising a monster that he put himself and his family on trial. At the railway station you can see the scene of this trial depicted on the wall.
Above this story is a battle scene in which only a few soldiers appear to be fighting. This, we are told, is because only the best fighters were selected to fight. The rest were on standby.
The railway station was opened in 1916. Prior to this, the building on this site had served as a convent since 1518. Porto’s railway station is beautiful piece of architecture with a wealth of history. It’s well worth a visit, even if you’re not planning to catch a train.
From the station we walked to the Santa Clara church, which was built in 1416. Young girls were sent to the convent by their fathers if they refused to marry, were disobedient or had themselves decided to dedicate their lives to God.
The interior of the church was decorated in elaborate gold, and the nuns would sit behind a spiked wall where they would be invisible to the outside world. Following public church services, members of the public would make donations through a slot in the wall. In return a pastry would be passed back to them. The church ceased to house nuns some time during the 19th century.
We walked from the church to one of Porto ‘s many bridges. This one, the Maria Pia Bridge, was a railway bridge built in 1877, and has been attributed to none other than the civil engineer, Gustave Eiffel who is best known for the Eiffel Tower. At the time of construction, it was the world’s longest single-arch span bridge.
From here we walked down to the river, and passed through the ancient streets of the old town. These are a Unesco World Heritage site, so are protected from development. While decidedly quaint, they are not practical for the elderly or disabled. A decade ago the area suffered from drug cartels in its hidden alleys, but now, thankfully, it’s much safer.
On reaching the river, we learnt another reason for Portugal’s independence. A clue is in its name. Being on the coast, Porto has numerous ports. This reminded me of the book: ‘Prisoners of Geography’, which maintains that a city’s wealth and development is largely due to its geographic location and natural resources.
It was here that our wonderful three hour walking tour came to an end. We thanked our informative tour guide and went on our way. With our newfound fríends from the tour, we continued walking until we found a restaurant for lunch. My brother was keen to get on board with the local cuisine, so bought a Francesinha sandwich. This is a combination of every meat imaginable with at least two layers of bread, coated in cheese, topped with a fried egg and surrounded by chips and a tomato salsa. He really enjoyed it. And having taken a little nibble, I can confirm that it was very tasty. However, I wouldn’t want the whole thing to myself.
We strolled past Porto’s University, which had lovely gardens, before making our way to the Virtudes Park where we found a delightful book festival. Being located high up on terraces, the gardens provides an impressive view down on the city and its bridges – including the one we had walked across earlier.
Naturally, we felt compelled to take a picture of the view with the iconic tourist Porto sign.
While here, we also discovered the Biblioteca Almeida Garrett, library and art gallery, and took a look at its exhibition on music.
Walking back to the hostel, we passed the famous Harry Potter library – Livraria Lello, where J K Rowling is reputed to have found inspiration for writing her blockbuster novels. Costing €5, to enter we decided against going inside.
Back at the hostel we refreshed before going out for a light dinner.
The evening ended on rooftop bar, relaxing with a drink.
It’s safe to say that I slept like a baby after around 8 miles of walking and exploring.