Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Porto - like Bristol but better..

Braga to Sao, 29 miles. Aire, Sao Romao, 2 nights. 

You get a wonderful view of Porto from the old quayside on the south bank of the Duero. The cantilevered arch of Ponte de Dom Luis I casts a shadow like grubby lace across the tumble of ancient buildings over the river. Ribeira, Porto's ancient heart is a tangle of colour-washed streets that cling the the steep river bank. From a distance it looks postcard pretty. Up close it is still picturesque, but hardly prettified. In terms of style it remains unashamedly shabby chic. We stopped to to take a few photos and reflect on the last couple of hours. "Like Bristol, but better!" was Gill's verdict. 

It would be difficult not to fall for Porto's allure, its spectacular riverside setting, the vertiginous, colourful streets that drop towards the quaysides, the heady mix of style and dilapidation, the vibrant cafe life. All of this at times overshadowed, but sometimes framed by the instantly recognisable outline of its famous bridge.

Of course the above description could equally be applied to Bristol. Indeed the other parallels occur to you too, an association with exploration for example, Porto was the birthplace of Prince Henry the Navigator, whereas Bristol is associated with the voyages' of John Cabot. So Gill's comparison was certainly apposite, but was she right about 'better'? A big claim, we are here for two days, let's see if the verdict holds up at the end. 

For a change it has been good to drive less than 30 miles today. If you spend a whole day driving, it can seem like a wasted day but If you make a short hop, or have time for a brief lunch time break to visit to somewhere interesting, then it extends the time and you end up thinking , "Was it only this morning we were in...." and yes it was only this morning we were in Braga. 

We've had a very Portuguese morning. By that I mean we were assailed by a vague, but persistent Cartesian doubt as to where precisely we might be. Not a feeling we were lost, just slightly mislaid. This anxiety comes from a number sources. The first is our Michelin road atlas which purports to date from 2012 but fails to includes many 'new' roads with with bridges and flyovers whose supports are daubed with graffiti so ancient it's peeling. In towns you become utterly lost because there are few street signs. In the countryside roads are inconsistently numbered and the signage ambiguous - road portents rather than signs which you follow more in hope than expectation. Add to that a tendency for all but the major roads to change from asphalt to cobbles without warning. Furthermore culverts and ditches provide extra hazards, particularly as artic's seem to specialise in bombing towards you up country lanes in the middle of the road, only pulling over with feet to spare. None of this is relaxing.

One minute you are on a main road, the next bumping along cobbles through an abandoned industrial estate.
As well as being disconcerting, at times Portugal is plain odd, indeed at times, downright bewildering. The aire we were headed to at Sao Romao is not far from Porto, but situated at the foot of an area of wooded hills and craggy out-crops which make the area feel more remote than it actually is. The one thing we try to avoid is ending up on unclassified 'white roads '. Experience from our previous trip revealed these as especially motorhome unfriendly, a zone of low branches, Smart car width village streets and lunar crater sized potholes. Our problem was that no matter how we programmed the sat-nav, she was determined the only route to the aire in Sao Romao was down a white road. At least it had green line on it. I suppose it is some consolation that if it was a death trap, then at least we were destined to end our days in a picturesque spot. 

As it transpired, there were only a few tricky narrow sections where the edges of the cliff hugging road had crumbled, sending it and the crash barrier tumbling into the forest below. Truck drivers were well mannered on the whole; not one conspired to hoik us into the ravine. I managed a few sidelong glances to appreciate why the route had been afforded a green line. It was a small enclave of wooded moorland with rocky out-crops and purple heather flowering on the verges.

the green lined 'white road'.
After snaking upwards for a few kilometres, the road straightened a little, then headed downhill again, meandering through a eucalyptus forest. We passed a grey hatchback parked in a gateway. A middle-aged woman sat next to it on a white enamel bucket. Odd, I thought, and in my innocence decided she must dislike urban driving and be waiting for the bus to Porto. After the scene repeated itself half a dozen times in the space of a couple of kilometres, with minor variations - no bucket, different coloured hatchback - it slowly dawned on me that this remote stretch of woodland was some kind of enclave for roadside prostitution. Of course if you travel in southern Europe this is something you do encounter, but there were two aspects of this that seemed unusual. Firstly, the women themselves in no way conformed to any stereotype you might have of a 'working girl', not in age, dress or demeanour. It was as if a random group of local women had been beamed up from a checkout queue, and plonked by the roadside. Secondly, the time - 11.30am, and the place - a positively bucolic location well away from passing traffic. 

Perhaps it was the seclusion of the woods that attracted this particular business here; the trade is tolerated in Portugal so long as remains covert, whereas in Spain and Italy, though hardly endemic, it is more overt. Given my initial naive misunderstanding of what was going on, somewhat wryly I recalled a couple of lines from W. H. Auden's 'Woods', which seemed particularly appropriate here: 
"Guilty intention still looks for a hotel That wants no details and surrenders none;
A wood is that, and throws in charm as well" 
At times circumstances conspire to remind you that though so far as day to day essentials are concerned travel in Europe is easy and straightforward, nevertheless, suddenly it can all seem very foreign, and you sense that you still  remain a 'traveller in a far off land'.

Finally, the free aire in Sao Romao is excellent - once you find it...

With our own personal palm tree,

and a short, if slightly hair-raising walk to the station with trains every half hour or so into Porto - a 20 minute journey 


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