Oporto

13 July 2013 My, how time flies when you’re having fun.

Saturday 13th on a train to Oporto (Portugal) via Vigo.

Hastings

But first a further word about the architecture in the U.K., viz a viz The Pubs. Call me sentimental, but I have always loved the cosy, snug atmosphere of the (particularly) English Pub. I used to liken them to having the welcoming atmosphere of someone’s (cosy and snug, of course) old living room – the lounges in both my uncle and my friend Syd’s homes manage to impart this atmosphere even though they are currently in more modern structures than most Pubs. Many of the Pubs date from Victorian times and are restored with great integrity.

Scallop Shell EmblemSantiago de Compostella – the land of the Scallop Shell. The ancient church in the old centre is the end of a long pilgrimage for the faithful (and heaps of tourists) that starts way to the east in France. Noticed a few weary but ecstatic (one tearful) folk who’d evidently made it to the cathedral, but the ecstasy and tears could have just been relief – it’s a long walk.

Once again a very touristy town but not without charm architecturally and it is of a manageable size, easy to handle. And here, with the scallop shell embellishing everything whichever way you look, they have the good sense to serve scallops with the roe on. Only Australia, I think, has the temerity to serve half a Santiago de Compestelascallop – and I was told at a Fremantle fishing Co-op that they remove the roe and feed it to the gulls following the boats. We ate lots of octopus and squid (specialties here) washed down with copious amounts of their excellent beer, Estrella Galicia, and their superb local white wine, Alboriño and/or Ribeira. I am pleased to report, too, that prices have not escalated in the small but popular places we eat in. Ah, it’s a hard job, but someone has to do it. I love the way you order and leisurely consume your food and drinks here (including second, or even third, orders) without being required to pay until you are ready to go – and I am not referring to restaurants, but bars and cafes. Both in Italy and Spain, too, it is still common to be given a tapa or pinchito free with your order of drinks. In Perugia, in one particular bar, it verged on the incredible, with huge bowls of free pasta and salads for you to help yourself to throughout the evening, and it wasn’t on just on one particular day – not that I was complaining. To drink alcohol (esp. wine) unaccompanied by food here is considered very unwise indeed.

Spain is renowned for its many festivals and there was a local one going on near our hotel with daily rounds of explosions going off (at first I thought we were in the vicinity of a quarry). Didn’t get to see the action but, well, you can’t take in everything. There is, up here in northern Spain (Galicia), a lot of small farm holdings, many like allotments and some even just back/front yards given over to growing produce, including wheat and corn (which would account for the superb quality of the local bread – corn flour (not super refined, but more like polenta) is also used to make a delicious bread). The folks hereabouts grow produce, things like vegies, fruit and grapes, whereas we seem to be doing less and less of that, giving over to the supermarkets’ inferior produce. Often the grape vines – obviously well-tended – are used to enclose a small field which may have a variety of vegetables growing within. Local growers’ wine is frequently available in bars and restaurants – cheap, fresh and usually light in alcohol.

A CorunaWe took a day trip by train up to A Coruña on the North West coast boarding the Artabrian Sea. It is an amazing port city with most of its buildings featuring multiple, mullioned white-framed windows. I have no idea why (they’d be difficult to clean); but it is a markedly distinct architectural style. Out at the headlands it was clear that it could be tempestuous in colder weather, but for our visit, as for most of this trip, it was very hot. We reached there by doing considerable mileage on foot from the rail station right out to the Tower of Hercules on the headland, but not before finding a fantastic and popular little eatery where we ordered superb fried cuttlefish with a mixed salad, some tortilla, bread, beer and wine. The kitchen staff were amazing, working with great speed and efficiency in a tiny space. As we often find here, they were inspirational, painfully reminding us of the tortuous waits we have endured for such things as even a simple bloody coffee back in Perth (oh, and that is only after you have given your money to them). Our walk took us right out around the coast, passing delightful small beaches which were packed with sun worshipers who seemed to want to brown every last bit of their bodies – old and young. Which reminds me, I managed to get photos of some great pairs of knockers in Italy. You’ll just have to wait for the photos . The headland is also a site of some interesting large granite sculptures. Granite is prevalent right down into northern Portugal and is use to interesting effect in some (obviously more costly) homes and structures.

Vigo to Oporto Express – going like the clappers. After leaving Santiago we had to change to this smaller, more rustic Portuguese train in Vigo. We do enjoy travelling by rail. We had great views of the countryside, its rivers, inlets, ports and beaches but mein gott that little train was belting along in places. Maybe the driver was late for a date.

Standing tall! I have to add here that my great grandmother on my mother’s side is Portuguese. Serafin Da Costa married a Rocca from Gibraltar. He, himself, was of Genoese stock, and during our visit to Italy we saw much use of the word “Rocca”, with a double ‘c’. There are many large, monolithic rock promontories around the southern Italian coast called ‘La Rocca’. Gibraltar itself, curiously, is often referred to as El Piñon (The Rock) by the Spanish and the Gibraltarians – El Piñon can mean simply La Rocca in Italian. A perhaps interesting point is that on the whole the Portuguese are of modest stature – though there are some, a minority, magnificently well-built specimens. Both the women and men tend to have attractive features. I, a standard, short-arsed Welsh/Spanish/Portuguese bloke am able to feel quite substantial over here whereas in Australia I am dwarfed by even school kids!

140713 FOOD & SEX

FOOD: We had been warned –

Oporto
Our first meal (about midday) in Porto (strangely called ‘Oporto’ by the Spanish) was a Cocido Portuguese, a hearty stew. Actually, hearty doesn’t do it justice. The plate/platter (for two) was groaning with pork, beef, chicken, morcilla (black pudding), chorizo, smoked ham, cabbage, potatoes, carrots . . . and there was a side dish of rice. We’d been warned the servings were generous – this was a dish for two, we should have ordered one. Rachel pointed out the pigs snout in amongst it; waste not, want not – both of us avoided that piece. But anyway, there was no way we could finish this lot, in spite of the bottle of local, light (10.5%) white wine. We skipped dessert and passed to the coffee, with which I was encouraged to have an Aguardiente (Mediterranean firewater), not a pleasurable drink in my opinion. There was no fear of this being an expensive exercise: the whole lot came to 25 Euros (including a pre-meal beer and glass of wine which I forgot to mention). For the hotel in Spain and this rather simpler accommodation in Porto we are paying 30 Euros/night. Simple, clean, self-contained, serviced and with good, free wi-fi: they suit our needs. This small establishment in Porto is across the road from the rail (access to the airport from there), metro and bus station and local buses. For our needs it couldn’t be better.

OPorto
Our first day in Porto we took a bus to a distant old fort and walked back around the seaside from there to the river-mouth (the Duoro) and along it back into the old city and I have to tell you, I/we have never seen anything like this old city of Porto before! It is incredible. The city was built on the very steep, high and undulating sides of the Douro river, where grapes have been grown for centuries – thus the connection with the port wine industry. I am told there are geographical similarities with San Francisco, but that city wouldn’t have the antiquity. Porto was a major port (just up from the river’s mouth) for Portuguese trade, exploration (Henry the Navigator) and eventually, the export of Port to the thirsty world. This city demands photos to explain it and they will be provided – eventually. Given its unusual-ness, we are giving it a few days before we head to Spain to meet my cousins in Sevilla.

We basically choose our eating places by their busyness and absence of tourists, shunning those whose tables spill out into the plazas under umbrellas and have multi-lingual menus. For both our lunch and this evening’s snack we hit it right on the head. In the evening we eased our way into a packed bar that was serving local (light) wine in generous servings and dispensing oodles of food to the hungry locals. We ordered two bowls of potato soup with spinach (thinly sliced) accompanied by a rye bread made from broad beans. Beautiful. What they were serving most of, however, was rich, stewed pork slices (simmered in oil, salt, pepper and a piri piri sauce) between a sliced fresh bun (these delectable and generous servings, which we later had several of, cost the equivalent of AUD$2). They also served other food. We went back there several times. Our soups with bread and three (very full) glasses of that wine cost 4.90 Euros. Two coffees and two Portuguese cakes at a café nearby cost 2.80 Euros. You get the picture? But what an incredible place this is – cheap or not.

SEX: Mmmmmmfff. Well, what did you expect . . . really?

From our bedroom window we can see the rail station clock, but directly across, on a concrete platform in front of a disused building (for lease), 3 men sleep each night behind a large sheet of plywood in a corner. The combined space they share is about 1.5m² and they wash, sleep and dress there. They spend their days as parking attendants. It is a livelihood we have seen played out by Gypsies from Sevilla to Algeciras – but I don’t think these are Gypsies, more likely just hard-up men. They try to assist a confused driver entering, in this instance a railway station, parking area and direct them into parking spaces as they become available. Many drivers reject their urgent hand signals, but the wise offer a few coins and can rest assured that their car will be there, unscathed, when they return. It’s totally unofficial and the law lets them get on with it.

170713 A trip today by rail to Aveiro, a seaside city an hour by train from Porto. There were a couple of highlights, and these were both based around food and drink. Yesterday we feasted on sardines (small, fried in corn flour for lunch, large and barbequed for dinner) – with local light wine of course. Today we settled for some simple corn bread bocadillos filled with excellent local, air-cured ham with some local, semi-cured sheep’s cheese. Some of you will have no idea just how delectable this can be – I can only urge you to travel. Once again we accompanied this with simple and light vino verde. I am going to have to say something soon about the pretentiousness that has clouded the enjoyment of wine in our ‘new world’. Get over it Australia and New Zealand – wine is a simple product with digestive properties for daily consumption and appreciation in its most basic form. The snobbery and pretention that has developed around wine in the New World, IMHO, is just completely irrelevant to the enjoyment of the product.

Oporto Templar Knights Symbol
By rail to Braga yesterday, inland. An interesting place historically, the Templar Knights made a base there as did the Romans and, earlier, the Visigoths. The Romans didn’t get to defeat the people of this Galician region, and Portugal as a nation was born just north of here at Guimares. We had a great and very economical meal (with local wine of course) in the small restaurant whose owner had spent 20 years in the USA and so was able to converse with us and answer our many questions – thus we learn. After that we stumbled upon an antique shop where we had a long and pleasant conversation in Spanish/Portuguese and learned even more. I also picked up some Roman coins that she (the young owner) had ‘picked up’ from a development site that she managed to get to before the site became secured – much of the city is built over Roman ruins.

It should be said that in all our conversations in all our recent travel the people are emphatically proud of their countries, if not their politicians. While on this theme – we have found a universal friendliness and willingness to assist. There may yet be hope for the human race. If only we can get rid of politicians and money lenders . . .

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