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Portugal 2018: Porto (The Sandeman Can)

Yes, I know, the timeline for these Portugal 2018 posts has become so ridiculously convoluted it could be a season of Westworld.

Let's take it slowly. Towards the end of July, The Belated Birthday Girl and I set out from London on an epic train journey to Lisbon, which took about 72 hours and included stopovers in Barcelona and Madrid. That journey's covered in the first half of Nobody Expects The Spanish Expedition. Once we got to Lisbon, we spent six days there, and they're documented in Free As In Jazz Or Free As In Beer. There's then an awkward gap, and after that there's another epic three-day journey from Porto back to London, via Vigo, Hendaye and Hondarribia: that latter journey is the second half of Spanish Expedition.

So this final part of the trilogy will address that gap in the middle - the three days we spent in Porto. Compared with Lisbon, there's a lot less cultural enrichment, and a lot more travelling around between nice places to eat and drink. You only get the one video this time - that one at the top there - but it shows you one of the best bits of travelling we did in those three days.

The journey from Lisbon to Porto is three hours by train, using the national rail service CP. It's an okay journey made a little more frustrating by the uselessness of the train's wi-fi, making a bit of a mess of our last-minute planning. It's possibly that lack of planning which holds us up when we get to Porto, as it takes us a while to work out which travel ticket we should be getting (it turns out it's the Andante Tour three-day pass, which you can't buy at the automatic machines even though it's advertised on them). Still, it gives us the chance to run through Elisabeth Smith's One-Day Portuguese tape one more time, and write our postcards.

From Campanha station it's a short hop on the train to Sao Bento followed by a ten minute walk to Maison Nos, which turns out to be an utterly delightful place to spend three nights. The two guys running it, Baris and Stéphane, do everything they can to make our stay perfect from beginning to end (including lugging all our bags up or down two flights of stairs as appropriate). Every morning we get served a massive breakfast with bread rolls, jam, corn cake, yoghurt, fruit salad, bruscetta, orange juice and coffee: on the second day we get to have it on the balcony, which is even nicer, and on the third day we're given a bagged up breakfast to take on our early train. Our room is a decent size, with a big shower and a kettle: we have to sleep with the window open as there's no aircon, but we cope just fine with that.

As with our time in Lisbon, there's a large number of transport options available, but you have to be careful because they're not all covered by the Andante card. The Metro isn't as useful as it first seems, as it largely exists to link the less interesting outskirts of the city with the centre. However, it does work as an introduction to the wonders of the Dom Luís I bridge, as you can cross the river by riding the D line across its upper level. The bus routes turn out to be a lot more useful for day-to-day travel, though beware if you're travelling during August as we were: the buses switch to a summer timetable at that point, and it bears no resemblance to the one you'll see on the bus stops.

All of the above transports are covered by the Andante card, but a couple of the more touristy ones aren't. They're largely the ones which acknowledge that Porto - as symbolised by the Dom Luís bridge - is a city that exists on a high level and a low level, so people have come up with interesting ways to screw you out of money if you want to get from one to the other. The Teleferico cable car is the one to aim for on the north bank of the Douro, even though it's the most obviously touristy: at the top you can get a nice view across the city from the Jardim do Morro. But on the south bank, it's worth forking out the relatively small amount for the Funicular dos Guindais, which is what that video at the top of the page is showing you. As for the trams, they're not quite as iconic as the ones in Lisbon, and are primarily there for the tourists. But the 22 is Porto's own historic equivalent of the capital's 28, and is the easiest way to get out to the interesting bars in Carmo (more on that later, predictably).

"...and anyone who does the Cockburn's gag can get out right now."So, there are plenty of ways to get around the city (and to be fair, it's small enough that a relatively healthy person could probably do the whole thing on foot). Once you're there, what can you do? Well, we're in a place that has an actual type of wine named after it, what do you think we did? Let's break this down into four separate bar crawls for organisational purposes.

On our first evening, we decide to stay on the wine, just to fool those of you who thought we'd go straight for the beer. After an evening of wandering round the banks of the Douro, we have a quick wanky glass at the Wine Quay Bar. By chance we get there just as another couple's vacating their splendid spot on the balcony looking out over the river, which is nice. The wine selection is equally splendid, notably a Cavalos 2005 that's somehow on sale at a ridiculously reasonable price. Heading back into town we stop off for a nightcap at Prova, a quiet bar with a relaxed jazzy atmosphere, where we finally crack and start on the port with a couple of glasses of Niepoort LBV. (This is the point where I get to learn about Late Bottled Vintages and the like, which will come in useful in a day or two.)

For our second night out, we slip easily back into Craft Beer Wanker mode. This is the evening when we take the 22 tram out to Carmo, where there are a couple of bars we've had recommended to us. Cervejaria do Carmo is a delightfully old-fashioned bar that just happens to be a bit crafty in its beer selections - we try an IPA from Lindinha Lucas and an Emboscada Weissbier from Biltre, with a couple of cheese toasties to count as dinner (it's all we could manage after lunch, which we'll talk about later). A bit further down the road is Catraio, which is much more of a fancy hipster joint - shelf after shelf of interesting beer, as well as a dozen or so on tap. This is where we're introduced to several new breweries from Portugal (Musa, Barona, Sovina) and Spain (In Peccatum, Bidassoa), as well as being reacquainted with ones we met for the first time in Lisbon (hello, Dois Corvos). We finish off with a Lupum Imperial Stout, just to keep it local.

But if we're serious about keeping it local, what we should be doing is visiting one of the many port lodges in the city, most of whom do guided tours. Which one to choose, though? In the end, we feel we have to go for Sandeman, because we remember the adverts from our childhood. And the excellent tour proves that this is no coincidence - the thing that's always set Sandeman apart from all the other ports made here is their ahead-of-its-time branding. They were the first to put their own logo on their barrels: and when the time came to create external advertising, they combined a Portuguese cape (symbolising the port they make) and a Spanish hat (symbolising the sherry that everyone forgets they also make) to produce the instantly recognisable silhouette of The Don. The tour guides even dress up as the Don for our walk around the cellars (though The BBG is slightly freaked out by our tour being led by what I call 'The Sandelady' and she calls 'The Donna'). It's an entertaining tour, anyway, not just for the three glasses of port we get to try at the end. Other port tastings - many other port tastings - are available in town, including the one at Quinta Santa Eufemia which you can get into for free with a voucher that comes with a ticket for the Teleferico.

For our final night we're back on the beer again, but closer to the centre of town this time. Frustratingly, it's during our visit to the penultimate bar of our stay - Armazem da Cerveja, a perfectly passable off-licence that doesn't mind you sitting in - that we discover the existence of the Porto Beer Nation map, which shows us all the craft beer places in town we've already visited and a couple we haven't heard about before. Still, it's no great loss, as we finish up at the best beer bar in the city. Letraria Craft Beer Garden is the official bar of the Letra brewery, specialising in their own beers, those of their mates and collaborators, and food as well. So our dinner is basically bar nosh (a prego steak sandwich for me, and padron peppers with fried potatoes for The BBG), and then it's a whole evening of beers of varying degrees of insanity. Once you've worked out the system - order your first drink from the ground floor bar, at which point a tab is automatically opened for you, and then take a seat in the lovely beer garden on the lower level - it's a lovely way to spend a summer's evening. Beery highlights include LX's Crazy Batch (a beer whose ABV changes every time they brew it), Letra's Rebendita milkshake passion fruit IPA (brewed in collaboration with Vilhoa), and the Insomnia imperial stout that's a three-way collab between Letra, Yria and Vernazza. If you don't share our sense of adventure, you can always go for a six-way beer flight, a concept that appears to baffle two separate Americans during our time there ("wait, you mean I have to choose six?").

As seen at Taberninha do Manel: a very happy Belated Birthday Girl, and a slightly more grumpy septopus.It feels like we spent a lot more time in bars in Porto than we did in restaurants. But we did eat as well, honestly, and here's The Belated Birthday Girl to prove it.

As our time in Porto was limited, and most of our evening meals were provided by the bars on our bar crawls – best of which being Letraria – the meals I want to talk about are two lunches we had.

The first of these was the only meal of the trip we booked in advance, before we left home, and that was at DOP, a stylish restaurant in the centre of town run by local top chef Rui Paula. An a la carte or evening meal here will set you back a fair bit, but as can sometimes be the case with top restaurants, you can get to eat at a reasonable price by going for a set lunch. We were seated on the terrace – great for people-watching. The lunch menu has two choices for each course, and as (apart from dessert) at each course one option was fish and one meat, it was a simple decision to have everything on the menu between us.

Before the starter came, we were each given 2 spoons with a tasty little fishy amuse-bouche. The starters were a smoked salmon salad for me – little curls of smoked salmon with mixed leaves and light swirls of light crème fraiche with salmon roe - and broken eggs for Spank - a variety of meats with potatoes, mushrooms and asparagus and a soft-cooked egg. For the mains mine was meagre – a sustainable alternative to wild sea bass – served with a nest of vegetable noodles and a swoosh of curry sauce, and Spank’s was duck leg with a larger swoosh of pureed sweet potato. All the food was beautifully presented, tasty and excellent quality. We chose a glass of local wine each – one white, one red (Spank's red being of 1995 vintage!) to accompany the meal. We shared the dessert options between us – a sweet course made up from plums, grapes and cinnamon presented in a variety of ways (a little fruit and cinnamon tart, a sorbet, wine-soaked plums, frozen grapes), and a cheese course served with a sprinkling of nuts and a pot of fruit compote – and finished off with a couple of coffees, accompanied by little chocolatey nutty sweet things. Definitely a lovely lunch and a great experience.

But in fact the most memorable meal to me of the Porto trip was had at Taberninha do Manel on the other side of the Douro. There are many restaurants along both sides of the river, but many are tourist traps serving mediocre food and just relying on their location to get people in – we actually ate at one of those on the Monday, partly so that Spank could get to have a Francesinha [it's like a croque monsieur containing four different types of meat - Spank] – but we’d picked up a recommendation for Taberninha do Manel as being a cut or two above, serving genuinely good food. Given our limited time, the restaurant’s opening hours, and our other plans, lunch seemed the best option for eating there, and it proved to be an excellent choice.

Spank had a cod à bras, which was a really good version of this traditional dish, with the pieces of potato still distinguishable, but my octopus was stunning: a huge tentacle, simply presented on a bed of potatoes roasted in their skins, with peppers and spinach, drizzled with a green sauce, and beautifully cooked, soft and not chewy but with enough bite. As we hadn’t had any vinho verde on the trip so far, and as we were both having fishy meals, we washed them down with a couple of glasses. It all made for a terrific lunch.

I guess everybody's holiday snaps look like this nowadays.I mentioned earlier on that Porto's small enough that you can get around on foot. On our first day we put that to the test with one of our usual strategies when in a new place: nick a walking tour route from one of our guidebooks. The Porto highlights walk from our Lonely Planet guide to Portugal (it's page 372 of the Porto chapter) is a good example of this approach, both in terms of basic orientation and as a summary of the city's architectural highlights: it starts out with the Clerigos Tower, takes time to enjoy the decorative tiles at Sao Bento station that we missed while we were buying our Andante passes, and meanders in a leisurely fashion out to the river and over the bridge.

Clerigos Tower is a fine attraction in its own right, so we're back again the next morning. Most cities have got one observation tower that gives you a great elevated view but can only be ascended by foot - just a couple of months later, I would persuade a couple of Japanese visitors to London that the Monument is worth climbing. Did you know that these days, they give you a certificate of achievement if you make it up and down the Monument without collapsing? By comparison, Clerigos is a much gentler proposition: it helps that it's constructed around a lovely church, and there are several stops during the ascent allowing you to marvel at the church interior or see an exhibition of crucified Christs through the ages. And yes, the view from the top's rather fine, too.

In terms of arty things to do, the main one we take in is the CPF or Centro Português de Fotografia, which is conveniently close to our hotel. We only have a slot of an hour or so between the Clerigos Tower and lunch at DOP, so it has to be said that we don't give the photo museum the full attention it deserves. We certainly don't have time to visit the one paid exhibit in the place, an interesting-sounding collection of Frida Kahlo's personal photographs (it finished ages ago, so you've missed it). But the majority of the building is free to enter, and has several exhibitions running concurrently, both temporary (pictures from the Esmad student competition Projeto 18) and permanent (a fine collection of old cameras, including a delightful section dedicated to spy cameras disguised as chewing gum packs and the like).

If you're fans of public transport like we are, the Museu do Carro Electrico is worth a look: and if you're an actual user of public transport, you can benefit from the fact that a tram ticket will allow you to knock a couple of euro off the entrance price to the tram museum. In effect, it's two tourist attractions in one. The main thing you're here for is a collection of Porto's old trams, from horse-drawn times to close on the present day, and they're all present and correct (although the interiors are frustratingly roped off in most cases). But it takes a fairly sizeable building to hold this many full-sized trams, and the one they're using is the former Massarelos Thermoelectric Power Plant, so there's an entire wing of old electrical generating machinery to gawp at as well.

But in the end, wherever you go in Porto, you're always drawn back to the river. A cruise up and down the Douro is a thing that needs to be done as part of the tourist experience, and Douro Azul are one of a number of companies that offer a variety of different routes and prices. There are usually queues, but early evening we manage to just stroll onto a boat that's leaving five minutes later. The one we choose is pretty straightforward, selling itself as a trip around the bridges: for about fifty minutes we sail in one direction under a few of the bridges, turn around, go back the way we came, carry on a bit further to catch another bridge or two, then go back again. It's a lovely way to spend a summer evening, even if your boat is predictably full of German tourists who keep standing in front of you while they take photos of themselves.

Porto was only a small part of our two-week trek around Portugal and Spain, but it was hugely enjoyable. Well, maybe except for one small thing. The BBG notes above that our coffee at DOP came with a couple of "little chocolatey nutty sweet things," one of which was an incredibly hard brittle of some sort. I didn't notice until a couple of days later - specifically, our first meal back in London at St Pancras Brasserie - that one of my teeth had chipped at some stage, and I'm suspecting Rui Paula's rock-hard nibbles were to blame. Still, given all the other nice stuff we did in Porto, I'm not going to hold it against him. Being a monkey, and all.


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