Porto

Porto

When I mentioned to friends that I was going to Porto for the weekend a few of them said “Where?”, or even “Is that in Italy?”.  This surprising lack of knowledge made me realise that Portugal’s second city is still not firmly on the tourist map.  Unless, that is, you talk to the locals who say that tourism exploded in the city about 4 years ago.  My advice is to go soon before it gets even more popular.

I had a few ideas in my head about Porto.  I knew about Port (the fortified wine), I knew about the Douro valley and the river, and I had seen pictures of the iron bridge that makes the skyline, at first glance, reminiscent of Newcastle.  And that was all I knew.

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Over the next four days I learned a lot more, and fell in love with the city.  The residents of Porto are loud and brash and, apparently, use swear words like commas when they talk.  But, despite this brashness, they are exceptionally friendly and happy.  They are fiercely proud of Porto and, should you mention anything about the city that is superior to Lisbon, they will be your best friend.

Staying in an Airbnb in the Vitoria district, close to the centre, I felt welcome.  Down our street (more of an alley) was a family run shop.  Grandma and granddaughter sitting outside chatting in the warm October evening.  Wanting basic provisions for the next morning, the young girl, using perfect English, helped us out and charged a ridiculously low price.  Tourists were still relatively rare in these side streets, probably deterred by the steep steps up from the city.

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Things I didn’t know about Porto included the fact that it had beaches only half an hour away by tram or bus.  One of the beaches was used by surfers, riding the Atlantic rollers.  I felt glad to have hired a wet-suit for my attempt because the water is cold.

I also had no idea that “Porto” on the south side of river, isn’t Porto, but a completely separate city called Gaia.  Gaia is the home to all the Port producers.  Looking from Porto over the river to Gaia at night you will see the illuminated names of familiar, British sounding names like Taylors, Grahams, Dow, and Sandemans.  A tour, for about 12 Euros, of one of these producers is well worth the time.  We went to Taylor’s where the history and production processes are well described.  You get to tour the large cellars with stacks of sweet smelling oak barrels, and, after the tour, try the wine in a beautiful gardens overlooking the river.

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Food is very important to the Portuguese and a tour of the old market didn’t disappoint – mountains of fresh vegetables, dried pulses and fresh fish.

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And if you want “bad food” you can also get a 2,500 calorie sandwich called a Francesinha…lots and lots of meat and cheese and covered with a beer and  tomato sauce…  it’s an experience!

 

I spent an hour or so one evening trying to capture a long exposure of the famous bridge and the lights of the city at dusk.

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The river valley fills up with sea mist overnight creating some spooky early morning photo opportunities as well.

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Overall I think Porto is towards the top of my list of favourite places.  It is certainly a good choice for a weekend away.

 

Rotorua

Rotorua

Having already visited Yellowstone and Iceland in previous travels, this destination was the final piece in the geothermal collection.  Unlike the others, the bubbling hot pools can be found in the centre of town.  In the town’s park to be precise.

These are pretty unimpressive cordoned-off pits compared to the beauty that can be found a few miles out of town.  Within an hours drive there are a collection of very different thermal parks, each with their own character and features.

Some are brutal, sulphurous, other-worldly landscapes….

But my favourite was Waimangu Volcanic Valley.  It was, uniquely, created within recent historic times (1886), when an eruption left behind a succession of geothermal features along a beautiful valley.   Some features, like the worlds largest hot-water spring, Frying Pan Lake, were created as recently as 1917 in an eruption that buried a nearby tourist hotel.

The whole area is very important to the Maoris, who discovered the area and utilised the geothermal activity for cooking and for medicinal purposes.

We went to a Maori cultural centre to learn more about their history and traditions.

 We also had a hangi feast…with meat and vegetables cooked underground in a pit and covered in sacks and earth.  The lamb and chicken tasted so good…very tender due to the slow cooking.