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First Impressions of Portugal

written by Terysa July 20, 2015

It’s been over a week since I posted last, and for that I apologise. I know you must all be going through some serious withdrawal symptoms by now, but fear not: I’m back.

Last Sunday we left Baiona, a wonderful city we could have spent a lot more time in, and sailed south to Viana do Castelo in Portugal. We arrived into the small marina and were pointed towards a berth that had two other yachts on it, with a space in between. This was our first experience with Mediterranean style mooring, and we were so glad that one of the yachtsmen on the neighbouring boat jumped off to help us, otherwise we would have had literally no idea what to do. The next day we helped out another English yacht who looked similarly bewildered, so we’re obviously not alone!

This was our first taste of Portugal and we were pleasantly surprised. What looked like a fairly charmless industrial river-side town turned out to be a prosperous, up-market place with big plazas and narrow paved streets lined with expensive looking homewares and jewellery shops, plenty of bars and restaurants, and a beautifully maintained park running along the riverfront. We were impressed.

In hindsight, we probably should have stayed another couple of days, because, so far, Viana has been the highlight of the Portugese leg of our trip. Next stop was Povoa Varzim, which was an incredible €9 per night (we got a 50% discount). However, you get what you pay for, and, although there was nothing wrong with the marina- apart from a lot of bird poop for some reason- the town had absolutely nothing to recommend it. This is second hand information, taken from Nick who went ashore to find a supermarket. I didn’t even bother to get off the boat. He came back and reported that it was like a Portugese version of Ramsgate. Moving swiftly along…

Porto was our next stop and we were cautiously optimistic that this would be a good town to spend a bit of time in. We arrived into the brand new marina, was helped in by a friendly marineros, and then went to the bus stop to catch the bus into town. Well, that was a mistake. An hour later, and having had a winding tour of Porto’s rather forgettable southern suburbs, we finally arrived into town, map in hand.

Walking around, I think it’s fair to say we felt a bit nonplussed. Nick and I have discussed our impressions of Porto at length, so I’m speaking for both of us here. Porto is certainly a very interesting place, with plenty of historical significance, something that is reflected in it’s architecture. Impressive buildings and churches abound, and, aesthetically, it’s fascinating. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere that so perfectly fits the description of ‘shabby chic.’ Many of the residential areas are quite run-down, and even the main shopping or eating areas have a derelict air. Not all the buildings, of course. Many are well maintained, but it seems that this is an uphill struggle- pardon the pun, because, of course, the other defining factor of Porto is its hilly nature. Great for toning the legs. Less good for trying to maintain that effortless ‘all I do is drink lots of water and wear moisturiser’ natural look that I generally aim for (and fail miserably, clearly). Sweat patches, a red face and frizzy hair are not a good look.

Street art, Porto

Street art, Porto

But Porto is as chic as it is shabby, and, underneath all these beautiful run-down old buildings are streets full of tiny wine bars, cool cafes, funky restaurants, boutique shops selling God knows what (all expensive, of course). Add that to the trams running along the riverfront (Nick thought they looked like something out of the 20s, I thought they looked like something out of the 50s, but we both agreed that they were of another era entirely), the hoards of young tattooed hipsters, the hand-written slogans on blackboards out the front of the bars saying things like, “Money may not buy happiness, but it buys alcohol, and that’s almost the same thing”, and Porto was strangely reminiscent of Melbourne, in a weird way.

One of the squares in Porto

One of the squares in Porto

Despite all this, Nick and I didn’t feel a connection with Porto. There was something a little forced and impersonal about it. The city was too big, there were too many tourists, and I just didn’t feel relaxed there. Plus, it was a slog to get to from the marina- we faced either the aforementioned bus ride, or a long walk to the ferry. We chose the latter, but the next day took our bikes to try and speed up the process. Dodging trams, cars, pedestrians, and other cyclists- who all use the same multi-purpose lane on the side of the proper road- meant that what we gained in speed, we lost in enjoyment.

Putting the 'shabby' in shabby chic

Putting the ‘shabby’ in shabby chic

So we left Porto a little earlier than we’d originally planned, and made our way to Figueira da Foz. The English couple who we’d helped in Viana with their lines kept popping up, and we saw them again in Porto. Graham and Jayne, a lovely couple who are planning to spend a few years sailing around the Med, were also leaving Porto yesterday, and so we sailed in company with them. It was a long day- about 12 hours- but was hugely enjoyable.

The morning dawned cloudy but mild, without a breath of wind, and the seas were reassuringly calm (swell’s been a bit of an issue- but we’ll be thankful for that when we get to the surf beaches). The sky and the sea were exactly the same hue of oyster grey, and it was a truly beautiful morning, despite being overcast. Another bonus- FISH! We’ve finally been able to justify the huge amount of money we’ve spent on fishing gear over the last couple of years, as we landed mackerel after mackerel, including a large Atlantic mackerel on the “big” fishing rod, the first thing we’ve caught on that bloody thing despite having a line out on almost every passage. So that was a bit of excitement.

The cloud moved off around midday and we had an afternoon of bright sunshine and flat seas. Lovely. That night, after tying up, Graham and Jayne came over to help us eat all that mackerel, which we cooked on the BBQ. It was absolutely delicious.

Figueira da Foz is, again, underwhelming. It seems like perhaps the recession has hit hard here- there’s lots of closed shopfronts and £1 shops, or the equivalent. The big shopping centre is all closed down, sitting there rather sadly in the centre of town. So, despite the fact that we’re quite ready to slow down and just stay somewhere for a week or so, we’ve not found anywhere we’re happy to spend that length of time. So, tomorrow, Nazaré. I shall report back.



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1 comment

Orson Olson August 11, 2018 at 6:29 am

It’s’ been decades, but I was 12 years old the last time I was in Oporto. Lisboa, and Estoril. Portugal lives in Spain’s shadow, not just as a historic empire, but as an modern day success story. I suspect the wild Latin powerhouse of Brazil, as an outlet of fiscal opportunity, keeps their people from dire Greek-like frustration!

Thanks for the generous update, terysa. I will forego a conference in September in Oporto for travel prep to Europe…expecting include some boat shopping for a 40+foot second-hand Southerly.

-Orson (British educated Yankee from Denver)


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