Porto, Portugal | Little Lanes, Big Bridges and the Craziest of Crazy Golf

The rest of our weekend exploring more sights and a rainy Sunday with a game of crazy golf.

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After a lazy lunch we headed back out onto the sunny, cobbled streets of the historic centre of Porto. We had not made any real plans for the afternoon and strolled through the town turning into random streets that took our fancy. We strolled along busy streets with Saturday shoppers, shops with signs that looked like they were stuck in the 1950’s or 60’s. Jerome was curious about many of the small shops selling anything from books, sweets, treats and local produce.

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We stumbled onto another small church, the Capella das Almas, which was covered in striking azulejos tiles. The magnificent details of the mural were even more detailed than the two churches we had seen that morning.

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Not far from there we entered the Sa Bento train station, which was also famous for its tiles in the ticket hall and has been known as one of the world’s most beautiful train stations. Jerome went out onto the platforms, curious to see what Portugese trains look like. We watched a few arrive and depart.

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We then hiked opposite hill to the Church of Clerics. When we got there we saw a wedding moving inside the opulent church. We did not want to disturb the wedding ceremony and therefore headed straight for the tower of the church instead of going inside.

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travel with kids children porto portugal church clerics

One of the highlights of many trips for us is to see a place or town from higher up. It gives a better feel of the size and layout of a place, and it is always interesting to look down on buildings and streets from a different angle and perspective. Despite Chris sometimes having a problem with heights we bought tickets and started ascending the 72 metre high “Clerigos” tower. First we got a glimpse of the wedding from the balcony, the bride and groom were well immersed in the ceremony oblivious to tourists looking in on them. There were also some rooms exhibiting items of historical value from the church, including priests robes and regalia. Jerome pushed us on to climb further straight away, the rest of the 225 steps.

We were quite out of breath when we reached the top. We had the room almost to ourselves and therefore could gaze at the view without being rushed. This made great spot for birds eye view photos of the terracotta coloured roofs, the colourfully painted houses, some of them completely covered in tiles, and we got a prime view over to the famous Luis Dom I bridge. The Duoro river sparkled in the afternoon sun and we could see many people walking across the bridge.

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The Dom Luis I bridge was next on our list of places to see. The bridge was built by one of Gustave Eiffel’s students and is like the Eiffel tower on its side, constructed entirely of steel. It had replaced an old bridge made of old port boats. The old pontoon bridge had been dangerous to cross as the river at the time had not been dammed and therefore was more like a raging ravine than the calm flowing river it is today. The new bridge’s arch held the world record for the longest iron arch until it was overtaken 10 years later. The bridge can be accessed on two levels – the top one is reserved for pedestrians and one metro line these days – while the bottom road is busy with cars and pedestrians alike.

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We were on the top level, walking along the west side, looking down onto steep steps that I remembered climbing during our last stay. Some of the houses there were now complete ruins, while others appeared to have been renovated. Locals were busy hanging their washing out and someone was repairing part of the stairs amongst the overgrown plants. We walked on towards the middle of the bridge, and every time a tram passed we could feel the bridge sway under the weight. From the centre of the bridge we had a great view of Porto and the river in both directions. We could see some rowers flowing downstream, some port boats anchored on both riversides and the promenade heaving with people enjoying their strolls along the riverfront.

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We were headed for the gondola, Teleferico de Gaia, that we had spotted going up and down on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river. Chris and I definitely could not remember the gondola from last time and instead of walking down the winding street to the riverfront we bought tickets for the short ride on the cableway. Despite the bridge being full of tourists no one else seemed to want to spare the few Euros for the ride. We got a gondola immediately and descended gently down to the cobbled streets of the famous Port district warehouses. We could see the roofs and buildings of many famous Port cellars, including Sandeman and Calem.

View of the historic town

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A trip to one of the wine cellars should be mandatory for all adult visitors to Porto but unfortunately this is not possible with a child in tow as these tours usually include wine tasting. Chris and I had experienced a tour of Sandeman during our last stay and therefore we were not too sad to miss this experience this time. Instead we sat down on the riverfront and enjoyed a calm moment of watching the people and boats float down the Duoro. Jerome liked the look of the wooden port boats filled with traditional wine barrels, but we were too late for a ride.

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We watched the sun set behind the hills and then made our way back to the hotel. First we crossed back to the other side of the river on the famous arched bridge, this time on the lower level. We went down along the pedestrian promenade as far as we could head down river and then walked along the main road to the hotel rather than hop on a tram. That evening we had booked a table at the restaurant O Paparico where we enjoyed a set menu for dinner, in this authentic rustic restaurant. Jerome was not taken by the food at all, as it was a fixed menu with no choice, but we enjoyed it all the more.

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It rained when we got up on Sunday morning and having promised Jerome a ride on the tram to the coast we wavered but then decided to go anyway. The tram was already packed when it stopped at our station and we had to stand the whole way, while it made its way through the suburbs of Porto towards the end stop at Foz do Duoro. The tram reminded us a lot of the one running between Soller and Port Soller on Mallorca, except they were probably in a less good state. Foz do Duoro is a sleepy little beach town, on a sunny day locals and tourists flock there to enjoy the beaches. That day there was barely anyone around, unlike us braving the steady misty rain.

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The grey clouds and the Duoro river seemed to merge into one. We strolled through the park, where we stumbled up on a crazy golf course. Naturally no one else was mad enough to play a round of golf in this weather… but Jerome had always been a fan and talked us into playing despite the drizzle. The golf course was covered by large, mature trees, which provided us with some protection from the rain. We played all 18 holes and had surprisingly a lot of fun, despite the bad weather! I won in the end, the ink on the score pads was almost illegible at the end due to the damp. The rain had taken its toll on us and we were rather wet at the end.

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We walked further into the local centre, passed the lighthouse and some seagulls who did not seem happy about the rain either. The beach was pounding with waves and apart from a few brave fishermen there was no one around. We got to Restaurant Oporto, where we were lucky to get a table, a hot soup and warm up. We played a few rounds of cards that we brought, as we knew we could not spend all day outside in the rain. Then it was time for us to get back onto the tram, this time we got seats and rode back to the hotel, where we rapidly picked up our luggage before heading back to the airport.

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We had a great weekend in Porto and we want to return as there were so many sights like the Palacio Bolsa and places that we did not see during our brief stay in town. The short flight and time zone makes it an easy short break destination from London and also most of Europe.

Porto, Portugal | A Morning of Trams, Iron Bridges, Cafes and Winding Streets in Porto

Our first morning in Porto, exploring the historic centre

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Most people think of port wine and the many wineries along the Duoro river when they hear of Porto. In my opinion there is much more to Porto though, as Chris and I had discovered on our visit in 2003. We had fallen in love with the small town in northern Portugal at the time and always planned to return one day.

Years had passed since, and when I found a great deal for a weekend in September I could not resist – either the deal or the city. We flew out on the Friday night and went straight to bed once we had checked into hotel Vincci, just outside the centre of Porto, next to the Duoro River.

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We got up early enough, just in time to have breakfast from the vast buffet the hotel included in our stay. The hotel building used to be known as the fish market, but has been converted into a unique hotel with amazing art deco features since its closure. It is located right next to the tram museum, the Mueso de Carro Electrico which is itself in a old electricity station. Jerome’s affinity to vehicles meant that this had always been our first place to see after heading out that morning. We were very disappointed when we found that despite saying it was open that day, we were informed that it was closed for repairs. Jerome was sad that we would not be able to see the old trams, but one of the trams arrived from a special service and the tram driver saw Jerome’s disappointment and let him climb aboard the tram before it was due to go back into the sheds. We also promised Jerome a trip on one of the rickety, vintage trams later on during our stay.

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We then strolled up the little narrow lanes towards the Palacio Cristal, which I remembered from our last visit. We walked up some steep steps, past run down houses and ruins, which have been left to fall apart. It was apparent how poor parts of Portugal still are compared to the rest of Europe. There was much graffiti and many street art murals on the bare walls but as we reached an open space we got an amazing view towards one of the many high bridges spanning the river with the sea in the distance. From here it was apparent how close the town is to the sea.

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travel with kids children porto portugal street art

We turned a corner and stumbled upon a beautiful garden with a stately home – the Museo Romantico de Quinta de Macieirinha – in its midst. We ventured inside and after watching an informative video about the history of the house we walked through the many elegant rooms. The house was once the home of the exiled king of Sardinia and there was a grand selection of period furniture, relics and paintings to see. Jerome was most fascinated by the children’s room with its old toys. He also took a keen interest in the stuffed animals and butterfly collections.

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Afterwards we strolled up, through the shaded slopes to the futuristic looking Pavilhao de Rosa Mota. This striking building from 1956, replaced the original Palacio de Cristal and now harbours a large auditorium and library. It hosts a variety of events, including exhibitions, theatre and musical performances. Since our last visit I had been fascinated by the architecture and always wanted to peek inside the building as I imagined the many round port hole shaped windows in the dome shaped ceiling must make an interesting sight and cast funny shadows onto its walls and floors. I walked up the stairs and tried to get a peek inside as the entrance was closed but there was nowhere I could even get a glimpse of the interior.

The boys had walked on, not sharing my enthusiasm for the building and architecture. Despite the time of year it was getting warmer and the sun was out. The gorgeous botanical garden was the perfect place for us to take a break before walking on to the busier parts of town. We sat down on one of the benches with a view of the Ponte de Luis I, the sparkling Duoro river and the crowded hills of the historic town to share some snacks from our pack. It seemed to be a popular place for local couples and families to take a stroll along the many paths, past flowerbeds and gurgling fountains. We even spotted some peacocks parading around. The gardens make the perfect spot for children to let off some steam after a walk through town.

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travel with kids children porto portugal crystal pavilion architecture

travel with kids children porto portugal crystal pavilion

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Outside the gardens we took a road that led us east along the ridge to the two famous churches, Igreja de Carmelitas and Igreja de Carmo. The two churches are separated by a very narrow house only one metre wide, amazingly someone actually used to live there until 20 years ago.   The churches used to be the home of the monks of Carmo and the Carmelite nuns. Both churches are rather dark inside but the lack of light did not diminish the pomp and glitz of the golden statues and features along the walls and ceilings. The mural on the tiles is rich in details, perspective and colour. These azulejos (famous traditional blue and white hand painted tiles) make a special trip to the churches worthwhile. Behind the churches we found a small square with stalls selling local crafts and vintage knick-knack.

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We had already walked a fair bit by now and lunchtime was approaching fast. A friend, who is local to the area, had recommended us to have the traditional dish of Francesinha at Restaurant Brasao. When we got to the popular restaurant we were told that there would be a wait before we could get a table. We did not mind and sat down outside, by now the temperatures had come up to t-shirt weather and we enjoyed the sun.

A Francesinha makes a perfect lunch for children actually, as it has all the ingredients of comfort food. It is basically a sandwich, filled with sausage, meat and ham, topped with cheese and then drowned in delicious gravy. Ours came with a side of French fries, but it would have been filling enough without.  It set us up for a long afternoon exploring the rest of the city and I will tell you more about that in my next post.

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