Porto and a weekend in Aveiro
We "kicked off" the weekend by taking the trip that we'd been promising ourselves - a ride along the canals in one of the traditional Moliceiros boats. Aveiro canals criss-cross the centre of town, radiating out from the Praça Humberto Delgado, in the very heart of the city.
The Moliceiros are long and narrow, with a stylish bow and stern - decorated with humour, they depict everyday (and sometimes"naughty") situations......a couple of them even tow a fake duck behind the boat. The boats are usually made of pine and are about 15 metres long and 2 1/2 metres wide.
We boarded our boat at a point where one of the canals "dead-ends" - in the Fish Market district. Although this area is a busy place for restaurants and bars, it's a quieter place to start and end the journey - especially late afternoon/early evening on a Friday! Our 45 minute boat ride, which was the last of the day to leave from this area, had only a few passengers - and as there was very little wind, the water was calm as we glided along - no gravol required!
We were fortunate that the young woman, who earlier in the day had reserved our seats, climbed aboard and gave a commentary - in English - for just the two of us (the few people at the back of the boat received theirs in Portuguese). We heard background information on some of the places that we'd seen while walking the city, and also some history on many of the houses - both grand and modest. On the outskirts of town, one section of the canal passed by the "salt-pans" (more on that later), where we had to turn around due to a lock that stops these boats from entering the lagoon.
There is something about a city set amongst water that adds a certain charm and magic, and Aveiro is no exception. Apart from the novelty factor, a cruise around when first arriving, would be a good way to give a scenic introduction to the town......although we'd explored the town quite a bit before our boat-ride, the early evening made it even more picturesque - giving us a great vantage point as the sun went down over the town.
During our stay in Portugal, we've started having a traditional Saturday morning breakfast of local pastries. The café here in Aveiro, where we buy our bread and these delicious treats, is handily just around the corner of our street - only a 4 minute walk away. Fuelled by this weekend "high" of sugar & caffeine we went off to take a closer look at the "salt-pans" we'd seen the evening before.
Although a part of our independent ramblings, this may not be high up on other tourist itineraries - but for us it was interesting. Based around the shallow lagoons that separate Aveiro from the Atlantic (it's bit of a walk out of town), salt is one of the major industries - along with the seaweed harvesting, which is used as a natural fertilizer. There's also many types of waterfowl that can be seen around these marshes.
Huge piles of salt are dotted around the area, along with huts where the workers can take a break from the sun & heat. Local salt, in all varieties, can be purchased here (as well as in town)......salt "spa pools" can be used for a small entrance fee.....and there are, of course, a few small cafés for rest & refreshments!
We returned to town, choosing the area around the Praça do Peixe - the old fish market - for our late afternoon drinks. This area is filled with cafés, restaurants & bars, some that are open until 4 am on weekends - although we can't personally vouch for that. The market itself dates back to the late 18th century when the municipality decided to organize and monitor the fish-selling of the area.......It opens every day, except Sunday.
Late on this particular Saturday afternoon the square was filled with not only regular locals and tourists, but the fans of two opposing soccer teams that were playing (somewhere) locally that evening. Although boisterous and hugely entertaining, there was no sign of any troubles that is possible when soccer fans are around......and, thankfully, the night time game didn't cause us any loss of sleep due to excess noise!
Also of interest to us on this afternoon, was observing some of the local young men, who having parked their scooters & bikes across the road from our vantage point at an outside table, sat at the next table to us. After a short time spent chatting & drinking their espressos they returned to their bikes, and with lots of revving - which gained the attention of some young ladies (and thrilled the children in the vicinity) - were off again on their Saturday travels.
We (fortunately) had a quiet Sunday, before beginning what was to be a week where we did even more walking than usual. My first "travel-tale" is of Porto, which last year we visited twice.
Arriving there this time, we were, once again, immediately "smitten" by the city and the railway station of Sao Bento. It's difficult to describe the entrance & feeling of one of the most decorated stations in Europe - its inside walls are filled with beautifully painted azulejos tiles, that show events from Portugal's history. Exiting the station you're immediately assaulted by the city's beauty - and the noise. Locals and tourists all crowd the area and - even more than last year - we heard and saw the hammering and construction that is happening on almost every street......tourism in Portugal is booming.....and the popularity of this city is growing.
Having seen many of the more visited areas last year, we decided to change it up - and set off with a street map and a bit of a vague itinerary. We were quickly reminded that some of these "less visited" areas have become more popular.....and that in Porto everything that is "just around the corner" - is also, usually up a hill! Many of the city's historic parts are set up on two hills, with the downtown area winding down to the Douro river.
We first walked up the Avenida dos Aliados (Avenue of the Allies), a wide & grand avenue, with ornate buildings in a range of architectural styles. The name of this street is a reference to the oldest alliance in the world - a treaty between Portugal and the U.K. from the 14th century - which is still in force. At the top, and dominating the avenue is the Câmara Municipal (town hall). This attractive and stately building has a lovely reception area and a clock tower that stands 220 feet above the street. In front of the town hall is a tree-lined square with busy streets on both sides.
We continued on our way, in search of the Livraria Lello - which we'd wanted to see last year, but had never quite managed to "fit in." Along the way we stopped at two beautiful churches - the Igreja e Torre dos Clérigos & the Igreja do Carmo......we did, I have to "confess," make time to stop for a beer in between viewing the 2 places!
The Igreja do Carmo is actually two churches separated by a very narrow house, which was built to make contact between the nuns and the monks impossible. The Carmelitas church was built in the 17th century, with a classical façade and a bell tower. The Carmo church was built in the 18th century - in the Baroque style - and has the most beautifully detailed blue & white tile panel on one of its sides. Inside the interiors are rich with gilded wood, beautiful ceilings and lots of gold!
The Igreja dos Clérigos - church of the Ecclesiastics, which was built in the mid-18th century is also Baroque, but the impressive Tower is its most memorable feature. This granite tower rises up in stages, to almost 250 feet, ending with the spherical "clock house." It has become a landmark in Porto......which for us was good.....because it helped us to find the Livraria Lello.....now more commonly known to tourists as the Harry Potter bookshop!
Built in the early 1900s this book store is included in the top 3 in the world. The front has hand-painted figures representing Science and Art - and, apparently, the inside is even more beautiful than the façade.....but as we didn't get inside it, we have no opinion on that. Admittedly we didn't try very hard to see it last year, so we were left wondering....what if? Just as Porto (and all of Portugal) is seeing a rapid rise in tourism, the Livraria Lello has gained fame for being the place where J.K. Rowling spent many hours, finding inspiration for Hogwarts. From photos we have seen, there's a great similarity between the the staircase here and the one at the school in Harry Potter. The black suits and coats worn by the students of Portugal may have led to the "Hogwarts' costumes," as Rowling spent 10 years living & working in Porto in the 1990s......rumour has it that she drank a lot of coffee on the second floor of this shop. Like Harry Potter, the shop's fame has spread - and the line-ups attest to that......they wind down the street and around the corner, for at least another block or more. Visitors are allowed entrance on a "1 out, 1 in" basis - no photos allowed + there's now an entrance fee - which, in fairness, can be put towards the price of a book, if one is bought there. We left the area wondering if we should return in the "off-season" - perhaps in the winter?.......maybe then we could see if all of these speculations were true!
The Crystal Palace gardens were our next (and ended up being our last) place visited - they took a lot of finding! With its location circled on our map, we wound our way down and around the city streets, heading towards the river where we thought the entrance would be. After a couple of mis-turns, and a long walk, we found the huge walls that circled its outside....but we couldn't find the entrance. We finally asked for help at a bike-rental shop, where a charming young woman pointed out that we could just "walk around the corner" and we would be able to find a way up through some steps and narrow back-alleys - the main entrance was at the top of the city. Never deterred by a few more steps, up we went to the top of the city - and once we arrived there, we were happy with the effort!
The original Crystal Palace itself was replaced in the 1950s by a huge domed pavilion which now hosts music concerts & events....but it's the gardens that are as popular with Porto locals as they are with visitors. This expansive green area is a great place for relaxation, picnics and just strolling around - a place where families can enjoy plenty of space for their children to run around - the park covers more than 8 acres. With very clever landscaping, multi-levels of terracing are used throughout these gardens - providing a very romantic place for couples, due to their location at the very top of the city. The views from the top give excellent and sweeping views of the Douro River far below. While strolling The Avenida das Tilias - a leafy alley from which the river and the views can best be admired - we stumbled across many attractively themed gardens and elegant fountains.
Much later, we reluctantly left the park, wound our way back through the narrow alleyways and finally made it down to the river - which we followed back into the city and to the heart of the Ribeira district. After stopping for a "boost" of caffeine, pastries and a glass of the chilled white port that this city is famous for, we made the final uphill climb to the train station and back to our "home-base" of Aveiro - having walked a memorable (and tiring) 16 km by the end of the day!