Part 1: The Flight
Stansted is the cut price London airport. I haven’t been to Luton in a decade, and I refuse to accept London Southend as being a London airport. So that leaves Stansted. Poor Stansted, out in the distance, with the majority of its flights seemingly at godawful o’clock and the departures area the most cattle-like of any of the UK airports that I’ve been to.
Having been to US airports, I find that the UK by comparison doesn’t care for its citizens hydration nearly enough. Toilets and wayfinding are average. Customs was very swift, especially considering how full the airport was. I suppose most people are queuing for the hold.
A German woman sat next to me on a bench at 3.45am. My coach was due to get in at 4am but left ten minutes early (I assume they knew they were full?) and arrived half an hour early. National Express: better than Terravision, although waiting in an airport isn’t necessarily preferable to sleeping on an air conditioned coach. The German woman thanked me for moving slightly to accommodate her. She then struck up a conversation with the guy from New Jersey next to her. She jollily said how tired she was and told him tales of her travels to London and her friends’ travels worldwide. He spoke too, but I was reading and eating a peanut butter sandwich. Clearly neither of them were form London.
I slept the whole flight, in the unattractive, mouth open way that I always sleep on flights. I was in the aisle and I hope that the people next to me didn’t need the toilet.
Twenty minutes from getting off the plane to heading out of arrivals.
It was 13 degrees and raining. The couple wearing shorts looked horrified, and the goosebumps on their legs suggested that they may need to head to a clothes shop.
After some anxiety prior to coming, I was informed that I would be picked up either by a dark grey Ford van or a dark grey Renault Espace. There are a lot of dark grey people carriers in Porto airport.
The Espace came, picked me up, we chatted about how he started surfing last year and it has changed his life, his job as a textile sourcer for various high end high street shops, London, Porto and the weather. I was informed that I was probably the only one in the hostel and that I would be picked up at 2.45 to surf. I asked whether I had time to head to Porto, he suggested that I could go to the surf spot with him then. I decided to stay in the hostel.
A German girl chatted to me over breakfast. She left later in the day, but wrote a nice note saying that I could have anything from the fridge (I did. I had it all in a Frankenstein’s monster of a dinner, all chilli and charcuterie). I tried to write and vaguely read up about Porto.
2.45 came and went and I frantically tried to contact the surf school. Being alone, in a strange place and unable to contact people is its own special kind of stress. Through Facebook and email I was informed that I would be starting surf school tomorrow and that I was texted about it earlier (another strike against the BlackBerry, which also won’t connect to wifi). In my panic I tried to ask the maid for help but her English was limited to “Portuguese?” and my Portuguese is limited to saying “thank you” as if I were a man.
There is a room with indo boards that I can’t access. The hostel gets high marks for a hostel. As I’m the only person here, it’s pretty much just a large apartment.
I decided to venture to Porto, but quickly realised I had no idea where I was going. There is a hospital very near by which is good to know. I wandered around a shopping centre trying to find wifi and get Google maps to work. No luck. I resigned myself to staying in the area for the day.
I left the shopping centre and followed the flow of people, who led me to Metro. Always go with the flow, it will help you in more ways than you will know.
€3 return into Porto. Mainland Europeans have it so good. Saying this, London buses are only £1.50 for a single, and a single can take you as far as Clapham to Liverpool Street (if you are getting the 344 bus). I asked the guard for advice on trying to get a ticket and he talked me through my instinct.
Into Porto. The rain continued. The entrance sequence from Trinidade isn’t overly appealing. I am still yet to be charmed by Porto, but it took me a day or so to be charmed by Rome, although I immediately found the churches to be magnificent and have always been drawn to the Italians. Porto so far seems faded in comparison.
My map suggested that there was a church very close to the station. Indeed there was, and it was the first of many masses that I was to crash in the day.
Armed with my trusty map, rain coat, and making the decision to add an umbrella into the mix, I was ready for the day.
The city is eminently walkable. Pick up a tourist map and follow the winding roads and you will quickly come across most of the main attractions. My main attractions are always churches, of which I managed to see several. Most of them had a Mass going on. Catholics sure do keep their obligations seriously. A lot of the churches were standing room only. Seriously indeed.
Churches are quite beautiful on the outside but lack some of the Italian verve within. They are more sculptural than pictoral. The holy water was dry. A statue of the Virgin Mary made me feel sad. I stepped outside and admired the view.
Bakeries abound! I am yet to try anything yet (I overate at breakfast so have to curb my enthusiasm somewhere). Queues form around many of the cafes, and customers seem to inhale their coffee and pastel de nata (custard tart) as soon as they have made their purchase. This is a routine part of life, clearly, rather than a moment to savour and enjoy.
I think I may suffer from seasonal affective disorder. I suppose most people do. I put the weather down as being responsible for a big part of a nation’s identity. If you think of nearly any stereotype, bar Jewish stereotypes, you can somewhat explain it in relation to the weather. Maybe this is why the oft-wet Porto-guese are less relaxed than the warm, Mediterranean-sunned Italians.
Hills and buildings, small parks, more buildings, more hills. The people of Porto must have great butts and thighs.
Surprisingly for a European city (or Europe in general) there didn’t seem to be many cars on the road, and the cars that were on the road were very courteous. This marks the first time that I have been abroad where I have thought something positive about road users.
There were a number of cycle hire places. Considering the weather, I wonder how much business they do.
The Photography Museum was free. The building was lovely but the exhibits were limited. Free sounds about right.
Photography Museum and seagull
I wandered around streets from church to church, view to view, meandering down the lanes until I came to the river. The river is always the heart of every city, and Porto’s is particularly grand with its Eiffel bridge and views to the various port makers perching on the hill with their names emblazoned on the landscape.
There was water on my lens. It will be fine I’m sure.
Couples strolled, huddling under umbrellas. An English couple were lost and had no umbrella (but raincoats instead). I said to them that I was glad that someone else had a map that was as wet and falling apart as mine. They mustered a laugh but were more concerned with being lost.
Up stairs to the Se.
I sat in the Mass for ten to fifteen minutes. It was nice. Nice, but not beautiful. It is not my favourite cathedral, and being from Canterbury I put a lot of thought into these things.
I saw a Chinese restaurant. Always find a Chinatown (of sorts) on your first day in a new city.
The rain got worse. Shoes soaked, trousers wet to the mid-calf, camera hidden under my rain coat, map dropped. Onto the metro and back to the hostel.
I shopped, I wandered around the food court and admired their traditional Portuguese shops such as “H&M”, “Primark” and “Nespresso”, saw that I could have taken a shorter route, got mildly lost, found my way, ate and showered.