So, on to Porto.
We skipped breakfast, checked out and caught the Gatwick Express, as irritatingly that’s where TAP flights to Porto go from.
Actually the whole business was pretty slick and seamless leaving us plenty of time for a late breakfast and cause total confusion when we tried to get rid of the last of our old style pound coins, didn’t have quite enough to avoid breaking another note, which led me to ferret round my backpack and come up with what I thought were a couple of new style pound coins, but were in fact the new style bi metallic Singapore dollars which, apart from looking a bit more glossy, are almost the same size and thickness as a new style pound, and even though they’re round, have an octagonal ridge on the rim that makes them look as if they’re not.
Confusion over we boarded our flight, where the promised in flight catering turned out to consist of weird plum drink, a strange fish paste sandwich and a glass of red, and we were on our way to Porto.
Everything continued to go smoothly, our Mozio driver met us at the airport, took us to our hotel on the river.
The hotel was slightly odd – touted as an aparthotel where you get a studio apartment with a basic kitchen so you can self cater if you want, this one was more like a sparsely furnished (ikea bed, sofa, dining table) single bedroom apartment. Our Mozio driver had said there were a number of failed apartment redevelopment projects in old warehouses along the river, and I’m guessing someone decided to turn the failed apartment project into a riverfront hotel.
That evening, we had an excellent meal in a riverfront restaurant that seemed cheap after London, but in retrospect was overpriced for Portugal, and then sat in a bar on the quay with a glass of port watching the sun go down.
The next day we did tourist things – walked over the two level bridge one way and back on the higher level, a lunch of fresh sardines in a city centre bar while listening to a student group sing medieval folk songs with great style and verve.
Later we walked up to the totally underwhelming National Photographic Centre – there’s a reason it’s free, but you do get an excellent view out across the city from the car park of Ministry of Justice building opposite – and being Saturday no one seemed worry about tourists traipsing round the car park.
The other good thing is that you end up in the university area surrounded by student bars and cafes plus some pretty good restaurants – cheaper and more lively than the tourist area down by the river.
Sunday we took a tourist boat cruise down the river – and staying in a riverfront hotel that meant we could grab the first boat of the morning before the tour buses started bringing the hoards in, and then watched the last stages of the Porto half marathon, and then a glass of port or two as the day wound down.
The next morning we were off to Lisbon on the AlfaPendular high speed tilt train. I’d managed to snag a couple of discounted first class tourist tickets by booking online the day bookings opened.
We’d booked an Uber which didn’t turn up in time so we ended up flagging down a regular taxi who got us to the station with minutes to spare. Fortunately the AlfaPendular was late so we made the train.
What I hadn’t bargained on was the train being packed with people from Lisbon who had made the weekend trip north, just as trains in and out of London used to be packed on Sunday evenings.
But we had our seats, and our luggage was stowed. I’d expected something sleek, smooth and elegant like the Virgin Pendolino, but this train was distinctly tatty, with peeling exterior paintwork, battered though clean toilets, scuffed upholstery, and a row of old style glass tv screens in the ceiling – like you used to see on old Qantas Boeings in the outback – which played a bizarre selection of Portuguese cooking shows.
The train itself started smoothly enough but as it picked up speed lurched and swung and tilted with gusto rattling along at over 200km/h through the Portuguese countryside. That said it got us there exactly on time and the whole experience was comfortable enough – more comfortable than many discount airlines, even if a little odd.
Our plan was to overnight in Lisbon and pick up a rental car the next day to drive south. We’d judged there wasn’t quite enough time to do it all in a single day.
So a night in an excellent boutique hotel converted from an old convent and a walk round the old town and our day was complete.
The next day we picked up a Renault Clio which came with a truly amazing number of parking scuffs and scratches, but drove well enough. Just as years ago in Crete we’d ended up with a battered Fiat like all the locals drove, and got better treatment (including free parking at a bar next to Knossos in exchange for lunch), this car looked like almost every other small car in Lisbon – it didn’t scream ‘rental’, and you could probably park it just about anywhere without fear of being broken into.
And then we were off down the tollway to the Algarve, crossing the incredibly impressive Vasco da Gama bridge…