Sunday, January 14, 2007


Day 1 - Thursday 28th December

After nine months of going out with their daughter, it was deemed a safe enough time this Christmas period for George to meet the parents of the Sonia. And so it was that on the December 28th I dutifully packed my bags and made my way from Yorkshire to Liverpool airport ready for the flight to Porto, Portugal's second city. Armed with my Portuguese dictionary, I was ready for some serious study before and during the flight, but maybe after a paper and a coffee to get psyched-up. However, in the check-in queue, I met a young chap when he asked me where to go for Departures. I detected an accent, and so I began, 'Oh, are you Portuguese?' to which he replied, 'Oh no, I am Polish, from Krakow'. 'Oh, I've been to Krakow' I then said, to which he then talked at me for the next five hours. Now, don't get me wrong, this 'Mitchem' was a nice guy, but some people just don't know when to stop talking! He even gave me his Guardian, but then I couldn't actually read it because of all his attention! Arhk!

Anyways, the flight was soon on the ground, and I was promptly hugging my Iberian once more. Parents were not in-tow (pre-arranged as an 'acclimatising' move) and we made our way into Porto by the scenic route, going down to the harbour and through some old central streets. However, my nerves were getting to me by this point, and so I didn't take in as much as I otherwise would have. Before I knew it, we were opening the front door and footsteps could be heard approaching!

I needn't have worried however as both Ma and Pa Sonia (New Persons 1 and 2) were absolutely lovely. With almost her Dad's first words being, 'My home is your home', it had already beaten chez Hellery!

Before long we were sat down to roast pork, roast potatoes and chestnuts and some fine wine. Even my total lack of Portuguese did not seem to be too much of a barrier (Ma and Pa Sonia both take English lessons). Retiring from the meal, our gifts were soon exchanged and well received. Sonia's Dad then opened, in my honour (having heard of my liking for all things malty) a bottle of whisky he had saved since his military service in the 60's. Bonus! OK, it was a blend, but I was hardly going to get snobby at a time like that!!

Day 2 - Friday 29th December

The next day was set for a tour of Porto itself, but not before a visit to Grandma Sonia and Uncle Sonia (New Persons 3 and 4) who were both very pleasant (although Grandma Sonia apparently said I looked 18!!). Anyway, we were soon on a jetty on Gaia awaiting a small ferry to Porto ('Porto' as we know it is actually made up of two cities, Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank of the river and Porto on the north). The little ferry ride was quite an experience, even on a calm day, but a well worth experience for the bargain of one Euro!

This is not a period piece! "Ferry, cross the Douro..."

What a dashing chap, and George:

Once safely in Porto, we made our way along the river bank by tram towards Ribeira, like The Shambles in York, but so much more so and in a colourful flamboyant stlyee. Ribeira is the historical centre of Porto and was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

This art-school marks the beginning of Ribeira's winding streets:

There's sky up there somewhere!

How could they think elegant metal beats concrete??

Warning, colour can be a shock to an Aberdeen lad!

That fancy metal bridge up close:

After Ribeira, we took the short Funicular dos Guindais railway up the bank beside the pretty metal bridge and visited Capela de Sta church (stunning ornate gold-painted carving throughout the interior) and then the prominently placed cathedral, where on the terrace, I once again ran into Mr Talk himself, Mitchem!! C'mon man, this is a big city!! So obviously, he got to meet Sonia, he got to catch up on how the parental meet had gone, and he tried his damnedest to get invited to Sonia's planned slideshow that evening with her close friends!! Thankfully, he failed, and after only 30 minutes we managed to get away, which was a good job, because it was lunchtime!

We lunched in Sonia's old student haunt, the wonderful Café Progresso (established only in 1899), where I met Maya and Anna, or rather New Persons 5 and 6. From there we visited the old market, Mercado do Bolhao, which had survived a proposed mall-style update due to people power, before hitting another wonderful cafe, Café Majestic (art deco and relatively new at 1921).

I liked the room on the top of this:

It's all Port!

Porto has lots of great old tile-work, such as this:

As the day was nearing a close, and so were opening times, we had to be quick about it and jaunt back over to Gaia, where ironically all of the Port is stored! The cellars by the river have all recently started charging entry fees, so we explored the back-streets and after a bit of climbing emerged thirsty at Taylor's. Once booked-in and sat down, along came from dry port and then the tour began. We learned that Taylor's is one of the oldest Port businesses (1692) and the only one still family owned. Also, that it is of course a British invention, starting during the Napoleonic Wars as when Britain's Bordeaux supply was cut off, we plucky Brits looked elsewhere, and liked the Portuguese stuff. However, it didn't last the journey back home well so some bright spark put brandy in it to make it more hardy and plunk, you had port. Now of course, it's specially distilled grape spirit that's added and there's a whole world within port to get a hold off. Firstly, there are apertifs and digestifs, the former being dry and from white grapes, the latter being sweeter and, you've guessed it, from red grapes, but there's more to it than that! Put simply, Ruby is port that has undergone less oxidation because it lies in bigger barrels with a low surface-area to volume ratio. Tawny is the opposite, but then you have Vintage (2-3 years in barrel and intended to age in the bottle 10-50 years once you've bought it), Late Bottle Vintage (LBV, 4-6 years in barrel, ready to drink when bottle) and Aged Tawny (10-50 years in the barrel, bottled ready to drink). Follow? Easy really.

Bright lights, big city:

Just have them lock the door, I'll be fine:

Porto by night will just about do:

After the Port tour, we were soon picked up by Sonia's Dad and sat eating again back home before rushing to the station to meet Sonia's Lisbon friend Paula (whom I'd already met in the Deen) and her boyfriend Juao (so just New Person 7). Then we were off to Fatima and Ricardo's house (New Persons 8 and 9) in order to see some old slides of Sonia and her friends, and we were joined there by Maya from earlier and another Juao (for simplicity, Juao 2, aka New Person 10). We stayed here having some more dessert, watching the slides and chatting until midnightish, and then all returned home, ready for our trip to the Douro wine region the next day. Phew!

Day 3 - Saturday 30th December

Day 3 saw us leaving Porto itself and heading east up the Douro into the wine region itself, all the way to Pinhao, a trip of some three hours which necessitated getting out of bed in the single figure hours, the pain, the pain! Still, it was worth it. The day was quite grey, but it kept dry and was pleasant enough. In the hot summer this area must be unbelievable.

Fog on the Douro is all mine all mine...

A nice way to gently wake-up looking at this:

The village of Pinhao with terraced hills all around:

It's all looking a bit European:

Upon turning up, you might have expected us to start exploring immediately, but this is Portugal. No quick sandwich and then the hills, after a quick look at the beutiful Vintage House Hotel (reasonable prices in the sense that you can get reasonably priced champagne), we ask around for a restaurant (Ponte Romana) and proceed to have lunch for two hours. Wine, olives, bread, baculau. Superb.

After filling up we wander towards a Calem vinyard, only expecting to have a cursory look as we've been told all of the farms are closed as it's a Christmas Saturday. However, Sonia's Dad chats to the friendly farmer at the gate, and we end up on an exclusive inpromptu mini-tour, excellent.

The 'churning-room' at Calem. Socks off everyone:

Awful, awful views:

After the farm tour, we walk back into the village. Paula and Juan head off to shop/visit a cafe whilst Sonia and I direct her parents up one of the attractive terraced hills, achieving some impressive height before we head back.

Young vines on Douro hills:
Seeing as we'd had an activity, it was clearly time to visit a café again as we waited for the train (such an awful culture). Finding an extremely local and friendly cafe (they gave Sonia's Mum a whole-heap of cabbage merely because we had chatted to them about it) opposite the station, we pitched up with snack food whilst Juan tried their home-made port (a big regret of mine being not having any) and I got to some postcards. Bizarrely, Titanic was on the TV there and we had a lot of fun coming up with DVD special features like opting to allow Rose to jump at the beginning and getting the whole thing over quicker, playing it out to MegaDeth instead of C.D. too...
Once home, dinner was soon prepared and Domingos and Extremely Pregnant Helena came over with their son (New Persons 11, 12 and 13). After a session on the puzzles of Sonia's Dad, it was finally time for a welcoming bed!

Day 4 - Sunday 31st December

Fortunately we were allowed a bit of a lie-in today, but so much so that when Sonia, myself, Paula and Juan visited the modern art musuem Museu Serralves, all we had time to do before Paula and Juan had to leave for their train home was visit the restaurant where we had some excellent toast and coffee (must resist all temptations to stereotype the Portuguese, must, must!). However, cunning planning by Sonia meant that as she took them to the train station, I got to wander to my heart's content around this impressive collection. Now, I'm no expert on modern art, but in particular I did like one piece by Miroslaw Balka entitled Santa Clauses, which consisted of 44 figures of Santa watching one of their number being hung. To make the whole thing a little more surreal, this was the day after Saddam himself had met his end!!
Controversial leaked footage of the Lapland riots:
After taking in the museum, and with Sonia back in tow, we wandered through the beautiful and well-kept grounds. The land had been owned for a long time by a prominent family who were themselves art collectors. Resisting enormous sums offered for apartment plots, the museum was built instead! The original striking art deco house still stands.

Pretty in pink:

The museum itself:

After the museum, it was time to return home for a hearty meal of Octopus! Fortunately, I am the adventurous type when it comes to food, and fortunately it was cooked to the usual high standard I had already come to expect from chez Mendes.
Enough legs for all:

After lunch, we headed for the coastal region of Foz. The afternoon was becoming extremely pleasent w.r.t. the weather and it was wonderful to be down by the beach. We tried to get in to play an exciting-looking crazy-golf course, but we were too late. Instead we set off along the front, stopping at leisure to drink espresso right on the beach as strong waves broke onto the rocks in our view. Awful, really awful. Our return took us past a traditional bakery (Doce Mar) and I tried a Jesuita, which consists of very flaky sweet pastry. Beautiful, although I was covered in the stuff afterwards!

Down the beach at Foz:

Will the torment never end with these views?

This was just in front of the café:


As the sun was setting on 2006, we made our way to the lighthouse, completely serenditiously, for a beautiful end of year with an intense sky and a vibrant Atlantic crashing around. Fantastic!
There are worse spots:

As night came in it was time to hit the town. Parking up, we made our way toward Gaia, where we had planned to eat, although not before checking out the photographic museum, which had previously been a prison. It was strange walking around this beautiful yet imposing building knowing the torment that must have occurred within its wall during its former function.

Anyways, down at Gaia our main problem for the evening began, as the place was closed. Returning to Ribiera, we discovered that at every restaurant, one hour waiting time was being quoted. With Sonia's Dad and friends sending suggestions and phoning ahead, we traversed from restaurant to restaurant, until we gave up with the in-town locations, and walked 45 minutes (right past the photographic museum!) to Assador Tipico, a larger affair on the outskirts. However, here the situation was just the same and initially we got refuse point blank! Lisa would not have been happy!! After some begging from Sonia, the floor manager thankfully allowed us to wait, just seconds before about 12 more people in exactly the same boat came in!! 30 minutes of hot and tired waiting followed, but then we were sat down with menus in our hands, but more importantly, drinks! An ice cold "Super Bock" stout, which at that moment tasted of nectar from God!! The food was actually just decent, but it served its purpose, and soon we were rushing back into town to pick up the champagne and make it to the square in time for midnight.

Gaia by night:

With a good natured crowd and champagne in the hand of everyone, the clock struck and a damn well impressive fireworks display started. Down with all those who see this as frivalous. Sharing in the joy of the display and seeing all the happy faces and hearing the cheering put paid to that idea. The gathering was the very pulse of the city, at that moment it was its soul.
The end of the display:

Porto's version of a tree!

Once the excitement had calmed down, as it had been some time since I had met anyone new, we made our way through the crowd to chat to Sonia's old neighbour, her husband and child (New Persons 14, 15 and 16), before heading back to the car and waiting patiently in the traffic to leave town (unlike some native drivers!). Back at home on the other side of 2am, we were surprised to find Sonia's parents still awake, and so with a little bit more chat and foot, 2007 was officially under-way.

Day 5 - Monday 1st January

A well-deserved lie-in followed our late-night activities, and this soon drifted into a long and leisurely lunch with Sonia's grandmother joining in. The last of the champagne was dealt with, and sweets of Aletria (sweet pasta with cinnamon), Rabanadar (like bread pudding, with cinnamon!) and Bolo Rei (the Portuguese Christmas cake) finished things off nicely. Eventually moving on, we went to visit a dance festival, but unfortunately I'd left my dancing shoes in Aberdeen! That night Sonia and I went down to the Gaia beach, and had a great walk along the front to another set of very impressive waves crashing over large boulder rocks. Dinner saw friends of Sonia's parents come round, Sergio and Amelia (New Persons 17 and 18), but afterwards Sonia & I left the table watched the impressive The Dancer Upstairs, John Malkovich's directorial debut set in revolutionary South America.

Life's a beach, down in Gaia:

Day 6 - Tuesday 2nd January
After a relatively restful day, it was time to get organised, get up early, and get to some exercise! This day saw us trip out to Portugal's only National Park, Peneda-Geres, occupying an area of approximately 70,000 hectares on the NE border with Spain. We set out along a path Sonia had started before, but didn't have time to explore. Today however, we spent towards 5 hours on it, and got up to an altitude of some 1200m. Even in Portugal, at such a height things were on the chilly side, especially as our side of the valley was in perpetual shadow!

A rare sighting of the native Soniator photographica:

It's like, in the country:

Steep valley sides and a tree that's seen better days:

Why are we walking on the side with no sun??

After the walking, we got up to some driving, with Sonia's Dad clearly enjoying himself driving up some ridiculous mountain passes to catch views such as the following:

That's a long drive up!

Good clouds in these places:

Once back home, thoroughly tired, it was time to meet some new people, as more friends of Sonia and her parents, Brandao, Julia and Claudia (New Persons 19, 20 and 21) came over for dinner. Branado in particular was an interesting character, as he insisted on trying to talk to me in both Portuguese and French. I sat there and did the patented British trick of nodding and smiling at what you guess are the appropriate moments. I do wonder what he was on about...

Day 7 - Wednesday 3rd January

With time running out, today's first task was to go and check out the 'Peter Golf' in Foz that had been denied to us on New Year's Eve. Peter Golf looks like crazy golf, but it is much, much harder! In the first picture, you have to strike your ball into the cage in the distance, which will put your ball on 'the green'. Anything else and you have to start again. I actually managed this in two, but the ramp in the second picture took me fourteen attempts!!

Remember when you just had windmills?

Steady as she goes:

After golf, we lunched again at Café Progresso, checked out the 100-year-old Lello bookshop with its superbly ornate staircase and then made it over to the grounds of Palacio de Cristal and Solar do Vinho do Porto, or the House of Port, where we met Sonia friend Joana 1 and her son Guilherme (New Persons 22 and 23). Here we ordered decent drinks from the port menu and sat drinking them as the sun came down over the Douro. Awful really.

Some more colour of Porto:

The beautiful Lello bookstore:

That staircase 1:

That staircase 2:

That staircase 3:

View from Palacio do Cristal:

Solar do Vinho do Porto:

Arty port shot 1:

Arty port shot 2:

Food shopping Portugal-style:
Some fancy Porto driving:

On the way home, we visited the still-very-pregnant Helena, before Helena's parents and sister (New Persons 24, 25 and 26), who, bizarrely, had a photo from my brother's wedding! as it turned out, Sonia had sent a few photos of 'life in Scotland' over and they had printed this one, but it was rather surreal to me at the time!!

As this was my last full day, we had dinner out at Ar de Rio, on the banks of the river where I tried the Portuguese version of a croque-monsieur, and very nice it was too!

Day 8 - Thursday 4th January
With things coming to a close, a morning's present shopping was due, and for my own part coffee for Sonia's Mum, whisky for her Dad and port for my parents and others were soon in the bag. With time to spare then, a new cafe was sampled, where we met Sonia's friends Joana 1 (again), Joana 2 (sister of Joao 2!) and Marta (New Persons 27 and 28). A final lunch at Cafe Progresso and we were soon at home, packing and then sharing a whisky before tripping off to the airport. Having received a statement of approval from Sonia's mother (apart from a funny slip-up in her English, coming out with 'You can go back at any time' instead of 'come back'!!), and a pat on the back from Sonia's Dad we were soon on the plane and back to blighty. I had had a fantastic time in Portugal and had been made to feel very welcome. Furthermore I look forward to a sure-fire return in the future.
Day 8 - Friday 5th January

Finally, before returning to the Deen, we had a nice day out in Nottingham including a fantastic lunch and evening with the Lisa & Neil, but before that we had a whistle-stop tour of Nottingham, calling at The Rescue Rooms (pictured), Selectadisc, The Alley Cafe, The Small Screen, The Broadway and Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, all in 90 minutes!!

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