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Phespirit goes to Portugal
Porto     April/May 2011

At a time when a worldwide television audience estimated to be two billion people was watching HRH Prince William marry Miss Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey, Phespirit was packing. He could not be accused of anti-royalist posturing as he'd had the day booked long before the young lovers. Nonetheless, as the media hype intensified to near saturation his position had shifted from indifference through mild irritation to manifest resentment. While the newly-weds cast a final glance towards the heaving masses beneath their palace balcony, Phespirit heaved his backpack on to one shoulder set his sights for Stansted Airport. He arrived in good time for the 18:30 Ryanair flight to Porto.

As has become his custom, Phespirit had mapped out his days: Saturday to explore Porto; Sunday to visit Braga; Monday for a Douro Cruise, plus a spot of port tasting in Vila Nova de Gaia and a walk around the Atlantic coast; Tuesday to visit Guimarães; and Wednesday home. On his first day he peregrinated from the Sé (cathedral) in the east to the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves in the west, returning along the north shore of the Douro river. Pick of the day was undoubtedly the interior of Igreja de São Francisco. Very few religious monuments in Europe still have a 'wow' factor for Phespirit but this deconsecrated church is truly astounding: a grand rococo interior of extravagently carved gilded chestnut pillars and panels from floor to ceiling and all along the barreled roof of the nave. Quite special.

Porto is nothing without the broad, dark-olive river Douro. Phespirit experienced it by taking an hour-long cruise beneath five of its grand bridges, and within sight of a sixth. The most famous bridge is Pont Dom Luís I. Opened in 1886, its striking metal arch measures 172m in length and 44.6m in height, carrying a road at its lower level and railway up above. Phespirit crossed via a footpath alongside the rail tracks on the upper level, to visit the port wine lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia. The long terracotta roofs of the lodges dominate the skyline here, with many bearing the names of world famous brands. As Phespirit is partial to the occasional glass of Taylor's port, it was to the Taylor, Fladgate and Yeatman lodge that he walked with a purpose. A very enjoyable afternoon was spent therein.

Other trips out of Porto took him to Braga and Guimarães, both about an hour away by train from São Bento station. The day in Braga was blighted by persistent heavy rain. Even Phespirit's umbrella gave up trying some time after midday. It wasn't all bad though, as the skies cleared long enough for Phespirit to enjoy a late afternoon football match. Whilst the goalless draw against União de Leiria was a poor show, the iconic Estádio Municipal de Braga provided a magnificent arena in a quite unique setting. The enjoyment was further enhanced by free admittance for all fans, though the game still failed to draw a full house. An appreciative Phespirit bought a scarf.

There was sunshine all the way in Guimarães. Within its warmth Phespirit wandered: from the Museu Arqueológico Martins Sarmento, where he was unexpectedly given a personal guided tour; to the celebrated Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Oliveira and adjoining Museu Alberto Sampaio; down to the pretty Igreja de Sáo Gualter; and finally to Paço dos Duques de Bragança and the Castelo. Only at the end of the day, when he took a cable car up to Monte da Penha, did he notice that the wind had picked up. Phespirit lingered just long enough to visit the modern Santuário da Penha, the older subterranean Capela do Santo Elias, and generally to admire the views.

After one last breakfast in Porto it was time to pack up and walk to the Trinidade Metro station for a half-hour transfer to the main airport. Phespirit's TAP flight to London Gatwick left on time at 10:55. He departed a gem of a city, probably the finest he'd found on the Iberian peninsula.

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