Sunday, 29 March 2015

Five Unsung Gems of Europe Part 4: Porto, Oh beautiful Porto! Portugal's Gem.

We flew from Paris which was quite chilly and rainy, via a Spanish airline, Veuling, into the sunshine of coastal Porto. Immediately, it was all stops out for a holiday atmosphere! The passengers were  dressed casually and less chic- read Paris fashionable!- and even the airport atmosphere was laidback and very casual! It seems the English invade these coastal spots in the summer months and why not! The scenery is superb and the food and wine, notably port for which it is famed worldwide, attracts all travellers, young and old. Our digs just happened to be on the main street to downtown Porto, a happy coincidence of my booking. It was great to walk downhill, but soon discovered in a city completely up and down all over, this necessitated several beer and coffee/food tasting stops on the way back up that steep climb home on Santa Catarina! Porto is full of sidewalk cafes and great food to be had in each one. Catching the tram is the easiest way to traverse the hills and as they stop frequently, it is a cheap way to see everything on offer.

 Above all, Porto, which is a World Heritage site, is known for its artistic Azulejo blue and white tiled wall features, which provide an amazing backdrop in many streets and inside and outside public places and church and Cathedral walls. They are Arabic in origin from the 13th century and took up to 11 years to complete!

Church of Saint Ildefenso downtown near Batahla Square.

Beautifully crafted tiled walls found throughout Porto!

The best way to get around Porto besides the tram is on foot, following the narrow streets from the Clerigos Church Bell tower area which gives a panorama of the city, down many steps and alleyways to the Douro River, where the scenic beauty of this Portuguese waterfront is revealed. There are towering painted buildings from the former wharves now used as open air cafes, restaurants, with fascinating shops in between. One had large hand carved model boats for sale right beside our coffee stop. We enjoyed a river cruise some distance up the river admiring the bridge structures above us. There is much competition for selling tickets to the hundreds of tourists, it's a bit of pot luck as to which boat you end up on!

Looking back over the busy Douro River waterfront from the Dom Luis 1 footbridge.

Waterfront restaurants and colourful buildings.

Portuguese boat carrying port wine barrels.

Old and the new- bridges up the Douro River.

Colourful Portuguese Cruise boats.

You can cross over the Douro River via the footbridge of the Dom Luis 1 metal arch bridge built in the 1880's.

After crossing the Douro River, there are more delights to be found, namely the Port Houses where the fortified wines are still stored for shipping to the world. We visited Burgmeister wine cellars, a port wine company which  own vineyards in the Douro Valley, where we enjoyed a drop or two of the famous port wines. Funnily enough, after returning to Australia, we have found that the biggest cruise ship lines in Europe have adopted this scenic Douro River route as their latest addition to their European tours! From this area, we took the funicular back up to the city and visited the Se Cathedral before wandering back downtown to San Bento metro square. My Tip: Put in your best walking shoes for the many beautiful vistas to be found from walking the streets of Porto!

Major storage barrels of Port wine for the world market!

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Unsung gems of Europe Part 3. San Gimignano, Italy.

Italy! Scenes of Tuscan laneways with tall trees fading into the distance, stone cottages and ethereal beauty come to mind! Yes, the beauty of this countryside and its surrounds is just that, bellisimo! My next gem takes us to San Gimignano, a small medieval village set in the hills near Sienna. We went by local bus from our base at Sienna for a day trip. As we rounded the corners and slowly crawled our way up the hills, we had time to admire the locals at every stop and marvel at the slow pace of living compared to the manic pace of the bigger cities . We also discovered bus drivers do NOT let you on if you are the slightest bit late, as ours emphatically closed the doors and left one poor local stranded by the road as we took off!

The Bastione San Francesco, part of the walled village.

The first glimpse of this small walled village is impressive. The many tall towers for which it is famous, are set high against the backdrop of blue skies and fine weather. The surrounding countryside is full of vineyards and there is a vista of tiled rooves dotting the surrounding country. This village was a stop for pilgrims in the Middle Ages and Renaissance years on the Via Francigena, the famous pilgrim way. Besides the Vennacia wine, said to inspire poets and Popes alike, the area was famed for its saffron used in cooking and dyeing of cloth. As we made our way up the narrow alleys, I could not help but notice the enormous bottles of vino tempting tourists on both sides, inspiring another generation no doubt of would be writers and poets! Well, I had to try some didn't I, just to find out the truth of the matter! Strong coffee and sweet treats, also gelati, were on the menu at the local caf├ęs in the piazza, and as we wandered off to explore the Collegiate church with its beautiful chapel, many tourist buses started to arrive.

Overlooking San Gimignano, a beautiful Tuscan vista.

 By chance, I discovered one of the most dedicated medieval museums true to my heart! It was a hospital museum showing how herbal remedies were made and dispensed by the monastery for pilgrims and residents of this important stopping place. Actual books, so precious then, have been preserved with delicate drawings of herbs and directions for their use. The windows of the museum revealed a reconstructed herbal garden and an unparalleled view of San Gimignano's towers.

Urns full of herbs for remedies of all ills.

There are some remaining frescoes form medieval times to be found in the chapel of Saint Serefina who was born here in 1238. During the war years, these frescoes and others were saved from the withdrawing German army by the village women. A tall bell also rests on the floor near some delicate frescoes. During the Black Death plague of 1348, nearly half the population died, and the village remained preserved in its medieval state until the 19th century. My Tip: Best to arrive early, as the small village is inundated by tourists once the buses arrive!

View from the museum window.