Trekking and train tripping northern Portugal

This trip to Porto happened quite unexpectedly. I wasn’t planning on visiting any cities this summer mostly because of how infernally hot they get. But when a friend of mine casually pitched the idea, I only needed a couple of days to think about it and say yes. Knowing him, I knew we’d get along and that whatever the weather, we’d make a good adventure out of it.

Upon landing, a chilly 14°C pleasantly welcomed us. It was a timely respite from the sweltering temperatures we were experiencing in Malta and it proved to be a good omen too. Daily highs regularly hovered between 24-26°C which for a European city in the middle of summer, is as good as you can get. 

We spent our first proper day in Porto exploring the city on foot. Right away, Porto’s colourful buildings left a warm impression on us. For a mid-sized European city, it was very clean. The cool Atlantic breeze funneling through the city’s narrow streets also made Porto a very enjoyable place to explore. In total, we covered just over 25km and while my feet weren’t exactly thanking me for it, initial impressions were definitely positive.

It seemed like a safe place, the people were very helpful and prices were on the cheap side. Food was also very good and it wasn’t particularly loud or over-crowded. Just a word of caution for those of you who like me, like to walk a lot - Porto is a very hilly city and many of its streets are paved with cobblestones. This made foot blistering an issue even though we wore good-fitting, well-broken-into shoes.

By our third day, each morning we would grimace, suck up the pain and let our sense of adventure push us on. But don’t let this discourage you. From what I heard, getting around Porto using public transport or Uber is very cheap and efficient. So for those of you who healthily have less masochistic tendencies than we do, please take this option. :) 

Anyway, while I can’t vouch first-hand for Porto’s public transport, I can definitely do so for its trains. We used them regularly to visit cities nearby, the first of which was Braga. You can easily spend a day in this city steeped in history. The historic center provides plenty of shopping opportunities (if unfortunately, that’s your thing…) and its historic, colourful buildings make for a great place to stroll around. The highlight of the place however has to be the Santuário de Nossa Senhora do Sameiro. The photos below explain why. It’s easy to reach by bus and there are plenty of trekking opportunities too, especially during the cooler months.

Our third day took us to Aveiro. I’ve seen some people calling this place the ‘Venice of Portugal’. Let me tell you. It is not. Not even close. But… It turned out to be probably my most enjoyable day. The city of Aveiro, save for its beautiful train station, didn’t really impress me. Its streets were lined with tall, grey apartments that resembled more a communist wet dream rather than romantic Venice.

However, the nearby Praia de Costa Nova left me in awe of its grandeur. Reaching it was a bit tricky because, for some odd reason, there was no public transport service. However, calling an Uber proved very cheap and efficient. Our driver dropped us in front of the towering Farol de Aveiro lighthouse and from there, we strolled along the beach all the way down to the colourful Casas Tipicas de Costa Nova.

I’m not one for superlatives, but the walk did feel magical at times. I got to see what an endless beach flanked with sand dunes looks like, and what the rumbling waves of the Atlantic sound like. At that point, I was also dying with curiosity to dip my feet into the sea. And so I did and two things immediately hit me. 

The first, was how deep the sand actually was. With each step, I sank down to the ankle and that made it a proper struggle to walk in. The second thing which struck me was the cold and hard-hitting nature of the Atlantic. It’s a totally different beast to the Mediterranean. It didn’t take long for my feet to start turning purple smack in the middle of summer. But let me tell you, even if I was a bit wary of getting sucked in and swept away, I enjoyed every single second of it. 

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, it helped that it was a dull, grey day. You wouldn’t normally associate grey skies with a beautiful day at the beach. But the flat, white light set up a wonderful, competitive mood. And on a more practical level, we were grateful the day turned out to be grey because apart from painfully blistered feet, we were also about to start grappling with sunburn. Luckily, the grey sky spared our blushes (literally rather than figuratively). Just before we left, the blue sky did come out, and that allowed Aveiro’s train station to really shine under the crispy, clean light.

Having averaged around 20km of walking each day, our feet badly needed a break. So on our fifth day, we decided to take a scenic train trip from Porto along the Douro valley, all the way to Pocinho. If you need a rest day and love looking out of the window soaking in the landscape (pleased to meet you), this trip makes for the perfect rest day. Climbing up on the diesel-powered train immediately brought a wave of nostalgia. The colourful interior, bunched-up curtains, and patterned tapestry were almost a photocopy of the old Maltese busses I grew up in - just way cleaner. 

The trip to Pocinho and back takes about 8 hours in total and it’s one of those trips where it’s all about the journey rather than the destination. Pocinho is quite unremarkable (save for the Archaeological Park of the Côa Valley some 11km away), but the trip is at times simply stunning. The first hour is not that great but after that, the natural landscape really opens up. There was also a very relaxed atmosphere on the train, with people moving freely around and willingly exchanging places. Maybe we coincidentally ended up travelling with an agreeable bunch… I don’t know… But I sure did enjoy the trip and the people around.

Our feet definitely felt better after this rest day, but unfortunately for them, we weren’t done mistreating them. On our sixth day, we headed to Guimarães. Some consider it the birthplace of Portugal and as you can imagine, historically it packs a lot. In a way, the city kind of reminded me of Braga. However, I found this place to be a bit more colourful, quiet, and I dare say less commercial. It felt less touristy and in a way, that gave it more authenticity.

When in Guimarães,I highly suggest taking the funicular to the Santuário da Penha.In terms of sheer beauty, Braga’s Santuário de Nossa Senhora do Sameiro exudes more oppulence while the Santuário da Penha feels more raw. However, both my mate as well as I preferred this aspect of it. 

It was decidedly less crowded and the cool breeze made it fun to explore the nearby trekking paths. The surrounding views were also stunning. While up there, we continued with our habit of running into weddings wherever we went. The Portuguese sure have it good when it comes to beautiful places for holding special events…

On our last day, we didn’t really want to stray far from our base, so we visited Porto’s Estádio do Dragão. I’ve been to different football stadiums and museums and Porto’s museum is hands down the best I have visited. It is an audio-visual treat and being a designer by profession, I absolutely loved it. If you are into art and design, even if you aren’t a football fan, be sure to give the museum a visit. It reminded me more of a modern art museum than a football museum at times, and that is the best compliment I can give it.

Porto is not a huge city and if you have a good sense of direction, you’ll learn how to get around very quickly. It also makes a great base to visit the north of Portugal. Seven days for Porto and nearby cities should be enough. You will not see absolutely everything the city and nearby places have to offer, but you will see a good chunk of it at a very reasonable pace. Oh and one thing before I end, while in Porto, do yourself a favour and try the Francesinha together with a bottle of Super Bock. Just don’t tell your doctor about it, ok? :)

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