Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Pretense, Pretension and a Puzzling Lack of Public Information

written 11th January

We did the proper tourist thing in Porto and crammed as many museums, sights and attractions as we could in between cafes, coffee and port drinking... :)  On the first day, we had Porto cards which promised free transport and free or discounted entrance to things - as it turns out, we walked to most places and then found that a lot of them were free at the weekend or on sunday mornings.  They do always sound like a good idea but to get your money's worth, you do have to be quite busy all day :)  Still, it made things easier on the first day when you don't know where things are or what there is and we had both tram and funicular fun out of them which was all good!

Here are some of the things we did, in case you think about going or doing, but don't take my word for it, always better to go and make your own mind up :)  but, as a warning, they were all characterised by one thing -  complete lack of information telling you about what is there which might encourage you to go in the first place, and, once you're actually there, any information as to how to get in or how to find whatever it is they don't want you to see!

Ribeira Quay District

Porto is famous for its old town, clinging to the banks of the river and its jumble of higgledy piggledy crooked streets and houses, festooned with washing.

It is apparently mainly rent controlled housing which explains the run down air as there is no incentive for landlords to do much upkeep, but it is very atmospheric and definately worth a wander

- you also come across some very odd and unexpected things, like the tiled walls - a particular feature of many buildings in the city, not just in the Ribeira,

bits of random art - like this big cube fountain we found, and the figure of the naked lady seemingly considering jumping from a third floor balcony....  very odd :)

There are six bridges which span the Douro river between Porto and Vila Nova da Gaia on the south bank of the river.

The iconic one in the centre is the Dom Luis I bridge which has road running on the bottom level and the metro balanced on the top of the single span arch.  There has been a bridge in that location for centuries, starting with the mediaeval floating pontoon bridge, which was replaced by a road suspension bridge and finally the current bridge, when they wanted to get the railway over the river as well.  It was designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel and is very similar in design to the bridge further up the river that Eiffel did design.  You can walk over both the top and bottom level of it and the views are fantastic - although once on the other side, it is not at all obvious how you get down from there to the port wine lodges which are the attraction of Vila Nova da Gaia - my advice, walk over the top, tack your pics, walk back over the top, down the steps and then walk back over the bottom level - it will be quicker!

The only other bridge of note (or rather that I know anything about!) is the newest one, the Arrabida bridge, which is the furthest down stream towards the sea.  Built in the 1960's it carried the pay motorway on southwards to Coimbra and Lisbon and at the time it was built, it was the largest concrete bridge in the world - so now you know!

Clerigos tower:

The first thing we did with our Porto card was climb the Clerigos tower (50% discount) which, on a hill above the old town, has 200-odd steps which circle round the inside the tower, up past the carillion - bells with a piano-like keyboard - getting steadily narrower until you pop out on the platform at the top for fab views over the town, the river and out to the sea.  Worth doing on a clear day!

The church was nice too, with an altar that looked like a wedding cake and a really creepy Jesus, lying, Snow White-like in a glass coffin, draped in a net curtain that looked like cobwebs with all bloody wounds meticulously painted in - very, seriously creepy.

Museum of Port Wine:
A freebie with the Porto card and unexpectedly not about the wine at all (although to be fair, it did state this upfront in its "mission statement" - why do museums feel they have to justify their existence by spending their first exhibit talking about themselves??), but about the city and the impact of the wine on it.  It also had a display of the evolution of the wine bottles, from small, mishapen ones initially used just to transport wine from barrel direct to table, through to the rackable, stackable ones we have today.  Very interesting but not sure I would have wanted to have paid full price for what was there - although I did learn some things which shall be imparted to you, dear readers, in due course :)  and it had some old pottery stuff and some archeological stuff to keep my mother entertained and was dry and a good place to watch the rain bucketing down and the trams passing - so my father was happy too :)

City Park:

The city park, up at the north end of the beaches of Foz, was lovely.  Built on reclaimed marshland, between the city and the new port at Leixoes, it has lakes, wooded bits, grassy bits, fake ruins, tennis courts, five-a-side pitches

and some sort of water based science park effort (which was shut) and is lovely, easy and relaxed - honestly like a walk in the park :)

Cheese Castle

Yes, this is actually its name!  well whatever the portuguese is for cheese castle anyway.  It is apparently called that becase the rocks it is built on look like cheese (or so they say, couldn't see it oursleves but maybe it is not the sort of cheese we get in the UK...)  couldn't go in as it was shut, and like many tourist attractions, there were no indications as to opening times if any.  But is was quite a nice castle to look at :)

Palacio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange)
This was an unexpected treat and wasn't on the original to do list (and reasonably expensive at €6 so definitely not on our budget list) but it was really fascinating.  Again, no information about what there is there to help encourage you to part with you cash, but what you get is a guided tour around the building - not a stock exchange in today's sense of the word, more a building established to ensure that the businessmen had a place to meet, it is still active to a certain extent, with a committee and an annually elected president -

which is full of beautiful and surprising rooms such as the small meeting room off the main room, where as you walk in, all the paintings facing you are of demure young ladies but if you sit at the desk facing the door, they're all nudes - I bet late attendance at those meeting is not a problem - they'd all be fighting to get the best seats ;)  There is also a room with the portraits of the last 6 monarchs of Portugal (it became a republic in the early 20th century with the last king coming to the throne aged only 18 and after only a few years', being exiled (or exiling himself) to Britain where he died, childless, in the 1950's).  The main thing about that room is the wall panels which look to be wood and marble but as in fact all fake and made of plaster - we assume because labour was cheaper than raw materials - and it is astonishingly good, even close up it is had to tell - no pics allowed unfortunately.  The final room was the best though, the Arabian room, which is a vast ballroom of a building where the walls are covered in arabic style patterns in blue and gold leaf and passages from the koran and the words God save the Queen (or something similar) in arabic in raised and gold leafed text - not sure why as Portugal is a very catholic country - it apparently took 18 years to complete and it simply stunning.  It is also the room where, on 2nd May 1992, the treaty of Oporto was signed which set up the European Economic Area (EEA) with effect from 1st January 1993 bringing closer together 19 countries and 400 million people (or so the plaque says - again, something I didn't know!

An unexpected bonus at the end of the tour was the free Douro wine tasting in a funky modern room, with a very knowledgeable girl serving and some "arty" posters about wine.  My particular favourite, in justification of my penchant for a glass of the old Vinho, was this:

"Let us celebrate life!  Here is a way to make our ideas more dynamic, to let joyfulness flow and to widen the dimension of human existence.  If all that is good about life leads to celebration and renews our motivation to do me and to do it better, then let us drink to the soul of the Wines of Portugal for we share with them the passion that gives us life."
I'll drink to that!

There was also one about sparkling wines being like golden clouds which make us dream and which enjoy being opened with care, without a pop, instead with an elegant and smooth sigh, or some such twaddle - our cheap spanish fizz is far too cheap for that!

I also didn't know, that far from protecting the cork trees from extinction, the new trend for screw caps and plastic corks is actually making it worse as cork trees need to grow for 40 years before they will produce cork, and then only do so every seven years but if the cork is not stripped from them, the trees die - so bring back real cork I say!

Transport and Communications Museum:
Probably the most frustrating due to lack of information!  Free on weekends, it is housed in the old customs building, which was built to ensure the correct taxation of the wine exported from the Douro but was late in conception and by the time if was built, trade from the river has all but dried up as the river became increasingly silted up, it was unsuitable for the modern method of transporting good in big containers which required a road or rail network and the new port of Leixoes took over all the good trade and was 5kms up the coast.  It is a massive, well proportioned building which fortunately they decided not to just pull down, but it is sadly lacking in purpose or calling, other than the odd exhibition or concert and the Transport Museum which is run by the Portuguese vintage automobile club and is the hardest thing to find - even when you have got through the main entrance to the building! We weren't sure what to expect and it turned out to be a varied and seemingly unconnected collection of cars of various ages and nationalities, including the first car ever to be driven in Portugal - a french Panhard and Levassor which on its first trip into Portugal ran over and killed a donkey - bloody french drivers! not an auspicious start to the motoring highlife in a new country!  The cars were very shiny and there were some information panels which probably would have been interesting about the history of motoring and its impact on society etc etc but they were all in portuguese and the effort of trying to understand them was just too much - which was a shame. 

Two video exhibits did make the whole expedition worthwhile though.  The first was a 1950's Cadillac publicity film which showed a very correct, brylcreamed and be-suited business man working in the back of his car with all modern conveniences in this mobile office, including a record player, a slot in the door for your briefcase and umbrella, an in-car telephone and a swivelling passenger seat with a fold down desk and typwriter for his  perfectly coiffured secretary - everything the business man on the move could want!

The second was called 'Clive Alive' and was a car safety video from Volvo told by a crash test Dummy called Clive - apparently crash test dummies live longer at volvo! - who went round crashing into things and leaping out of the car whooping with glee after every smash.  As well as ably demonstrating all the myriad of safety features in volvos, we also saw Clive's budding romance with a female crash test dummie which led to marriage and a romantic honeymoon jump off the Eiffel tower - thats the kind of guy Clive is...  oddly, after the credits, in the final, more recent, crash test scene he was single again - what happened in Paris, obviously stayed in Paris.... :)  honestly, it must be somewhere on you-tube and is well worth the effort of finding it for sheer madness and entertainment value.

Photographic Museum
The museum with the least prior information - again a shame - and no information at the door as to what exhibits you might find if you go in!  We only went in as it was free (all the time) and filled an hour between the end of coffee drinking time and the beginning of looking for a restaurant time and we could have done with longer!  It is housed in the former gaol building and when you go in, you get two whole side of A4 about the history of the building - the cells are named after male and female saints for men and women respectively, with big communal cells on the ground floor and smaller, more comfortable cells higher up which prisoners could pay to upgrade to - but nothing about what there is in it now!  The ground floor rooms were full of really old sepia photos of places in spain and portugal, including lots of those double pictures you put in the really old 3D viewer things (but unfortunately no 3D viewer to view them with) then upstairs there were several rooms full of all sorts of cameras from the really onld one, to spy camera - real and novelty - and specialist cameras.  Would have been really good with more time.  We also missed at least one other exhibition - islands or something - as it was closing time.  shame

quite nice but nothing special, after Burgos and Santiago, most churches we have since seen have been a bit 'meh' shrug.  Cloister was quite good though and had various  tiled chapels, a fancy sacristry and a treasure room, including some saint's tooth in a silver pincer.

Serralves Foundation Park and Contemporary Art Museum
This is the pretense and pretension bit.
Out of town - another van day out - and on the way to the beach, this was again somewhere we probably would not have gone with out the parents' influence and we ended up spending most of sunday there.  Arriving mid morning - free entry 10-2 on sundays! - we found free audio guides to the park and buildings  and set off on the 90 min guided walk.

The park is full of "art" - the iconic giant trowel being the best,

the holes dug round a tree and covered with glass sheets, entitled "Being tree and art" being the dullest, the nylon thread wrapped between trees which was "untitled" being the laziest and the three rows of four bus shelter seats which swing round from the center (also untitled) being the most fun

- at least we assume this last was the art, it was marked in about the right location on the map but having no title gave no clue as to whether this was art or just mucking about...

Having appreciated the "striking, highly accentuated verticality of the sugargums" (a tree lined path where the most striking thing, given the plaque, was the lack of straightness of the trees...)

we found ourselves in the pink art deco palace of the park's villa (surrounded by parterres of particularly fine laterality and paralleity - ok I am making that bit up, there were some hedges and water channels ;)

although you were supposed to appreciate how, as you approached the water feature, "the seemingly unbroken plane of the water, flowing away from the house was dismantled before your eyes into its multiplicity of constituent levels" - it was that sort of place).

The villa was largely unfurnished but a beautiful place with large, high ceilinged, well proportioned rooms and all the little art deco touches like door handles, light switches and a massive pink marble bath - not been that fussed about art deco before but that has changed my mind.

Onwards to the lake, reflecting pool

the working farm (a "staged descent into picturesque bucolic rurality" and an opportunity to make our own "art"...), through the scented garden, the tennis court (with a stop for coffee), the rose garden with pergola and sundial and round to the holm oak clearing (and another piece of "art" which was two big metal walls at either end of the foot path entitled "walking is measuring" where do they get this stuff from??)  As you can tell, we were well set up for the actual contempoary art inside the museum... :)

The museum is divided into several rooms, most of them being dedicated to the photographic work of one man and basically full of display cases full of his published collections with cases full of many copies of the same book, just open at different pages, with bigger versions on the wall (including a corridor with a warning of sexually explicit content that "people who might be easily offended" should avoid - random mix of pix ranging from a woman fingering herself to an empty sofa, gotta watch those sofas, red is particularly offensive... -  and some of those odd films, like you get in the Tate Modern of things like 72mins of a video camera balanced on a dashboard of a car on a free way with a bad road surface, and a really slow motion film of an american tourist in hong kong having her picture taken with a wax work of George Bush.  Call me a philistine but it was all just a bit random and I think I could just print my flickr photostream out on shiney paper and they would be as good - sorry if I offend anyone but I truly believe that sometimes the real "art" is persuading people to buy this stuff - although, from the number of his books in glass cases, it is possible that the museum bought the whole print run...

Onwards and downwards, appreciating the "transition through time and horizontal and vertical dimensionality" (the stairs in the corridor) leading to the "invisible portal which seemlessly connects yet separates one from wider world" (the window) and the "journey though enclosed space whilst staying in one place" (the lift) - yes yes, I am actually making this up but mum was still listening to the audio guide and I think it was telling her very similar things...

Downstairs was different pieces of "art", including a crashed jag, upside down on its roof with the radio blaring, a video of a bloke whose "art" is walking, alone (although with a cameraman) through deserts and occasionally stopping to rearrange rocks into circles or lines and then moving on - the walking is apparently also "art" - an unrecorded journey through the desert which only he will experience and one of the things he likes most about it is that his "art" is both permanent and fleeting, existing only for him at the time of day and in the light conditions under which he sees it (apart from that video camera) - strangely compelling viewing, if only to listen to the arrogance of the man!

The bit I most appreciated was the small installation about photography which was a collection of quotes including:

"I want to reproduce objects as they are, or as they would be, even if I didn't exist" Taine

"Photography cannot record abstract ideas" Encyclopedia Britannica, which makes a complete mockery of all the self important pictures in the upstairs galleries..

and my personal favourite piece of philosophy which justifies the 256mb of photos I seem to be able to take every day (can't find the bigger sd card, which is probably not a bad thing as some editing is forced to happen on the fly)
 "In my opinion, you cannot say you have thoroughly seen something until you have a photograph of it."  Emile Zola  - Pics or it didn't happen!

At the end of it all, Will found a big self justificatory bit of twaddle which said that since the 1960's, a new contemporary art movement has emerged in which it is not the execution of "art" which is the important thing, but the concept and many great pieces of "art" exist only in their creators' minds and are never realised, which means that even those who cannot paint, draw or sculpt can now fufil their dream of becoming "artists" - really??  I mean, really???

It was a good day out though :)

We also didn't do several things (believe it or not from the long list above!), including;

the tram museum (apparently a fine collection of trams and free travel on actual trams for 4 hours included in your ticket price.

St Franciso's church, apparently the must-see church in Porto for its intricate gold leaf covered carvings - the parents went and said it was good, but we are a bit "churched out" at the moment so spent our money on coffee and port instead :)

All in all, Porto was a fine city and a great mini-break destination!

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