“ City: Oporto / Country: Portugal / World Region: Europe „
When the volcanic ash closed down European airspace for almost a week, my colleagues and I were faced with spending an unplanned weekend in Portugal about half an hour's drive from Oporto. One of my colleagues had his wife and small son with him and the little boy - Lennert - was obsessed with buses. He was a few days short of his 2nd birthday and his cries of 'bus bus bus' had made him famous amongst the fawning staff at our hotel. Everyone knew that one sure way to please this little traveller would be to take him somewhere where he could see lots of buses, and even better ride on one.
I'd been into Porto with Lennert's mum and dad earlier in the week and he'd been chirping 'bus bus bus' at every bus we'd seen. Even before we knew that I and another colleague would be staying longer than planned, it was already mapped out that Lennert and family would take the 'hop on hop off' tour bus on Saturday. We'd picked up the route maps and the service details earlier in the week, and when I realised I had to stay, I was more than happy to go and share his dream journey on the big red bus.
I've been to Porto before but it was more than 20 years ago. As an impoverished backpacker I recall going up the Clerigos tower and then getting totally lost. I was rather looking forward to catching up on a city that I'd instinctively loved so many years before.
~You Pays Your Money and You Takes Your Pick~
If you want to take a tour of Porto there are two separate bus companies offering tours. There's a locally owned 'Yellow Bus' that offers three different tours of varying durations and themes, and the 'Red Bus' which is branded as 'Sightseeing Portugal' and is owned by the company Douro Acima. I actually requested the Sightseeing Portugal Hop on Hop off bus but Ciao in their wisdom took the name off the website which I provided.
From what I can work out, the Red Bus tours seem to be some kind of international franchise because I've seen and used them in many different countries. Your final tour option is a tram tour but since Lennert wouldn't have been happy with a tram after being promised a bus, that was excluded from our options. When his mum realised that the red bus tour would mean she could get a further discount off the red bus in their
home city of Chester, she chose that we take that option. Both the yellow and red buses cost Euro12 for 48 hours.
We drove into the city and parked up in the car park beside the Bolso Palace, just a block back from the waterfront and handy for the bus stops for the tour buses. We stopped to have coffee on the waterfront and work out which tour we wanted to take. We chose the blue route which works its way around the historic district of central Porto then heads over the picturesque Luis I bridge and tours around the other bank of the Douro river through Vila Nova de Gaia, home of the city's famous port wine cellars. We thought this route would be better because it was shorter than the red route which heads all the way off to the coast along the Avenida da Boavista and works its way back along the river bank. We'd done that route in the car a few days earlier so it seemed less attractive.
~Planning on the Hoof~
So much for the best laid plans of tourists - after waiting for about 20 minutes and seeing not even a sniff of a bus, the first red bus to arrive was doing the Red Route. We'd waited long enough. Since both buses followed the same route through the city centre, we weren't too worried. If we changed our minds we could get off and grab a blue one later. We hopped on, paid our 12 Euro fee which gave us up to 48 hours to take as many buses as we wanted, and were given a small brown envelope with the plug in headset for listening to the commentary.
I had in mind a few places where I might like to get off and have a good look around. I fancied seeing some of the churches and parks but I was a bit naïve in my aspirations. I am not used to small children and the complexity of moving them around. By the time we'd got Lennert and his pushchair onto the bus and up to the top deck, getting off again and doing it all over, seemed like the last thing we wanted to do. I abandoned all thoughts of detailed sightseeing and settled back to enjoy his delighted cries of "bus bus bus" as we sailed through the streets.
~Truly Awful Music~
We plugged in our nasty little headsets and fiddled with the buttons to find the right languages - English for me, German for everyone else. And so began the most dreadful audio commentary that I've ever been exposed to. I've done a lot of these 'hop on hop off' or other bus tours over the years but this was without comparison for its sheer awfulness. Firstly there was the dreadful music droning around in the background. I'm going to guess that it was Fado since I've been told that this uniquely Portuguese music sounds a bit like a cat being tortured. When we reached a location that the recorded guide wanted to talk about her voice broke in over the music, but the music didn't get any quieter. We had to fight to hear her over the drone of the singing in the background. If you could hear what she said, it was delivered in such a flat and heavily accented manner and with no emotion or life, that we soon found we just couldn't listen to what was being said. First fight the music, and then fight the flat and soulless delivery of the history of whatever we were looking at. I was really very disappointed. I had no idea what I was looking at or why it was significant. We also had no idea how to stop the bus even if we had wanted to get off.
~And they're off~
All was not too miserable though. The weather was beautiful, little Lennert was having a ball and we were seeing plenty of the city, even if we didn't have a clue what we were looking at. We passed the Palacio da Bolso and then headed towards the city hall or Camera Municipal. I particularly enjoyed seeing the cathedral and several of the churches, especially the ones that were tiled in traditional blue and white ceramic on the exterior. We were able to see the Luis I bridge which was built by Gustave Eiffel (he of the tower!) from above, looking down on both it and the Douro river. We passed the theatre and a few more churches, looked down on some beautiful parks and a book shop that looked like a wedding cake. We passed the spectacular Peninsular War monument in which a lion represents Portugal and a large bird (an eagle I expect) represents the defeated enemy, the pair perched high up on top of a tall elegant column in the middle of a giant roundabout. We passed the Casa da Musica which I suddenly remembered from so many years before and then headed towards the coast, deciding that we would get off when we hit the Forte de Sao Francisco Xavier, which is prosaically known as the Castle of Cheese. Who could resist?
Luckily we didn't have to rush to get off by the Castle because this was a scheduled 10 minute stop for the bus. We bundled up all the baby buggy and bags and hopped off with the intention of walking along the sea front for a half mile or so, then getting beer and snacks for our rather late lunch. As we strolled along the sea-front I was amused by all the groups of elderly locals gathered on the beach to play cards. Ladies of very advanced years were happily sporting bikinis without any evidence of self-consciousness. We observed one gang of old boys who'd built an awning and set up their card tables and beer coolers for the afternoon and we wondered what they'd told their wives they were doing that afternoon. After a ten minute walk we found a bar where we'd had coffees a few days earlier and ordered some food. Just after we finished it started to rain and we moved inside, wondering if it would ever stop and realising that without doubt we'd not be getting back on the upper deck of the bus.
When we really couldn't wait any longer for it to stop, we headed back to the street to find the bus stop and waited in a shelter for the next' hop on hop off' to come by. Our journey back to the centre was firmly confined to the downstairs and we eventually got off again back where we'd started. Had we wanted to, and if the weather had been better, the red line bus would then have taken us over the bridge and along the waterfront to all of the port wine cellars but Lennert was getting tired and his mum was getting hungry so we called it a day.
~Worth it or not?~
Undoubtedly if you don't have your own transport and you have two full days to spare, the bus tour will give you a chance to see pretty much all that Porto has to offer. If you do have transport, you could do most of it quite easily on your own by driving to the more distant stops and by walking around the centre of the town. The tour doesn't give you much help in identifying what's worth seeing and what isn't which is a shame - you learn only what you are seeing as you pass it, by which time it's a bit too late to decide you want to hop off. All could have been solved with a bit of thought and a pamphlet to describe what you could visit from each stop along the way. Due to the relatively infrequent service (they go approximately every 30 minutes) you may well spend a lot of time standing around just waiting for the next bus. At 12 Euros for the two days, it's one of the least expensive of these tours that I've seen in Europe. However, with such a dreadful commentary, you may well need to buy yourself a good guidebook and do a lot of research beforehand in order to get proper value out of the tour.