For a full-size slideshow, click on each image. Thanks for travelling with me to Porto. Obrigada.
I’m back in Paris on my noisy street (at either end there’s construction work going on: drilling, hammering and a lot of dust … ugh!) In my head though I’m still on that beach. It’s nice to have a go-to place, a peaceful haven somewhere in the world to which you can escape, if not in body then in mind. I’ll be back, Praia da Barra! A few final photos:
I started off my vacation in Porto, a city I preferred over Lisbon. It’s smaller, more compact and intimate. Some great graffitti –
The bridge, spanning the Douro River, is on two levels. You can cross it on foot. This waterfront area is a “feel-good” place. You can take boat cruises, have a meal or a drink, or just stroll and feel the wind in your face. It’s in a part of the Old Town called Ribeira.
There’s something pleasantly ‘Old World’ about Portugal’s cities, something I had felt in Lisbon two years ago: a simpler life from a past era, yet totally modern and contemporary.
I can’t tell you how relaxing it was to stroll the city center in the sunshine and the wind. I took an old trolley car ride then alighted in this square and bought a necklace from a woman. During the lockdown, she told me, she made dozens of them.
Here’s why I fell in love with Praia da Barra. Coming from noisy, polluted, high-density Paris, I felt like I was in a dream. It was a cleansing of the mind, body and soul.
I’d begin my day with a brisk walk along this beach (strong wind blowing in off the ocean). Then I’d stop off at this place for caffe latte.
Then I’d move up to the wooden walkway and walk the rest of the way back to the hotel, the lighthouse and the pier.
Here’s the long jetty (pier? quay?) below. I’m not sure what to call it. But it makes for a great walk while the waves crash on the rocks below and the gulls wheel over your head. And the wind! You should’ve seen my hair by the end of the weekend. Full of knots.
I stayed here, at the Hotel Farol. I will return next year. The entire 11 days that I was in Portugal, the weather was perfection: hot, sunny and a constant cool wind.
Here’s the fantastic brunch I was served in the hotel restaurant:
I went to a nearby restaurant for dinner. The starter was olives, cheese and tuna pâté. The main dish was roasted cod served with potatoes mixed with olive oil, onions, peppers and olives. I’m not a fan of their young, slightly effervescent Vinho Verde (green wine.) Douro wine is best. Douro is one of the most beautiful wine regions in Portugal (and home of their famous port wines!)
The next morning I had this for breakfast, phyllo dough pastry filled with egg custard.
MORE PHOTOS TO COME. Thanks for stopping by! If anyone’s considering a vacation in Portugal, I wholeheartedly recommend it. No, I’m not commissioned by the Portuguese Tourist Board (but I should be.) 🙂
Here’s a 33-second video:
Had they told me in advance that I’d find myself entirely alone in an old Porto building, I would’ve booked elsewhere. Had they told me in advance that the beautiful back garden would be out of bounds due to a photo shoot, I would’ve booked elsewhere. I must admit that the garden was a big attraction for me, gardenless as I am in Paris. Had they told me that the back door wouldn’t lock ….
But no one said a word. When I descended the three flights of steep wooden stairs from my room at 5 pm, I saw no signs of life whatsoever.
“Hello?” I called out, my voice echoing in the high-ceilinged foyer. It’s an old house, high and beautifully refurbished, and entirely empty. I walked from room to room, hoping to come across a fellow traveler, a staff member, a friendly cat, a parrot in a cage. All that greeted me was the sound of my own footsteps on the polished parquet floor.
I don’t know about you, but part of the fun of travel is people-watching and sitting at the bar at day’s end enjoying a glass of the local wine while hobnobbing with the bartender or the person on the stool beside you. And then ordering dinner and having a nice meal in the hotel restaurant, if there is one. I can’t tell you the number of interesting people I’ve met and befriended while travelling (hey, Lori!) Lori lives in California. We met decades ago in Nice. Hey, Melanie! Mel lives in New York City, we met a long time ago in Switzerland. Hey Caitlin! Caitlin’s a fellow blogger and Canadian who lives just north of NYC. There are many others, men and women.
So to find yourself all alone in a big old guest house in an unfamiliar city is kind of anticlimactic (and scary). It was the garden door that precipitated my move to the hotel across the road. It wouldn’t lock. After the photo shoot had ended, I went into the garden to look around. When I had finished, I couldn’t lock the door. I must’ve stood there for 10 minutes fiddling with the key and the handle, but to no avail. Already nervous at the idea of spending the night alone in that tall empty house, and now cognizant that the back door was unlocked, I just grabbed my things, walked across the street to the beautiful Baixa Bessa Hotel and checked in. Have I seen too many Alfred Hitchcock movies? Perhaps. But as I sit in this hotel garden enjoying a glass of crisp white wine from the Douro region while perusing the dinner menu that the waitperson brought me, I can say that I’m happier here.
The thing is this: human beings need other human beings; in the end we are social animals. I didn’t come to this lovely country to be a lonely guest in an empty guest house, I came to engage and mingle with others. And now if you’ll excuse me, the waiter has come out to tell me that my dinner is ready: cod fish confit with a crust of pine nuts and breadcrumbs over roasted asparagus, spinach and tomatoes. Served with a red wine from the Douro region. Photos taken with my tablet.
If you come to Porto, I highly recommend this sleek, brand new hotel. It has a spa and a swimming pool too.
This is what I came for, and this is what I found. (I congratulate myself on my research and travel planning, it took me a while to find this spot.)
I left Porto at 11 am this morning and took the train to Aveiro, a town 15 km south. The trip took one hour and a round trip ticket cost me 7 euros. From Aveiro station I took a 15 mn taxi ride to this small beach resort called Praia da Barra where I am right now. From the moment I stepped out of the taxi to the moment I fell onto my hotel room bed from sheer and happy exhaustion, my mouth has been hanging open in awe. I’m awestruck.
First impressions? Everything is super clean and orderly. Friendly laidback people. Zero stress/tension. The smell of brine and grilling fish. The ocean up close. Fine white sand beaches … uncrowded!
I checked into the hotel and literally ran straight outside again, so eager I was to walk the long jetty past the lighthouse and feel the wind in my face and hair – a strong, cool wind blowing in from the ocean – while the sun hammered down from a cobalt-blue sky. Fantastic! I wish you could see the photos I took. I’ll post them when I get back.
The concrete jetty was long, and as I walked waves crashed onto the rocks on either side. Gulls wheeled and screeched overhead. This isn’t the lazy langourous Mediterranean you get in the south of France, this is the wild unleashed Atlantic, a different beast altogether. Posted on the jetty were signs warning people of high winds. Further down the coast are some of the best surfing spots in the world with monster waves.
Then I turned back and walked along the miles-long wooden walkway that runs parallel to the beach. I walked for a long while in the sunshine and then, starving, returned to the hotel restaurant. I was in for yet another surprise. Because it was 2 pm and I hadn’t eaten all day, I ordered brunch. You should’ve seen my face when the smiling waitperson carried an enormous platter to my table.
‘”Is that all for me?” I gasped, and she laughed. There were scrambled eggs and bacon. A fresh fruit salad of mango, melon, kiwi and strawberries. Freshly squeezed orange juice. A basket filled with croissants and rolls. Jars of locally made peach jam, strawberry jam, honey and Nutella. And a large caffe latte.
I sat for an hour and worked my way through that delicious bounty of food, and no I didn’t finish it all.
It’s now 10:30 pm and as I sit in my hotel room reading the world news on my tablet and learning of the rise in Covid numbers, especially in France to where I return on Friday, I experience a niggling feeling of unease. If I could, I’d like to be able to stay here, in this little slice of paradise.
Yesterday, I left the rental apartment at 10 am and returned, happy hot and tired, at 6 pm. In every way, it was a perfect day in Porto. First, the weather: hot, sunshine galore and a constant cool wind blowing in from the ocean. Yes, Porto is a coastal city, and those same screeching seagulls that I encountered in Rome last year are here too.
I walked for 7 hours yesterday, up and down hilly streets and all over. It turned out that the Serralves Foundation is not smack in the center of town, but on the west side, so I went by taxi and strolled in the beautiful gardens. They were just as gorgeous as the images I had seen on the internet. I’ve taken lots of photos of my Porto wanderings, but I’m writing this on my tablet and cannot upload photos.
Porto is not a glamorous city, but rather a real down to earth working city. The denizens are frank, no nonsense folk which I appreciate. Unassuming, no one hassles you in the street. Helpful and friendly if you approach them. The language? Really hard to speak or understand, it in no way resembles French, Italian or even Spanish. Lucky for me, many speak English or French because all I can say is obrigada (thank you), por favor (please) and bom dia (good day). Porto is a lot cleaner than Paris (the streets). I’m revelling in the fresh unpolluted air here.
The flight from Paris was perfect. Only one hour and 45 minutes. The plane was half full which made distancing easier. I still swear by the comfort and efficiency of EASYJET. We flew west to Nantes then all the way down the Atlantic Coast of France to Bilbao then onwards to Porto airport where I had pre-ordered a car service through booking.com for only 16 euros. Food is cheap. It’s not haute cuisine, but tasty, especially the desserts and pastries. The beer is good. Self serve cafeterias dot the city, clean and convivial, where you load up your tray with a hot meal, dessert and drink for as little as 6 or 7 euros. No wonder many people choose to retire here.
Friday is my last full day in the apartment (super nice with a garden patio hemmed in by high stone walls upon which resident cats sit and stare down at me), then the week-end at the beach resort south of the city, then back to Porto on Monday to stay in a hotel for 3 nights.
No stress here, Paris and my job seem far away …
I’m wondering if I could live here.
Nothing gave me greater joy, all throughout the 1990s, than to climb aboard a sleeper at Paris’s Austerlitz station at around 10:30 p.m., crawl into my little berth and wake up the next morning on the Riviera. Popular and cheaper than day trains, they were, in fact, hotels on wheels when you think about it. But I liked them for the romantic notion. I was in Europe, after all, and wanted to experience European train travel. Oh, not the grand and legendary Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian Railway or the Danube Express, but rather snuggled in a sleeper aboard one of the French trains: the Océan-Riviera (Nantes to Nice), the Rhône-Océan (Quimper to Lyon), the Flandres-Riviera (Lille to Nice), the Blue Paloma (Paris to Toulouse to Hendaye) or the ever-popular Blue Train (Le Train Bleu), named so because of its dark blue sleeping cars. (I thought it was named after the blue of the Mediterranean Sea, its final destination.)
Nothing was more exciting than to wake early, lie on your berth and glimpse the sea and the characteristic umbrella pines and palm trees through the window. Upon arrival on the coast, the stations the train passed through were Marseille, Toulon, Saint-Raphaël, Cannes, Juan-les-Pins, Antibes, Nice, Monaco, Monte-Carlo and Menton, the terminus. Further along was the Italian border and Ventimiglia.
In these photos below: First class on the left, only four couchettes, and Second class on the right with six couchettes. The best bunks were the ones up top. In the early 2000s, the train company, SNCF, introduced cabins reserved exclusively for women.
But why am I talking about this in the past tense? With the arrival of the high-speed TGV (train à grande vitesse) trains and the new low-cost airlines, those reliable yet clunky night trains began to lose their lustre. No longer profitable, the entire night-train network in France (except for two lines) was slowly phased out then dismantled, leaving behind a whole slew of train orphans, myself included.
In the 1980s, more than 500 cities in France were served by a night train. In the early 2000s, sixty-seven were still in circulation daily. Today, only two lines are still operating: Paris-Briançon and Paris-Toulouse.
But guess what? They’ve become fashionable again! Anxious about our ecological future, who would have thought that instead of looking forward for solutions, the government is looking backward. Suddenly, those night trains don’t seem to be such a bad idea after all.
Slow travel is in, flying short distances in Europe is out. The train’s carbon footprint is fifteen times lower than that of the airplane. In June 2019, I travelled by train all the way from Puglia (the heel of Italy) to Paris, stopping off in Bologna, Milan and Nice. It was great. I was ready to do it all over again this year, but then COVID came.
I’m thinking of taking the night train to Venice this Christmas.
Tous à bord! All aboard!
Here’s an extract from my memoir relative to the night train:
I don’t know who said ‘living well is the best revenge’, but as I savored a mouthful of grilled fish served with fennel and artichoke and washed it down with a swirl of chilled Puligny-Montrachet ’92, I felt inclined to agree with this maxim. I was lunching on the beach in Nice where only the French can turn this otherwise commonplace act into a sybaritic event.
The waiter removed my empty plate and brought a crème caramel for dessert, a tiny cup of espresso at its side. I sat contentedly in my chair and observed the sight before me. The listless sea lapped twenty yards from my table. The sun shone from an azure sky. Parasols as white as ship sails fluttered in the gentle breeze. Shading my eyes, I peered across the Mediterranean for a glimpse of North Africa beyond. All was right with the world. I felt sated and at peace.
Every June I’d steal away on Le train bleu, the night train that leaves Paris’s Gare d’Austerlitz for the Riviera. I had explored other towns along the coast: Cannes, Juan-les-Pins, Antibes, Cap Ferrat and Menton near the Italian border, but Nice was my pleasure station, my secret destination, my sybaritic delight. In the sleeping compartment, I’d climb the little ladder to the top berth and, mindful not to bump my head against the ceiling, fold myself into the narrow space under the thin SNCF-stamped train sheets. There was something simultaneously romantic, dangerous and thrilling about those night trains. You never knew who you were going to meet in the corridor at two a.m.; you never knew with whom you were going to share your sleeping compartment; you never knew if you were actually going to arrive at your destination.
I loved the idea of leaving Paris at midnight and waking up the next morning on the Côte d’Azur. I loved the rocking motion of the carriage and the rhythmic clacking of wheels on rails as we sliced through the blackness, past sleeping towns and hamlets, across fields and vineyards. From time to time a blur of electric lights would whip past the window and, peering through the glass, I’d glimpse empty stations: Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, Dijon, Chalon-sur-Saône, Mâcon – their lonely platforms lit up like stage sets. Then dark again as we sped on towards the south.
Swaying gently in my bunk, the soft glow of the little night light above my head, I could smell and hear the five sleeping strangers around me. I felt alone and crowded at the same time.
I received the email below this afternoon and read it with a heavy heart.
Damn this COVID! Only five minutes before receiving the said email, I was standing in my colleague’s office talking about COVID.
“What if it never goes away?” I said. Bill Gates, who seems to be an expert on this subject, says it’ll go away in mid-2021.
Based in the heart of central London, The Penn Club has been one of my favourite small hotels for many years. On occasion my mother stayed there, and I’ve recommended it to friends. The location is perfect: a 15-minute walk from St. Pancras train station and in the heart of leafy, beautiful Bloomsbury. Oh, and steps away from the eminent British Museum and my favourite bookshop-cakeshop.
I’ve had some memorable moments during my stays there:
The morning I was awakened by a rustling sound at 5 a.m. I went to my window, looked down onto the street below and saw the most magnificent fox sauntering down the sidewalk. A fox! In central London! He had been rummaging in one of the rubbish bins.
Reuniting with my two childhood friends, Kathy and Claire, in December 2018;
Meeting up with an ex-boyfriend there (oh, there were so many ex-boyfriends …);
Eating English breakfast in the communal dining room and having really pleasant conversations with total strangers sitting at the same table (breakfast is included in the price of the room);
Returning to the hotel after walking 7 to 8 hours all over London and relaxing in the quiet Cadbury Room with the daily newspapers and many books at my disposal. It’s a warm and welcoming place, not swish or posh, but cozy and tranquil.
Why is it called the Cadbury Room? Because the hotel fosters a spirit of fellowship in accordance with its Quaker values. Although not a formal Quaker institution, they maintain traditional Quaker values of integrity, equality, tolerance and simplicity, honesty and fairness in all of their dealings.
The great English confectionary companies: Cadbury of Birmingham, Rowntree’s of York, and Fry’s of Bristol were all rooted in Quakerism in their early years.
I go to London every summer for the simple reason that London is my favourite city. I wasn’t planning on going this year (because of COVID), but maybe I’ll change my mind. (Update: no I cannot, the U.K. has just imposed a 14-day quarantine on all travellers to Britain from France.)
Here’s their website. If you do go to London at some time, please stay here before it’s too late.
And here’s the email I received today:
Dear Friends of The Penn Club,
We hope that you and your families are well at this time of crisis. With a spirit of openness and transparency, we are writing to update you on how things stand at the Club in these extraordinary Covid-19 times and to ask for your help.
In this our Centenary Year it has been a particularly hard blow to experience, since March, the most severe imaginable drop off in business. We had hoped once we were able to reopen after our enforced closure that life at the Club would slowly return to normal. However, since reopening, room occupancy is very suppressed with July falling from an average occupancy in recent years of 91% to 3%. The outlook for the next few months is concerning, with pre-bookings not getting above 7%. Apart from a handful of visitors following on from the key NHS health workers we hosted over the worst-hit months, bookings are unsustainably low.
If we find that we are unable to bounce back financially in the coming months, we may, as a last resort, be (and are) forced to consider closing. Should this happen the Board is resolved to retain enough money to discharge liabilities (including towards our wonderful staff team) in a responsible and fair way so we cannot completely run down our reserves to zero.
We need your help. First, if you can possibly do so, please come to stay again. Our safe buildings are being meticulously cleaned and maintained to the highest standards and our health and safety processes can be relied upon. Feedback we have been receiving from visitors who have been to the Club since we reopened is that travelling to and being at the Club feels very safe.
London is uniquely quiet and fascinatingly attractive. Most Museums, Galleries, cafes, restaurants and other attractions are open and welcoming. Trains are not busy and even in London the tube and buses are relatively quiet. The wearing of mandatory face masks on public transport means infection risk is very low. Our location within walking distance of Euston, Kings Cross and St Pancras means many arriving into these termini can avoid public transport if they wish.
The Chancellor recently announced a cut on VAT for hospitality businesses. We have passed the full saving on to our guests. The reduction makes quite a bit of difference to our room rates.
Second, we need you to spread the word about the Club to your network of relatives and friends. We welcome all to our safe haven, renowned as home for one who is away from home. We are considering setting aside a portion of rooms for longer stay guests similar to how the Club operated in the past. Do you know someone who needs a place to stay to avoid commuting every day? If you have any bright ideas of what we could be doing to bring in additional income and encourage more visitors, do please get in touch.
Please be assured that we have not lost heart and that The Penn Club Board and management team are steadfastly working to survive this crisis and emerge into our new century. We have much valued your support in the past and realise how much the Club means to so many people. We hope that together we can continue to build and strengthen our shared home from home in Bloomsbury.
Robert Gibson and Fergal Crossan
Deputy Chair on behalf of the General Manager
The Penn Club Board
Here’s a blog post written in August a few years ago about Bloomsbury, The Penn Club and my favourite bookshop-cakeshop:
I just read this heart-wrenching, eloquent opinion piece in Sunday’s The Guardian.
Beirut resident, Lina Mounzer, is seething mad.
As she rightly says, these people are referred to as the “ruling elite”. There’s nothing elite about them. They’re the dregs of humanity. What did they do, in the past, with the millions and millions of dollars of aid to help the people of Lebanon? Those in the Ministry of Finance and elsewhere siphoned off millions for themselves, stashing their booty in offshore bank accounts.
Flying in on his glistening white jet with the words République Française emblazoned on its sides, President Macron arrived in shell-shocked Beirut yesterday like Jesus the Saviour riding on a white horse.
Then I saw the heavens opened, and behold a white horse! And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True. He administers justice and wages war righteously. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many royal crowns.
Revelation 19:11-16, The Bible, New King James version
Here in France, we watched our TV screens with stupefaction as the President of France walked through the crowded streets like the Messiah, surrounded by weeping, clapping, lamenting and visibly distressed citizens.
“Please help us!”
“Don’t give money to our politicians, they’ll keep it for themselves!”
“They’re all criminals!”
“Macron for President of Lebanon!”
“The Lebanese people are suffering an emotional, moral and financial crisis,” Macron proclaimed, “And we are going to help them.”
#EmmanuelMacron showing 10x more leadership than ALL Lebanese politicians combined.
Nothing could underscore more the ineptitude of the government as 2,750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate was left to languish in a ramshackle portside warehouse for years despite repeated warnings.
The oddity of yesterday’s situation was the glaring absence of Lebanon’s leaders. Where were they? Too scared to show their faces for fear of being physically attacked by their own people or even killed, the cowards beat a hasty retreat to hide in their luxurious, air-conditioned homes and offices. How odd to see a foreign leader mingling with and comforting these beleaguered people when, in a real world and not this dysfunctional one, it should be the Lebanese leaders themselves.
For decades, the tiny country of Lebanon has been ruled by a mafia-like gang of thugs and thieves. The administration of the country has been compared to a feudal system, the lords being family clans, former war lords and militia leaders who provide housing, jobs and services to vassals in exchange for protection, subservience and allegiance.
They are, in truth, criminals who should be tried in a court of law and thrown in prison. For too long the country has been mired in government corruption, patronage and favouritism. Untold millions have been stolen from the public coffers by these thieving factions/gangsters/criminal families.
Home to 18 different religious confessions, ethnic groups and tribes, the President must be a Maronite Christian, whereas the Parliament Speaker and Prime Minister must be a Shi’a and Sunni Muslim respectively. In addition, 64 of the 128 seats in parliament are reserved for Muslims, while the other half is for Christians.
The Shiite coalition is composed of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. Both are Iran-backed and trace their roots to the civil war era.
Wearing a black tie in mourning, Macron promised angry Lebanese crowds that French aid would not go into “corrupt hands”. “I want a new political pact and I’ll come back in September,” he said, adding “Without deep structural reforms, there will be no financial aid.”
But back in France, the French were not overly-impressed with Macron’s humanitarian mission. In the office this morning, the topic was discussed around my espresso machine. My French colleagues grumbled. (The French are always grumbling.)
“We have enough problems here in France; Macron should look after his own people.”
“It’s up to the Lebanese people to force change, not an outsider. Otherwise, that’s just called meddling.”
“Quelle arrogance ! Have you noticed how arrogant all of our presidents are here in France? What right does he have to go to a foreign country and lay down the law? Lebanon is no longer a French protectorate. I mean, seriously, with what legitimacy is he able to do that?”
(In 1923 and after the Partition of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations mandated that Lebanon would be administered by France. Lebanon officially became part of the French colonial empire. The French mandate lasted until 1943, when two independent countries emerged, Syria and Lebanon. French troops eventually left Syria and Lebanon in 1946.)
In Beirut a petition was signed with 60,000 signatures: that Lebanon returns to French mandate for ten years.
Whatever Macron’s strategy, it took a lot of courage for him to do what he did, and I applaud his efforts.
As I later wrote in the Comments section, here’s the primary reason of his visit:
One thing is sure: the country can no longer continue down this path. Most importantly, if it wants to receive financial aid from outside, it needs to clean up its act. That was the main reason of Macron’s visit. Serving as spokesperson for international organizations such as the IMF, the World Bank and the EU who are behind him (and poised to send billions to Lebanon following this recent crisis), the president went to Beirut to reflect the exasperation of the international community. No more subsidies until you provide us with complete transparency! There are conditions attached to receiving aid, and it will be outsiders now, not the crooks from within, who will monitor and distribute the funds. Don’t forget that before becoming Prez, Macron was a banker.