We should have got a bad feeling about the campsite when we took the entrance too tight, bashing and breaking one of the side windows on the gate, oops. Someone had suggested trying municipal campsites as they’re much cheaper than the big branded ones. We’d enlisted a Portuguese friend (Hi Mica!) to make the reservation for us and were pleasantly surprised when they said it was e12 a night.
Yeah, there’s a reason it’s e12 a night. We knew it didn’t have a pool, but figured there was the beach 200m away, and besides, we’d be too busy sightseeing. But it also lacked pretty much any other facilities. No shop, no restaurant, no bar, no laundrette, no bloody wifi?! The shower blocks were what could only be described as utilitarian. Pitches were overgrown, and on a later traipse around the site, it was apparently where caravans came to die. Oh, and the manager was pissed off at us for breaking his gate.
In hindsight we probably should have found somewhere else, but there were only a couple of sites in Porto anyway, we had a reservation, and we’d already pitched before we discovered the lack of facilities. To add insult to injury, when I checked in they asked if we wanted 2a or 10a electric, explaining that 10a was for high power stuff and 2a was fine for lights, fridges etc. In a tizz about the crash I stupidly said 2a (there wasn’t even a price difference!) and this meant we now didn’t even have enough power to boil the kettle!
The site also had some odd residents. Each site we’d been on had its share of permanent pitches, caravans with huge awnings with kitchen appliances and full patio furniture. These guys were next level. On top of the caravan and awning they had huge grey plastic tarpaulin tents, taking the full perimeter of their pitch and giving the site an internment camp feel. Some had garden fences, plant pots, patios. The one nearest us even had a manky old sofa out on the front so the old ladies could sit and judge the comings and goings.
As well as the permanent pitches, there were others that looked abandoned. Dirty caravans with collapsed awnings and shattered windows gave the impression no one had visited for quite a while. The whole site had a bit of a post-apocalyptic feel to it.
Still we were here for the fiesta, and Grandma Geary was coming to visit!
Our first proper day in Porto was spent getting our bearings, running errands and accidentally getting pissed on port. We got the bus in to town and traipsed a couple of miles to find a camping shop. An electric connection converter and some hard ground awning pegs later and we could start having fun. We wandered back through town, stopping at the market for lunch. We expected a food produce market, or a hall of pintxos type stalls, so were surprised to walk in to a bright modern area full of boutique food stands selling glasses of champagne and posh nosh. It seemed wrong not to have a glass of fizz with lunch in that situation.
We wandered down to the river and stopped by the crowds to watch local youngsters throwing themselves off the (lower level) of the Pont Dom Louis I bridge in to the river Douro below.
Crossing to the other side of the river we entered the port house district and went for a tour and tasting. Augustos is a tiny local producer who only sell through their site in Porto. The tour was excellent and very informative, and of course we got to try the ports afterwards! After trying four, we were then given the option of trying others, with the cost knocked off the bottle if you decided to buy. Even without buying a bottle, where else do you get to drink 40 year old port for e15?! We worked our way through the vintages (for research purposes, obviously), which may have had something to do with deciding to buy a 30 year old bottle. Must not get pissed and neck it in one sitting at Christmas!
Rather giddy, we stumbled out into the sunlight and decided we needed one more for the road. Sandemans is another port house sat right on the river, with a great view of the hill of Porto town and the bridge. What better place to stop for a port cocktail? Especially since their terrace playlist seemed to be made up of 90s hits, perfect!
We decided to top off our stupidly expensive day with dinner for good measure. The Quay Wine Bar is on a wall above the hubbub of the river front, where you sit with trays resting on the wall to eat as you watch the evening unfold below. They have a limited menu of meats, cheeses and wines, but that was fine by us.
As well as being served our meat and cheese selection, they also presented us with a water pistol. Apparently the local seagulls have developed a taste for posh meats and are known to steal your dinner. While not getting any direct raids, we took great pleasure in taking an active defence.
The next day was very exciting as grandma Geary was coming to visit, and Evelyn turned six months old. We’d been holding off on weaning until the recommended date and Evelyn could finally celebrate with some solids- boiled carrot fingers, lucky girl.
23rd was St. John’s Day and the Fiesta de Sao Joao, a highlight of Porto’s calendar.
We headed in to town early to see the sights with mum, walking over the iconic bridge and taking in the atmosphere of the back streets of the old town as families strung out street decorations and started warming up for the festivities ahead.
Having stopped for a treat lunch at a restaurant near the riverside, we shared small plates and sangria while the owner and his wife doted over E. Then back to the weird campsite with ambitions of a siesta and to prepare for the night ahead.
The town was much busier in the evening as everyone streamed in for the celebrations. The streets were lined with people barbecuing sardines and makeshift stalls selling sangria and beers. Music blared from tannoys on both sides of the river, as well as impromptu sound systems set up outside bars and restaurants throughout town.
It was heaving! And everyone was armed with squeaky hammers, bonking each other on the head with them. No one’s quite sure where the tradition came from, but it’s been embraced with vigour. Simon got us a free one with his first bargain 2e pint of Superbock. Luckily they’re light plastic as even Evelyn wasn’t spared.
One of the main attractions of the festival is the fireworks display at the bridge at midnight. However we were in a bind. Our campsite was a few miles out of town, and the last bus was at 12.15. If we watched the fireworks, we’d miss the bus, and had been warned that it was a nightmare to get a taxi. The bus stop was a 10 minute walk from the bridge, could we chance it? To add to the complications, the cable car back up to the park at the top of the bridge, and the bridge itself closed at 11.30 before the proceedings.
We figured the funicular would be less busy and took that up to the top of town, jostling our way on to the bridge to get on to the right side for our bus before it closed. Our plan was to hover in the park between the bridge and the main road, see some fireworks and then leg it for the bus.
By 12.10 there were no fireworks and we were getting twitchy so went for the bus. We needn’t have worried. As we stood at the bus stop listening to the fireworks (they were in the river basin so we couldn’t see them) it was clear the bus wasn’t coming any time soon. There was no traffic at all. We guessed the whole city stopped for the fireworks whether they wanted to or not.
As the choreographed music finished and the last bang went off, thousands of people descended on the main road we were waiting on. Hundreds piled around the bus stops. The locals obviously knew the busses would be delayed and had made the most of it. Except it was now heaving and people were crowding every bus that arrived. And even though it was a main road, there was only one lane each way due to the tram lines, so each bus held up the traffic for 20 minutes as people elbowed their way on. We were tired, our legs ached, and E has woken up and was getting fractious from the commotion. Then, just to add to the chaos, a drunken reveller set off a load of fireworks in the middle of the road, delaying the traffic more, and sending us cowering behind pillars in case they flew off in the wrong direction.
Our bus finally arrived and I elbowed my way on, pointing to a now bawling E to make sure I got a seat. I’m not sure the packed bus really wanted a close up of my boob, but E needed feeding and she wasn’t in the mood for being discreet!
We finally got home at 2am, only to find the odd neighbours having their own celebrations, complete with awful euro happy hardcore music blaring, thank god for ear plugs.
Our last day in Porto was spent recovering from the previous night’s exertions, before a wander down the beach front.
We had an early start in the morning to get to Salamanca, bidding farewell to Grandma Geary at the bus stop in to town as we headed our separate ways after her short visit.
We’ll definitely be back for another Fiesta de Sao Joao, but next time we’ll do it without a baby – and with a city centre apartment!