Monday, April 24, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 24.4.17

I can't write a post this morning. So, here's:-
  1. Something I penned out of boredom on the train yesterday morning, and
  2. Something I wrote while my 2 friends visited a Port cave in Oporto yesterday midday.
Sunday morning in Valença, Portugal

8.00: Arrive at the train station and park, aiming to have a coffee and catch the 8.36 to Oporto. Nothing open. Neither a ticket office nor the café. No sign of any employees of CP, the national rail company. Two trains at Platform 1, both with their engines chugging away.

I wander down the platform and see some chap in civvies in what looks like a store room-cum-office. I ask him in Portuguese/Spanish/Gallego about the train to Oporto and where we can buy tickets. He points to one of the chugging trains but I'm not convinced, as I know ours is coming from Vigo and doesn't look as tatty as the 2 already in the station. I suspect that one of these is the 9.11 to Oporto, which takes about 2 days. I finally find a timetable which confirms departure of our train at 8.36 and then talk to the guy about the train coming from Spain. He agrees this is a different one and will be on Platform 2. I ask for and get the key to the toilets.

8.25: One of the chugging trains moves off in the direction of Spain, probably to go along the border to Mençao.

8.30: Our train arrives and we cross the tracks to get to it. There are bout 10 other passengers and none of us can get on the train because the doors won't open. Along comes a guy in a denim jacket and opens each door. I wonder about passengers who were planning to get off. But there aren't any.

8.42: We set off, 7 minutes late already. After 12 minutes in the station.

8.45: We buy our tickets. I hand over a €20 and get more than €9 back in coins.

8.53: We stop at Vila Nova de Ceveira, which is unscheduled. No one opens the doors.

9.01am: We stop at Caminha, at the mouth of the river Miño/Minho, the border with Spain. Also unscheduled. The doors open and one person gets on. He shakes hands with the guard and I conclude he's an employee of CP. So maybe a special stop just for him.

9.18: We stop on the outskirts of Viana de Castelo. A passenger on the other side stands up to get off and kindly tells me my wallet is on the floor.

9.21: We arrive at Viana do Costelo, now 13 minutes behind schedule.

9.23: We set off, now 14 minutes late.

9.26: We stop for no apparent reason. The train moves slowly backwards.

9.28: We set off again. Next stop is scheduled for 9.49 at Nine. I'm guessing 10.05.

9.36: Another unscheduled stop, possibly outside Darque station. No 3 or 4G, so no internet.

9.40: The train is now racing along at maybe 65kph (40mph). We might just be making up some time.

9.44: Another unscheduled stop, at Tamel. Another minute lost.

9.52: Yet another unscheduled stop, at Barcelos. The doors open and at least one passenger gets on.

I've noted that the there's only one track. This must complicate the scheduling challenge. And a quick look at the timetable suggests we're running not to the normal timetable for the Vigo-Oporto 'fast' train from Renfe but to that of the 7.56 semi-stopping train from Valença to Oporto on CP. Possibly because it's Sunday. From Barcelos to Nine is 11 minutes on this timetable, meaning we will Nine before the 10.05 I predicted. Still 15 minutes late. As there's no 3 or 4G, I can't warn the friend who's meeting us in Oporto at 10.30.

10.01: We arrive earlier than expected at Nine.

10.03: We depart, now a mere 13 minutes late. But, if I'm right about today's timetable, we've another 3 stops to make above and beyond the timetable we were supposed to be on. We are certainly not going to arrive at Campanha station by 10.18.

10.08: As feared, we stop at the first of the 3 stations, Farmalicão.

Jack tells me he has 4G through an operator called NOS. My phone tells me I'm with MEO, which used to be Telecom Portugal but I have no signal. Jack tells me to switch off and on and, possibly by coincidence, I now have a signal.

10.20: We arrive at Trofa. This is even slower than the 7.26 timetable, which has us down as taking only 9 minutes between these stations. Contrasting with the 12 we've just taken. Clearly a Sunday driver.

10.31: We arrive at Ermesinde. Only another 14 minutes to our destination, where we'll arrive 17 minutes later than expected. And, indeed, scheduled.

10.40: We finally arrive at Campanha station and head for the San Bento metro station, where our friend has been waiting since around 10.00.


Note: This curmudgeonly comment on Oporto might well be stimulated in part both by the above and by my having previously had to wrestle with 2 machines.

The first was a ticket machine on the Metro. These are so user-unfriendly that even Portuguese folk tend to take several minutes getting them to spew out tickets. Leading to long queues. The machine at Campanha station added injury to insult my making it difficult for me to put my coins in and then told me time had run out after I'd got the first one in. And then refused to give it back. Regular readers might recall my account last year of the guy who makes a living on the Metro by offering to help confused tourists and then asking them for the 80 cents he claims he lacks to buy his own ticket. Which rather says it all.

The second machine was the one giving access to a left-luggage locker at São Bento mainline station. The system there is so complicated – with instructions only in Portuguese – that there's a guy standing there all day explaining to local and tourists alike how to use it. Or at least there was when we were there. This gentleman kindly suggested we take a photo of the codes on the receipts issued by the machine as, if we should lose them, we'd never see our luggage ever again . . . 

Oporto is a truly lovely city which I've visited probably 10 times. But it has changed a lot since my first visit in the 1990s. In fact, it's an excellent example of the curse of tourism.

Even in April it's overflowing with tourists. As one emerges from the metro at São Bento of a Sunday morning, the first challenge you face is to negotiate the groups of people blocking the pavement while being lectured to by a guide.

Then, en route to the Port Caves in Gaia, there is the riverbank path that used to be derelict and dangerous but which is now stuffed with bars, cafés and restaurants. And, of course, people.

Above the bridge, the 'characterful' slope of slums has been transformed into something far less noteworthy. Which I suppose is a good thing.

Gaia itself is nothing like it was 15-20 years ago. It's essentially a riverside promenade and, apparently, a magnet for noisy motorbikers, who - the waitress tells me - congregate ther every Sunday in their dozens. Near the entrance to the cable car, should you want to know where to avoid.

As in all cities in which tourism is the real money spinner, service is now poor. Appalling even. I left 2 bars after the waiters had walked past my table twice without saying anything. Indeed, in the first one, the waiter declined to respond to my wishing him Bom día. At the third, I had to wave to attract the attention of the waitress, who was standing at the entrance, before she came to my table on the terrace at the roadside.

As I write, the only consolation is that I can hear myself think. Which would never be the case if I were in a Spanish city among so many people.

But, anyway, here's a nice foto of the city, taken from Gaia:-

And we did have an excellent lunch away from the hordes, up near São Francisco church.


Alfred B. Mittington said...

Ay, how many whining complaints about trivial trouble! Do you really think arrival with only 15 minutes delay and a few extra stops in charming little towns is the equivalent of infernal torture? Why, my experiences in your beloved Galicia were far worse than your sufferings in my adopted new Lusitanian fatherland!

For your pleasure and education, kindly read back my old 'Train trip to Oporto' at

But of course - as you previously ordered me to specify - your other readers are definitely NOT allowed to look at it! Don't you dare, dear people! Colin will have none of it!


Maria said...

I never knew Porto in the bad old days. I do agree that parts have become too touristy, such as the riverbank at Gaia, but there are plenty of places that haven't. If you want good service anywhere, never sit at a bar where the only natives are the ones serving. Go to the little corners where the natives serve the natives and the occasional tourist. They're cheaper, too, and that's what I have to look for when I visit. Speaking of touristy and expensive, I've heard that the Majestic on Rúa Santa Catarina is beautiful. I've passed by and admired, but never sat down. Porto isn't generally very expensive, but I bet the Majestic is.

Ticket machines are hell everywhere until you get used to them. The very first time I bought a ticket for Cercanías in Madrid, I was kerflummoxed until I finally figured it out, some minutes after the train I wanted to catch had left.

Alfred B. Mittington said...

Oh dear, Maria… If only Colin does not ostracize you for the use of 'kerflummoxed'… You know what a stickler he is for pure vocabulary, spelling and grammar…!

As for the changes that tourism wrought in Porto: the trouble is not so much that certain areas have been taken over by the Ryan Air Masses (as you say: they may easily be avoided), but that many charming old authentic places have disappeared because the tourism industry gobbled them up or elbowed them out. I could draw you up a list, but what good would it do? Let me just mention the Grand Hotel Paris in the Rua da Fabrica, which was formerly a wonderful family-run establishment, as cheap as it was splendid, until a French hotel chain bought it up and changed it to a gilded fast-food motel…

As for the Majestic: last time I looked, its prices were still more than reasonable, and unless your income derives from begging in the street, certainly affordable. Do go there next time you are in town. The experience is certainly worth the expense.


Colin Davies said...

@Alfie. My talents are wasted on you.

You know what a stickler he is for pure vocabulary, spelling and grammar…!

No, only punctuation. Do you actually read my stuff??

Colin Davies said...

My younger daughter and her husband stayed in the Grand Hotel de Paris last year and enjoyed it. I stayed in the Grande Hotel de Porto back in 98 or 9 and enjoyed the Majestic.

Maria said...

Well, Alfie, begging in the streets, perhaps not, but I think I would earn more from that than I do from giving English classes sub rosa. I will try to sit at the Majestic next time I am in town, even if only to enjoy a cool water.

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