Thursday, 10 September 2015

Leixoes Revisited

Porto - statues in the park
The Atlantic coast of Portugal isn't the easiest of places to sail. While the wind usually blows in the right direction for those going south, most of the potential stopping points have shallow entrances and can be bit dicey when there is any swell. Because this coast has hardly any continental shelf, ocean swells reach the shore more easily than elsewhere. It's not for nothing that the place is a surfing hot-spot... hence most of the harbours are often out of reach for us.

One of the few that are relatively unaffected by swell is Leixoes.. pronounced Leshoins (or something similar). This is the main port for the city of Porto, some 5 miles up the adjacent river Douro and is one long day sail from Baiona in Spain.

Porto - Train Station
We stopped here 9 years ago in one of those unfortunate conjugation of circumstances that left us swearing never to return. The weather had been a little strange then, with light following winds and a big swell. Not enough wind to sail, but just enough to hold our engine fumes in a cloud around us. In addition, the engine cooling system had developed a leak and on arriving we discovered it had been steadily filling the bilges with seawater. This left us feeling a tad grumpy as we anchored in the harbour outside the marina. We then discovered that they were in the process of dredging the harbour so there was a perpetual movement of the dredger around us, night and day. To make matters just a shade worse, when we visited the marina to enquire about engine parts, we found the staff there shifty, oily and as unhelpful as they could manage. We were so disgruntled that unusually for us we put to sea the following day into a near gale just to put distance between us and the place.

Porto - Central Market
So, as you can imagine we had mixed feelings about returning, but Leixoes is a convenient stopping point and we still hadn't seen Porto together. I had visited some 20 years previously but had no clear recollection of the city.

Inevitably, it could only have been better than last time. The port isn't the prettiest of places, but we anchored in the gathering dusk alongside a couple of other yachts, with our engine working fine and no sign of dredgers anywhere. We caught the bus to Porto the following morning, and on the way were greeted by the marina staff who were helpful and friendly, even though we weren't actually staying in the marina. Everyone seemed to be cheerful.

The city of Porto itself is extraordinary. It's scruffy in lots of places and generally quite run down, but has a spectacular setting in the steep river Douro valley and has a vibrancy and dynamism which is palpable together with a definite sense of style in spite of the decay. Clearly the last time that there was any significant wealth in the city was in the art deco period and so there are some fabulous examples scattered around.

The valley sides are riddled with steep and narrow flights of stairs intersected with shady alleys. Working our way down towards the river we realised we had bizarrely stumbled into an organised urban motocross race. Pairs of off road bikes were tearing up and down the flights of stairs in the heart of the historic city centre.

Making our way back to the station after and long and hugely enjoyable day meandering about soaking up the ambience (and two stroke fumes from the bikes), we found ourselves caught up in the middle of a substantial Portuguese Communist Party demonstration march. It was all pretty peaceful as it turned out, but quite noisy and lots of police.

We decided Porto deserved another day, so returned and had a more mellow time wandering about. Although there was a big marathon happening through the city and a book fair.

We headed out the following evening in settled weather for an overnighter to Peniche and had time during starry night watches to contemplate all the ways that leixoes/Porto had redeemed itself.