PortoBay Flores: If curiosity could kill . ..
After being written off for two decades, the now bustling Rua das Flores is gaining new denizens. PortoBay Flores has just opened its doors. Even better than the "new hotel” smell is walking down a hallway with five centuries of history. The view is a bonus.
I share Paul Theroux's excitement of travelling just about anywhere, without literally having to board the Old Patagonian Express. "It was obvious that one of us in that metro coach wasn’t going to work. This was immediately apparent by the size of the bag. (...) it was a perfect morning to depart for South America. For some, it was the metro to Sullivan Square, Milk Street or, if anything, Orient Heights; for me, it was the train to Patagonia.” Some days, it’s enough to get on at the Santa Apolónia station and head north. By my bag, it’s clear that I’m not going to work.
I like to go to Porto by train and make the small switch needed to complete the trip to the São Bento station. Every single time, I stop to look at the panels of traditional blue tiles by painter Jorge Rey Colaço. That gigantic canvas – because this is how they were done, like a painting – the paint on glazed and fired tile, an innovation for its time. Twenty thousand tiles, installed from 1905 to 1906, in a still provisional station that would not be inaugurated until 05 October 1916. The epic scenes, like the conquest of Ceuta by Prince Henry the Navigator in the 15th century, are photographed every day and described in every language to groups of tourists who mingle with urban users. From here, simply cross, and you arrive at Rua das Flores.
2:00 PM: Check-In
At number 27, the new PortoBay Flores’ eye-catching yellow gets your attention. This isn’t a business trip. I’m on vacation. This isn’t Patagonia... it’s Porto. Continuing with the thoughts of Theroux: "To travel is to disappear, a solitary foray down a straight geographic line into oblivion.” Try not watching the news on TV, and the place and country will no longer matter. Oblivion is this break in our life, our routine, our work, our experiences, making the hotel the destination, going without any predetermined agenda, maybe just a book or two, and surrendering to our thoughts and to the moment, a solitary foray.
I enter a 16th-century small palace to check in, where once there were stables. A hallway flanked by two beams of light leads me to a 21st-century building, a trip in time down a straight geographic line separating 500 years of history. The hotel has preserved the identity of the residence of the Maias, the last family to inhabit the manor house which gave rise to it, also known as "Ferrazes Palace”, while adding the modern features of a city located on the world tourism route.
Room 803, on the top floor, is a duplex, with a terrace overlooking the city of Porto, inviting you to stay. An upgrade to the trip.
2:30 PM Break
A light meal at the Os Maias bar, in a relaxed atmosphere, where I watch the coming and going of people speaking every language. A unique-looking elderly couple approaches the automatic glass door and takes a couple of steps to look inside. "It’s nice,” says the woman. He takes longer to comment: "They’ve been able to preserve what was here. Out there, they’re destroying everything and making it new...” They leave happy, even without passing by the lobby. Still, they were able to see the original granite slab staircase preserved by architect Samuel Torres de Carvalho; if they had gone up one more floor, they also would have seen the kitchen oven and traditional tiles of bygone days. The best-kept secret is the 18th-century Baroque chapel on the inside patio, attributed to Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni, who chose Porto to leave his legacy until the end of his days, responsible for works at the Porto Cathedral, Clérigos Church and Tower, Palace of Freixo and Igreja da Misericórdia, just steps away from the hotel.
On the patio, the fountain sounds like vibrations from Tibetan bowls, with a therapeutic effect enticing you to meditate or read, immune to the outside bustle. I don’t even notice the passing hours.
6:00 PM Taking care of the body and mind
Seldom do my gym shoes come with me, since I end up neglecting them much more often than exercising to exhaustion. This time, I try to strike a balance during my trip, and physical exercise is on the schedule. The room is well-equipped, and music in the ears encourages me to pick up the pace on the elliptical trainer. Fifteen minutes. Twenty. Thirty. That’s enough! I switch out my lycra pants for a bathing suit, and the gym for the indoor pool. The sound of the water is music to the ears, and will continue when I fill the bathtub – another equally unusual practice, one might say to save water, but the truth is when managing time, there’s never enough time for this fleeting pleasure. As sung by Rita Lee: "How about the two of us/ In a bubble bath/ El cuerpo caliente/ A dolce far niente/ No guilty feeling...” Even if it’s just one, there’s no guilt in seizing the moment.
8:30 PM The art of the table
Among experiences alone while travelling, time spent at the table is neglected by most, who often prefer a quick meal, maybe a ready-made food station or a sandwich back in their room. But for those who choose restaurants with the same criteria as museums, it’s worth the unease of having no one to talk to or eat with, in order to have the pleasure of relishing each dish.
These days, menus are like moments of storytelling. At the elegant Bistrô Flores, once the building’s great hall, the literature hints at a composition of flavours combined with mastery. Bring on the Azeitão cheese with Avintes cornbread, tomato soup – which would make a beautiful painting at the hands of Andy Warhol – roasted octopus with lemon and thyme, mashed sweet potatoes and citrus fruit, accompanied by a glass of Douro wine, and finishing with banana mille-feuille and caramel. A selection worthy of a curator. With no hurry. With no unease. Pure delight.
10:00 PM Other menus
Room 803, on the top floor of the new adjoining building which increased PortoBay Flores’ capacity, offers a panorama of the city: the Porto Cathedral, rows of houses, the river, a glimpse of the Port Wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, the tower of Igreja da Misericórdia. It’s night, with a full moon. I look upon this postcard from high above.
How many people do you need for a pyjama party? Just me, I think – and the complimentary bottle of wine – are enough for a party. Music or TV? After a quick look at the TV menu, I stop on the movie that made me reflect most on where solitary journeys begin and end: Lost in Translation, by Sofia Coppola. It’s the perfect way to round out the party schedule.
There are still two menus that always whet my appetite: the pillow menu and the room-service breakfast menu. For the first, I don’t hesitate with the Visco-Elastic, which gives a sensation of buoyancy, anatomically correct shape, pain relief and reduced insomnia. For the second, I’m torn between the choices of Continental and À La Carte – toast, cheese omelette, sliced fruit, pancakes with maple syrup, coffee. I add "Do not disturb” to the order and drift off, wrapped up in reading to the very last page: "I had arrived in Patagonia, and began laughing when I remembered that I had come all the way from Boston, in a train that people catch to go to work”. Today, Porto; tomorrow, the world.
9:55 AM Waking up
It’s not 10:00, but 9:55 when the church bell rings. Always at uncertain time, as if to get your attention or prevent some sort of delay. The room-service breakfast comes immediately afterwards. I slide the curtains and open the window to let the morning in. It’s a weekday, and I stretch on the terrace, with the sun already high in the sky. There will soon be commitments on the agenda. I catch the elevator in my bathrobe and slippers.
11:00 AM Short cut to Asia
The Mandalay spa brings the music, therapies, aromas and oils of Southeast Asia to the hotel’s three treatment rooms. Next come 55 minutes of searching for inner balance between the body and the mind. Based on ancient Ayurvedic wisdom, Abhyanga massage explores Sundari rituals to tune into my inner self, from the welcome feet ritual to the rhythmic massage with hot oils to stimulate the life force. It’s not the same journey of Alberto Moravia, in 1961, which inspired him to write An Idea of India, but it’s the same idea of discovery.
"And what is India!
(...) I too do not really know what India is. I feel it, it’s everything. You should feel it too.
What do you mean?
(...) You should feel it, far away, to the east, far beyond the Mediterranean, Asia Minor, Arabia, Persia, Afghanistan, far away, between the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, where it is found, and where it awaits you.
Awaits me to do what?
To do nothing.”
12:00 PM Changing plans
As check-out time approaches, there’s an urgency to leave. Or maybe not. What if – with the same spontaneity as catching a train without going to work – we decided to linger longer at one destination? The half-opened bag awaits. It’s time to discover Porto: the Lello Bookstore – so many books that take us away to other stops – the recently inaugurated Treetop Walk in Serralves, a green walkway extending 250 metres at treetop level, the galleries of Rua Miguel Bombarda, eating a hot dog from the Gazela snack bar... Tomorrow can also wait, they say. For now, I won’t be catching any train.