Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Communicarta Public Transport Maps - as used in Porto, Portugal

Make the most of a great local bus route, following the course of the River Douro all the way to Porto’s Atlantic coastline. Use Communicarta public transport maps

“Whilst you’re here, why not take the number 500 straight to the Atlantic coast?” That sounded far too good a suggestion to ignore, but also a little too good to be true. Could escaping Porto’s steep cobbled streets and marauding trams, and swapping them for crashing surf, really be as easy as flagging down a local bus? Or would I find myself stranded on a deserted suburban street corner kicking myself for believing what turned out to be just a rose-tinted travel tip?

Rose-tinted or not, I was sold. The thought of an invigorating walk along the sands in springtime, followed by a strong coffee overlooking the breakers was impossible to resist. And like most travellers, I like nothing more than setting off on urban adventures with just a public transport map for guidance. But first things first. Gripped by an urge to back up my guidebook with ‘the official’ local transport map, I headed for the nearest tourist office.

Twenty minutes of striding uphill followed by confused backtracking downhill, two blank-faced travel agents and one inside-out umbrella later, I made it to the tourist office at Porto’s Cathedral. Had I resisted that urge to find the official map, I’d already have been sat on the number 500 bus approaching surf central. Nevertheless, I reminded myself that this official map was my cartographical safety net. It would surely save me any more wasted time, trouble or angst later in the day. So at last, armed with the tourist office’s Mapa Intermodal, my guidebook and a Porto Card, I headed to the bus stop opposite the city’s São Bento train station.

It’s fair to sum up Porto's weather in early February as changeable. It can switch from soaking torrential downpours to gloriously blue, sunny skies in a matter of ten or so minutes. Unfortunately, my walk to the bus stop had coincided with the day’s latest downpour.

Cue the number 500. The modern, single story bus pulled up and filled up fast. Porto Card validated and window seat spotted, I slid into sightseeing position next to a local man who was weighed down by his saturated coat and a dripping umbrella. In such soggy elbow to elbow proximity as this, unfolding the A1-sized official map was as achievable and appropriate as unfurling a two-man tent. So, surprised by the bus’s stealth, wet and not wanting to lose my bearings, I scrambled for my guidebook. It contained a Communicarta map to Porto’s tram, metro and bus systems. Fitting neatly on a single page of the pocket-sized guide, it was much handier than the Mapa Intermodal.

The 500 bus took its scenic route downhill through the Ribeira district, Porto’s very own UNESCO World Heritage Site where ornately tiled and balcony bedecked six-story buildings cram into the streets, side by side. Soon it turned onto the riverside road to follow the Douro’s path as it widened out into the ocean. Flying past stops for Miragaia, Alfândega and the Museu Vinho Porto, it was obvious how user-friendly Porto’s buses are. Not only were the names of fast-approaching stops displayed on an electronic board beside the driver’s cab, they were also simultaneously announced by a chirpy recorded voice.

At the ninth stop, ‘Próxima paragem, Bicalho’ flashed up in red letters and was announced loud and clear in Portuguese. It’s failsafe. Whether you see or hear the name of your stop, there’s plenty of time to ring the bell and get off where you need to, rather than craning for a view and taking your best guess before scrambling for the doors.

Communicarta’s palm-sized transport map had plotted the names of each and every bus stop along the 500’s route. The tenth stop on their map is the Ponte da Arrábida, once the largest concrete bridge in the world. This was definitely a photo opportunity worth taking. Number 500s run from the city out towards the coast roughly every twenty minutes. That’s frequent enough to hop off the bus and capture the bridge in all its structural glory, before carrying onwards to the mouth of the Douro. Unhelpfully, the Ponte da Arrábida bus stop, along with those for several other points of interest, is not plotted on the tourist office’s Mapa Intermodal.

My guidebook’s map had also plotted – as stop number eighteen – Castelo da Foz. This was where I’d intended to swap public transport for my trainers, and walk along the coastal road towards the sands of Praia dos Ingleses. When the time came, Communicarta’s map coincided perfectly with the bus’s audio and visual announcement of, ‘‘Próxima paragem, Castelo da Foz.’ I was well and truly primed to ping the bell.

By the time I arrived in Foz, the rain was replaced again by those perfectly blue skies. Crossing over the road from the bus stop and cutting through a lush palm tree-lined park brought me onto Avenida D. Carlos I. Here the Douro empties out into the ocean. In contrast to the smooth surface of the river, the Atlantic’s waves rhythmically erupted in bright white foam as they battered the Foz do Douro Breakwater. Away to the left along Avenida D. Carlos I and beyond the imposing lines of Foz’s concrete, lighthouse-tipped pier, were the beaches. I’d made it to the Atlantic in no time at all and without transport snags.

In the near distance, along the first stretch of beach where the sand mixed with sea-swept rocks, was the dramatically set Restaurant Shis. Dark wooden terracing wrapped around this restaurant that overhangs the sand. The terrace is furnished with white tables, sofas and umbrellas, giving Shis a neutral minimalism suited to the tanned, beautiful people who drape themselves there in summertime. Fashionable outdoors and in, chic Shis serves up contemporary versions of oriental and European dishes along with uninterrupted sea views. It is open daily from 12 noon until 1am.

Walking further along Avenida D. Carlos I and rounding the road into Rua Coronel Raúl Peres, brought more expansive horizons and larger, darker rocks smoothed and shined by the waves. Café Praia dos Ingleses dominated this stretch of coastal road, and it called me in for coffee. Wooden steps led down onto a spacious decked terrace filled with white, unfussy tables and chairs. The sense of being at one with the waves was wonderfully tangible.

Indoors it also hit the laid-back surf atmosphere right on the head. The same unfussy tables and chairs filled half of the room, giving way to squidgy orange and brown leather beanbags set around low, dark wood coffee tables. Could there be a better place to spend the day working at a laptop or watching the turning of the tide through the café’s floor to ceiling windows?

For casual chilled out, beachside appeal, Café Praia dos Ingleses definitely fitted the bill. The music playing was unobtrusively ambient and the customers were totally at ease, gazing out of the windows and sipping hot or cold drinks. It was also impossible to imagine the young, friendly waiting staff that stood staring at the hypnotic rise and fall of the ocean, ever getting into a flap. My small coffee was cheap at €1, and satisfyingly strong. And the WIFI was free.

February rain returned abruptly, pelting and streaming down the sheet glass windows. Too laid back on my beanbag to bother unfurling and spreading out the official map that was buried in my rucksack, I planned my journey back upriver to central Porto using Communicarta’s map. This version had already proved itself to be user-friendly and comprehensive, so why would I want to disrupt my chilled, surfside mood by confusing myself with the official map?

As I reached for my guidebook and plotted my combined bus and vintage tram journey home, it was obvious that Communicarta’s transport map was the only cartographical safety net that I needed. And I decided that there was nothing at all rose-tinted about taking the Number 500 bus to the Atlantic. It really was as good a plan as it had first appeared.

Trip logistics
I travelled to Porto from London Stansted with RyanAir, stayed at the Rivoli Cinema Hostel and used the Communicarta transport map that is featured in Thomas Cook’s CitySpots Porto guide.