It was a chilly morning in Portugal, although I suppose that depends on where you were visiting from. If you were coming from California, like myself, you’d be freezing. However, if you were visiting from my hometown in Wisconsin, you’d be wearing a t-shirt with a big, cheesy grin across your face (pun intended). We had made a reservation to do the famous Porto Bridge Climb up the Arrábida Bridge. Back in 1963, this was the largest concrete arch in the entire world. Other cities have since then surpassed it, but the beauty and recognition remains.
Gearing Up For The Porto Bridge Climb
We arrived just as the clouds squeezed its last few drops out of the sky. After we checked in, our guide handed each of us a harness that would keep us safely strapped in during the climb. I looped each leg through the yellow straps and pulled it up around my waist, tugging it tightly to my thighs.
“Ready?” she asked, beaming.
I looked behind me, expecting to see more tourists heading up the stairs to join the tour.
“Oh, yeah, you guys are the only ones who booked today, so you’ve got a private tour.”
This seemed to have been the case everywhere we’d visited in Portugal. Sure, January was the low season for tourists, as most of them bustle into the country mid-summer. However, Portugal was also one of the strictest places to get into in Europe during the pandemic. I think it was a combination of these two aspects that left us with luck. It’s not that I don’t enjoy meeting other tourists, but I would pay the general tour price for a private tour any day.
Beginning The Porto Bridge Climb
Our guide clipped our harnesses to a long rope that led all of the way to the top using a carabiner. She explained that, about every 10 feet or so, we would reach a pole that held the rope up. This would cause the carabiner to halt, unless turned a certain way. I practiced tilting the piece of metal toward the river and swooping it beneath.
“All right! Looks like you guys have got it. We’ll start heading up, let’s keep our phones in our pockets until we reach the top and if you want to take a break, just let me know and we can stop.”
I began to climb the 262 steps to the top. Every 15 steps, I would lean down, tilt the carabiner and glide through to the next roadblock. I wish I could say this was more entertaining or at least agonizing, but I suppose we must’ve just been in good shape, as we reached the top in no time.
Viewing Portugal From Above
I looked out at the sparkling city of Porto. It felt different from up here-more peaceful. The seagulls soared through the pockets of wind and landed delicately in the river as small boats passed them by. Colorful houses lined the shore, making a rainbow come to life beneath me.
“So…what I didn’t tell you at the bottom, is that this bridge is also a bar,” the tour guide announced slyly.
Pulling a cork box out from beneath the arch, she flipped the top open, revealing a bottle of port wine. There are many port wine tours in Portugal (with reason), but this one was unlike any other. Sure, we only had one bottle to try, but the views paired with the knowledge of our guide were unmatched.
I sipped the ripe, musky juice with a wince. I never could quite get used to the taste of port wine. However, it’s a taste one needs to cope with when touring Portugal. We stayed here for a while, sucking the strong fermented fruit from our teeth and rejoicing in the warmth found beneath the cover of the bridge, or maybe it was just the port wine.
Our guide told us that no one really realizes this, but tours can be reserved for special occasions. For instance, one time she pulled a birthday cake out from the bridge instead of a box of wine. You can even book a private view of the fireworks during Festa de São João. To me, that sounded like magic.
Beginning The Descent
However, the magic soon passed as we realized our time at the top was coming to an end. I titled the carabiner toward the river once again, this time on the opposite side of my body, and began the descent.
“You see that cave in the side of the cliff there?” our guide asked and we nodded, “So, I didn’t realize this before, but somebody actually lives there. Yesterday, the guy came out wearing only his underwear. In one hand, he held a beer and with the other, he waved to us as I climbed the bridge with some other tourists.”
I think that was enough Porto magic for the day, although I had to salute his resourcefulness. Why pay rent when you can have a free cave with a wonderful view? We thanked our guide for the pleasant surprise up top and thanked the heavens that we didn’t have another one pop out of the cave on our way down.
Climbing the Porto Bridge ending up being one of the highlights of my entire tour through Portugal. Though it’s not a lengthy activity, getting to take in the city of Porto from such a unique angle was an experience that is not to be missed-it’s an experience that will stick with you, no matter how much time you spend ogling at the rainbow beneath you.
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