A Quick Trip through Portugal – UEFA Nations League Finals 2019

There was always a danger when purchasing tickets for the UEFA Nations League ‘Finals’ that England wouldn’t actually be involved in the Final.

The ticket I had meant I would either be watching a Third Place play-off in Guimarães or a Final in Porto depending on how England got on in their semi-final against The Netherlands on Thursday. Unfortunately I couldn’t watch the match on the Thursday as I’d taken my wife to a show at The O2 for her birthday (poor advanced planning on my part) and instead had intermittent updates on my phone. My hopes were raised after seeing England 1 up at half-time but were dashed in extra time as apparent poor defending resulted in a 3-1 loss.

Great, a trip to Guimarães for a match that no one wants to play – I guess that was the risk in purchasing a 50/50 chance ticket.

Another difficulty I had experienced when planning this trip was forgetting one of the first rules of Sports Tourism… book early. After getting the tickets in March, I kept putting off actually booking the flights and accommodation (mainly as I was in the process of buying and renovating a house). When it came to booking everything, the price for direct flights to Porto and staying in the city itself were extortionate.

Eventually I came up with the master plan of flying into Porto from Bristol late on the Saturday night, finding a couple of different hotels in Porto for the Saturday and Sunday nights, travel the length of Portugal down to Faro in the Algarve on the Monday, spend the night there and catch a cheap flight back to Bristol on Tuesday.


Portugal

Capital – Lisbon
Currency – The official currency is the Euro (€).
Getting there – Portugal has 4 major international airports at Lisbon, Porto, Faro and Beja. Search & book your flights through Skyscanner here.
Getting around – Travelling by train is a quick and inexpensive way of getting around the country and is operated by the state-owned company, CP – search and book your flights through the CP website here.
Language – The official language is Portuguese.
Population – 10.5 million
Visa – British passport holders do not currently require a visa to visit Portugal, as both countries are currently part of the EU. Further information can be found through the UK government website here. For other nationalities, please consult your nation’s government travel advice.


Day 1 – Porto

The flight to Porto from Bristol on the Saturday evening was delayed by an hour which is never great. Especially as we were originally due to arrive at 8:30pm and the check-in at our hotel for the night closed at 10pm. I did manage to contact the hotel however and they were able to send me the access codes in advance.

Arriving at Porto Airport, I was aware the easier way to access the city was via the Metro. It ran every 30 minutes and cost a very reasonable €2 (plus €0.60 for the reusable travel card), with a journey time of about 30 minutes.

Finally arriving at the hotel at about 11:30, it turns out we were staying right in the heart of the action that night with the Clérigos Tower outside the window and the main square with the fan zone just down the road. It was a shame we arrived late and would only be there for the night as the apartment at the Oporto Invite Clerigos – Historical Center would of been a great base for exploring the city and beyond.


Day 2 – Porto & Guimarães

The next morning we left around 8am to have a quick walk around the area before catching the train to Guimarães. We took in the Luís I Bridge, the Liberdade Square (a bit quieter that time of morning) and the Clérigos Tower.

Another benefit of the apartment was it’s proximity to the beautiful São Bento Train station. As we had to move hotels we were carrying our luggage with us so utilised the lockers at the station (prices here), although finding somewhere to offer us change was a bit of a challenge! There were several trains running for free that morning for fans to get to Guimarães from Porto, with a travel time of about an hour. From what I’d heard from the match on Thursday, it was a lot easier getting there then getting back (more on that later).

We arrived about 11:30am and the stadium was about a 15 minute walk from the train station. We walked to the ticket collection point first of all, passing the square where many England fans seemed to be congregating, many entrepreneurial locals had trolley fulls of cans and bottles of beer, undercutting the local bars.

Guimarães seemed pleasant enough and does apparently have a few sights, including the 10th century Guimarães Castle which I did get a slight glimpse of, however with lunchtime and the match approaching I had food on the mind.

After collecting our tickets we walked to the GuimarãeShopping mall which had a food court, turned out a lot of fans had done the same. What I always appreciate about many McDonalds on the continent is how they sell beer as a substitute for soft drinks! From here, we reached the ground in about 10 minutes.

Inside the stadium, I was pleasantly surprised. The Estádio D. Afonso Henriques didn’t look like much from my research beforehand but was quite impressive. We had decent seats and the VIP and media area seemed to be behind us as both Glenn Hoddle and Gary Neville walked past.

As noted before, it was a match neither England or Switzerland wanted to play (I’ve never really understood the point of Third Place play-offs). The atmosphere created by England fans inside the stadium was impressive as always, with the new Harry Maguire song being a particular favourite. There were noticeably and understandably a fair few empty seats around – although I’d heard UEFA were selling off tickets to locals the day before for just €10 and there were a fair few around us.

The match itself was rather poor, neither team creating many chances. It did appear we’d won late on but everyone’s least favourite new innovation, VAR subsequently ruling out an England goal again – always a bit awkward after a team has celebrated for so long and the England fans weren’t happy. My wife was disappointed when I explained the match would drag on into extra time, from which Raheem Sterling did hit the crossbar late on.

The subsequent penalty shoot-out did add some drama, with England hitting all 6 on target, including Jordan Pickford the goalkeeper scoring and then eventually make the decisive save. I think the lack of celebration afterwards said everything, especially as there was no ceremony – I later read Gareth Southgate say they were given the 3rd place medals in a bag.

Now for the fun part – travelling back to Porto. There were several trains heading back and of course most people wanted to get back as soon as possible, which resulted in long queues. We queued for an hour before eventually getting on the third train out of the city. At one point, it did seem bizarre for the police to don their riot gear to segregate the fans on which train they would get – does always seem that England are overpoliced.

Upon arriving at the São Bento Train station, more riot police were stopping England fans heading towards the square where the fan zone was located – I assume as they expected more trouble.

We caught a metro out to our next hotel at the Lounge Inn. We’d chosen this hotel as it was only a 25 minute walk to the Estádio do Dragão. Never mind we’re not playing in the Final I said to my wife, I wanted to see the stadium so we walked there anyway.

We arrived just after half-time and the beauty of its design, means you can see partially inside the ground and the big screens. A number of locals were watching from a bridge and we joined them just as Portugal scored their winning goal. Upon arriving back at the hotel, the next few hours were spent listening to the number of car horns going off celebrating their UEFA Nations League victory – life is good if you’re a Portugal fan recently.


Day 3/4 – Faro (via Lisbon)

The next morning we caught the train down to Faro via Lisbon. A number of fans were on the train to Lisbon, I assume to catch cheaper flights back to England (I’d considered this option but was still highly expensive when I checked). The first train to Lisbon was late by about 20 minutes or so which meant we were going to miss the connection to Faro. When the conductor told us they would hold the next train for us I thought he was joking, so I was surprised upon reaching the station in Lisbon to find the train still there on the next platform.

From Faro station, we walked to our hotel via the mall at Forum Algarve to utilise the food court. We subsequently had a very pleasant evening and day by the pool at the Hotel Ibis in Faro before flying out that evening.


Reflection

I was a little sceptical of this trip, England fans do have quite the reputation when travelling abroad. I’d convinced my pregnant wife this was our summer holiday, and seeing some of the scenes reported in the media on the Wednesday night in Porto I was a little wary. However apart from the odd idiot, most fans were there just to enjoy the football and the sun.

I’d been to Portugal before and it’s a great place to visit. Sunny and warm, friendly locals, easy to travel around (both by train and plane),  cheap beer and generally inexpensive all round.

The UEFA Nations League I also believe it be an interesting new competition. Adding a sense of competitiveness and replacing dull friendlies, watching the group matches previously on TV and subsequently being at the Finals – you can see this is a competition countries care about and it has a great long term potential.

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