26 October 2017
Architecture, cathedrals and towers, food and Fado, wine and Port, polpo and jamon, bookstores and Harry Potter, the Ribeira and cafes. Porto, let me sing thy praises.
An explanation on the naming of the city. Portuguese call it Porto, the English Oporto, evidently because of linguistic misinterpretation. Way back when, the English erroneously heard Portuguese say “o Porto” meaning “the port.” They thought the name of the city included the article “o.” Locals hate that the error stuck.
We arrived in Porto via a 3-hour train from Lisboa. Because the train does not arrive directly into the city, our ticket included the Urban train connection from Campanhã to downtown São Bento. From there, it was a short walk through the main square of Plaça a Liberdade to our Hotel Pao de Acucar. As with all our other hotels on this trip, the Acucar was well-located, quiet, and suited our needs perfectly. Breakfast was on the top deck with marvelous views over the city.
The historic Plaça a Liberdade lies between the Municipal Building and Monument Pedro IV in the northern part of town. The Ribeira and port is at the southern end. The long, oblong plaza is noisy and lined with restaurants, as good a place as any to begin exploration of this college town. Just in the walk from the São Bento, I see churches, towers, and monuments on most every corner.
When it comes to churches, I seldom pass one without checking the interior. Clérigos Church and tower have a stunning hilltop location and are seen throughout the city. This Baroque church was begun in 1732, long before the surrounding college and shops squeezed in on its monumental stairway. The facade is heavy with shells and decorations. The distinctive Bell Tower came later in 1754. The interior is ornate and heavily decorated with gold carvings and lots of marble.
However, exteriors of Porto’s churches are stunning. Azulejo tiles – think delft on steroids! I could photograph these beautiful art works forever but some restraint must be had.
The use of ceramic tiling has been popular for centuries. It is frequently used both on the inside and outside of buildings as tiles help insulate against the heat of the Iberian Peninsula. Use of tiling dates to the Moors, who invaded Iberia in the early 700s. The Moors loved to carve and decorate, much of the time using brightly colored ceramic tiles of intricate geometric patterns. After the Reconquista, the Portuguese saw no reason to change so continued using ceramic tiles on their buildings, developing it into a true art form and feast for the eyes. However, ones first reaction is “what beautiful Delft tiles!” Not so.
Delftware, blue pictures painted on white porcelain, was developed in 16th century Netherlands. The Dutch exported their tiles worldwide, including, by the 17th century, to Portuguese ports, where it found an enthusiastic market. Portuguese artisans further individualized tiles with the development of azulejo, painted tiles with a tin glaze. The work of artists like Jorge Colaço (1868-1942), one of Portugal’s foremost azulejo artists, can be seen on the facades of churches and buildings citywide.
Because Porto was not devastated by the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisboa’s churches, the interiors remain ornate, gold encrusted, impressive works of art. However, building exteriors warrant a walk to several of Porto’s more stunning examples of tile:
Because Porto was not devastated by the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisboa, church interiors remain ornate, gold encrusted, impressive works of art. However, it is the exteriors that warrant exploration of Porto’s more stunning examples of tile:
Saint Anthony’s, across from the train station, has a pleasant facade and will encourage you to explore further to see the really magnificent examples of this art. Igreja do Carmo is a twinned baroque church, its entire exterior walls covered in azulejo tiles. The Church of Saint Ildefonso is another baroque-style church with magnificent tiled facade. Chapel of Souls is the supreme queen of tile and its facade is covered with the bright blue delft-like azulejo tiles. All these tiles depict scenes from the Bible and from the lives of saints.
From outside, São Bento Train Station is not that spectacular, in fact it’s modern as it was built in 1916. It is the interior you will want to visit. Its walls are a masterpiece of azulejo painted tiles and a virtual history lesson for students and visitors alike. Stand beneath its murals, stare up at the plethora of tiles and friezes. It is spectacular.
One must, I suppose, visit Porto Cathedral, commanding a magnicifent view over Porto. But, after experiencing the “tile tour,” I admit the cathedral is just a cathedral. Completed in 1737, it is big, fortress-like, and filled with elaborate gold, marble and towering columns and ceilings. I enjoyed the wedding party just leaving and the seagulls permanently hanging around. What I am saying is see the cathedral then walk a short distance east to Inglesia Sta Clara Batlha.
Igreja de Santa Clara do Porto is tucked away through an archway behind the convent of the same name. Founded 1457 and currently being renovated, it should not be missed. Santa Clara is one of the most ornate churches I have ever seen, not an inch remains undecorated, golden or carved.
Walking Porto’s streets is a joy. However, for that great view, meal, and activity, get thee to the Cais da Ribiera, Porto’s waterfront. Overlooking the Douro River and port, Luís I Bridge, the towers of the Muralha Fernandina Castle, and the city’s old walled fortifications, this is the place to end your day. An interesting way to reach this area are the stairs and narrow streets leading down from the Cathedral. Going down is tough – you do not want to climb your way up!
Porto is a consistent climb from the port to Praça Liberdade. A shortcut and easy path to the top then an easy walk down to the Bento station is by using the Batalha Lift. It is just beyond the Luís Bridge.
Paying 4€ to enter a bookstore is slightly outrageous. However, Livraria Lello in the college district does go beyond the average bookstore. In fact, it is a bit over the top. The interior is something out of Harry Potter, a popular book on the shelves. Beyond the beautiful tiles of Porto, and perhaps its wine, entering Livraria Lello produces another “AHA” moment.
Opened in 1906, the first thing that takes me aback is the ornate spiral staircase. It draws my attention away from the stained-glass ceiling, towering shelves of books, and the tumult of too many people. Even I, who hasn’t seen much of Harry Potter, thought of him at first sight. I learned that it is believed J.K. Rowling’s idea to write Harry Potter began in Porto, particularly at this Hogwort-like library. I can totally believe it. (In reality, Rawlings married a Portuguese and lived in Porto for over 10 years. She often climbed this staircase to the second floor.) And that ridiculous 4€ fee will be applied to the purchase of a book.
What of language? Although, like Spanish and Italian, Portuguese is based on Latin, nothing seems to be pronounced like I would expect. It is almost as if a recalcitrant ‘Trumpette’ stubbornly decided if the Spanish said it Ramos with a little trilling on the “r,” then he would add a heavily rolled “r” and add a soft “shhh” sound at the end (Rrramoshh). The 5th most spoken language in the world, thanks to Brazil, most Portuguese who deal with others pretty much speak at least two other languages, English and Spanish. It’s fun to hear but almost impossible to understand, even for my Spanish speaking friend. Fortunately, the written word is enough like Spanish that it is easier to decipher, like “vinoh” for wine. In fact, as I learned later, Portuguese is influenced by both Japanese and Chinese, which explains all those “pao” and “shhh” sounds. Equatorial Guinea is currently adopting Portuguese as their official language.
Excellent free walking tours by Porto Walkers meet in the Praça Liberdade, look for the red shirt. Pedro, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic history major, led us through the sites and stories of Porto for over 3 hours. My only disappointment was in the afternoons he leads a second walking tour on the opposite side of Porto and I was unable to take both tours. Pedro is filled with the insights, shortcuts, and facts that will bring Porto alive. Like, have you heard the story about Holy Trinity (Santíssima Trindade)? Back in the day, when the church was not welding as much power as in the past, a town official wanted to expand Praça da Liberdade, adding a city hall at the northern end. It would have meant the removal of Holy Trinity to a site of lesser importance. The head of the church refused. So, the city official built the City Hall and its beautiful tower in front of the church. Problem solved.
Tip: Uber is present, efficient and inexpensive. We took one from the hotel to the port for about 4€, and port to airport for 16€. Don’t let the language scare you off.
Vila Nova de Gaia
Go online or take tours to learn about Port’s history and production, but the best thing to do is just drink it. As a novice, I imagined Port was red, sweet, not unlike Mogen David, to be sipped after dinner, preferably with a Cuban cigar: hearty, full-bodied, berry-flavored and guaranteed headache-producer. I was embarrassingly ignorant about Port, except the ones from which I sailed.
Discovery and appreciation came when I toured the Ramos Pinto Winery, just one of dozens of wine houses along the Cais de Gaia side of the river. White, Tawny, ruby – there is a plethora of flavors, colors, ages, delectability and prices. I decided to learn more by drinking a glass, or two, at every opportunity.
And I would have many opportunities as the Douro Valley wine region is home to the finest Ports in the world. Our Uber driver took us directly to Cais de Gaia for a cruise up the Douro and a love affair with Port.