Don’t you dare overlook Portugal’s second city…
This 4th-century port and commercial centre founded by the Romans at the mouth of the river Duoro, actually lent its name to its country, and rightly so. Look deeper and you know how Porto (or Oporto) is the very essence of Portugal. Its a hilly town sans the elan of European cities. It gives the impression of being old and neglected. But its magnificent mansions, opulent churches and a picture-perfect riverside captures the heart. Old Portuguese women cheerfully advertise roasted chestnuts outside colourful building facades, classic tramlines run through broad hilly boulevards and iconic black-white mosaic calcada (flooring) adorns streets and there’s ornamental tile-work everywhere you look. So how about a colour theme to explore this quintessentially vibrant Portuguese city?
Out of the blue
Believe it or not…this town is painted blue. Large blank walls in monuments are dressed up with intricate and detailed wall murals, using antique hand-painted ceramic tiles (azulejo, meaning ‘small polished stone’) in blue-white tones, the fashionable colour palette of the Gothic times. Delve into this Moorish tradition from the 13th-century, trying to decipher incredible artwork that narrates stories from history, religion, and culture. Best examples? San Bento train station entrance lobby, the modest Santa Catarina church and the outside cloister of the dramatic twin-towered Se Cathedral. Breathless with awe? There are countless azulejo walls to go.
Red carpet treatment
An ornate Neo-Gothic façade, a sumptuous interior with art-deco elements, swanky wooden walls, a drool-worthy stained glass ceiling and a palatial stairway swathed in a plush red carpet. Stare away, its almost a norm here. No royal residence or museum this. Lello & Irmão Bookstore is the most marvellous bookstore in the world and a magnet for literature fiends since 1906. It whipped up all your Harry Potter fantasies, didn’t it? Worth lining up in that long queue with a 3-euro entry ticket. Not seeing red now, are we?
Board a quaint old tram from Ribiera for a lovely 30-minute coastal ride to Foz. Snail pace, sudden jerky brakes and one compartment crowded with 20 people…all oozing old-world charm. Ambling along a fashionable tree-lined promenade, admiring all the river-view properties, joining walkers, joggers and bike riders till you lose track of time. Destination: Pergola, a pristine white neoclassical structure built in the early 20th century by the mayor for his wife besotted by the Promenade des Anglais of Nice, France. Perch on the pretty curved balustrade with its elegant columns, under the overhead planks. Bathe in a spectacular sunset and lose sight of reality.
All that glitters is gold
Be blinded by the gilded arabesque motifs, exemplary woodwork and fine stained-glass work at the Arabian Hall of the 19th-century Stock Exchange Palace (Palacio da Bolsa). A unique national monument and Unesco World Heritage Site built to promote Porto’s economic power, is now wowing millions of visitors. Don’t miss the grandiose staircase and stunning bronze chandeliers suspended from the astounding cupola.
Next door, resist the temptation to scratch at the 400kg of gilt-covered wood carvings and statues inside the ostentatious 15th-century Church of St. Francis. Gold, gold and more gold carvings everywhere! Too much glitter? Venture into the nondescript underground catacombs that are home to thousands of eerie tombs. (Read a previous post on the catacombs here).
The Ribeira district of Porto is a Unesco World Heritage site, perfectly preserved from the Middle Ages. Cobbled streets with cramped, narrow houses in muted colors, most grimy, many empty, run-down abandoned mansions, few with cracked glass windows and tattered curtains. Rough, unpolished, makings of a ghost town? In the center of a lively square where tourist are milling, find the emblematic bronze cube surrounded by café tables. The house of Porto’s greatest native, Casa do Infante (House of the Prince Henry the Navigator) stands right here even today. So this is where he launched his expedition against the Moors, and initiated the famous voyages of exploration. Classy hotels, traditional Portuguese cafes and lively bars celebrate this historical site today.
Straddling the Duoro river is the iconic Dom Luís I Bridge designed in the 1880s by a protégé of Gustave Eiffel. On the other side is Vila Nova de Gaia, a city is known for its port wine and home to many port cellars and producers including Sandeman. From behind the docked Rabelo flat boats, the nautical vehicles that once transported wine barrels from Douro valley vineyards, find a spot by the river and wait patiently for the most flawless sunset of your life. This is Instagrammable Porto…a dream town bathed in soft peach and blush colors, that seem to grow in vibrance as the grey clouds lift and the sun spreads its glow. Creating a painting with ever-changing colors. The camera will take over…you won’t be able to stop clicking.
And later, as you satiate your taste buds with delectable apple cake and aromatic coffee at the legendary Majestic Cafe, sit back on the plush leather-engraved upholstery and steal glances at the tainted wall mirrors, remind yourself what a fabulous idea it was to come to Portugal’s second city. Planning a second, longer visit, aren’t you?
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