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The magic of Porto

The magic of Porto

Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2009-12-01

Portugal’s second largest city and economic capital of the north, Porto has not only lent its name to some of the finest wines in the world, it is also one of the most picturesque and delightful cities in existence today.

A city unlike any other
 
Porto is much more than a sum of streets, houses and people to simply describe and visit. It is a presence to experience and feel from day to day. In the inhabitants’ own opinion this city, on a river near the ocean, often humid and hazy, has always been traditional in its opinions and tastes (notably culinary!). Less dramatic and cosmopolitan than Lisbon, it has an indefinable austerity and melancholy, reflected in its granite walls and narrow streets that descend the hill above the Douro river... Yet Porto is a fascinating and lively city that is both medieval and baroque, working-class and bourgeois, hardworking and laid back, which lends itself to wandering and daydreaming. To explore it, we propose not a pre-established tourist trail, but a gallery of images and places that seem to us to express its quintessence.
 
Where to stay
 
The choice of hotel is crucial if you want to have a pleasant stay in Porto. If you are staying for just two or three nights, we recommend – finances permitting – going for a fine 5-star hotel! In the heart of old Porto, the Infante de Sagres hotel has been a classic since it was founded in 1951. The decor is sumptuous with its Persian carpets, wood panelling, Portuguese patio and wrought-iron staircase. Reckon on paying 150 euros for a double room. Much more modern but not sterile for all that, the Meridien Park Atlantic is located in one of Porto’s residential districts, 10 minutes from the beaches, botanical garden and Casa da Música. This 16-storey hotel has a quality restaurant (see our article) and, depending on the season, offers interesting weekend rates from two nights.
 

On the banks of the Douro
 
The first thing that strikes you on arriving in Porto is the Douro river, which rises in Spain and crosses the city before flowing into the ocean. Its often steep banks are connected by several spectacular metal bridges. The Dom Luis I bridge, built in 1886 by disciples of Gustave Eiffel, with a span of 172 m (564 ft), is the most impressive, with its two decks that serve the high and low districts of the city. Reinforced over recent months, it is also set to be used by the metro. It is the symbol of Porto!
At the foot of this structure all you need to do is follow the cais da Ribeira, which offers one of the most beautiful walks in the city since its restoration in 2001. This quay, dominated by multicoloured 18th century houses, harbours a terrace which is one of the hot spots of gastronomy and night life: the Don Tonho restaurant (see our article).
Opposite, you will see Vila Nova de Gaia, on the left bank of the Douro, where the prestigious storehouses of the 58 big wine houses of Porto have been concentrated since the 19th century: Ramos Pinto, Taylor’s, Sandeman, Niepoort, Burmester, etc. This is where the grapes harvested on the slopes of the Upper Douro Valley were once brought on board barcos rabelos (flat-bottomed sailboats), after a 150 km (93 mile)-long journey. We recommend a visit to the wine storehouses and museum of the Ramos Pinto House, founded in 1880, which did a lot for the quality and commercialisation of the wines of Porto in the early 20th century. Here you can admire a magnificent collection of posters and azulejos tiles from the Belle Époque, whose sensuality was long deemed scandalous.
 
In spite of tourism, historic Porto – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – has retained its authenticity and working-class life, reflected in its noisy, lively tascos (bistros), its tiny markets improvised on street corners, its flower-filled balconies where washing is hung out to dry, and its barbeiros and cabeleireiros (traditional barbers and hairdressers) shops, real living museums that are part of the city’s emotional heritage...
 
So don’t hesitate to climb the narrow streets that overlook the Ribeira quay, such as the rua das Flores which heads up towards the Belle Époque station of Sao Bento: lined with 18th century residences and traditional shops, it was once the street of goldsmiths and jewellers. Just above, near the Torre dos Clérigos (a baroque tower over 75 m/246 ft high, which offers a panorama of the city), rua da Estrada da Assunçao is home to one of Porto’s oldest shops, Casa Oriental, with a mural evoking Portugal’s colonial past. Here you will find some of the best cod in the city, oranges and lemons from Portugal, and rare spices. The whole surrounding district is worth a look, with its wrought-iron balconies and old azulejos tiles; at a bend in the street, a small square with a palm tree offers a bird’s-eye view of the banks of the Douro. Many of the residences certainly deserve to be restored, but for the time being it is a district full of life, not a showcase for tourists; unlike in other city centres in Europe, property inflation has not yet driven out the lower classes here…
 
A few handy tips
 
To visit old Porto, walking is essential but can prove rather tiring, since the streets are like roller coasters and the main sights not always very well signposted: so take a good pair of shoes and a good map… As for the weather, it is very changeable and there can be unexpected showers after blazing sunshine: so it is worth taking an umbrella and some waterproof clothes!
 
São Francisco church
 
Above Ribeira quay, the Gothic church of São Francisco is one of Porto’s historical attractions. Its sobriety corresponded to the spirit of poverty of the Franciscan order. However, this order became very powerful in the 17th century and was granted privileges and material goods. Thus, inside the church, the bare walls were covered with exuberant baroque decoration: still today, the altars, walls and vaults are literally buried beneath a profusion of carved and gilded wood (17th and 18th centuries). A definite must-see!
 
The Foz do Douro district
 
In the far west of Porto, the residential district of Foz is a magical place where the waters of the Douro flow into the Atlantic Ocean. To get there, we recommend taking the old wooden tramway from Ribeira quay, under São Francisco church. You will follow the river for 20 minutes and pass under the da Arrábida bridge, built in 1961, whose single arch (270 m/885 ft) offers a superb panorama of old Porto, and under the Dom Luis bridge. Foz is known for its bourgeois villas, its hotels, palm trees, sandy beaches and trendy restaurants, such as the Cafeina, rua do Padrao. Anglers gather on the quay near the Castelo de S. Joao, which is also home to a famous tennis club. A bar set on the Praia da Luz (“beach of light”) has a row of deckchairs on a wooden platform all year round; after a swim, you can watch the sun set here as you enjoy a glass of old port...
 
The art of doing nothing in Porto
 
The 270,000 inhabitants of inner Porto display a remarkable taste for lounging about and idleness… Here people like to take their time, whether having a strong coffee, reading a newspaper or going into one of the city’s many bookshops. Two places are symbolic of this art of living in Porto.
First of all the Majestic Café, located in the city’s busiest and liveliest shopping street, rua Santa Catarina. Inaugurated in 1921, the Majestic has kept its fine Art Nouveau facade, its black leather seats, and its richly decorated walls and mirrors. This cafe, where you can spend hours reading or daydreaming, is an institution which hosts numerous cultural events: poetry sessions, exhibitions, concerts and book launches.
The other main place is the Lello & Irmao bookshop, rua das Carmelitas. Created in 1881 by man of letters José Pinto de Sousa Lello, this bookshop was also at that time a prestigious publishing house in Portugal. In 1996, the Spanish daily El País dubbed it “the most beautiful bookshop in the world”. Lello & Irmao is in fact a monument of neo-Gothic architecture, with its decorated white façade, large stained-glass window, stuccowork, woodwork and double staircase evoking the solemn atmosphere of an old monastic library... A unique place where you can also have coffee on the first floor.
 
Avant-garde Porto
 
Two attractions in the heights of the city testify to Porto’s cultural and architectural vitality.
The Casa da Música, the city’s new concert hall, was inaugurated in April 2005. The project dates back to 2001 when Porto was named European Capital of Culture. It is the most recent work by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, working together with Ellen Van Loon. The shape of the Casa da Música (a large irregular polyhedron) symbolises its openness to all forms of music. Its detractors and defenders of old Porto have nicknamed it “the boulder”... Nevertheless, it has been successfully integrated into the urban environment, since the building is located near the large Praça d'Albuquerque, a strategic crossroads with respect to both traffic and urban architecture. Here we are between the historic city, the bourgeois 19th century districts and the modern north and west business districts. But it is, above all, inside the Casa da Musica that Rem Koolhaas has given free rein to his pop imagination, directly inspired by the 1970s! The main hall, rectangular in shape and open to external light, was designed with the help of Japanese acoustics specialist Yasuhisa Toyota. Perfectly soundproofed glass boxes give onto the hall, where parents can leave their children while they attend a concert.
 
But Porto is also the city of the greatest living Portuguese architect, Alvaro Siza Vieira, winner of the Prizker Prize. This designer of contemporary shapes, prone to using the most advanced technologies, came to the attention of the general public during the 1998 world fair in Lisbon, for which he created the Portuguese Pavilion. In the 1990s, Siza Vieira was commissioned to design the Museum of Contemporary Art in Serralves Park (near the district of Foz). The architecture of the building, both imposing and open to daylight, on the other hand fits harmoniously into the park’s 18 hectares (44.5 acres). Considered the most beautiful garden in Porto, this romantic park dominating the city originally belonged to the Count of Vizela. This art lover also had a house built here (now open to the public) which is typical of 1930s architecture, and entrusted the interior decoration to the greatest names of the time: Lalique, Brandt, Perzel and Ruhlmann. It is fascinating indeed to compare these two avant-garde architectural creations, separated by a large French-style garden!
 
For further information
 
 
Addresses
 
Infante de Sagres Hotel
Praça D. Filipa de Lencastre, 62
Tel.: 222 00 81 01
www.hotelinfantesagres.pt
 
Meridien Park Atlantic Porto
Avenida da Boavista, 1466
www.lemeridien.com
 
Ramos Pinto House
Av. Ramos Pinto, 400
Vila Nova de Gaia
Tel.: 223 70 70 00
www.ramospinto.pt
 
Lello & Irmao Bookshop
Rua das Carmelitas, 141
Tel.: 222 01 81 70
 
Majestic Café
Rua Santa Catarina, 112
Tel.: 222 00 38 87
www.cafemajestic.com
 
Casa da Música
Av. da Boavista, 604-610
Tel.: 220 12 02 00
www.casadamusica.com
 
Serralves Foundation
Rua D. João de Castro, 210
Tel.: 808 20 05 43

Portugal’s second largest city and economic capital of the north, Porto has not only lent its name to some of the finest wines in the world, it is also one of the most picturesque and delightful cities in existence today.

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