Going places: 48 Hours in Porto, Portugal’s Powerhouse City in the Age of Discovery

A World Heritage City, Porto is a photographer’s dream © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Porto is a proud place.

It is the city that gave its name to the country of Portugal and to its most distinctive product, Port wine.
The birthplace of Prince Henry the Navigator, its bustling port and famous wine made the city one of the richest and most important in the world.

But with falling fortunes, Porto seems also to have fallen from the radar of travelers seeking a rich European experience.

Traveling here today, though, I feel I have discovered a treasure, a true jewel in the pantheon of great places to see in Europe.

Porto’s prominence is represented in the stunning Romanic, Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical architecture and monuments by renowned architects, such as Gustave Eiffel’s Dona Maria Bridge, Nicolau Nasoni’s Clerigos Tower, Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Musica, the Sao Bento Railway station, and the Bolsa Palace, the old Stock Exchange.

The setting, with the Douro River slicing through on its way to the Atlantic Ocean and the city rising up into a series of hills, is a magnificent tableaux evoking classical painting.

A World Heritage City, Porto is one of the most beautiful in the world. Porto (also called Oporto) is a photographers’ dream – everywhere you look there is something beautiful, interesting or fascinating to see, the streets, with their interesting converging configurations, angled along with the contours of the hills.

Our introduction to the city is by boat, from the Vila Nova de Gaia quay, just in front of the major wine cellars, along the Douro River, the third largest river on the Iberian Peninsula, which flows from Spain, and ends here at Porto before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. From this angle, we look up to the interesting shapes and colors of the houses and buildings that cram the hillsides. It is late afternoon and the setting sun is casting everything in a golden glow, with the colors deepening.

Along the shore, we notice a church with the templar cross on the side – and the topography of hills. As we pull in to the marina, I take note of a Museu Nacional da Imprensa (museum of printing presses), installed in a former Portuguese factory. It strikes me as such a noble and important landmark. The museum contains printing presses from the 19th century – you can press your own paper there.

I learn that Porto is where Portugal’s newspaper industry began, and very much like our newspaper industry, was where discourse and dissent against the government percolated through society.

The boat takes us to where we are having dinner: the Pousada do Porto, Freixo Palace Hotel.

The hotel, which opened in October 2009, is housed in a former palace, an architectural jewel with breathtaking public spaces. Built circa 1742, the palace was designed by the architect and painter Nicolau Nasoni (who also designed Porto’s famous landmark, Clerigos Tower) and one of the most marvelous examples of Portuguese Baroque architecture. The palace was built on the orders of the Dean of Porto Cathedral, D. Jeronimo de Tavora e Noronha – a wealthy nobleman, who was responsible for bringing the famous Italian architect to the city of Porto.

The Freixo Palace Hotel, the first Pousada in Porto, is a project of the Portuguese Hotel Group Pestana which invested millions into the restoration. It is hard to imagine that the palace had suffered a fire and was almost in ruins – vandalized and abandoned – when it was restored. Trees were growing up through the floor. It took 4 years to reconstruct.

The palace is made of granite stones- the main building material in the north – and stands as a reminder that until the 18th century, Porto was one of the richest cities in the world – money came from trade and made the merchants rich, creating a middle-class. Portugal had nobles until 1910 (www.pousadasofportugal.com/portugal/pousada/porto-palacio-do-freixo.html or https://www.pousadas.pt/en/hotels, US telephone, 888-441-4421)

Henry the Navigator & Harry Potter

The best way to appreciate Porto is to put your walking shoes on, grab a bottle of water, and be prepared to be taken under the spell of Porto. The city, like its best wine, is a perfect blend of old and new.

So, the next morning, we explore Porto in the best way: a walking tour of the city center – the old city. (Photo tip: where we begin, at the Porto Duque de Lola parking lot, has the most stunning view of the city.)

One of our first stops is the Lello” Bookshop – justifiably considered one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world, and is a UNESCO protected site. Dating from 1906, it has a magnificent facade, built in neo-Gothic style.

You walk in, and see the most marvelous double spiral staircase. I think I have seen this place in my mind’s eye, and in any case, this is just the sort of place that Harry Potter would visit (Rua das Carmelitas, 144 – Porto – Portugal).

Later, as we sip coffee in the Majestic Cafe, which also has the most stunning Baroque, turn-of-the-century features (actually, 1920), we are reminded that J.K Rawling lived in Porto as an English teacher for three years, and is where she started writing her first Harry Potter book).

“She spent a lot of the day at the Majestic cafe and presented a first edition of her first book to the owner,” our guide Carolina Mucha tells us,

The Majestic, restored 20 years ago with leather seats, and marble tables and stunning ornate mirrors, has been an inspiration for generations: it was like New York’s Algonquin Hotel, a gathering place for the city’s intellectuals, artists, writers, journalists. In the 1920s, they would debate and discuss.

“They would discuss the problems in the town and society. They created the first newspaper at tables like this, and painted flyers against the government.”

Now the Majestic is reviving the tradition, so invites journalists, artists and ordinary people open discussion on variety of subjects. Occasionally, retired journalists who lived through Portugal’s revolution against the dictator Salazar, in 1974, will join (www.cafemajestic.com).

The Majestic is a must see. It is located on Porto’s main shopping street, Rue de Santa Catarina which is bustling with activity (except on Sundays). It is a beautiful street lined with plenty of designer boutiques, cafes, shoe shops, book stores etc. It is ideal for a stroll and to observe local life.

Everywhere you turn, there are wonderful things to see – stunning architecture, the way the streets converge and roll with the hills.

One of the architectural gems of Porto is the São Bento Train Station, dating from 1916, where the high walls of main atrium boast magnificent panels, formed of 20,000 tiles, designed by Jorge Colaco, depicting scenes of the most important events in Porto’s history.

We walk to a city square and at one end is the former palace home of Cardoza, a prosperous merchant (probably one of the “New Christians” – Jews who were forced to convert or face the Inquisition) – which is being turned into a hotel. This sparks some conversation, especially when I see one of the street vendors selling challah bread.

One of the most fascinating places to visit is the Palacio de Bolsa – Porto’s Stock Exchange Palace, with its breathtaking Moorish Hall, Hall of Nations, portraits of all the Kings and Queens of Portugal, its court, its chamber of commerce. The architecture and the art are overwhelming.

Facing a statue of Prince Henry the Navigator is one of the most fascinating buildings in Porto: the Palácio da Bolsa. This was the stock exchange, and still seems to be the center for commercial activity in the city, though there are rooms that look more like a Parliament or a court, and there are portraits of Portugal’s kings and queens.

The building is located beside the St. Francis Church of Porto, which was once part of the St Francis Convent, founded in the 13th century. In 1832, during the so-called “Liberal Wars,” a fire destroyed the cloisters of the convent, sparing the church. In 1841, Queen Mary II donated the convent ruins to the merchants of the city, who decided to use the spot to build the seat of the Commercial Association.

The building looks more like a palace, and in fact, was designed by Porto architect Joaquin da Costa Lima, Jr, as a neoclassical palace of Palladian influence. Most of the palace was finished by 1850, but the interior was only completed in 1910, and essentially offers a time capsule for Portugal’s history.

Each room is more spectacular than the next: the central courtyard (Nations’ Courtyard – Pátio das Naçoes) is covered by a large metallic, octagonal dome with glass panels, designed by Tomás Soler and built after 1880. The lower part of the dome is decorated with the painted coats-of-arms of Portugal and the countries with which Portugal had commercial relations in the 19th century. Behind the courtyard, there is an ornate stairway, built in 1868 by Gonçalves e Sousa, adorned with busts by celebrated sculptors Antonio Soares dos Reis and Antonio Teixeira Lopes. The ceiling has frescoes, painted by António Ramalho.

Several rooms of the Palace – Tribunal Room and Assembly Room which seem more like a Parliament or a court than a stock exchange or chamber of commerce – display furniture by José Marques da Silva, allegoric paintings by Jose Maria Veloso Salgado and Joao Marques de Oliveira, sculptures by Teixeira Lopes and many other works of art.

The highlight of the Palace is the Arab Room, built between 1862 and 1880 by Gonçalves e Sousa, an oval chamber that attempted to copy Granada’s Alhambra Palace. The building was deliberately designed to be spectacular in order to impress and give credibility to European investors, and is still “the grand reception room” of the city where heads of state and other luminaries are received on a visit to Porto.

The Bolsa Palace also has a restaurant, O Comercial, which makes you feel like you are dining amid money (www.palaciodabolsa.pt).

On our way back to the Sheraton Porto Hotel & Spa, we stop off at the Kool Porto district. The streets of Miguel Bombarda, Jose Falcao, Candido dos Reis have restaurants, bookstores, shops, retro-cool furniture, decorative arts, design shops and music.

The Miguel Bombarda Street is one of the most important cultural hubs in Porto, where you can find dozens of art galleries that simultaneously inaugurate new exhibitions on the first Saturday of each month, attracting crowds of art lovers, investors, artists, followers of alternative forms of life and many onlookers – it is like Greenwich Village in the beatnik days. The street also has restaurants, bookstores and shops with retro-cool furniture, alternative decoration, design, music.

Once a month, the shops inaugurate new exhibitions attracting crowds of art lovers, investors, artists, followers of new-wave culture (http://ccbombarda.blogspot.com/)

Weekly markets are held in other city center locations like Rua Cândido dos Reis, Galeria Lumière and Passeio das Fontainhas.

Visitor information is available from Porto & Northern Portugal Tourism Association, portocvb@portocvb.com, www.portocvb.com, www.visitportoandnorth.travel.

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