And Finally, Porto!

Throughout my six weeks of travels through Portugal thus far, whenever I would exclaim my love for the country, just about everyone I met would say “But have you been to Porto?” “Just wait until you see Porto!” “You are just gonna loooove Porto!” So understandably, I couldn’t wait to get to Porto!

Portugal’s second largest city and one of the oldest cities in Europe, Porto is believed to date back to 300 BC. As my Lonely Planet states, “Porto put the Portu in Portugal,” dating back to Roman times. The historic city spills down the flanks the Duoro River, bringing to life the river that turns gold with sunset.

Like Lisbon, Porto has a tram system, though not as extensive.

Looking down this street in the historical Ribeira district, you can see two churches with blue and white azuelo tile exteriors.

Congregados Church, dedicated to Saint Anthony, constructed during the late part of the 17th century. The tile work tells the story of St. Anthony and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.

This street musician is playing on the historic Rua das Flores in downtown. In the background is the Igreja da Misericórdia, built in the second half of the 16th century.

Inside the Igreja da Misericórdia

Adjacent to the Igreja da Misericórdia is a museum, with this macabre Renaissance Flemish painting, Fons Vitae (the Fountain of Life,) being its most famous work. Believed to be painted around 1515 to 1517, the painting depicts Portuguese king Dom Manuel I and his wife Leonor, kneeling before a fountain filled with blood from the crucified Christ. Gruesome.

Up one hillside of the Duoro River is the historic Riberia district, a UNESCO World Heritage site that reeks of romance with its narrow cobblestone streets, old mansions, and baroque churches. One very cool aspect about the churches in Porto is the fact that their azuelos, or blue and white tiles cover not just the inside walls, but the outside as well. What a delight to see these giants looking like fine porcelain china jewel boxes!

Across the Rio Duoro is the area known as Vila Nova de Gaia, or just “Gaia” for short. This entire stretch along the river is home to the world’s most famous Port Cellars (more on that in the next post.) The two famous tourist districts are connected by the Ponte Luis I, or Luis 1 Bridge, inaugurated in 1886. Built of two metal trays, one upper and one lower, the bridge offers transportation on both levels. The metro runs along the top track, while traffic jams up along the lower track, with pedestrian lanes on both levels.

View of the Ponte Luis 1, bridge that spans the Duomo River, inaugurated 1886. Photo taken from top of the Funicular dos Guindais.

City of Porto is built into hillsides.

Getting down to the river involves a steep descent.

Porto’s iconic colorful houses along Cais da Ribeira overlooking the Douro River.

Building on the right is Porto’s main railway station, São Bento, opened in 1900.

It’s one of the most beautiful train stations I’ve seen, with its interior covered in over 20,000 tiles depicting the history of the Portugual. Note two different styles, the blue and white tiles below, and a more colorful frieze along the ceiling.

Fresh cherries for sale in the train station.

My guesthouse host Fabio recommended walking along the bottom of the bridge to reach the Gaia district, walking the length of the river walk, taking the cable car back across to the top level, and walking back. However, the silly 5 minute cable car ride was €5 one way! I have this hang-up where I can’t make myself pay for transportation when I am perfectly capable of walking on my own two feet, so I walked back the length of the river, then made the gut-busting climb through exhaust fumes back up to the top level to make my way back across. I have to be honest in saying I did not find “walking Porto” to be as pleasant an experience as Lisbon.

Igreja de Santo Ildefonso, built in the 18th century is covered with around 11,000 azuelo tiles.

Capela das Almas (Chapel of Souls) is almost entirely covered with blue and white tiles depicting scenes like the Death of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Igreja dos Carmelitas, built in first half of the 17th century by the Order of Carmelites.

Inside Igreja dos Carmelitas

I think the highlight of my visit to Porto was the beautiful Livraria Lello, Porto’s most famous bookstore. Not only am I a lover of libraries, but I also enjoy visiting a nice bookstore. In fact, it’s the favorite pastime with Hannah, my 18 year old niece, and we often joke about how we could take up residence in the local Barnes & Noble. So I couldn’t wait to visit. Unfortunately, the bookstore has been overrun by Harry Potter fans, as it was purported to be where the author found inspiration for one of her books. Therefore, it’s now packed, with a voucher required (redeemable in merchandise) and a waiting line down the street.

I have never read a Harry Potter book or seen a movie, so don’t know beans about the storyline, but I was willing to weather the crowds to see the phantasmagorical marvel of a staircase that dominates the entire store. I went an hour before closing time in hopes the crowds would be lighter. Unfortunately that was not the case, but the security guard at the door took pity on me, and allowed me to stay past closing time while the last few customers were checking out, so I could grab a couple of fan-free photos.

The ornate facade of Livraria Lello, Porto’s famous bookstore. (Line starts around the corner.)

The two-story Livraria Lello bookstore centers around this phenomenal staircase.

The famous crimson staircase that makes this bookstore so unique. It makes me think of one of those fold-out, pop-up greeting cards.

The bookstore was built in 1906.  Note the beautiful 26′ x 11′ stained glass ceiling.

“Thou who walked the room, shall then see a staircase which is a piece of surprising allure, for its apparent lightness which masks the audacity of its design. One feels the urge to climb it yet fears one’s weight may make it crumble.” (in Catálogo 1930 of Livraria Lello).

The section containing works by Portuguese authors is categorized by a small plaster bust of each author.

They have a few famous US publications as well. 😉

Note the rails along the floor once used to transport books into the store. The original wooden cart is filled with Harry Potter books.

The intricately carved underside of the staircase.

Next door to the bookstore is the gelatto shop, “Amorino.” This creation is vanilla in the center, coffee in the middle, and chocolate makes up the outer petals.

Another highlight was visiting O Alfonso for Porto’s signature sandwich, the “Francesinhas.” As a long time fan of Anthony Bourdain, I knew I had to make a pilgrimage to O Alfonso, the restaurant where on his Porto episode of his show “Parts Unknown,” he proclaimed “Good Lord, look at that thing!” An obscenely rich sandwich with different types of meat layered between two thick slices of bread, completely encased with melted cheese, then covered in a rich sauce made from beer, tomatoes, and spices. Or as Bourdain put it, “Meat, cheese, fat and bread. It’s the immortal combination.” If only that had proven to be the case.

O Alfonso’s version of Porto’s famous sandwich, the “Francesinhas,” chased by a local Super Bock stout. Best go at lunch so you have all afternoon to walk it off. 😉

There is a plaque over “Bourdain’s Table” where he ate his first francesinha, with is quote exclaiming “Good Lord. Look at that thing.”

Lots of photos of Bourdain, including several of his book covers.

If you happened to catch the Parts Unknown — Porto episode, you might recall the two baudy fishmonger women in the Mercado do Bolhão, Porto’s most popular market, who teased Bourdain about his true “parts unknown.” Unfortunately that market is now closed for restoration. The market has relocated temporarily into a more modern building, with the stalls now looking very sanitized and sterile. Hopefully, once the original location reopens, it won’t be as void of authenticity and charm as the temporary location.

All the old world charm was lost with the move of Mercado do Bolhão into the temporary location.

As much as I did love Porto, it was difficult for me not to compare it to Lisbon, a city that had exceeded my expectations on so many levels. Whereas Lisbon seemed light and airy and so festive with it’s beautifully patterned black and white mosaic sidewalks and pastel tiled facades, Porto’s slate gray concrete made the city feel dark and dreary, even with the sun shining. Also, while Lisbon seemed to undulate in waves of hills and valleys, the streets of Porto seemed to all flow downhill, funneling all the tourists down to the river, the main and therefore crowded thoroughfare for tourists. And of course, what goes down must come back up. Getting “up” from the riverwalk took some effort for a cheapskate like me who won’t pay for a taxi. So the end to every meal, drink, or stroll along the river had to be finished off with a steep, steady gut-busting climb up the hills to my guesthouse. Yes, there is a Metro in Porto, but the lines tend to run parallel to the river, not perpendicular, necessitating a climb just to reach the nearest station. By the time I had climbed up from the river, I may as well have finished off the walk home.

Porto has some nice beaches, this one Praia de Matosinhos, which is only 15 minutes away. There are two ways to get there, either by Metro, or the much more scenic way, the blue double decker bus No. 500.

This is a popular surfing beach. Note group of people lined up next to their boards taking a surfing course.

The town of Matosinhos is also famed for its fresh fish. Rua Heróis França is “Restaurant Row” with several blocks of seafood restaurants, all with outdoor grills lining the sidewalks.

All the restaurants along this street serve grilled fish. I chose flounder.

Along the beach is a 15th century fort, Castelo do Queijo. The crowds of people are gathered around tables playing card games.

So I would have to say while I thoroughly enjoyed my time here, Lisbon still holds top rank in my favorite “city” memories of Portugal. As someone who loves to walk and explore the different neighborhoods, I found Lisbon to be brighter, more walkable, more diverse with its tourist attractions spread far and wide, rather than concentrated in one area, along the river.

Next up, the most famous aspect of Porto for which the fortified beverage gets it’s name, “Turning Wine into Port.”