Call it Porto or Oporto – the choice is yours. Three Foody Travellers visited this historic city on the banks of the Douro (River of Gold), and found time to sample a few glasses of port wine along the way.
The Cais da Ribeira was alive with movement and the sound of excited voices, just as it has been for centuries.
Laundry was hanging on the balconies of the tall, narrow houses, just as it has been for centuries. Boats were moored alongside the quay, just as they have been for centuries. People sauntered in and out of the bars, just as they have done for centuries. Street entertainers entertained and stall holders sold goods, just as they have done for centuries. The river Douro flowed to the sea, as it has done for centuries and on the opposite bank barcos rabelos were moored, just as they too have been for centuries!
Ignore the modern clothes and the occasional car or delivery truck and what I was witnessing from my room in our hotel on the Praça da Ribeira was basically a re-enactment of what has been going on in the historic city of Porto for generations.
Come to think of it, the Pestana Porto hotel, or rather its buildings, has been there for several decades too. It is made up of a block of 16th, 17th and 18th century buildings linked together by passageways. I had stayed before in this comfortable four star hotel and loved its location right down beside the river Douro, close to the lively river front restaurants and looking out over the Douro to the port wine lodges on the opposite bank at Via Nova da Gaia.
Whilst the towns on opposite sides of the Douro have very separate identities they are closely linked by the bridges spanning the river and are perceived by the majority of today’s visitors to be one city -Porto. Via Nova da Gaia is home to the port wine lodges whilst Porto has older and also more commercial and indeed residential buildings. The latter is renowned for its elegant squares, churches, fascinating old buildings, lively shops, bars and restaurants.
The Pestana is in the historic heart of Porto, a city so rightly designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site in 1996, yet it’s only some 25 minute drive from a bustling international airport.
It’s Portugal’s second largest city, but it has a manageable sized centre and can easily be explored by foot. Alternatively there is a little tourist train that runs from the cathedral through the streets taking in many of the sites, or why not relax on one of the river boats for a different perspective: good commentaries on both.
How anybody managed to build the city on the steep slopes that lead up from the Douro is a wonder. Houses and buildings cling tightly to each other as if to stop themselves sliding into the river below.
It’s certainly worth the uphill climb to the imposing cathedral with its shady cloisters for the view out over the higgledy-piggledy red roofs of the crowded Barredo district and across the river to Via Nova da Gaia . If you really can’t face the climb up the hill a funicular railway takes the strain.
Even if you don’t want to catch a train, call in at the São Bento railway station to admire the stunning, intricate pictures formed by the 20,000 or so tiles (azulejos). The station, on the site of a former monastery, was begun in 1896 and completed in 1916. The waiting room is a work of art, its tiles depicting scenes of earlier transportation, country festivals and historic events.
Down towards the river we found the church of São Francisco. It dates back to the 14th century but it is its 17th/18th century interior that most visitors come to see. It is wildly, gloriously baroque; seemingly every inch of it carved and gilded. It is said that over 200kg of gold leaf was used for the work.
Trams and a cable car
On our river boat trip we had spotted a little brown tram whizzing along next to the coast road. We had to track it down and take a ride. In fact there is more than one tram route in Porto but we took the line which runs down to the mouth of the Douro. It was an interesting ride and at the other end we got off, stretched our legs and enjoyed a breath of sea air before catching the return tram back into the city.
We had also spotted a cable car and one day decided to cross the river to Vila Nova de Gaia via the upper tier of the spectacular two-tier D. Luis I bridge built in 1886. (It was a bit too high for one of us!) Close to the bridge by the metro stop we found the cable car station, paid our Euros and boarded one of the gondolas and spent a relaxing five minutes swinging gradually lower over Gaia’s port wine lodges to the Cais de Gaia.
Another ornate room not to be missed is the Arabian Room in the Palácio da Bolsa, like the opera house in Budapest, it is like being inside a glittering Fabergé egg.
It is certainly not gilded but another interior not to be missed is in the Rua das Carmelitas – the Lello & Irmão bookshop with its curious two-way double staircase. The building dates back to 1881 and it has to be one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops. However, it is not the most welcoming. That perhaps is hardly surprising with the number of tourists piling in to see what is thought to have been JK Rowling’s inspiration for the Hogwarts grand staircase in the Harry Potter books – rather than buying books.
JK Rowling lived and worked in Porto for a time and maybe we were again following in her footsteps when we visited the much more welcoming, but also very busy, Majestic Café in Rua de Santa Catarina. Its Belle Époque décor with mirrors, swags and cherubs is a delight, the service was charming and we enjoyed a couple of lunches there.
A couple of streets away from Santa Catarina is the terrific old market – Mercado do Bolhão. We were unable to buy any of the produce on offer but did content ourselves with buying good value spices to bring home.
The Pestana Porto no longer serves dinner, but with such a wide choice of restaurants on the doorstep that was no problem and also gave us the opportunity to try a different restaurant every evening, many with their own specialities. We sampled fresh fish (sardines) and salted fish (bacalhau), rabbit and the local tripe (Porto is famous for its tripe dishes, including tripas à moda do Porto). Legend has it that way back in 1415 the inhabitants sacrificed the better cuts of meat in order to help the army and only kept the tripe for themselves. To this day they are sometimes referred to as tripeiros – tripe eaters.
One of the Foody Travellers had a significant birthday during the trip. We had already had a look around the superb Yeatman Hotel across the water in Vila Nova da Gaia and we decided that this was where the auspicious occasion should be celebrated. The hotel is five-star, and that delicious dinner lived up to it. Hardly surprising not long after we heard that the restaurant had been awarded a Michelin star.
One of the little churches in the Ribeira district where we were staying celebrated its Saint’s day whilst we were there. The narrow cobbled streets echoed to the sound of the marching band and excited followers as the statue was paraded through the diocese.
It reminded me of an earlier visit I had made which had coincided with the celebrations held to commemorate the birth of St John the Baptist. The day itself is 24 June, but on evening of 23rd the city goes wild. The aroma of grilled sardines fills the packed streets and everybody parties. I can remember being hit over the head several times with a hammer (I hasten to add it was plastic). And at midnight the night sky was torn apart with a massive firework display.
Porto was vibrant with fun and vitality, just as it has been for centuries.
(And as to the variation in the city’s name Porto/Oporto – its Porto in Portuguese and Oporto (The Port) in English.)