Porto – The first Port of call.
I have visited Portugal on many occasions, most notably to the Algarve, staying at the beach, yachting and golf resorts of Vilamoura, Albufeira, Praia da Luz, Lagos and Portimao. One year I spent a couple of days in the capital city of Lisbon, visiting São Jorge Castle, Belém Tower, the Bairro Alto and the square of Praça do Comércio with its huge ceremonial Arch and equestrian statue. A beautiful city, it is too!
I loved Lisbon and I will no doubt return soon to the Algarve, to play a few rounds of golf, but on this occasion, I decided to visit the coastal city of Porto, celebrated for its splendid bridges and of course, the production of Port wine. Wine, produced in the Douro valley, was already being transported to Porto during the 13th century in the `barcos rabelos`. Many of these flat sailing vessels can still be seen moored alongside the Douro in central Porto, opposite the many pleasure cruisers.
One of the most enjoyable trips I made during my stay in Porto was the `Six bridges cruise` up a small section of the river Douro. The vineyards of the Douro are over thirty miles upstream, but the steep sided banks of the Douro provide much interest, from the iconic `Pont Luiz I` bridge and the majestic Monsteiro da Serra do Pilar down past the port wineries of Sandeman, Ferreira and Croft. There is also a cable car which transports passengers from the top of the Pont Luiz bridge down to the riverside wineries, otherwise you need to take a steep walk down the cliffside.
Port wine is a Portuguese fortified wine produced exclusively in the Douro Valley. It is typically a sweet, red wine, often served as a dessert wine, though it also comes in dry, semi-dry, and white varieties.
I went for a tour of the Calem winery and thought it very disappointing. I was told to view the small museum whilst I waited for an English spoken tour, before being guided past several Oak wine casks. The guide struggled to make the tour interesting for the group of over thirty visitors, but at least I got to taste a White Port and a delicious Ruby Port at the climax to the tour. It made it all worthwhile!
In the medieval Ribeira (riverside) district I strolled around the narrow-cobbled streets past crumbling 15th Century merchants’ houses. I was surprised to see so many of the city’s oldest houses in such a poor state of dereliction or at risk of collapsing. From above I could see that some buildings had collapsed in on themselves and only the façade gave the impression that the building was still habitable. The city streets climb steeply from the banks of the river Douro, so be prepared for some strenuous climbs.
Portugal has a peaceful feel about it. I sit on the terrace overlooking the vineyard there and I feel cut off from the world. You need that sort of thing.
I came across the São Francisco Church, which is well known for its lavish baroque interior with ornate gilded carvings. On entering it was certainly an awe – inspiring spectacle, but I felt some of the more delicate carved figures were simply obscured and drowned by the overwhelming gold leaf, which covered every niche and crack across walls and ceiling.
I visited Porto Cathedral on two occasions, but was unable to gain entry on both visits. The first time I visited the Cathedral I was surprised to find it was closed for lunch and on the second visit the great and good of Porto, including the Portuguese Prime Minister, attended the funeral of the late Archbishop of Porto, who had passed away a few days earlier. As I sat outside the cathedral I was surprised to see the countries Prime Minister António Costa, strolling across the cobbles, flanked by a couple of security guards, just a few feet away! This would never have happened in England.
The Roman Catholic Cathedral is in the historical centre of the city and is one of the city’s oldest Romanesque local monuments. From outside I had plenty of time to admire the cathedral`s two square towers, each supported by two `flying buttresses` and crowned with a cupola.
One of the cities `magnet` attractions is the tile-adorned São Bento Train Station. Having pushed my way through the crowds standing just inside the entrance to the station I was able to take in the 20,000 `azulejo tiles` depicting long forgotten battles and some pleasant countryside scenes, in the wide vestibule.
Francesinha is a sandwich originally from Porto, made with bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça, fresh sausage like chipolata, steak or roast meat and covered with melted cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce served with french fries.
At the gardens of the Crystal Palace (Palácio de Cristal) I could rest and enjoy an ice cream whilst watching the numerous peacocks parade around the flower borders and wide lawns. The Palace itself was a major disappointment, as I had thought I was going to see a beautiful glass palace structure of some interest, but it was neither!
It was a nondescript huge domed pavilion, the Pavilhao Rosa Mota plays host to concert and sports events, but there are some splendid views down to the river Douro from the expansive gardens. The pavilion is also home to a permanent multimedia library, auditorium and café. With a seating capacity of 10,000, it is considered one of Portugal’s leading entertainment venues.
I was desperate to spend some time on the beach, so I decided to take a bus up to Matosinhos. Porto has many stunning beaches, plenty of room for everyone, including surfers!
The beaches were fantastic, if only I had visited a few months earlier! It was a little too cold for swimming but I had a great time, walking the length of the beach, paddling my feet in the ocean as I walked.
On the Waterside Plaza Matosinhos there is a huge sculpture which my wife thought looked like a `hairnet` but which in fact represents the local fishermen`s net. In 2005, the municipality funded the public sculpture which is called, `She Changes` by American artist, Janet Echelman.
In Porto, my sculpture ‘She Changes’ refers to the town’s fishing history, to the era of seafaring trade and discovery. The contemporary site is industrial, surrounded by red and white striped smokestacks, which is mirrored in the pattern of the sculpture.
There were many impressive pieces of street art in other parts of Porto including my favourite which was a huge 3-dimensional Rabbit occupying the corner of a street, made from scrap pieces of metal and an assortment of car tyres and the like. A stunning piece of art work.
Some other memories I shall take away from Porto are the washing lines hanging from almost every residential house in the city, large concrete basins for community washing of clothes, the cans of sardines packaged with birth years selling for over £7, tasty grilled sardines cooked not in the kitchen but on large Bar B Q style grills outside the restaurants and the warm hospitality of its people.
I always enjoy my visits to Portugal and my visit to Porto was no exception.
I am already looking forward to returning.
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