CHARMED BY PORTO
Porto is built on the steep northern bank of the River Douro and radiates out West to the Atlantic and East into the Douro Valley. Most of the historical sites however, are clustered around the old riverside district of Ribeira and the central Baixa area. So this is where we focussed our attentions today, exploring the maze of Medieval alleys, cobbled streets, and monuments that define this marvellous city.
First and foremost we stopped by the Sé do Porto (i.e. The Cathedral of Porto), one of the city’s oldest monuments and arguably the most important Romanesque church in Portugal. Built in the 12th century, the Sé do Porto was beautiful in its simplicity, with a design and decorations far less ornate than many of the cathedrals and churches we saw in Spain recently.
The tile work decorating the attached Gothic cloister, however, was both detailed and ornate. The blue azulejos by Valentim de Almeida were added in 1730 and depict the life of the Virgin Mary.
The Treasury room within the cloister housed the usual startling array of gold and silver religious artefacts, giving some indication of how wealthy Porto once was. The Baroque decorations of the Chapter House reinforced this further.
Better than any of the religious artefacts, however, were the views we could see from the terrace in front of the cathedral. Seeing the terracotta tiled roofs of the narrow houses stretching all the way down the hillside to the River Douro gave us a great sense of the chaotic layout of the Baixa, the ancient heart of Porto.
It was an easy downhill stroll from the Sé do Porto, through the winding lanes and cobbled streets, to La Ribeira. Along the way we stopped numerous times to enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells* of Porto’s old town. We watched as grey-haired grandmothers hung washing out over their balconies, and neighbours conversing as they stood at their windows, watching the world go by below. It was great!
*Today we learned that Porto smells primarily of cooking sardines and boiling tripe. Both dishes are hugely popular here and because both dishes are quite pungent, it’s all we could smell as we wandered the streets. Not a great combination really, especially at 10:00 in the morning!
Down the hill we found the Igreja de São Francisco, Porto’s only remaining Gothic church, dating back to the 14th century. Although not particularly extraordinary from outside, the carved wooden Rococo interior was amazing. It seemed to us that the church’s exterior reflects the modesty typical of the Franciscan order, while the interior more reflects the extreme wealth of its patrons! Unfortunately we couldn’t take any photos of it ourselves, but the photo below from their website give you an idea of how richly decorated the church was.
Below the church we found the catacombs, where we walked over the tombs for members of the Franciscan order. Discreetly tucked in a corner of the crypt we found a glass panel in the floor which gave us a view of the bleached of human bones piled in the ossuary below. Creepy….
From the Igreja de São Francisco it was just a few short steps to the waterfront and the district of La Ribeira. The Ribeira was originally the centre of commerce in Porto; a deep sheltered river harbour front where big sailing ships would dock to off-load and reload cargo before setting sail for distant shores once again. Today the port has been moved further North and the waterfront street, Cais da Ribeira, turned into a pleasant promenade lined with cafés and restaurants.
The Ribeira is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its colourful 4 or 5 storey buildings immediately recognisable as being iconic of Porto.
It was beautiful down by the river so we stopped for lunch at a café there (no sardines or tripe for us however), and spent an hour or so soaking in the warmth and watching the gulls catching fish in the Douro.
Porto is often called “The City of Bridges”, due to the dozen or so bridges that cross the river within the city limits. The most famous of its bridges is The Dom Luís I Bridge, a double-decked metal arch bridge that spans the Douro River between the old town of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. When it was owned in 1886, it was the longest of its type in the world. Today the bottom desk is used by cars (and pedestrians), whilst the top deck is for trains (and pedestrians).
We crossed the bridge on foot and walked along the Cais de Gaia, the waterfront promenade facing Porto’s old town. Vila Nova de Gaia is the name given to the district on the Southern bank of the River Douro; and it was there that the fortified wine Porto is famed for (i.e. Port wine) was packaged, stored, and loaded onto boats for shipping. Wine, produced in the Douro Valley, used to be transported down the river to Porto in barcos rabelos (i.e.. traditional flat sailing vessels). There were a few of these old-style boats moored along the riverfront today, though most of them are only used to transport tourists up and down the river these days.
We wanted to all back across the river across the top deck of the Dom Luís I Bridge, and rather than walk all the way up the stairs in Vila Nova de Gaia, we did what all tourists burdened with a big lunch in their bellies do: we caught the cable car up there. The views from the cable car, across to La Ribeira and the Baixa, were just awesome.
Similarly, walking across the bridge along the top deck, we enjoyed some great views on the historic centre of Porto, the Port wine caves of Vila Nova de Gaia, and the River Douro.
This really is a gorgeous city, with its blue skies, layers of colour, and old world beauty. There’s an air of faded grandeur to Porto that we’ve not really seen in any other European cities, and we love it! It’s also an incredibly friendly city, where we’ve felt instantly welcomed and embraced by the relaxed charm of the city and its people. We can only hope the rest of Portugal is just as good!