Visit: 25th October 2015
Porto was the third and final WHS of our October weekend in northern Portugal, located roughly between Guimarães and Coimbra. It is the country’s second city, so one day wasn’t enough time to do it justice. Natalie and I spent one night there and had most of the Sunday before flying home in the evening free to walk around the city.
We arrived by train from Coimbra into Porto’s main station, São Bento (above). Built in 1916, it is famous for its tiled walls depicting scenes from Portuguese history. Stepping out into the streets we saw UNESCO signage all over the city, with short descriptions of what notable building one is standing next to.
Not far from São Bento is the twelfth century Porto Cathedral. It is fundamentally Romanesque but was extensively reworked in the Baroque period, which accounts for features such as the rounded arch that would not have been available to its original designers.
The Cathedral sits at the top of the Douro valley, surrounded by ramshackle houses that cascade down the hill toward the river in a charming manner. As I noted in Guimarães, the Portuguese like to tile their houses in bright colours. This, combined with the ubiquitous orange roofs, makes the slum-like Ribeira district a real pleasure to wander around.
After walking down to the riverside we got a good view of Porto’s most famous landmark – the Dom Luís I Bridge. Opened in 1886, it closely resembles a slightly earlier bridge nearby, the Maria Pia, which was designed by the famous Gustave Eiffel. Like his Parisian tower, the bridges in Porto set records (longest bridge spans in the world) and showcased what could be done with wrought iron.
Next we paid a couple of euros for entry to the Church of Saint Francis and its spooky crypt full of bones. Gothic and obviously very old from its facade, the church’s interior is lavishly decorated with carved and gilded wood. Again, this is a Baroque-era addition, and I think adds a great deal of majesty to the building.
I have seen Porto described in the tourist literature as a ‘living museum’, and I think it deserves that epithet. The Ribeira district, though popular with visitors and certainly not somewhere that could be described as tranquil, still appears to be home to local people.
Perhaps it is in order to appeal to tourists that the city – like Lisbon – still runs ancient electric trams (although the long-lasting recession that has hit Portugal – as one of the ‘PIIGS countries’ – particularly hard probably has a lot to do with it). But so long as they still work they are a useful way to get around such a hilly city. Bristol, where I live, could certainly benefit from them.
How can I have written this much about Porto and yet not have mentioned the eponymous drink? Well, somehow – and completely unintentionally – I totally failed to drink any whilst there. The fortified red wine is produced upstream in the Douro wine region, then sailed down the river for onward distribution by the many famous brands that still occupy warehouses on the south side of the river (often with English names, like Taylor’s or Graham’s). It is for this reason that a return visit is a certainty, and the added benefit will be that I shall see more of this historic and intriguing city.