We all know someone in our circle of friends and acquaintances who is like this: you come to visit and one of the first things they’ll say is: “Oh, never mind all the stuff lying around, I meant to tidy up, but…” And you pick up a stack of magazines to sit down on the couch. And never once does this entry give you a sense that you are not welcome, on the contrary: you are welcomed into someone’s home and there is no pretense, no tension, no attempt to keep up appearances. Porto is like that. It is rough around the edges, it has some buildings that are starting to fall apart, and some that are much further along on their inevitable way to oblivion. There are also corners with new life, new vitality and high hopes. Most of all, it is a city that feels lived in. Who has time to clean up every last little bit of the house when you need that time to live? Cascading down from its hills to the banks of the Douro River, the streets of Porto are not for the fainthearted and here and there they turn into stairs. One of the hills is crowned by the cathedral, the Sé, another by the Torre dos Clérigos, at 249 feet the tallest church tower in Portugal. It was designed by Niccoló Nasoni, along with the church attached to it. Nasoni, an Italian who spend the better part of his life in Portugal, was directly or indirectly responsible for much of baroque Porto. A third hill is home to city hall, the Câmara Municipal.
And then, there are churches everywhere, many of them clad in the typical tiles, the azulejos, which sometimes just cover walls in simple patterns, and in other places combine to create huge panels telling epic stories. Many ordinary houses are clad in the former, the best examples of the latter may be Porto’s main train station, the Estação de São Bento and the igrejas (churches) do Carmo and de Santo Idelfonso.
Porto has a world-famous bookstore which, like Tom Cruise, is much smaller in real life than in the pictures. Livraria Lello routinely ranks as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world and it gets so many visitors that they have started to charge an entrance fee: 3 euros, good as a credit towards any purchase you make. One can frown on this of course, but shouldn’t a long line to get into a bookstore be reason for rejoicing? Though it wasn’t as big as I imagined, it is still a pretty cool bookstore, even if I think Dominicanen in Maastricht has the edge. You can be the judge, see below.
I stayed in a beautiful little hotel in town, Porto A.S. 1829. It is located in a building that for 5 generations was home to a family owned shop for stationary, pens and paper of all kinds. The hotel still has a gift shop with a very strong focus on just such items, and on my floor, there was a display in the hallway showcasing two old typewriters. The room itself was small and it still reminded me of an old office. I had a view of the Sé and the streets below – unbeatable.
I spent my time making miles to get to know the city, which takes a bit of stamina, but it otherwise unproblematic, at there are myriad little restaurants, cafes and shops that provide all kinds of sustenance.
An almost bizarre highlight in Porto is the Igreja de São Francisco, on the edge of Ribeira, the quarter along the river with the narrow streets, the laundry hanging from the windows and the plethora of restaurants that served grilled fish. I am not sure St. Francis, who was a simple man by all accounts, and who stayed away from luxury, would approve. The interior is largely carved wood that has been covered in gold – some sources claim total of 1000 lbs, although that sounds too round of a figure to be true. What is true is that as you walk into the church, it is almost overwhelming and perhaps even a little obscene. But hey, I am a big fan of churches and this one easily makes my top ten. I get it, hundreds of people could have been clothed and fed with the money had they simply painted the wood, and it does on occasion give me pause. But honestly – look at all that GOLD !
It would be easy to fill another two posts with the things one can see with the assistance of some serious leg power and good shoes, but I will not try to be exhaustive, even if I ended up exhausted. Porto is something you need to experience. Just go there. And don’t miss the gold.