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15.05.2009 (22.05.2009) Diamond review

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Full of interest, pleasantly unpretentious, reasonably priced

Disadvantages:
Perhaps a little downbeat, even dour

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It’s an unpretentious city, Porto, an honest city, not one to put on airs. Whilst other cities of similar intrinsic interest might be said to “boast” various attractions, you’d never say that of Porto. It’s just not a boastful kind of place.

This modesty is arguably no more than realistic. Porto isn’t, and couldn’t pretend to be, in the very top rank of Europe’s cities for art, architecture, history or grandeur. But it has its share of all of these and other merits too: it is scenically located; it is easy to reach and to get around; it is a good jumping-off point from which to visit other attractive places in the region; and it is reasonably – by Eurozone standards, cheaply – priced for staying, eating and drinking.

Like its football team, which regularly surprises by how well it does in European competition against ‘bigger’ clubs from bigger cities, Porto has the capacity to exceed the visitor’s expectations. In many ways it is an ideal short-break destination, and it deserves to be better known.


* Location and history *

Characteristically, Porto is what it says on the label – a port – and has been one since Roman times. It sits on the northern bank of the mouth of the Douro River, where the hills behind the waterfront make it defensible on the landward side. In the fourteenth century, the hilltop perimeter was fortified by three and a half kilometres of walls, of which unfortunately only vestiges remain. Porto was the base from which the nation of Portugal was created (and its name derived) as the Moorish occupation was driven back during the course of the Middle Ages, although the Lisbon eventually emerged as the political capital.

The city also gave its name to the wine grown in the Douro valley and fortified with brandy for shipping. Trade in port wine received a boost in the 18th century when Britain, cut off by war from its usual French suppliers, did a duty-free deal with the merchants of Porto to the benefit of both parties. Commercial ties became close, and it is notable that many of the leading port shippers still bear British names (Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Graham, Offley, etc.).

The British connection does in fact go even further back than this, to a dynastic marriage in Porto in 1387 that sealed the Treaty of Windsor between England and Portugal. This treaty is still in force, incidentally, the longest-lasting military alliance known to history. Shame on ignoramuses like Tony Blair who refer to the Americans as ‘our oldest allies’, a gratuitous insult to the Portuguese, with whom we have been allied since before Columbus set sail, and more than three times as long as the time that has elapsed since we were last at war with the USA.

Though Britain is less important now as a trading partner, Porto remains Portugal’s principal port and commercial centre to this day.


* Character and welcome *

It’s a workaday city, Porto, a businesslike city. Welcoming visitors is only one of its businesses, and, one feels, not very high on its agenda, but it makes a businesslike job of it just the same.

Drop by any of the three Tourist Information Offices dotted around the centre and you will be briskly furnished with a well-designed city map, a brochure listing the principal sites of interest, and any further local information you require. You will also be offered, for sale, a Porto Card for the duration of your stay. We bought the two-day version at 13.50€ each (£12.30 at the current woeful exchange rate). This entitled us to unlimited use of all public transport, discounts at most historic monuments, many museums and some restaurants, and a 1.50€ phonecard valid in local call-boxes. We more than recouped the cost of the cards on bus rides alone. Unless you plan to walk everywhere (time-consuming and tiring), or drive yourself around (don’t), I would definitely recommend them.

As to the unofficial welcome from the locals, well, anyone who knows the Portuguese knows that they are not the most exuberant or effusive of Latins. In Porto there is an added element of grittiness that seems to come naturally to the natives of northern industrial cities everywhere. One is sometimes tempted to wonder whether ‘Douro’ has the same linguistic root as ‘dour’ (it doesn’t). But underneath their sometimes downbeat air
Pictures of Porto (Portugal)
Porto (Portugal) Porto - Ramparts - Porto (Portugal)
Riverside view with ramparts
the locals are straightforward to deal with and friendly enough in their way. It helps if you try to speak Portuguese, and helps even more if you don’t confuse it with Spanish, or at least appear apologetic when you do.


* Things to see *

Where to begin? We began by investing 2€ to climb the Torre dos Clérigos (not having bought our cards at this stage, which would have reduced the cost). The Torre is the 75 metre high tower of a hilltop church, from which you can gaze out in all directions over the red-tiled rooftops of the city, take in the topography and spot the main historic buildings. Starting here gives you a feel for the place and helps you plan your visit. Apart from which, it’s a great view in itself, especially across the Douro river to Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto’s counterpart on the southern bank. Alongside this bank are still moored the traditional rabelo barges that used to bring grapes downriver, but now serve as decorative advertisements for the various brands.

Porto’s main historic buildings are sprinkled around the centre rather than clustered in any one locality. This reflects the fact that they date from different periods and represent an eclectic mix of architectural styles. To use an analogy from its most famous product, it’s “vintage character” – a blend of good but not necessarily outstanding years – rather than a single vintage of great distinction.

~ Churches. Portugal being a Catholic country, many of the most prominent edifices are churches. The Sé (cathedral) itself we found relatively unappealing, its narrow nave in grim granite seeming at odds with its ornate transept, but the adjacent cloisters are worth a wander. Elsewhere in the city are several gems. The pick is probably São Francisco, which has both Gothic and Baroque features, one of the highlights of the latter being the intricately carved and gilded wood. The complex around the church also houses an ecclesiastical museum and elaborate catacombs complete with coffins.

If the gilded wood carvings at São Francisco are good, then those at the little church of Santa Clara are even better – the entire interior, altar included, is clad in them to overwhelming effect. Unfortunately, an officious custodian was on hand to prevent me from taking photographs with which to illustrate this review. In a completely different style is the Capela das Almas de Santa Catarina, its outer walls being completely covered with tableaux formed of the characteristically Portuguese blue-and-white tiles known as azulejos. Since they were on the exterior, I was able to take a photo (see below). The Carmo church also has an azulejo outer wall as well as a wonderfully ornate interior, while the Clérigos itself (beneath the tower) is among many others worth a look inside.

~ Secular buildings. If Porto has a centre it is supposedly the Avenida dos Aliados, which is an elongated square rather than an avenue despite its name. It is all rather grand, surrounded by 19th century neo-classical buildings in grey stone, but apart from the town hall most of them are banks or business offices. We felt it lacked animation and did not hang around for long. We spent much more time in the two-storey covered market, the Mercado Bolhão, which has all the colour and animation you could want, and is adjacent to the Rua Santa Catarina, the main shopping street, with some architecturally interesting frontages. Talking of shops, the Livraria Lello is atmospherically more like a church than a bookshop, full of intricate woodwork and a stained glass skylight. I’m not much of a shopper, but I did enjoy stopping for a coffee in the Café Majestic, its interior resplendent with mirrors, decorated stucco and gilt in a style that can only be described as rococo revival with an admixture of art nouveau (see pic). Some good examples of pure art nouveau and art deco (e.g. the Coliseu and Batalha cinemas) can also be found nearby.

While in the vicinity, pop into the São Bento railway station to see the azulejo tilework murals around its concourse, depicting landscapes, transport and battle scenes. Another architectural gem not to be missed is the Palácio da Bolsa, the old stock exchange building. The outside is rather unappealing, but inside is a superb covered courtyard, elegantly proportioned and as ornate in its detail as many a baroque church. The stone staircase is also rather grand. In theory you have to book for a guided tour to show you round, but in practice if you are brazen enough you can see a lot of the interior without waiting or being lectured as you go.


* Things to do *

You’ll have already walked a fair distance taking in the architectural attractions, and simply walking around is definitely one of the best things to do in Porto, as in so many cities. Others include: ~

~ Taking a boat trip. From the quayside known as the Cais da Ribeira, 10€ (8€ after Porto Card discount, a bit over £7) will buy you an hour’s voyage up and down the Douro river under the five bridges, including the impressive two-tier Ponte de Dom Luis I. Apart from the bridges, there are views of the city from a different perspective than from anywhere on land.

~ Visit the port ‘lodges’, the cellars/warehouses where the wine is aged for bottling and shipping. These are all located in Vila Nova de Gaia on the southern bank of the river, giving you a chance to cross over the upper level of the bridge, dodging the metro trains that also run across it, but seeing great views of the waterfronts to either side. The lodges are sometimes hard to find among the steep cobbled lanes, but once located almost all offer guided tours and tastings. We visited Croft’s (free entry), and Offley’s (2.50€; £2.30), both worthwhile. A port enthusiast could easily spend a day here and end up inexpensively inebriated.

~ Take a train or tram to the seaside. A tram for preference – they’re lovely vintage vehicles with polished wood and brass, which also have their own museum next to the Number 1 route that stops just short of the Atlantic at the suburb of Foz do Douro. The sea itself looks rather uninviting and is said to be heavily polluted hereabouts, but there’s a park, a fort guarding the river mouth and a lighthouse to be seen.

~ Explore Porto’s parks and gardens. There are several dotted around the centre, the biggest and best situated being the Jardim do Palácio de Cristal. Like London’s own Crystal Palace Park, this no longer has the structure from which its name derives, just a domed modern auditorium, but it covers a large area, with terraced gardens overlooking the river and affording still more excellent views. Harder to find and a little disappointing is the city’s Botanical Gardens, which surround a manor house on the outskirts – disappointing not for the features or the plants, which my wife assures me were extremely interesting, but because it is hemmed in by a noisy ring road that spoils the atmosphere, dispelling contemplative calm.


* Eating and drinking *

Porto’s two keynote local dishes are bacalhau (salt cod, cooked in a variety of ways) and tripe (characteristically stewed with beans and vegetables). These may not sound very appetitising, and to be honest we forewent the tripe, though we did have some excellent bacalhau, baked in olive oil with sliced potatoes, accompanied by a huge side salad. This was at an delightful little restaurant called Ze de Braga, in the Rua do Rosário, which was full of locals, but where the patron (in contrast to the reserved manner of most natives of Porto) greeted us like long-lost friends, found room for us, guided us through the menu (steering us towards the cheaper half-portions, which were more than ample), treated us to a complimentary glass of port after the meal and made it clear that no tip was expected. Maybe he mistook us for someone else, but if so I’m not complaining. Good food, good value and whole-heartedly recommended.

There are reasonably-priced eateries all around the centre, including a cluster along the quayside of Ribeira, though if anywhere in Porto is touristy, it’s here. We ate at one of them, the name of which I can’t remember and wouldn’t particularly want to remember; it wasn’t terrible, just ordinary and blighted by slow, offhand service. We also ate at O Commercial, a stylish restaurant impressively located within the Palácio da Bolsa; it is on the pricey side for dinner, but does a set lunch for 13€ (£11.80) or light bites as more economical options.

Wine-wise, there’s port of course, though you wouldn’t want to drink it through a meal. Crisp, fresh, almost-effervescent vinhos verdes or robust local reds provide better accompaniment for the majority of dishes. As for beer, it has to be said that this is not a Portuguese speciality. Light, lager-style, locally-brewed Super Bock is widely available on draft and will quench thirst effectively enough if you don’t mind an absence of flavour.


* Where to stay *

The Pestana is superbly situated right on the quayside and has a good reputation. We toyed with staying there, but it proved to be about twice the tariff of a number of other decent-sounding hotels in downtown Porto. Eventually we settled for the Eurostars das Artes, partly because it was quietly located just outside the centre towards the university and the Jardim do Palácio de Cristal, and partly because of its attractive period frontage. This turned out to be façade alone; the whole of the interior has been rebuilt in modern style, but it is comfortable and everything works efficiently. A double room and breakfast (tasty, copious breakfast overlooking the back garden) for both of us worked out at 85€ for each of two nights of our stay and 95€ for the third (£77 and £86 respectively). The extra cost on the Wednesday turned out to be because a Champions’ League home fixture meant hotels were in demand; those who know my allegiances may imagine my feelings on having to pay more because Manchester United were in town. Still, with any luck you’d normally avoid this imposition.

I’d recommend the Eurostars das Artes warmly enough, but looking around and trawling the net it was clear there are plenty of other options, including cheaper ones, for what appear to be perfectly acceptable places. In this as in other respects, Porto is not expensive by big city standards.


* Getting around…. *

….is easy enough, especially if you’ve bought the Porto Card for unlimited travel by public transport. There are, unfortunately, only three tram routes, but there are swarms of buses stopping at most of the places you are likely to want to visit. The metro is slick and very modern, though the routes are mainly designed to bring commuters in from the northern suburbs and are not much help within the old centre. But the old centre is generally compact enough to be covered by foot and bus in any case. Finally, don’t miss the funicular railway which carries you smoothly up from the quayside with still more views of the river as you ascend.


* Onwards and outwards *

Porto is an excellent base from which to explore northern Portugal and even adjacent parts of north-western Spain. Following our brief visit, we did the obvious thing and went on east up the Douro Valley, about which further reviews will follow. But you could equally head north-east to the mediaeval cities of Braga and Guimarães, north up the coast to the pilgrim destination of Santiago de Compostela, south to the university town and former capital Coimbra, or undertake a grand tour of the whole region.


* How to get there *

In the mercantile tradition of the place, it would be good to go by sea, but I believe Porto is only a brief stopping place on a very few cruises. The train itinerary is complicated and expensive. By road, it’s a long drive. You could take a car ferry from Plymouth to Santander in Spain, but it’s still a longish drive and the ferry isn’t cheap either.

So for most of us, it probably makes most sense to go by air. You can fly direct to Porto’s smart new airport by TAP Portuguese Airways from Gatwick or Heathrow, or by Ryanair from Stansted, Birmingham, Bristol or Liverpool. We went Ryanair from Stansted – £76 each return, including all the taxes and extras they insist on adding to the basic fare. I have plenty of qualms about what all this cheap flying is doing to the environment, but as a blinkered consumer one can’t fault the value.


* Recommendation *

My wife and I really liked Porto. It’s our sort of city – historic and scenic, but a genuine working place, not just a tourist destination. It has its own personality, not the most extrovert personality, yet with nothing false about it either. There’s a lot to see and the three nights/two full days we allowed proved insufficient to see it all properly. We’ll be going back, and I’d recommend it as a place to visit for anyone with similar tastes.

© torr 2009


A review of the upper Douro valley can be found at:
http://travel.ciao.co.uk/Douro_Valley_Northern_Portugal__Review_5839541

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