ONE PERFECT DAY
Jill Hocking is beguiled by the lively medieval city of Porto in northern Portugal
T’S early evening in Porto’s civic square, Praca da Liberdade, and the shoeshine men are shutting up shop for the day. City workers make for home, hurrying past grand cafes, all chandeliers, etched mirrors and fluted columns with swirling capitals. In narrow side streets, trade is brisk in pastry shops and tiny bars. Through the windows of an empty car showroom on the baroque boulevard, Avenida dos Aliados, we see a line of Stetson-topped dancers, lit only by art nouveau streetlamps, boot-scooting in the semi-darkness.
Portugal’s northern city on the mouth of the Douro River beguiles and surprises. It is famous as the home of port wine and the showplace of the painted and patterned tiles that grace facades, religious and secular, across the city.
Porto is also an enchanting mix of crumbling medieval buildings and futuristic architecture, of wide elegant boulevards and vertiginous stepped streets, of urban grime and 21st-century regeneration. The best way to experience Porto is to wander without a plan.
Best medieval streetscapes: Ribeira, the intact medieval precinct on the northern bank of the Douro River, earned Porto a UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1996. One of the best views of Ribeira is from the wrought-iron, two-tiered Luis I Bridge spanning the Douro. Narrow five-storey townhouses painted in mustard, pink and blue terrace the gorge opposite. Ahead, the towers of the cathedral climb above a jumble of roofs.
Close up, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, Ribeira pulses with life. Cafe tables spill on to the quayside. Laundry billows from rusting balconies; old women in checked housecoats lean out of windows and keep tabs on grandchildren flitting around the Praca da Ribeira. Police plod the beat; mountain bikers careen down cobbled streets dodging barking dogs. We pause at a vine-shaded cafe and watch the passing parade.
Best fortified experience: The Port Wine Museum, on the north side of the Douro (Rua do Monchique 45-52), is located in an 18th-century warehouse. The museum tells the history of port wine: how, from the late 17th century, wine grown in the mountains 100km to the east floated down the river on square-sailed
(wooden barges) to be aged in the cool port caves along the Douro’s southern banks at Vila Nova da Gaia.
Nowadays the wine is brought by truck. There are about 50 port lodges in Gaia and names such as Graham, Taylor and Cockburn emblazoned on billboards point to the industry’s British beginnings. Several port lodges offer tours, Calem and Sandeman among them. www.calem.pt; www.sandeman.eu.
Best bookshop: The shop assistants in the Lello Bookshop (built 1906) in Rua das Carmelitas are the epitome of forbearance. The bookshop’s specialty is art and design but many visitors are seduced by the building, not its contents. Each art nouveau detail in the Lello Bookshop delights the eye, from the sinuous bifurcated staircase to the leadlight ceiling, ornate timber panelling and carved shelves. We sample a pastry in the tiny upstairs bar before puffing up the 225 steps of the closeby Clerigos Tower for a glorious panorama of terracotta roofs and church steeples.
Best art gallery: In 1999, the famed Porto-born architect Alvaro Siza built the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in the former vegetable garden of the Serralves Estate, 4km northwest of the city centre.
I can’t decide which is more striking: Siza’s white concrete museum or the original estate in which it stands. I wander the galleries hung with local and international artworks and then explore the estate. There’s a pink art deco mansion, a lake, farmland (including the relocated vegetable garden) and 18ha of woods. Whimsical outdoor sculptures, such as an outsized gardener’s trowel, dot the estate. www.serralves.pt.
Best gilded churches: Porto’s churches are dazzling storehouses of religious iconography. The lavishly decorated Sao Francisco, in Rua do Infante D. Henrique, was a finalist in the Seven Wonders of Portugal competition in 2007. There are rococo wall carvings and dramatic frescoes and sculptures, with sumptuous gold leaf on the altars, pillars and ceiling. We visit the human relics in the catacomb museum; before 1845, people were buried in and around Sao Francisco. The Romanesque Se (cathedral) is more restrained, its stone-vaulted gothic cloisters tiled in splendid 18th-century
Best The bittersweet lyrics of sadness and hope, love and loss come together in the music of At the grand Cafe Guarany on Avenida dos Aliados we discover that is not always melancholy. We sip port at a marble-topped table while the short and dapper singer belts out what sounds like a rollicking sea shanty. www.cafeguarnay.com.
Best tiled train station: Buying a rail ticket has never been such a joy. The atrium of Sao Bento station is a masterpiece of the 20,000 blue and white tiles that clad the walls of the station hall depict the history of transport. We crane our necks and marvel while commuters, inured to such beauty, take no notice.
Best shopping: The pedestrianised Rua Santa Catar-
Ancient and modern: The towers of Porto’s cathedral dominate the city, with its jumble of red-roofed houses and elegant squares and boulevards
Transports of delight: Sao Bento railway station
Bold vision: Rem Koolhaas’s Casa da Musica ina offers big-name stores but my favourite shopping strip is Rua das Flores, a small cobbled street close to Sao Bento railway station. Above the shops, rugs air on Juliet-style balconies and cooking smells waft through kitchen windows. The shopfronts are works of art: the sweeping lines and curlicues of art nouveau giving way to later more streamlined styles.
There’s an eclectic range of small shops in Rua das Flores: bags, gold and silver filigree work, agricultural pumps, stationery, manchester, hardware and exquisitely tailored children’s clothes.
Best food shopping: The porticoed Bolhao Market in Rua Sa da Bandeira ticks all the right boxes for a fresh food market: plump fishwives in aprons spruik their catch, caged rabbits await their fate and bunches of glistening grapes, ripe tomatoes and earthy vegetables