Jill Hock­ing is be­guiled by the lively me­dieval city of Porto in north­ern Por­tu­gal

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.san­de­

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.ser­

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.cafeguar­

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

Pic­ture: An­drew Lecky

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