Los Angeles Times - - TRAVEL - Dean R. Owen

The Douro River isn’t the only thing that f lows in Porto — here you’ll find lots of port wine to sip while ad­mir­ing the ar­chi­tec­ture.

PORTO, Por­tu­gal — Sec­ond cities tend to be like peo­ple with an in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex, car­ry­ing with them a real or per­ceived belief that they can­not com­pare with their older, more in­trigu­ing and so­phis­ti­cated sib­lings: Chicago ver­sus New York. Liver­pool ver­sus Lon­don.

In Por­tu­gal it is the op­po­site. Porto, the na­tion’s sec­ond-largest city, has all the history, charm and so­phis­ti­ca­tion of Lis­bon with­out the crowds, con­ges­tion and price-goug­ing taxi driv­ers.

Busi­ness brought me to Lis­bon in Fe­bru­ary, but af­ter de­cid­ing to take a few va­ca­tion days, my in­ter­ests in history, ar­chi­tec­ture and re­li­gion led me to Porto, about a three-hour drive north. In 2014 a re­gional travel or­ga­ni­za­tion named Porto one of the best Euro­pean des­ti­na­tions.

“It is a town with lots of up­hill and down­hill, each cor­ner pro­vides, con­stantly, sur­prise ef­fects,” said Paulo Amaral, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist who co­or­di­nates ac­tiv­i­ties for visi­tors to some of Porto’s lo­cal mon­u­ments.

You won’t find many of what Amaral called “sur­prise ef­fects” in travel guides, although they add sig­nif­i­cantly to the char­ac­ter of this city of 1.4 mil­lion, first in­hab­ited by Ro­mans in the 4th cen­tury. Dur­ing my four days here, I ob­served sev­eral “sur­prise ef­fects,” the mem­o­ries of which will linger for years.

I met Amaral on a driz­zly Sun­day af­ter­noon at Mosteiro da Serra do Pi­lar, a 16th cen­tury monastery on a cliff over­look­ing the city, the Douro River and its con­flu- ence with the At­lantic Ocean a few miles west.

I en­coun­tered one of those sur­prises on Amaral’s tour of the monastery, where the ar­chi­tec­ture is a mix­ture of African, South Amer­i­can and Ibe­rian in­flu­ences. It was a statue of a saint with a gap­ing hole where one arm had been sev­ered by van­dals. They were among Napoleon Bon­a­parte’s troops who oc­cu­pied the monastery be­tween 1809 and 1811.

For Napoleon, Amaral said, “Re­li­gion was an en­emy to elim­i­nate.” Napoleon be­lieved that if im­ages of the church were de­filed, its in­flu­ence over peo­ple would de­crease. That statue, more than the beau­ti­fully pre­served al­tars with icons of Christ and the Vir­gin Mary, pro­vides visi­tors a sense of history as well as the strug­gle be­tween the church and state for peo­ple’s hearts and minds.

With its strate­gic lo­ca­tion, the monastery af­forded Napoleon’s troops a place of con­trol over Porto and the Douro River, and who­ever con­trolled those con­trolled the north of Por­tu­gal.

I left the monastery and walked back across the Dom Luís I Bridge, de­signed in the 1880s by a pro­tégé of Gus­tave Eif­fel. The city’s Ribeira dis­trict, a UNESCO World Her­itage site, was beck­on­ing, and Amaral inspired me to fur­ther ex­plore this ur­ban cen­ter, pre­served from the Mid­dle Ages.

“You can feel there the most au­then­tic am­bi­ence of Porto,” Amaral said. “It is the part of town where you can feel an in­ti­mate sen­sa­tion of old town in the au­then­tic­ity in the be­hav­ior of the in­hab­i­tants, the nar­row al­leys, the lit­tle squares and the small restau­rants, where you can taste tra­di­tional lo­cal cui­sine.”

Dean R. Owen

PORTO might be Por­tu­gal’s sec­ond-largest city, but it’s big on charm and packed with history. Cléri­gos Church is an out­size pres­ence in this ar­chi­tec­ture-rich city.

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