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.”
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.