Most people visit Europe for the architecture, some natural beauty, the museums or fashion. Porto has a bit of everything, but most importantly a unique culture that is its biggest attraction. It of course is the only place in the world than can legally call its wine Port. It boasts of a city center that is a UNESCO world heritage site with the world’s largest wrought iron arch bridge, a beautiful river, a monastery, and lovely wine cellars. There are 5 other bridges, but they somehow don’t attract as much attention. It also hosts one of the least known midsummer night festivals that might be the most fun of them all. There are a few more things that would stand out like its churches and train stations decorated by thousands of unique ceramic tiles and a church tower than actually stands out over its skyline of red-tiled roofs. There is also the small matter of the iconic book store whose staircase inspired the design of the library in Hogwarts. Did you know that JK Rowling taught English in Porto, in the 90s?
The arrival in Porto was smooth, though immigration in Portugal is much slower than anywhere else in the EU. The hotel, as usual (for me), was in the dead center of the city, walking distance from many of the churches and the famous McDonalds on the main city square which was also the center of a lot of festivities for the San Juan festival. I shall dedicate a full blog to that one, so not many details here.
We got to the hotel early afternoon on a Saturday and after a little rest set out to explore the vicinity. A 5 minute walk brought us to the Porto Cathedral, a majestic structure on top of a small hill that was completed in the early 18th century. The groundbreaking happened in the 12th century and then I would guess there were budget cuts and red tape. The interior of the church has significant Baroque influences driven by the change made in late 18th century – it is grand nevertheless. There are a number of historic stories depicted using hundreds of unique ceramic tiles in blue and white colors. The hill on which the cathedral is built offers some amazing views of the city, especially at sunset. There are also so partially blocked views of the river on the other side. Some very steep back lanes and stairs lead down to the river.
The side of the river we ended up at was also the foot of the Don Luis bridge – an iconic landmark of Porto. The two-tier arch bridge has a lower level just over the river for cars and another level at the top of the arc for pedestrians and trams. The river banks are crowded by restaurants with outdoor seating along a nice boardwalk. The Douro river was crowded with parked boats, tourist river cruises, and some daring folk on Jet skis doing some pretty impressive stunts. I am not sure if it was a daily affair, a Saturday affair, or just because it was the eve of the San Juan festival. Dinner consisted of an average Hot Dog, some good chicken wings, and an awesome glass of Port. A lesson of the day – distance from tourist attractions is directly proportional to the quality of food.
The walk back up the slope was significantly helped by a National Heritage monument – the funicular. It starts from right next to the bridge and goes all the way up to the level of the hotels. So it left us only a short walk to go. It was a short ride but had good views and saved us a lot of huffing and puffing. On the way back we bought a plastic hammer to prepare us for the festivities the next day and the hotel was nice enough to give us a few more so each one had one – more on that in the other post!
Sunday started rainy and gloomy but the rain eased off a bit by breakfast and we walked around to another church on the Batalha Square – another short walk from the hotel. It was cloudy and the Church of St Ildefonso stood out with its blue and white ceramic tiled facade. This ceramic decor adorned several other churches, a railway station, and many other structures. This is the signature decor of the city – very beautiful to look at but hard to execute and unique in its construction.
It was still threatening to rain and we decided to take a Hop-on Hop-off tour towards the beach. It included some interesting sights, like the Music House, the city Aquarium and of course the beach. Some of the sights and views on the way were amazing, especially while coming back river side and watching a few of the six bridges. We got off the bus close to the city centre and a quick lunch later, decided to take a nap before one of the craziest festival started…
The next morning was leisurely and the rest helped get us ready for the walking that was coming up. We got back to the river but this time the focus was on the side that housed a number of Wine cellars with tasting and tours. There was also a ropeway that we never got to try. At some point, I had wanted to take a few tours and several tastes. I helpful blog told me that most tours are very similar and Port has a lot of sugar and 20% alcohol, so a lot of it can make the rest of the day a little problematic. We started with the Calem cellar and it looked quite imposing and old. At 10:45 am were asked to be back at 11:20 when the English tour started. After a 15 minutes stroll in a mood lighted museum, we were led into the cellars. To my slight disappointment, it wasn’t really a basement, just a room at the back. There were large vats, small barrels, some cool displays, and a really funny guide. It was a fun tour with a lot of information, some great stories, and finally a door that led to the tasting room. We got to taste 2 ports and the portions weren’t truly tasting portions, more like small drinking portions. That is the exact buzz you need before being led into the shop…
The bank of the river just outside the cellar offered some amazing views of the city on the bank across and some boats parked in the river to signify ones that used to carry wine down from the Douro valley. There were also some street vendors selling some pretty good souvenirs and works of ceramics and cork. We walked across the bridge and then caught a boat for a tour of the six bridges. It offered some pretty stunning views of the city and some mixed-language commentary which was hard to understand. We took a bus ride back to the hotel that ended up taking a long route back, which was good with me as I got to see more of the city and cross another bridge.
Once at the hotel, I set back out to climb the Clerigos tower. The church was not very far from the hotel, though it was an uphill climb. After buying the ticket, the climb up the tower was even steeper, but it was completely worth the majestic views of the city. By the time I got back, It was time to step out for dinner. We first peeped into the Majestic cafe which came across as an overpriced tourist trap. After visiting a few more places and not getting a consensus to settle down, we ended up at a street-side place near the city hall that served some amazing francesinha. It’s made with bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça, sausage, steak, and covered with melted cheese and thick spiced tomato and beer sauce.
Tuesday morning was the train to Lisbon and sadly it did not leave from the stunningly beautiful station 200 meters from our hotel. The main station (Campanha) was about 2 km away and while the locals claimed it was very large, by Indian standards it was not really that big. The platform was crowded and we had to ask around to know where our coach would park as the train stopped only for a few mins. The first-class compartment was super comfortable and had a well-equipped pantry cart just next. A beer and a good stretching of the legs was all that I needed on the 3-hour ride to Lisbon.