More Porto than Port

By | Category: Travel destinations
The Lello Bookshop in Porto

The Lello Bookshop. Will I write like J K Rowling now I have been there too?

Porto on the River Douro is the country’s second largest city. Ribeira, the area near the river, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is littered with small cafes and restaurants where, weather permitting, it is possible to eat outside. The city is hilly with the river in a valley. The bridges have roads across them even though they tower over the water.

In the centre of the historic part is the bookshop Lello said to be one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world. JK Rowling used to come here when married to her Portuguese husband. Its ornate interior looks like wood but is actually painted plaster. It is said that the staircase, the central feature of the shop, was the inspiration for the one at Hogwarts. Although I visited out of season, there were long queues. There is an entry charge of €3 which is redeemable against the purchase of a book. Needless to say, there are piles of Harry Potter books as well as others, some in English including some with local Portuguese recipes.

I joined a guided tour of the Palacio da Bolsa built in 1842 on the grounds of a convent. The décor was similar to the bookshop where painted carved plaster was made to look like wood. The most striking aspect of the building was the ornate Arabian room, originally a 300 sq m ballroom.

The Music Auditorium in Porto

the exterior of the Music Auditorium

A must see for anyone interested in architecture or design is their very modern Music Auditorium. Although I didn’t have the opportunity of enjoying a concert, I was able to join a tour of the building, built by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, following a competition. The sound is said to be 100% perfect in every part of the auditorium. The main hall has natural light surrounded by double sheets of wavy glass so that noise is impenetrable. A bonus is the play and rest rooms where parents can leave their children. This has to be booked in advance to make sure there is adequate supervision but is only an additional 5€ on the price of a ticket.

The Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art is worth a visit if only for its gardens which can be visited separately. Within the 18 hectares is a pink art-deco house where visiting exhibitions are held. There are also several ornamental gardens, a lake, sculptures, and a farm with animals.

On the further side of the river are the cellars and port warehouses. Apparently there are sixteen with many of them running tours. At Taylor’s, they have a photographic display showing how the grapes, on tiered levels of stone are grown. This happens in the nearby Douro Valley, which has a Mediterranean climate. They have recently introduced audio tours in several languages so that visitors can go around on their own 12€. Our guide explained the difference between the various ports.

a port tasting at Taylor's

Who could possibly visit Porto and not attend a port-tasting?

There is a tawny one that can be served as an aperitif rather than the heavier, ruby red variety which is a dessert wine. I learnt that a vintage bottle, like a good wine, should be drunk once opened while a non-vintage can be kept for a while. My tour ended with a tasting in their shop and fortunately, as I was checking in a suitcase, I was able to bring back a few bottles. The port houses have restaurants, some with conservatories or outside spaces that have wonderful views of the river.

Being near the sea, Porto has a cruise terminal. Nearby are sandy beaches where I saw people windsurfing. In this part of town, the seaside promenades are as they were in the early nineteenth century.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to join a chartered cruise for a short trip along the river, which gives a different perspective of the city. Motorboats of varying sizes can be chartered with some having cabins to sleep on.

As the River Douro flows out to the Atlantic Sea fresh fish tends to be on the menu with bacalhau, salted cod; and shellfish in abundance. Tripe is another local delicacy, which didn’t appeal but I did became a connoisseur of their pastel de nata, Portuguese custard tarts. The white local wine is Vino Verde, which is dry and like any wine can vary from winemaker to winemaker. I particularly enjoyed one that had a slight fizz to it.

The Castelo de Guimaraes

The Castelo de Guimaraes was originally made of wood

For visiting museums and taking the local transport it is worth investigating the merits of a Porto Card.

There are places near Porto that are worth exploring too. Guimaraes is known as the cradle of the country as it was here that Portugal was established in the twelfth century. Its historic centre, a maze of winding cobbled streets, is an UNESCO World Heritage site.  The castle, originally made of wood, has since been rebuilt using the original stones. Visitors can visit the ramparts.

Braga, a city of fountains, is known as the Rome of Portugal. Its 11th century Cathedral is the country’s oldest cathedral. A must-see in the nearby hills 400m above sea level and facing Braga is the imposing Bom Jesus church. To get to the church visitors can climb 686 steps amid a very impressive ornate Baroque setting designed by architect Nicolau Nazoni. Fortunately there is also a unique funicular, powered by water, and a road so that I was able to drive there.

image of Braga

Braga

Unique to Portugal are their pousadas, ancient buildings such as palaces, convents and monasteries that have been converted into hotels. On the outskirts of Braga I had a typically Portuguese lunch. I must say it was one of the best meals of my visit at the Pousada Mosteiro Guimaraes formerly the monastery of Santa Marina. The cellar has been converted into an atmospheric restaurant. I started with a typical soup of the region, cabbage soup made with pureed potato to which had been added pieces of chorizo sausage. This was followed by a moist rice dish of monkfish, prawns and clams. An added bonus, the pousada is dog friendly. Dogs up to 10 kg are welcome to stay.

Worth noting that some restaurants in Portugal, as long as there is air conditioning, allow people to smoke.

I flew with TAP Portugal, the country’s national airline which has direct flights twice daily to Porto. The non-stop Gatwick Express, taking 30 minutes, is the fastest way to get to Gatwick Airport from London Victoria train station. Stopping at stations along the way Southern Rail also goes to Gatwick.

For more information about Porto and the surrounding area, click here or go to www.visitportoandnorth.travel

To read more of Natasha’s cruise down the river, go to http://wp.me/p2aSAM-k6 or click here.

 

NB You may see Porto written as Oporto. The difference is that the Portuguese call their city Porto. The anglicised version is Oporto and British and Irish have tended, over the centuries, to call it Oporto.

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