Dale Bentley takes us on a leisurely tour of one of Portugal’s most personable cities. Quaint yet dynamic, Porto is a secret city not to be missed. Despite being serviced by a few of the low-cost airlines, it has still managed to remain largely undiscovered, perhaps overshadowed by the lures of Lisbon. Over three days we ambled around the city on foot, from one site to the next, only using public transport the once; a weary yet determined old tram that runs up and down a beautiful stretch of the river Douro, just a small sample of its original network through the city.
It is an absolute pleasure to walk the streets of Porto, head held high to admire the colourful, tiled townhouses with their washing strewn from one wrought iron balcony to the next. Many of its haphazard townhouses are in disrepair and pray for a good lick of paint; this only seems to increase their humble charm. When a pick-me-up is in need, a traditional Porto Cafe serving coffee and generous pastries is never far away.
I’d recommend starting from a designer guesthouse in the historic and affluent area of ‘Foz’ and heading towards ‘Serralves Park’ and its outdoor sculptures and relaxing stone benches. En route stop for lunch in a cafe to sample the local staple ‘Franceschina’, what can only be described as a double-decker sandwich crammed full of an entire butchers window, blanketed in a thick layer of cheese, topped with lashings of spicy tomato gravy and accompanied by fries and a cold beer to wash it all down. There’s no denying this gastronomic ‘brick’ is extremely tasty, but the calorie count would put even a Big Mac to shame. Regardless of future health risks, it’s a unique local dish one must experience.
After an easy amble around the park we also paid a lazy visit to the ground’s museum; taking our time to admire not only the quirky local exhibitions but the clinical architecture of the museum itself.
Sundown is not to be missed in Porto, so find a good elevated viewpoint in the city, or bed in with a glass of Sangria at the ‘Deck Bar’ right on the beach front. Make sure you spend a good hour admiring the patience of the local fishermen; not once did we see a rod twitch or bow. Sofia, our generous host, assured us they do catch something from time to time.
On your second day trace the banks of the River Douro from ‘Foz’ to ‘Porto Centro’ – approximately 6km – preferably under a pure wisp-less blue sky. Cyclists, walkers and runners all like a piece of this wonderful promenade so some mild dipping and swerving is required, a small price to pay for the nature of the setting. With traditional Porto townhouses to your left and the river to your right, there is plenty to take in; you’ll see the locals going about their daily business, socialising, hanging out the laundry or even patching up the hull of their prized fishing vessel. You’ll get the impression that you are glimpsing a genuine Portuguese way of life, adapted in no way to meet the suitability of your average tourist.
This pilgrimage is rewarded by a visit to the Church of San Francisco, the first attraction at your feet as the promenade infiltrates the city centre. The entire interior of the church has been gilded in over 400kg of gold and is a breathtaking spectacle for even the most atheist of believers. For a fist of change, you can gain entry to the church and its haunting crypt below, which was a makeshift graveyard in days gone by.
Head a little further north and you soon become lost in a myriad churches, statues, and other glorious ancient structures. Keep your eyes peeled for some prolific tiled murals on the side of what must have extremely prestigious residences; unusually they seem totally at home in the company of the architectural masterpieces surrounding them.
Next, head down to the Ribiera, the only real tourist hotspot in all of Porto – given away by the sunglasses seller brandishing his wares to a captive audience at a riverside restaurant. It is soon obvious why this area draws such a crowd, as the views down the Douro and across to ‘Cais de Gaia’ are unrivaled. Here, you can organize a boat tour on the river, or start inching your way over the Ponte Louis Bridge, the gateway to the Port houses.
Cross the bridge from the upper deck and you’ll be rewarded with a magnificent landscape of the city. Take your time to browse the streets as you make your ascent; Porto is a city of many layers, so look to all directions, and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a local young girl practicing her dance steps.
Once across the bridge, take the ‘Telefonica’ (cable car) down into the heart of Cais de Gaia, a short ride well worth the 4 euros. Then, it’s time to select a Port tour from the multitude of well-established houses. Each house has a unique history, which will be touched upon by a multilingual tour guide. The tours can be a little brief, so fire away with any questions you might have and enjoy the tasting session at your leisure. Retrace your steps when you are ready to return to Porto, but perhaps take the lower deck of the bridge if you have been in the Port house for the duration of your day! If you’re staying in Foz like we did, hop on the old tram at its first stop outside the Church of San Francisco. It’s a real treat to travel in such a historic vehicle after a long day of walking and drinking around the city.
A third day is well spent hunting down particular buildings of interest scattered around the city of Porto. Another architectural attraction is the ‘Clerigos’ tower, which can be seen throughout ‘Porto Centro’. If you should ever stray from your desired path, you’ve only to raise your head and locate the tower to get your bearing once again. Nearby is ‘Cafe Majestic’, ideal for a coffee and cake stop, something which seems to occur rather frequently in Porto.
Another brisk walk to work off the cake will bring you to the ‘Livraria Lello’ bookstore, regarded for its incredible spiral staircase acting as the spine of the building. It has incredible charm, matched only by the price of the books on offer.
Great food, historic sights, attractive promenades, charm and character, a multitude of cafes and of course, plenty of Port – this little city really does have everything you could desire from a short break, without any of the things you don’t. Pick up a few words of Portuguese before you go and the locals will show much gratitude for your efforts. If you embrace Porto; it will embrace you right back; it sent me home with all my senses in ecstasy. Dale Bentley