Porto, Portugal

We ended up in Porto purely because the Ryanair flight non-stop from Carcassonne landed there. (We were heading to Mike’s niece’s wedding outside of Lisbon.) We knew nothing about this large city (number 2 in Portugal) except that port wine comes from here. What a delightful surprise! Everyone we met was warm, charming, and interesting. The old central part of town is extremely picturesque, with winding hilly streets, views over the river, churches and palaces. And the weather was spectacular: sunny and warm. (We, as usual, forgot our sunscreen, and needed to buy yet another outlandishly expensive tube to add to our collection.)

Wonderful vertical buildings, full of windows and metal railings, define the streets of the historic center. No single building is in itself that spectacular, but together, the atmosphere is delightful.

Lovely parks and public spaces, sometimes with a sense of humor.

This part of the city tumbles down the hills to the Douro river.

There are plenty of monuments, especially churches. The use of the blue and white tile on the building facades adds interest and depth. I think that modern buildings would greatly benefit from the lessons of these 18th century and older buildings.

Porto’s buildings reveal periods in its past with bursts of economic activity, and the stagnant periods in between. Among the older residential and commercial buildings, there are frequently mid-twentieth century buildings, not always that attractive. But the signs from the 50s and 60s are still there, fresh and evocative once again. The shadowy side of this preservation is the decades of economic and political hardship between then and now. Currently, there are construction cranes everywhere; we’re not sure why.

The main hall of the 19th-century São Bento railway station is the passage between the busy city outside and the hectic rail platforms within. However, the space is so grand and celebratory that you must halt in your tracks. Blue and white tile panels cover almost all the walls. There are approximately 20,000 azulejo tiles (which are painted tin-glazed ceramic tiles), dating from 1905-1916. Jorge Colaço, who was an important painter of azulejo at the time, composed grand tableaux of 12th – 15th century events, such as battles, meetings of kings, and noble weddings. At the same time, there are dioramas of rural settings and common people. While all the history can engage, I was most struck by being surrounded by these amazing scenes which make the walls dissolve around you. The space is luminous and elegant.

The guidebooks as well as the people at reception in our hotel say that you must visit Café Majestic — so we did. From the 1920s, the design of the café is somewhere between Art Nouveau and baroque memory. In its early days, this café was the place for the elite and chic, and the artists and intelligentsia, of Porto to gather and to be seen. More recently, reportedly, J. K. Rowling spent quite a lot of time in the café, writing the first Harry Potter book. Today, it seems that it is tourists like us who stop by for a coffee and the café’s own take on French toast, mostly to imbibe the ambiance.

We made a point of doing some port wine tasting. But that is the subject of another blog entry…

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