A Peek at Porto

Two days is not nearly enough time…

As mentioned in my prior post, “We’re Portuguese Residents!!,” I shared that our appointments with Portuguese immigration and border control (SEF) had been rescheduled for June 19th at the Braga office, which happened to be the date of our 21st wedding anniversary. Since Braga is only one hour north of Porto, we decided to make this a special trip and stay in Porto for two nights so we could get a peek at the city.

After dropping Sweet Pea off with her groomer who had offered to care for her while we were gone, we arrived in Porto in the afternoon and checked into the Torel Avantgarde, a small boutique hotel with lovely views of the Douro River and walking distance to downtown. The hotel is interesting because each room is devoted to a particular artist. We were in the Marcel Duchamp suite which had two balconies overlooking the river. Each morning we would open the doors and listen to the song birds, seagulls, and a nearby, but not-too-loud, rooster. It all blended together beautifully to become a medley of natural sweet music. I can’t tell you how peacefully serene it was. This was the view from our room in the morning…

…and this was the view in the evening from the other balcony.

Let me start by saying Porto is a charming city with stunning architecture, a chill vibe, and a Bohemian quality. There are quirky, tiny little streets lined with old buildings that had flower boxes spilling over with blooms and wide boulevards lined with gorgeous buildings and ancient churches. I think I spent the first hour with my mouth agape just looking at the buildings, parks, monuments and views. What makes Porto so different than Lisbon – given the fact that they are both situated on rivers – is that the Duoro is a smaller, more intimate river. I could easily swim across. I’d never try that with the Tejo. The scale of the riverfront and the city feel more accessible. Of course both cities are beautiful and our initial exposure to Porto was very positive.

I mean, just look at some of these buildings along Praça da Liberdade (Liberty Park) where it terminates at City Hall. And behind City Hall is the Igreja da Santíssima Trindade (Church of the Holy Trinity).

OK. Time to focus. One of the first places on the list to see was the Livraria Lello (Lello Bookstore). This magical bookstore is typically so packed with people you have to purchase a ticket to get inside, however, we banked on the fact that tourism is pretty much non-existent right now and simply walked up. Our gamble paid off – we were allowed in and let me tell you, it didn’t disappoint!

While the building was originally established in 1881, it wasn’t until 1906 when the Lello brothers, José and António, hired engineer Francisco Xavier Esteves to construct the new bookstore. Esteves employed the use of painted plaster designed to resemble sculpted wood surfaces and decorative elements on the ceiling and interiors. The building still retains the rails and wooden cart once used to move books around the store. And, just to dispel any ideas that this was an inspiration for JK Rowling when she was writing her Harry Potter books, it was not. She has said she’s never been there before.

The first thing you do when you enter is look up at the stained glass ceiling with the Lello Brothers’ monogram and their motto: Decus in Labore (dignity at work).

Here is the gorgeous split staircase in the center of the bookshop.

And images of the interior…

As you might imagine, the bookstore has several rare books. Here are a few you might recognize; a limited edition print (#135 of 150) of The Picture of Dorian Gray signed by Oscar Wilde and a first edition print of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen from 1813.

And, before we leave Lello and move on to other goodies in Porto, here is what it looks like from the outside. Conveniently, there is a beautiful pastelaria right next door so you can read that book you picked up while sipping an espresso and nibbling on a special treat in style.

Just across the street from Lello is an interestingly-designed park called the Praça de Lisboa (Lisbon Park). It is raised up with stores tucked underneath. How cool is that? The park is planted with beautiful specimen olive trees.

From Lello, the park connects you to a famous landmark in Porto – the baroque-style Clerigos Tower. The tower was completed in 1763 when an iron cross was placed on the top and an image of St. Paul was added to the niche above the door. It is more than 75m high (246′) and requires a climb of 225 steps to reach the top, which we learned has unparalleled 360° views of the city. Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling well so we had to pass, but it is on our list to do when we return. The tower is open until 11PM (can you imagine the views at night?!).

As we strolled to the next location, we passed through the Jardim da Cordoaria (Cordage Garden), a lovely city park with shade trees, paved walking paths, a water feature and sculptures.

In the image below is a hidden house. See if you can spot it, then I’ll tell you about it.

Won (in jeans and a white shirt) is standing right in front, looking up at it, which may have given it away. It’s that narrow one meter (3.5′) strip of building between the Classical style Church of the Carmelitas on the left (completed in 1628) and the Rococo style Church of Carmo on the right (completed in 1768). Legend says, it was used to keep the nuns at the convent and the monks at the church separated.

Due to its obscurity, the house was used over the years as a secret meeting space during turbulent times such as the Porto siege of 1832, the French Invasions, and the proclamation of the republic in 1910 and subsequent persecution of religious Orders.

We were told that at one time a Sacristan, his wife (and her sister) along with the couple’s nine children lived in the house. You might think nothing of that, but it is no more than two meters wide inside (a little more than six feet). There is only one room on each floor (a bedroom with a desk, a living room, and a dining room/kitchen) and a staircase that barely accommodates a single person. I asked where nine children would have slept and was told they put mattresses on every flat surface of the house at night. Despite the challenges such a tight space creates, the house was occupied until the 1980s!

We toured the Church of Carmo, including the hidden house and the meager catacombs, for a total of €6. Unless you are a student of religious history, I would say the churches are beautiful to see from the outside, but not worth the time to tour inside. Just to clear up any general curiosity, here are a few pictures.

On the outside of the Church of Carmo is an impressive azulejo (tile panel) depicting the creation of the Carmelite community on Mount Carmel in Israel in the 13th century.

To cap off our first day we walked to the Porto Cathedral (which was closed by that time), past the Episcopal Bishop’s Palace right next door, and over to the upper deck of the Luis I bridge to see the views of the river and Vila Nova da Gaia, the town directly opposite Porto on the riverfront. The Porto cathedral is one of the oldest monuments in the city dating back to 12th century. We didn’t get a chance to circle back to the see the interiors of the cathedral before we left so it’s still on our list of places to see when we return, but here are pictures of the exterior along with the Episcopal Bishop’s palace.

The Luís I bridge is a double-deck metal arch bridge that spans the Douro River. At the time of its construction in 1886, its 172 metres (564′) span was the longest of its type in the world. In 2003 the upper deck was permanently shut down to motor traffic so it could be retrofitted as a part of the metro system, but still enable pedestrian traffic. It has great views up there. We even saw a cool mural on a building on the Porto side of the bridge when we walked back.

As you can see in the image below which I took from the top of the bridge, the Vila Nova da Gaia side of the river is home to the vast majority of port wine producers. Look closely and you will see Taylor’s, Sandeman, Dow, and Calem to name a few. They all offer tours and tastings, which we will do when we return.

After we had successfully completed our SEF appointments and secured our residency permits the following day, we came back to the riverfront to take a walk, celebrate, and soak up some sun. It was perfect weather the entire time we were in Porto- no humidity and the temps never reached above 24C (74F). As we were strolling along, we decided to stop at the base of the Luis I bridge for an espresso and watch the world go by. We ended up at that table you see in the image below, just behind the server in the mask (the couple sitting there left as we arrived). Note the proximity of that seating area to the lower deck of the bridge.

After we had been basking in the sun for a bit, we heard some kids shouting. We turned and looked at the bridge and saw three young male teenagers all perched on the edge of the lower deck preparing to to jump! Apparently, bridge jumping is quite common, very legal and, based on the amount of teasing and goading going on between them, a right of passage. It took a while to get up their nerve, but as soon as the first one jumped the other two followed within seconds. They all came through just fine and floated downstream toward those steps near the boats in the near distance and kept jumping in the water from there with a larger group of kids. Ah…youth.

That night we celebrated our anniversary over dinner at Mistu – an Asian fusion restaurant recommended by the hotel. It was a great suggestion; a very cool place with an interesting and varied menu. After dinner the walk back to the car took us past Jardim do Infante Dom Henrique (Prince Henry Park). The two individual images of buildings below were facing the park. They are the Igreja Monumento de São Francisco (Monument Church of St. Francis) and the Igreja Paroquial de São Nicolau (Parish Church of St. Nicholas). The visual interest of the city is amazing!

The next morning, after we checked out, we drove through the city one more time to soak up as much as we could before heading back to pick up Sweet Pea. We also made one final stop so Won could try a legendary Portuguese sandwich – and a particular specialty of Porto – called the Francesinha (pronounced fran-cess-zeen-ya). We searched out Cafe Santigo, which we were told was the place to get the best (even though the sandwiches are ubiquitous). We managed to find Cafe Santiago, then lose it when we were looking for parking, and finally ended up around the corner from it at Cafe Santiago da Praça. We still have no idea if the two restaurants are affiliated – oh well. We sat outside with all the locals who were all having the same sandwich (I kid you not).

I rarely eat red meat anymore so I passed, but Won was all in. The layered sandwich is made with bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça, fresh sausage like chipolata, steak or roast meat, and covered with melted cheese and a hot, thick spiced tomato and beer sauce. If you want the full experience you request a fried egg on top – which, of course, Won did. Ideally, you have it with a glass of beer, but since Won was driving he had water. It is typically served with french fries (with strips of fried, spicy red sausage on top) and yes, it’s pretty much a heart-attack on a plate. Of course he enjoyed it!

We hopped back into the car and headed south to get Sweet Pea. We were relaxed and happy, and chatted about all the places we had seen and all the places we didn’t get to see. It’s pretty clear this won’t be our last trip to Porto. We both fell in love with the city and want to see more. Plus, we didn’t get out to the Douro Valley, nor did we get to see the port caves in Vila Nova da Gaia. There is so much more to see and do and when we return, I promise to share our experiences with you. Or…better yet, perhaps when you come to visit, we’ll do it together!

Until then, please stay safe, stay healthy, and stay in touch.

From Portugal with love,

Beth

Published by Beth Thomas-Kim

After working in corporate America for companies like Mattel, Nestlé, and Johnson & Johnson, I retired and moved to Portugal in January of 2020 with my husband Won and our 12-year old wire fox terrier, Sweet Pea. We now live in Monte Estoril, a lovely seaside town just outside Lisbon. We spend our days happily exploring this beautiful country and learning about its fascinating history, engaging culture, warm and welcoming people, delicious food and wine, and stunning architecture. This blog was started primarily as a way to keep family and friends updated on our transition from the US to Portugal. Now, my subscribers include people from all over the world. Enjoy!

12 thoughts on “A Peek at Porto

    1. The bookstore was truly amazing. You’ve got to see it for yourself. The bridge jumpers we’re an unexpected surprise! I’m glad I was able to capture their antics. Wish I spoke Portuguese – I’m pretty sure there was a lot of smack talk going on. Lol!

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  1. Beth,
    OMG, that narrow hidden house in Porto! I think that is where JK Rowling got the idea for the narrow, hidden house in The Order of the Phoenix (headquarters), at 12 Grimmauld Place in Islington, London!

    “As the house was invisible to the neighbourhood residents, the local Muggles have long since accepted the mistake in numbering which landed number 13 next to number 11; the house is invisible to all but a few.”

    https://harrypotter.fandom.com/wiki/12_Grimmauld_Place

    You will have to return to Porto to sample some of their famous Port. Make sure you bring some food as port is very rich, a little goes a long way.
    Leslie

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    1. Hi Leslie! Yes, I read that about JK Rowling and the hidden house, but since much had been attributed to her and the bookstore as inspiration for her HP series (which she has dispelled [note what I did there? LOL!], I was reluctant to perpetuate this association since I couldn’t be sure, but it certainly makes sense, doesn’t it?! Won and I have been drinking yummy port for months. It’s one of the happy benefits of living in Portugal – delicious, affordable, accessible port. Mmmm, mmmm, good!! Unfortunately, since we had so little time in Porto this time, we decided to skip the tours and tastings, but plan to take full advantage when we return. I hope you and your family are staying safe and healthy!

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    1. Hi Tim! How lovely to hear from you. I hope you and Sharon are staying safe and healthy given the current situation with COVID-19. I’m delighted you are enjoying my blog posts. Won and I have had a lot of fun exploring and I am having a great time writing. To subscribe, go to the home page of my blog by clicking on this link: http://fromportugalwithlove.blog. Scroll to the bottom of the home page, click on the “Subscribe” button, and follow the prompts. Once completed, you will receive an email notice every time I publish a new story, which I typically do every Friday afternoon. Take good care.

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  2. So much fun to see those places again! i remember the church so well-it was so ornate and lovely to see the views of the port houses too! I can’t wait to return.

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  3. Wow! That was a breathtaking tour! On our next house, I’m going for a delft-like azulejo on at least one side😊 And that bookstore is a sensory delight – all of it is!

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