Picture Perfect Porto (Part 1)

We were so enthralled with Porto in June, we had to go back…

The year 2020 has certainly been eventful – OK, that’s an understatement, but even if you rule out COVID-19, it’s been a pretty eventful year for us given our move from the US to Portugal.

This was also a milestone birthday year for Won. Unfortunately, his birthday is May 14 and Portugal was in a complete lock down at that time. This meant we couldn’t do anything special to celebrate (and I know a lot of you experienced the same disappointment). I wanted to make it up to him, so we decided to splurge on a special trip called the Presidential Train that runs through the Douro Valley. The historic train departs from and returns to the São Bento Station in Porto so we planned a trip that included extra days in Porto to explore more of the city while there.

Everything was all set and we were super excited. Then, three weeks before our departure date, we received word that the entire Fall 2020 Presidential Train season had been canceled due to concerns about COVID-19 (the train only runs for a limited time in the Spring and Fall each year). Arrgghh!!! Thwarted by that blasted virus again! (We have since rebooked for September of 2021.)

We grumbled and groused for a few days and then Won suggested we go to Porto anyway. We loved it when we were there in June. Good point, I agreed. Let’s go!

By this time we had already canceled our hotel reservation at the Pestana Palácio do Freixo. We discussed rebooking it. As members of the Pestana Hotel Group, we receive a 10% discount on the room rate at all their properties. We looked at the Palácio do Freixo again. It is a stunning property (pictures below)! We agreed this would be a great place to stay if we were looking to decompress and relax, but unfortunately it isn’t within walking distance to downtown Porto and that’s what we were going to focus on this time. Too bad. Sigh…what a place to stay, right?

Since the Pestana Group has several properties in Porto, we also looked at the Pestana A Brasaleira, which is right downtown. It’s a fantastic hotel in a great location, but they were closed. Bummer. This hotel is absolutely staying on the list for a future trip, though.

We also considered the Pestana Vintage Porto located on the historic Ribeira waterfront of the Douro River facing Vila Nova da Gaia. Another fantastic location, but the problem is they don’t provide on-site parking making it too inconvenient since we would be driving up from Monte Estoril. We briefly considered taking the high speed train from Lisbon to Porto – which would be loads of fun – but, there were logistical issues that we couldn’t resolve making it a no-go this time.

We made the decision to contact the Torel Avantgarde where we had stayed in June and ask them what they could do for us as a returning guest. They offered a 5% discount and a free upgrade to a junior suite (breakfast included). We enjoyed our previous stay and knew how convenient it was to walk to the historic center of town, so we booked it. The Torel Avantgarde is a smaller hotel and more contemporary in design compared to the others we were considering, but the views are stunning!

Each one of the 47 rooms and suites in the hotel is dedicated to an avantgarde artist and designed individually. We stayed in the Pablo Picasso suite this time (we were in the Marcel Duchamp room before). It was beautifully done and had a charming little deck with stunning views up and down the Douro River.

This is what we love about the Torel Avantgarde: everyone who works there is genuinely nice. They are patient and encouraging when we speak Portuguese and are happy to respond to any need we have. It’s a quick and easy walk to the historic downtown. The hotel is nicely designed and our room was spacious (even the room we stayed in before had plenty of space and it wasn’t a suite). The bed was amazing – we both slept really well and the black out curtains were much appreciated since I tend to be light-sensitive. There were a variety of pillow types in the room so if you prefer foam over feathers, you’re in good shape. The views, as mentioned before, were gorgeous and we loved sitting on our little deck gazing at the river morning and night. The shower was spacious and had good water pressure. Robes and slippers were provided as was filtered water at no additional cost.

The only thing that I didn’t like was the lighting in the bathroom. There wasn’t enough. While they did provide a makeup mirror, it wasn’t lighted. That was a real problem for me. I ended up looking like a living Pablo Picasso painting after putting on my makeup. Yikes!

We arrived in Porto with enough time to unpack, get settled, and drink a complimentary glass of wine while enjoying the stunning view of the river. Then, it was off to the city of Matosinhos for dinner at Palato. On our way there, we stopped to watch the sun set. While it was setting on the horizon, I was curious as to where in the world it was rising. Turns out, it was New Zealand! G’day, New Zealand!

We also passed an enormous sculpture located in the rotunda da anémona (anemome roundabout). It was designed by American artist Janet Echelman for the cities of Porto and Matosinhos. The installation consists of three steel poles, cables, a 20-ton steel ring, with a giant net of 42 meters (151 ft) in diameter. It swings in the wind, mimicking the movements of anemones, hence its name. I took a picture from inside the car and then grabbed a better one from the Internet. It feels like there is always something interesting to see no matter where we go.

Dinner at Palato was so good. I don’t know why something as simple as grilled fish (sole in this case), roasted potatoes, and a salad is so tasty!! Even the olives and bread they provided were fabulous. Everything was done to perfection. We would definitely go back.

The next morning we walked into the historic center of the city and popped into see the 250-year old Baroque-style Clerigos church. Surprisingly, the nave is oval in shape making for an especially beautiful interior space. The church is attached to the Clerigos Bell Tower which was completed in 1763. There is no fee to see the church, but you need to buy a ticket to see the Tower. It was our intention to climb the 225 steps to the top because we didn’t do it when we were there in June (it has 360 degree views of the city) but, I told Won we should wait until the clouds burned off later in the day and then go up to see the view. Guess what? We never got back to it. Darn. Next time, for sure!

From there we walked to the São Bento Railway Station (Saint Benedict) which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Monument of Portugal.

The station is located on the site of the former Benedictine Convent of São Bento da Avé Maria, which King Manuel I of Portugal ordered to be built in 1518 (and which burned to the ground in the 18th century). In the late 1880s a decision was made to build a central railway station in Porto and place it on the site of the former convent. By 1893 a tunnel was completed and the first train arrived in 1896 before the current building was constructed. Here is a copy of a photo showing that event. You can see the Clerigos Bell Tower and church in the background.

Construction started on the railway building in 1904. The large murals on the walls, comprising approximately 20,000 azulejo tiles, were designed and painted by Jorge Colaço. When the tiles were completed in 1916 the station was inaugurated. The murals represent moments in the country’s history and the multicolored panels near the ceiling depict rural scenes showing the people of various regions.

To give you a sense of what it’s like in this impressive space click on the video below.

It was time for coffee and a treat so we headed off to find the Majestic Café. On our way there, we passed many interesting stores, cafes, and shops. Of course, I wanted to stop at all of them, but we were walking and didn’t want to carry packages around with us. We did, however, circle back to one of them at the end of the day; more on that later. Here are images of a few of the places we passed along the way.

The Majestic Café is one of the most beautiful and meaningful examples of Art Nouveau in Porto. It has an ornate interior featuring carved wood chairs, etched mirrors, marble-topped tables, embossed leather seats, and sparkling chandeliers. In a way, it reminded me of having high tea at the Compass Rose in San Francisco with my Mom and sisters years ago.

The café has a fascinating history as would be expected. Everyone from the elite in its early days to influential figures, actors, famous pilots, even students and artists over the years have found the Majestic Café a great place to meet and exchange arguments over a cup of coffee or a notorious cup of absinthe.

As it states on the Majestic Café website, “Today, the winding contour of mirror frames, the lamplight, the marble details, and the smiling busts covering the walls up to the ceiling, give the café a golden and comfortable atmosphere that fosters relaxation and easy chatting. The Majestic breathes luxury, refinement and comfort.” I couldn’t agree more! We ordered apple tarts and cappuccinos. Even the back garden/patio was lovely. We’ll have to go back next summer to experience and enjoy that space.

What a treat that was! Refueled and ready to go, we headed off to see the Porto Cathedral. We were not able to go inside the church when we were there in June so this was high on the list of places to go this time. The entrance fee was €3,00 each.

The Sé do Porto (Porto Cathedral) is one of the oldest monuments in the city, dating back to the 12th century. It is also one of the most important buildings in the city reflecting Romanesque architecture. Construction of the church was started sometime in the second half of the 12th century and work took place on the building until the 16th century (there were interventions during the Baroque period and in the 20th century too).

The elegant cloister was built between the 14th and the 15th centuries during the reign of King John I, who married English Princess Philippa of Lancaster in Porto Cathedral in 1387.

I found an interesting fact while researching the Cathedral; during the War of the Oranges, while the battle at Amarante was taking place, a group of Spanish soldiers briefly took control of the Cathedral before being overcome by the locals of the town. A marble plaque with a Magnetite backing now hangs behind the altar in honor of those who lost their lives regaining control of the chapel. The magnetite backing was chosen as a reminder for anyone travelling near the cathedral because it interferes with the direction their compass points.

Mass is celebrated every day at 11AM.

The sacristy was mind-blowing. For those who are not familiar with catholic customs, the sacristy is the room where a priest (or priests) prepare themselves to celebrate the eucharist. This one, with its painted barrel vaulted ceiling, marble sinks and tables, is really impressive!! Note: this is a large room so photos are of both sides of the room.

The church was equally as spectacular.

We were able to go up on to the top of the church too.

On our way back to the hotel, we made a point to return to the Palácio das Artes building and one of the shops we had passed earlier in the day called Loja das Tábuas. They specialize in natural household goods (their tag line is “an expression of nature”). We purchased new olive-wood handled kitchen knives and a magnetized holder (that has already been put on the wall of our kitchen), a thick cutting board, and a specialized cutting board with removable slats to catch bread crumbs. All the items were made in Portugal. I loved the space, especially the ceiling, which was clearly restored and left in place. Our new cutting board was beautifully wrapped inside a genuine coffee burlap sack to keep it protected during our trip home. We also received a 10% discount code to use on a future purchase online – which we will definitely be using.

After hauling our goodies back to the hotel, it was time to get ready for dinner (and try not to look like a Picasso painting in the process – I’m not that avantgarde). Won had made reservations at O Commercial. Its name comes from the building where it is located – one of the most visited monuments in the north of Portugal – the Palácio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace).

A beautifully spacious and intimate space with large windows facing the river Douro. You can see across the river to Gaia and the ancestral wine cellars of Oporto. 

Part 2 (next week’s blog) includes a port tasting in Vila Nova da Gaia, exploration of a magical park that provided surprises around every corner, pictures of charming squares and narrow streets, and dinner at Elemento, a Micheline Star restaurant.

And just to whet your visual appetite for next week’s post, here’s a sneak peek at one of the areas I’ll be covering. It’s really picture perfect!

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!

14 thoughts on “Picture Perfect Porto (Part 1)

  1. … big sigh. Enchanting.
    Hey. I’m gonna need you and Won to go up to Nazare this winter and see the big waves for me. I hope to see it myself someday, but since you’re there…

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    1. Glad you found this one relaxing. Nazare is already on the list. The waves typically are biggest in November so that blog could be done is a less than a month! We’re super excited about seeing them too and really wish you and Adam could join us. Perhaps next year for Adam’s birthday? That would be so much fun. Until then, I promise to take loads of pictures and tell you all about it.

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  2. Beth, Your blog is a bit of tease with all the beautiful hotels & train you did NOT stay at/use. But you eventually stayed at that amazing Torel Avantgarde; what is that portmanteau with the leather(?) tags? Yes, I too appreciate/need black out blinds to sleep in total darkness.
    I guess I’ll just have to imagine sitting in that lovely Majestic Cafe, sipping a latte on a fresh breezy afternoon watching the world go by.

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    1. Ha! Ha! I honestly wasn’t trying to tease about the hotels. We really did look at each and seriously consider them all. I thought I would include them so that if anyone is planning to visit Porto (when this BLASTED virus is under control), they’ll have a good starting point. Won just said to me tonight that the next time we go back, we’re going to stay at the Brasaleira. The portmanteau in the lobby of the Avantgarde holds the actual room keys! Yes, those are the room keys with the leather tags. Not small, but pretty cool nonetheless. And…you will absolutely love the Majestic Cafe. It’s like stepping back in time.

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    1. You nailed it, Taffy. It is so wonderfully romantic! (And, wait until you see next week’s post.) The azulejo tiles are really beautiful. Some are only blue and white, others are colorful, but all are creative and delightful to see.

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