The history of Porto reaches back to the 1st century BC when, under Roman rule, the city on the banks of the Douro played an important role on the trade route between Lisbon and Braga. Little remains of Portus Cale, as it was then known, other than the origins of the name Portugal. And the foundations upon which the city anchored itself up the steep hills that border the river, creating the mosaic of medieval, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical architecture that captivates today’s visitor.
Behind the colorful waterfront of tall houses and medieval arcades of the Ribeira neighborhood, a maze of winding cobble streets climbs toward a skyline punctuated with the bell towers of dozen of churches. Meanwhile, on the Vila Nova de Gaia (or simply Gaia) side of the river, rows upon rows of sprawling warehouses (or cellars as they are called here) bear the names of the most famous Port Wine brands on the planet.
A Reclining Eiffel Tower
This is the moniker affectionately given by the Portuenses to the soaring bi-level Ponte Dom Luis I that arches over the Douro to link Ribeira to Gaia. Often mistakenly attributed to the famous French engineer, it was build from 1881 to 1886 by one of his disciples, Theophile Seyrig (Eiffel had previously designed the Maria Pia railway bridge a little farther upstream in 1877). More than a way to get across the river, the upper deck of the bridge offers a unique vantage point to soak in the history and vitality of the city, the jumble of terracotta roofs and the medieval Fernandina fortification wall of the Ribeira side, the steady boat traffic on the river and the aerobatics of the seagulls that flock here from the Atlantic shore just a few miles downstream. Meanwhile on the Gaia side, the signs emblazoned on the rooftops reads like the Social Register of Port Wines.
The Call of Port
There are almost fifty Port cellars in Gaia, although not all of them are open to visitors. But all the familiar names, Calem, Croft, Cockburn, Cruz, Ferreira, Taylor, Sandeman, et. al., have tasting rooms, and most of them offer guided visits.
Calem is the first cellar along the Cais de Gaia, the avenue along the waterfront as your get off the bridge. One of the top cellars in town, and one of the largest, it offers scheduled 45-minute tours throughout the day in a variety of languages. They feature a walk through the fermentation cellar and barrel room before ending with a tasting of the three main types of Ports: the ubiquitous Tawny, the darker, more full-bodied Ruby and the sweet golden yellow White. In the late afternoon, there is an English tour that ends with an hour-long performance of (somewhat) traditional Fado music in the tasting room.
My take on the experience? The visit raised my casual drinker’s appreciation of the Vinho do Porto. In a nutshell, the wine is produced exclusively in the demarcated Douro region, some 100 kilometers (65 miles) up-river from the city. It is fortified with an addition of neutral grape spirit that stops its fermentation, leaving residual sugar in the wine and boosting its alcohol content. It is then transported to the cellars in Gaia, stored in barrels and aged before being bottled and brought to market. It acquired its name in the 17th century, from the seaport city of Porto where much of it was exported, mainly to Britain. In recent years a Rosé as been added has been added to the three traditional Port varieties. Fermented like any rosé wine with a limited exposure to the grape skins to obtain its pink color, this trendy tipple is finding its way into everything from cocktails to ice cream.
Another interesting visit is the Ferreira cellar, the only major brand that has remained in Portuguese hands since its foundation in 1751. Here, the focus is on one of the iconic figures of the Douro region, Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira. She took over the family in business in 1844 after being widowed at the young age of 33, and made a major lifelong contribution to the development of the brand and the evolution of the Douro wine industry. The tour includes a visit to the Old Bar, a 19th century tasting room, for some of the best Douro wines.
Porto may have gained its notoriety from wine, but it is religion that shaped its historic center. The skyline bristles with churches illustrating the evolution of architecture from Romanesque to Gothic to Baroque. Yet, from the 12th century cathedral (Se do Porto), which has retained its church-fortress Romanesque façade and towers, to the somewhat understated Gothic exteriors of Santa Clara and Sao Francisco, to the startling adjoining Carmelitas (Gothic) and Carmo (Baroque) churches, all display a similar interior style. Step inside, and prepare to be dazzled by the most extravagant Rococo interiors imaginable. Spurred on by the economic prosperity flowing into Portugal from its new world colonies in the 18th century, especially the discovery of precious stones and gold mines in Brazil, the churches received lavish interior face lifts. The profusion of precious metals and gilded woodcarvings can feel overwhelming but is well worth a visit.
The Azulejo Trail
To me, however, what most symbolize the city are its azulejo murals. Azulejos (pronounced “azuleyo”), the mainly blue and white ceramic tiles that decorate the churches and public building as well as the façade of apartment buildings, have their origins in the Arabic al-zulaich (polished stones). Initially introduced in the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors in the 13th century, they gained popularity in Portugal following the visit to Seville by King Manuel I in 1501.
First used in traditional geometric repetitive patterns on walls and facades, by the 17th century they had evolved into custom-designed figurative murals representing religious, mythological and satirical scenes, covering vast architectural surfaces of sacred or state buildings. The practice became so widespread that it is now difficult to find any relevant historic building that does not have a façade covered in azulejos.
Most notable is the 14th century cloister of the Se Cathedral, which acquired its ceramic frescos depicting the Song of Solomon and the life of the Virgin Marie in 1729, with the two gigantic panels on the upper terrace added even later in the 18th century. Further up the hill, the Igreja do Carmo (Church of the Carmes) at the corner of the Praça de Carlos Alberto Square and Rua do Carmo, has an outstanding azulero-covered exterior added in 1912.
Another spectacular creation of 20th century azulero artwork is the hall of the French Beaux-Arts style São Bento railway station in the center of the city. Created by Jorge Colaço, it consist of 20,000 tiles that illustrate major milestones of Portugal’s past, its royalty, its historic battles and the history of transportation.
Good to Know
- Getting there – The Porto International Airport, with direct flight from most major European cities is located 17 kilometers (17 miles) north of the city, and easily accessible from the center of town via direct metro line. If you prefer door to door service, taxi fare is around €20 -25.
- Getting around – Keeping in mind that the touristic center of Porto is a web of narrow, cobbled and winding streets, the best way to get around is on foot, with comfortable walking shoes a must. If walking is a problem or to go farther afield, Porto offers an extensive public transportation system, mainly metro and buses, operated by the Sociedade de Transportes Colectivos do Porto to reach the top attractions in and around the city. Bus fare can be purchased on-board, metro cards at the station.
- Visiting – The Central Tourist Information Office , 25, Rua Clube dos Fenianos, is open every day from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Tel: +351 223 393472. Porto Calem, 344, Avenida. de Diogo Leite, 4400-111 Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal, is open daily from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. Tel: +351 916 113 451. Ferriera, 70 Avenida Diogo Leite, 4440-452 Porto, Portugal, is open daily from 10:00 am to 12:00 pm and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Tel: +351 22 374 6106.