A Corsican Road Trip – Piana to Bonifacio

A Corsican Road Trip – Piana to Bonifacio

This is Day Two of our Corsican road trip, and mid-morning by the time we leave the tiny seaside resort of Porto with its monumental Genoese watchtower. At its back, the jagged peaks of the Monte Cinco Mountains are just starting to emerge from the autumn mist.

The Calanches of Piana

Corsica-Calanches Piana.

The porphyry pinnacles of the Calanches of Piana.

The road immediately begins to snake up through a dazzling landscape of wind-carved porphyry cliffs dropping vertically into the dark aquamarine sea. Across a ravine, we catch a glimpse at the sleepy village of Piana, its faded pastel houses clinging halfway up the mountainside to better dominate the gulf in the distance. We are heading south on the coastal road through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Calanches of Piana. The cliffs, eroded into precipitous pinnacles, tower some 300 meters (one thousand feet) above the sea. With each turn, the light changes and the rock formations go from honey to russet to red. This cliff-edge road is not for the faint of heart and I am once again grateful I am not driving! This barely 12 kilometer (7.5 miles) long stretch takes us a solid hour.

South to Sartène

Corsica-Sartène.

The mountaintop village of Sartène is a medieval labyrinth of granite alleyways.

We continue south between the mountain and the sea. The road becomes a bit tamer. The signs that have been warning of possible rock falls are replaced by reminders to beware of sheep crossings as we approach small farming villages. We give a passing look at the enigmatic village of Sartène with its tall houses of gray granite blending chameleon-like into the mountain scenery upon which they are anchored. Its labyrinth of ever-narrower passageways and stairs lend credibility to its long history rife with banditry and vendetta. After a roadside picnic lunch overlooking in the distance the 19th century port of Propriano, we loop toward the southeastern shore of the island and the glitzy resort town of Porto Vecchio.

Porto Vecchio

Corsica-Porto Vecchio Belvedere.

Our waterfront hotel, Le Belvédère, faces the old city of Porto Vecchio and the mountains across the gulf.

Like all self-respecting Corsican seashore cities, Porto Vecchio boasts a quaint old town of narrow cobbled streets, strategically perched on a knoll and encircled by imposing Genoese fortifications. For centuries, the city was surrounded by salt marches infested with malaria-bearing mosquitoes that prevented the development of the shore until well into the 20th century. In recent decades, with the marshes finally drained, Porto Vecchio has developed into a stylish seaside resort with a deep natural marina, trendy boutique hotels and lively harbor restaurants. To the south, the area is also blessed with some of the most famous white sand beaches on the island, most notably Palombaggia, lined with ancient umbrella pines, and the mile-long Santa Guilia. Both are big draws with summer tourists

For us, however, what makes Porto Vecchio an especially attractive  two-night stopover is its easy access to the legendary cliff-top city of Bonifacio.

A Medieval Marvel

Corsica-Bonifacio Madonetta

The Madonetta (little Madonna) lighthouse guards the entrance of the fjord-like Bonifacio harbor.

It’s a mere 27 kilometers (17 mile) from Porto Vecchio to Bonifacio, on the straightest, flattest road we have encountered so far anywhere since driving off the ferry in the northeastern port of Bastia. Within forty-five minutes, our car easily parked in the harborside lot, half-empty on this brilliant autumn morning, we board a departing boat for a tour of the coastline.

Corsica-Bonifacio.

The cliff-top city of Bonifacio is best viewed from the sea.

The oldest fortress city in Corsica, Bonifacio was founded in 828 A.D. by, and subsequently named after, Count Bonifacio II of Tuscany. Upon his return from a naval expedition against the Saracens in North Africa, he resolved to build an unassailable outpost at the farthest marine reaches of his domains. The resulting medieval city is a stretch of tightly packed, narrow houses teetering at the edge of a 70-meter (230 foot) high limestone cliffs riddled with sea caves. Rising straight from the turquoise sea, it offers one of the most dramatic seascape I’ve seen anywhere in the Mediterranean.

The cliffs are riddled with sea caves.

Back on firm ground, we take the arduous steps of the Montée Rastello (Rastello Climb) to the Genoa Gate. Until 1854, it was the only access into the citadel and its warren of narrow Romanesque alleys where little has changed in a millennium. Our random wanderings eventually end up on the ramparts. From there, the view of the cliffs extends all the way to Cap Pertusato, five kilometers (three miles)  to the southeast and the southernmost point of metropolitan France. A bit further south, across the 12 kilometer (7.5-mile) shimmering expanse of the Bonifacio Straight, the outline of the Italian Island of Sardinia undulates on the horizon.

Corsica-Cap Pertusato.

From the ramparts, the view extends to Cap Pertusato, the southernmost point of metropolitan France

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Corsica is an island located some 200 kilometers(120 miles) off the French Riviera. By air: It is served by regular flights year-round from several French mainland airports to Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi and Figari (north of Bonifacio). From May to September, seasonal low-cost airlines also offer frequent flights to and from other European destinations. By sea: there are three major ferry lines serving the island’s six ferry ports (Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi, Île Rousse, Porto-Vecchio and Propriano, that can be reached from Marseille, Toulon and Nice. There are daily overnight and daytime crossings year round and more during the summer season. We sailed with Corsica Ferries between Toulon to Bastia. However, if Bonifacio is your main destination, its easiest access is via the Italian island of Sardinia. Frequent ferries by Moby Lines and Blu Navy link the town with Santa Teresa Gallura, right across the Straight of Bonifacio.
  • Getting Around – There are limited train and bus connections between the main destinations around Corsica. However the majority of visitors travel by car to make the most of the stupendous scenery.
  • Staying – To explore the southern part of the island, we made our base in the Porto Vecchio, where a broad range of accommodation options can satisfy all preferences and budgets. We chose the four-star boutique Hotel Le Belvédère , Route de Palombaggia, 20137 Porto Vecchio, for its idyllic waterfront setting immediately across the gulf from the old town. Scattered within a well groomed park, under a canopy of mature umbrella pines and eucalyptus trees, the property consists of 19 bungalow-style rooms and suites with private terraces and garden views. The public areas included a gourmet restaurant, grill and bar. All open onto sprawling seaside terraces. Contact: e-mail info@hbcorsica.com, tel. +33 (0)4 95 70 54 13.
  • Visiting Bonifacio – There are several companies running boat excursions out of the harbor. All have ticket booths lined along the quay at the head of the harbor, and offer more or less the same routes at comparable prices. We took the “one hour trip” (actual sailing time about 45 minutes) with the  Société des Promenades de Bonifacio (SDPB).Their comprehensive itinerary took us along the cliffs below the old town, the sea caves and inside the one of the bigger ones, to a couple of secluded inlets.

Location, location, location!

Bonifacio

Piana, Corsica

Homage to a Couture Icon – The Yves Saint Laurent Paris Museum

Homage to a Couture Icon – The Yves Saint Laurent Paris Museum

It all begins with paper dolls, for which the adolescent Yves Saint Laurent creates entire couture collections to the delight of his two younger sisters. This early passion for fashion design leads him straight to Paris, where he enrolls at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (school of the official trade association of French high fashion). His designs quickly gain the notice of Michel de Brunhoff, the then editor of French Vogue, who introduces him to Christina Dior. Monsieur Dior hires the barely the 19-year-old on the spot.

Paris YSL-sketches

The process of creation begins with sketching and swatches

For the next two years the young prodigy works at the side the master. He learns every aspects of creating a collection of some 200 designs, from original sketches to final fittings. He earns his mentors’ trust to the point that when Christian Dior suddenly dies of a heart attack in October 1957, it is revealed that he has named the young man as his successor. Yves Saint Laurent, age 21, is now artistic director of the most prestigious couture house in France. His first collection, unveiled four month later, is an immediate success. Side-stepping the cinched waists and voluminous skirts of the past decade, he introduces his Trapeze line of fluid dresses that flare from fitted shoulders. Its easy elegance appeals to active women everywhere. In retrospect, It changes the course of fashion.

His tenure at the House of Dior is cut short when he is replaced upon being drafted for mandatory military service in 1960.

Saint Laurent Paris

Paris YSL-1962 collection

The Saint Laurent Couture 1962 inaugural collection.

Fast-forward two years, and Yves Saint Laurent decides to create his own couture house with his partner Pierre Bergé. Saint Laurent Paris opens its doors at 30 bis, rue Spontini, in the tony 16th Arrondissement. His first collection in January 1962 is an unmitigated success. For the next twelve years he will continue to create here, inventing the modern woman’s wardrobe. The pea coat and trench coat of his first collection are followed by the first women’s tuxedo in 1966, then the safari jacket and the first women’s pants suit in 1968.

Paris YSL-iconic pieces.

A display assembles the emblematic early pieces.

These female adaptations of mainstays of the male attire are enthusiastically adopted, not only by the wealthy clients of the couture brand, but by all women. Now they can express their confidence and boldness while maintaining their femininity. For them, he opens his Saint Laurent Rive Gauche boutique in 1966. This first ready-to-wear store to bear a couturier‘s name paves the way for ready-to-wear fashion as we now know it.

5 Avenue Marceau

Paris YSL-jeweled jacket 1990.

Jeweled jacket from the Spring-Summer 1990 collection

In 1974, the Yves Saint Laurent couture house moves to a mid-19th century mansion at 5, avenue Marceau, a stone throw away from the Pont de l’Alma. For the next three decades, it remains a symbol of fashion excellence. In his fourth floor studio he creates designs that are then brought to life by the nearly two hundred tailors and seamstresses of the in-house workrooms.

 

 

Jewelry is displayed in the Cabinet de Curiosités gallery.

After Saint Laurent announces his intention to end his career in 2002, the building undergoes extensive renovations before re-opening its doors two years later as the Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent Foundation for the preservation of the couturier’s body of work. After functioning for a decade as exhibit space dedicated to fashion and then further extensive renovations, the mansion re-opens in October 2017 as the Musée Yves Saint Laurent, a permanent temple dedicated the French haute couture icon.

 

The YSL Museum

Paris YSL-Salon.

The visit begins in the Salon.

Today, the museum offers a unique opportunity to experience the designer’s world. The visit starts on the first floor, in the salons where clients once sat for private showings of his work or were received by their personal saleswomen when they came for fittings. Then we experience YSL’s process of creation, thoroughly documented with sketches, drawing and swatches, before entering a display of his most emblematic designs.

 

Paris YSL-Picasso evening.

The Picasso evening dress from the autumn-winter 1979 collection.

In addition to the highlights of his 1962 debut collection, there are also nods to collections that pay homage to an era, intricately decorated jackets, theatrical designs and stunning custom jewelry. The last gallery includes his iconic Mondrian dress, other dresses inspired by great painters, including Picasso, Van Gogh and Matisse, and his Africa and Russia-inspired ensembles.

 

 

Paris YSL-Studio2.

The studio is recreated in minute details.

Then on the fourth floor, we reach the heart of the house, his exactingly reproduced studio, filled with drawings, scraps of fabric, boxes of buttons and finished designs, which offers a vivid picture of the life and practices of a haute couture atelier. His signature glasses are still on the desk near his sketch pads and freshly sharpened pencils. His portrait by his friend Bernard Buffet hangs over the worktable. We can still feel the creative energy of the place. It’s clear that everything happened here.

 

Paris YSL-Home.

The projection room shows images of Saint Laurent’s home.

The visit ends in the screening room, where a multi-image diaporama brings Yves Saint Laurent, the man and his career to life, narrated by Pierre Bergé, his partner in work and life. Bergé was the driving force in bringing the museum to completion, but sadly died just four weeks before the inauguration on September 28, 2017. A second YSL museum opened in Marrakech, Morocco on October14, 2017 near the former home of the two men.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

YSL Museum

A Corsican Road Trip – Bastia to the Gulf of Porto

A Corsican Road Trip – Bastia to the Gulf of Porto

The overnight ferry from Toulon, the main naval and commercial port of the French Riviera, pulls into Bastia harbor in the bleak November dawn. Corsica rises from the Mediterranean like the lost continent of an old fairytale. Dull yellow lights haloed with fog outline an imposing fortification wall. Above it, a sleepy medieval town blend into the dark shadow of a mountain.

First Glimpse at Corsica – Bastia to Saint Florent

Corsica-Bastia dawn.

The port city of Bastia emerges from the Mediterranean dawn.

By the time my long time friend Kathleen, an expert and enthusiastic driver, has extracted our rented car from the jaws of the ferry, the pale morning sun has brought the waterfront to life. We leave the now bustling port city and head west into the mountains, snaking up the southern edge of Cap Corse, the narrow peninsula at the northern tip of the island. The scenery emerges from the morning mist, revealing ever-changing vistas with every hairpin turn.

Corsica-Patrimonio.

The village of Patrimonio is famous for its vineyards.

It’s a mere 17 kilometers (10 miles) from Bastia to the ancient mountainside village of Patrimonio, but due to the combined effects of the narrow squiggly mountain road and my constant requests for photo stops, it takes us almost one hour to cover the distance.The village finally comes into view, a cluster of sturdy stone houses overlooking a vast expanses of vineyards famed since Antiquity for their red, white and Muscat wines. Considered by many as the finest wine region on the island, Patrimonio was the first to gain the coveted AOC (Appelation d’Origine Controlée or protected designation of origin) status in 1968.

Corsica-Saint Florent.

The mountains of Cap Corse dominate the Gulf of Saint Florent.

From here, it’s 8 kilometers (5 miles) of downhill zigzags to Saint Florent, a small fishing port turned popular tourist destination. At the height of the season its renowned marina is filled with posh international yachts. However, on this sunny November morning the main attraction is the tiny medieval village huddled around its circular 15th Century Genoese watchtower, and overlooking the turquoise waters of its perfect half-moon bay.

From Île Rousse to Calvi

Corsica-Ile Rousse.

The city of Île Rousse takes its name from its offshore outcrops of red porphyry.

We are on the coastal road now, heading south toward Calvi with a halfway coffee break in Île Rousse, another picturesque resort town notable mainly in that, unlike almost every other important city in Corsica, it doesn’t trace back to the Genoese. Rather, it was founded in18th century by Corsican patriot leader Pascal Paoli, in an attempt to steer trade away from Calvi, which had failed to support the nationalist rebellion that briefly brought independence to the island. Even so, just offshore on the Île de la Pietra, the big promontory of copper porphyry that gave the town its name, a typical circular fortified watchtower reminds today’s visitors that starting in the 13th century, the Republic of Genoa ruled over Corsica for half a millennium. And had to defend the island from frequent raids by Ottoman pirates.

Corsica-Sant Antonino.

From its dominant position in the Balagne Mountains, Sant’Antonino overlooks the sea.

By then, the original inhabitants of the island had long tired of the waves of uninvited visitors with pillage on their mind and taken refuge into their rugged mountains to settle atop the highest vantage points available, distant water view preferred. On a whim we decide on a detour by the eagle’s nest village of Sant’Antonino (circa 9th century). This walled village with its picturesque houses, quaint alleyways and covered passages winding around a granitic outcrop some 500 meters (1600 feet) above sea level, is deservedly considered one of the most beautiful villages in France. And that’s not even taking into account the sensational views of the surrounding Balagne Mountains, their flanks covered with ancient olive groves and chestnut forests, all the way to the sea.

From Calvi to Porto

Corsica-Calvi fortress.

The fortress of Calvi stands out against the Balagne Mountains.

It’s past lunchtime by the time we reach Calvi, the largest port city on the northwestern side of the island. Its sheltered bay backing up to the mountains, large marina and five kilometers (three miles) of white sand beaches make it a favorite of cosmopolitan tourists. For the best perspective of the city, we decide on a picnic on the ramparts of the citadel that towers above the port. Built over several centuries, the fortifications enclose an entire small town with vantage points that offer dazzling views across the harbor and along the rocky coast.

Corsica-Scandola Reserve

The Scandola Peninsula is hewn from red porphyry cliffs tumbling into the sea.

Although unsubstantiated, Calvi (along with several other cities including Genoa) steadfastly hangs on to its claim to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, and even points visitors to his purported birth home right inside the citadel. We pass on the opportunity and continue south toward the Gulf of Porto.

Corsica-Gulf of Porto.

A Genoese tower guards the Gulf of Porto.

By now, just as we think we’ve gotten used the narrow, constantly winding roller-coaster of Corsican roads, the ride from Calvi to Porto reaches new, stomach-churning heights. Hewn high into the red porphyry cliffs of the Scandola Peninsula, this stretch consists of 80 kilometers (50 miles) of endless switchbacks clinging to the rock face between pinnacles and ravines. This road skirts the edge of the spectacular Scandola Nature Reserve, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site covering 900 hectares (2200 acres) of gnarled claw-like inlets, hidden coves and offshore islands rising from 1000 hectares (2500) of crystalline turquoise waters.

Overnight in Porto

Corsica-Porto sunset.

Sunset over the Genoese tower of Gulf of Porto.

This first day of our Corsican adventure ends in the quiet seashore village of Porto, deep in a remote creek of the Gulf. Thanks to its ideal location in the heart of the most scenic landscapes on the western side of the island, it had developed over the past few decades into a laidback tourist destination. From our seaside balcony at one of the small hotels that now line the waterfront, we enjoy watching the sun set over (what else?) the commanding Genoese tower perched on a rocky crag at the mouth of the Porto river.

Gulf of Porto panorama.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Corsica is a French island located some 200 kilometers(120 miles) off the French Riviera coast. By air: It is served year round by regular flights from several French mainland airports to Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi and Figari (north of Bonifacio). From May to September seasonal lowcost airlines also offer frequent flights to and from other European destinations. By sea: Three major ferry lines serve the island’s six ferry ports (Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi, Île Rousse, Porto- Vecchio and Propriano, that can be reached from Marseille, Toulon and Nice. There are daily overnight and daytime crossings year round, with additional ones during the summer season. On this recent trip, we sailed with Corisca Ferries between Toulon to Bastia.
  • Getting around – There are limited train and bus connections between the main destinations around the island. However the majority of visitors travel by car to make the most of the stupendous scenery.
  • Where to stay – For this first of our four-night trip, we stayed at the pleasant, full-service, 24-room, three-star seaside hotel Le Subrini, La Marine de Porto, 20150 Porto-Ota, France. Contact: tel. +33(0)4 95 26 14 94, e-mail subrini@hotels-porto.com.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Bastia

Golf of Porto, Corsica

From the Vineyards to the Sea – the Douro River

From the Vineyards to the Sea – the Douro River

A gauzy veil of early morning mist hovers over Porto’s Ribeira pier when we board the Tomaz de Douro for a daylong cruise to the birthplace of the celebrated Vinho do Porto. The prized liquid gold of Portugal may be coming of age right across the river, in the Gaia cellars of world-renowned Port producers, but it is some 60 kilometers (40 miles) upriver, in the famed vineyards of the Douro Valley that it all begins.

A Cruise Back in Time

Douro-Maria Pia Bridge.

Gustave Eiffel’s Maria Pia Bridge (circa 1877) straddles the Douro just upriver from the historic center of Porto

Leaving behind the bustle of the piers and the soaring bridges of Porto, we meander upstream between the cliff-like banks. Soon the dense mosaic of homes climbing up the hills of historic Porto fades away, gradually replaced by stately haciendas surrounded by lush vegetation. Eventually, just as the sun begins to pierce through the mist, we enter a pristine nature preserve. Herons feed in the shallows and bright kayaks silently slide by on their way downstream.

Douro-pink hacienda.

Haciendas dot the banks of the Douro.

After days of roaming through the cobbled city streets, it is a treat to settle on the viewing deck and watch villages drift by. By late morning, we reach the first of the two locks on our itinerary, a reminder that the Douro was not always the serene river we enjoy today. Until it was tamed by a series of dams in the 20th century, it was a turbulent stream coming from the high sierras of northwestern Spain. Starting in the 1960’s, dams and locks were built to normalize traffic along the river.

Douro-Crestuma lock.

The lock of the Crestuma-Lever Dam.

Shortly after we enter the lock of the Crestuma-Lever Dam, lunch is announced in the glassed-in dining room on the lower deck. It is a formally served meal of traditional local fare, preceded by an appetizer of assorted bacalhau (dry, salted cod), vegetable and cheese fritters paired with glass of lovely white Port aperitif. By the end of the meal, we pass through the lock of the Carrapatelo Dam and landscape changes. The wild slopes turn into socalcos, terraced vineyards hewn into the riverbanks. They follow the sinuous contours of the valley to mold a unique landscape with its own microclimate. It is this product of two millennia of human labor that has earned the Douro vineyards their UNESCO World Heritage status in 2001.

Two Millenia of Human Labor

Douro-Terraced vineyards.

The terraced vineyards of the Douro.

Harvest time came early this year, and in the fading days of summer the sprawling whitewashed quintas (country estates) and the yellowing rows of gnarled vines that surround them are a surprisingly silent place. Suddenly, a familiar black silhouette materializes among the ripple of terraces. It’s the world famous Sandeman Don (or Sir) draped in his traditional Portuguese student’s cape and wide Spanish hat, growing to gigantesque proportions as we draw nearer. We definitely are in the heart of Port country.

Douro-Sandeman.

The familiar silhouette of the Sandeman Don overlooks the rippling vineyards.

The Tomaz de Douro pulls into the sleepy little town of Peso da Régua, where Pedro Batista, the friendly English-speaking guide who has been with us throughout the cruise, shepherds us to the tiny train station a short walk away from the dock for the two-hour ride back to Porto. “The best views are on the left side,” he hints as we board.

Whilst serious oenophiles may want to extend their time of the area with visits of some of the famous quintas, I find this daylong cruise to be a comprehensive introduction to the spectacular Douro Valley. And the slow, cliff-hugging ride back to Porto on a train of another century offers yet another perspective of the unique landscapes of one of the oldest wine-growing regions in Europe.

Douro-Panorama

Westward to the Sea

Although the city of Porto is located inland from the Atlantic, the Douro’s estuary is just an easy ninety-minute walk from the Ribeira waterfront, following the right bank of the river to the sea. Along the way, we pass through the colorful medieval neighborhood of Miragaia. Located outside of the old city walls, this arrabalde (suburb), it is where the Jews and Armenians of Porto used to live.

Douro-Foz Lighthouse.

The Felgueiras Lighthouse in Foz do Douro.

In Miragia, houses are constructed below the level of the Douro, on an ancient beach where the boats of the Discoveries Era were built to carry explorers headed for the Cape of Good Hope and settlers bound for outposts of the empire. Nowadays the houses are protected by a wall, their upper floors built over arches that give that give the whole neighborhood a unique atmosphere. We keeep going and pass the small fishing village of Afurada before reaching the seaside resort town of Foz do Douro. Its lovely 19th century Passeio Alegre Garden with its grove of palm trees overlooking the ocean was designed by German landscape architect Emille David (of Crystal Palace Gardens fame).

Douro-Matosinhos Sardines.

Grilled Sardines and Vinho Verde are a Matosinhos tradition.

It’s another hour-long walk along the shore to Matosinhos. Today, the town’s long fishing tradition is most noticeable by the large charcoal grills in front of its many seafood restaurants. A variety of fish, from sardines and sea bass to cod and shad are roasting in the open air. The restaurants are packed with locals. We join them for a bountiful meal of fresh grilled fish and boiled potatoes drizzled with olive oil, washed down with a glass of refreshing Vinho Verde (green wine, which in this case refer to the young age of the wine rather than its color). It’s the perfect way to cap the long morning walk by the sea.

Douro-Atlantic Sails,

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – To the sea. If you prefer not to walk, or for the return trip to the city, the most scenic bus line route in Porto (bus 500), departs from the center of the city (at Aveniad dos Allados). It crosses the historic center and follows the coast to end at the Matosinhos central market. You can catch the bus at any stop along the way in either direction and purchase a ticket from the conductor (€1,70 at the time of my visit). To the Douro Vineyards. There are a number of companies with varied boat types offering cruises from Porto the Douro vineyards. At the recommendation of a local acquaintance, I opted for the Tomaz do Douro, with offices at Praça da Ribeira  5, 4050-513 Porto. Contact: tel. +351 222 081 935, e-mail. geral@tomazdodouro.com.
  • Best avoided unless you yearn for a bygone era transportation experience. A rickety tram (line 1) outfitted with old leather seats and wood paneling departs half-hourly (more or less) from Praca do Infante Square where tourists jostle for position in an unruly waiting line. It follows the river non-stop to Esplanada do Castelo on the Foz de Douro waterfront. The ride takes about 25 minutes and cost €2.50. The tram is usually packed, so chances are that you will be too busy trying to keep your balance as it rocks along to enjoy any of the scenery.

 

Location, location, location!

Douro River Valley.

Foz do Douro

Matosinhos

Traditional Portugal At Its Finest – Porto

Traditional Portugal At Its Finest – Porto

Porto has the enduring charm of medieval cities that grew from their river. Today its Ribeira (literally “riverbank”) waterfront is a picturesque promenade that welcomes throngs of visitors who, after a day of scaling the steep cobble streets of the city on a treasure hunt for its elaborately gilded churches and public buildings clad in blue ceramic Azulejos, enjoy relaxing at one of the many café terraces. Here they can sip a leisurely glass of Port, while gazing at the far bank of the Douro, Vila Nova de Gaia (or simply Gaia), where the word-famous nectar still ages. On the river, the traditional rabelos, the flat bottom boats that once ferried the wine from the vineyards some 100 kilometers (60 miles) upstream now offer popular tours under the six soaring bridges of the city while seagulls glide overhead on the Atlantic breeze.

Porto-Laundry_Flags.

The narrow balconies of appartment-houses are draped with fluttering laundry and the flags of local soccer supporters.

But step through one of the ancient arches that line this postcard-perfect riverfront, and you find the soul of Ribeira waiting for you up the winding streets. An unruly jumble of skinny houses cling like barnacles to the precipitous hills, their aged facades speaking of many generations of hard-working residents. The little wrought iron balconies are draped with fluttering laundry and flags that proudly announce support for the national football team (or soccer if you are from North America). Narrow storefronts display the stuff of everyday life, and the tantalizing scent of grilling sardines leads you to tiny family-run restaurants where you can feast on simple traditional fare, warm welcome included.

A Tale of Two Markets

Porto-Hard Club

Once an Art Nouveau covered market, Mercado Ferriera Borges is now an art exhibit and concert space.

Yet there are signs of evolution. A couple of blocks up from the waterfront, the renovated steel-and-glass structure of the Mercado Ferriera Borges, a grand Art Nouveau covered market built in 1885, was recently reborn as the Hard Club. Today, it houses art exhibit and concert spaces, a bookstore, a restaurant and bars. Events staged here can vary from photo exhibits to crafts fairs to indie rock concerts.

Porto-Mercado_Bolhao

A sizeable section of the Mercado do Bolhao is dedicated to fresh produce.

In stark contrast, a 20-minute walk away, little seems to have changed at the two-story Mercado do Bolhao since it opened in 1914. Dedicated mainly to fresh products, it is divided in specialized sections: fruit and vegetable, flowers, meat, fish (you can still hear fishwives hawking their catch), cheeses and deli products. In recent years, the inevitable souvenir shops have claimed a section as well. On the ground floor, there is also a sprinkle of stalls where you can eat fish so fresh it probably was still swimming in the Atlantic yesterday, and sample local cheeses and wines. Less than ten euros will get you lunch and a total immersion experience of the real Porto.

Art Nouveau Institutions

Porto-Livraria_Lello.

Behind its Neo-Gothic façade by architect Francisco Esteves, the Lello Bookstore has been a Porto institution since 1906.

From “one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops” to “an Art Nouveau masterpiece,” guidebooks rival in hyperboles to point you to Livraria Lello, a Porto landmark since the turn of the 19th century. Behind the Neo-Gothic façade, a curvaceous two-story staircase with ornate woodcarvings that match the intricate columns and wall panels dominate the illustrious literary emporium. Rumored to have inspired J.K. Rowling in her depictions of Hogwarts, the shop has become a pilgrimage site for Harry Potter fans from all over the world. Crowds are such that Lello now charges a €5.5 entrance fee (to be credited toward your potential purchase) and urges on its website to purchase tickets ahead for a specified day and time to avoid the long lines. What of the books? They are still there, some 60,000 volumes in Portuguese, Spanish, English and French, stacked high toward the stain glass ceiling. But they seem an afterthought to the visitors who jostle for selfie opportunities on the famous staircase.

Porto-Vida_Portuguesa.

All manners of traditional Portuguese products are available at A Vida Portuguesa.

For a more laidback shopping experience through a general store of a bygone era, step right around the corner to A Vida Portuguesa (Portuguese Life) on the second floor of the venerable Fernandes Mattos (circa 1866) store. Once dedicated to fabrics and sewing supplies, Fernandes Mattos morphed over time into a funky gift shop where you can browse through all manners of stuff from cotton handbags to fun kitchen gadget, as you head toward the elegant staircase with its back wall covered with A Vida Portuguesa’s trademark ceramic sparrows. On the light-filled second floor, displayed on original 19th century store fittings, you will find every imaginable type of traditional Portuguese products from notebooks, pencils and cans of sardines in their retro-style packaging to lettuce ware china. And from the balcony you can enjoy a unique close-up view of Porto’s iconic Clerigos Tower.

The Gardens of the Crystal Palace

Porto-View_Crystal_Palace.

View of the Gaia from the Gardens of the Crystal Palace.

Regrettably, all that remains of the 19th century Palacio de Cristal is the name, the original glass and steel structure having been replaced in the 1950’s by a huge UFO-like domed sports arena. However, the eight-hectare (20 acre) park landscaped to complement the original building has fared better. Today, it is a mosaic of luxuriant terraced gardens dotted with fountains and sculptures that reveal themselves along with stunning views of the city and the Douro, as you wander down toward the river. Under a canopy of giant magnolias and cypress trees, the sun-dappled lawns are favorite picnic spots for local families and students of the nearby university neighborhood of Massarelos.

Little Frenchie

Porto-Franscesinha.

This Franscesinha sandwich is drizzled with Port Wine for good measure.

It’s impossible to speak of Porto’s daily life without mentioning the Franscesinha. When this Little Frenchie got its name vary from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, depending on whom you ask. But its origin is usually attributed to some immigrant returned from France who tried to adapt the croque-monsieur to the Portuguese taste. One thing is certain, there is nothing little about this cholesterol bomb of a sandwich that has by now found its way onto the menu of every eatery in town, from humble diners to posh epicurean venues. Order this Portuense right of passage and in between two thick slabs of white bread, you get generous slices of steak, ham and two different kinds of sausage in a shroud of melted cheese, on a bed of thick, spicy tomato and beer sauce. For good measure it is traditionally topped with a fried egg, (although some trendier establishments will replace it with a drizzle of Port Wine) and a mound of French fried on the side. Bom Apetite!

Porto-Rabelos_Regatta.

Rabelos Regatta sails under the Arrabiata Bridge.

Good to Know

  • Getting there –The Porto International Airport, with direct flights from most major European cities, is located 17 kilometers (10 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 – The best way to get around the web of narrow cobble streets of the touristic center of Porto is on foot, with comfortable walking shoes a must. If walking is a challenge 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. Hard Club ( previously Mercado Ferriera Borges), l Rua do Infante D. Henrique, 4050 Porto, is open daily except Monday, from 11:00 am to midnight. Mercado do Bolhao, Rua Formosa, 4000-214 Porto, is open Monday through Friday from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm and Saturday from 7:00 am through 1:00 pm. Closed on Sunday. Livraria Lello, Rua das Carmelitas 144, 4050-161 Porto, is open daily from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm. Contact: Tel.+351 22 200 2037. A Vida Portuguesa, Rua Galeria de Paris 20 – 1º, 4050-162 Porto, is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm and Sunday and holidays from 11:00 am to 7 pm. Contact: Tel. +351 222 022. Jardim do Palácio de Cristal, Rua de Entre-Quintas 20, 4050-240 Porto, is open daily from 8:00 am to 9:00 pm

Location, location, location!

Gardens of the Crystal Palace

Days of Port and Churches – Porto, Portugal

Days of Port and Churches – Porto, Portugal

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.

Porto-Ribeira waterfront.

The Ribeira neighborhood rises from the waterfront.

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 a dozen 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

Porto-Ponte Dom Luis I.

The Dom Luis I Bridge connects Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia.

This is the moniker affectionately given by 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.

Port-Gaia cellars.

The rooftops of Gaia read like the Social Register of Ports.

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.

Porto-Colheita.

Barrels of the prized Colheita single vintage Port are aging in the Calem cellar.

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.

Porto-Tasting.

Port tasting is a major tourist attraction in Porto.

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.

Rococo Bling

Porto-Se Rococo altar.

The main altar of the Se Cathedral glows with gilded Rococo woodcarvings

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

Porto-Azulejo facade.

Introduced in the 16th century, azulero-tiled facades remain a common sight in Porto.

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 houses, have their origins in the Arabic al-zulaich (polished stones). Initially introduced to 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.

Porto-se cathedral azulejo.

In the cloisters of the Se Cathedral, ceramic murals illustrate the Song of Solomon.

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.

Porto-Sao Bento.

The São Bento railway station murals represent major milestones of Portugal’s past.

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 Mary 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 flights from most major European cities, is located 17 kilometers (10miles) 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.

Location, location, location!

Porto