The Faded Grandeur of Porto
Trip Start May 31, 2006
170Trip End Ongoing
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When we touched down in Porto, the northernmost city in Portugal and the second largest in the country, there was a thick mantle of fog which reminded us more of London mornings. We checked into our newly inaugurated hostel, the B&W Porto Hostel whose 19th century family-house-turned-into-a-stylish-hip-hostel accommodated us for 17€ per person including a light breakfast. The small size of the kitchen, lack of a lounge and the presence of only one bathroom for the entire hostel was made up for by the witty, fashionable black and white design of the interiors which made our stay memorable.
Somehow we had to find our way to the centre of the city, and the challenge was to avoid the incredibly new and modern metro system that Porto took pride in. I always say that there is nothing better than witnessing how a city wakes up on a weekend. So as the white haze melted away by an eager sun, people began to emerge from their doors, congregating in the near by confiterias, the Portuguese equivalent to patisserie's.
Armed with a map and Ed's new Canon digital SLR (a birthday present from yours truly) we made our way downhill through the residential streets of Porto. The buildings were run down, as if they had stopped in time, but there was a colonial charm to them that kept them very much alive; they still had character in their old age and with all their broken bits.
We soon bumped into the Igreja do Carmo (do Carmo church) whose side fašade was made up entirely of exquisite hand painted blue and white ceramics, better known as azulejos. The tiles are depicting scenes from the founding of the Carmelite order, an enclosed monastic order founded in the 12th century on Mount Carmel in Israel. Oddly enough, we soon noticed that the church was immediately annexed to another church, the Igreja das Caramelitas belonging to the same order of Carmelites but for nuns. Apparently this was done to ensure that chastity rules were adhered to between the monks and nuns, separating them in two buildings. I'd heard that Portugal had too many churches, but this two-in-one arrangement was unheard of, and mass was being held simultaneously in each!
Moving on we saw an old wooden streetcar. We suspected it wasn't in working order since it was stopped next to a park, but we soon saw that people were readily jumping on it as it took off powered by the old network of cables that ran above it. Yet another example of Porto's vintage style.
Soon we found ourselves lost within the tiny downhill streets as we got closer to the River Douro. The old cobblestone streets were hardly wide enough for cars to go through and we had to skip our way along, avoiding the little gifts left behind by local dogs. People peered out from their small wrought iron balconies garlanded by the morning's washing swaying in the river breeze while the smell of coffee and garbage mixed in the air.
After a long wrong turn somewhere caused by an elderly man's incorrect but enthusiastic directions, we reached the tourist information centre where we wanted to purchase the Porto Card. For just €11.50 each we got discounts and free entrances to all Porto sights, plus free unlimited fare on all public transportation for 48 hours. With this we paid half price in the nearby Palacio da Bolsa, or Chamber of Commerce.
A 19th century neoclassical palace housed the old stock exchange, symbol of Porto's wealth and power 2 centuries ago. No pictures were allowed (just so you'd buy their postcards) so it was a shame we couldn't capture the opulence of the palace. Marble and granite classical details mixed with fine examples of glass and steel engineering, plus the ornate decorations in stucco, gold leaf, and wood. I was most captivated by the ceiling lamps: massive 1 tonne iron sculptures with graceful organic motifs. Classical allegories representing Portugal's main trades and social activities were painted in warm earth tones and pastel colors along the ceilings and stucco domes.
The Hall of Nations is in the centre of the building whose glass dome welcomes in the morning sunlight. Richly decorated with the coats of arms of those countries with which Portugal had the closest trade relations at the end of the 19th century, the great hall today is used for private events and ceremonies, including weddings and galas.
After the tour around the palace was finished we walked just around the corner to the Igreja Sao Francisco whose convent cloisters had been demolished in the 19th century by order of Queen Maria II to build the Chamber of Commerce palace. The church was built in the 14th century in a late Gothic style, but its interior is an excellent example of Iberian Baroque architecture. Once inside (where you are once again not allowed to take pictures...when the guard wasn't looking anyway) it was hard not to gasp. We've seen many churches in our travels but none was quite as spectacular as this one. The intricate gilt wood work of the interior covers almost completely the original structure, hiding behind its exuberant details the aisles, vaults, pillars and window frames of the chapels. It was as if the interior were made of warm caramel what was gently melting down the walls. This opulence certainly does not go hand in hand with the vows of poverty the Franciscan order is known for, and so the ashamed clergymen of the town finally closed the church for worship forever.
We walked out of the church into its sunbathed courtyard which looked out to the River Douro, a silver serpent escaping Porto towards the sea. It was only noon and we had much more to see. But first, lunch.
Where I stayed
Black and White Porto Hostel