Most people think of port wine and the many wineries along the Duoro river when they hear of Porto. In my opinion there is much more to Porto though, as Chris and I had discovered on our visit in 2003. We had fallen in love with the small town in northern Portugal at the time and always planned to return one day.
Years had passed since, and when I found a great deal for a weekend in September I could not resist – either the deal or the city. We flew out on the Friday night and went straight to bed once we had checked into hotel Vincci, just outside the centre of Porto, next to the Duoro River.
We got up early enough, just in time to have breakfast from the vast buffet the hotel included in our stay. The hotel building used to be known as the fish market, but has been converted into a unique hotel with amazing art deco features since its closure. It is located right next to the tram museum, the Mueso de Carro Electrico which is itself in a old electricity station. Jerome’s affinity to vehicles meant that this had always been our first place to see after heading out that morning. We were very disappointed when we found that despite saying it was open that day, we were informed that it was closed for repairs. Jerome was sad that we would not be able to see the old trams, but one of the trams arrived from a special service and the tram driver saw Jerome’s disappointment and let him climb aboard the tram before it was due to go back into the sheds. We also promised Jerome a trip on one of the rickety, vintage trams later on during our stay.
We then strolled up the little narrow lanes towards the Palacio Cristal, which I remembered from our last visit. We walked up some steep steps, past run down houses and ruins, which have been left to fall apart. It was apparent how poor parts of Portugal still are compared to the rest of Europe. There was much graffiti and many street art murals on the bare walls but as we reached an open space we got an amazing view towards one of the many high bridges spanning the river with the sea in the distance. From here it was apparent how close the town is to the sea.
We turned a corner and stumbled upon a beautiful garden with a stately home – the Museo Romantico de Quinta de Macieirinha – in its midst. We ventured inside and after watching an informative video about the history of the house we walked through the many elegant rooms. The house was once the home of the exiled king of Sardinia and there was a grand selection of period furniture, relics and paintings to see. Jerome was most fascinated by the children’s room with its old toys. He also took a keen interest in the stuffed animals and butterfly collections.
Afterwards we strolled up, through the shaded slopes to the futuristic looking Pavilhao de Rosa Mota. This striking building from 1956, replaced the original Palacio de Cristal and now harbours a large auditorium and library. It hosts a variety of events, including exhibitions, theatre and musical performances. Since our last visit I had been fascinated by the architecture and always wanted to peek inside the building as I imagined the many round port hole shaped windows in the dome shaped ceiling must make an interesting sight and cast funny shadows onto its walls and floors. I walked up the stairs and tried to get a peek inside as the entrance was closed but there was nowhere I could even get a glimpse of the interior.
The boys had walked on, not sharing my enthusiasm for the building and architecture. Despite the time of year it was getting warmer and the sun was out. The gorgeous botanical garden was the perfect place for us to take a break before walking on to the busier parts of town. We sat down on one of the benches with a view of the Ponte de Luis I, the sparkling Duoro river and the crowded hills of the historic town to share some snacks from our pack. It seemed to be a popular place for local couples and families to take a stroll along the many paths, past flowerbeds and gurgling fountains. We even spotted some peacocks parading around. The gardens make the perfect spot for children to let off some steam after a walk through town.
Outside the gardens we took a road that led us east along the ridge to the two famous churches, Igreja de Carmelitas and Igreja de Carmo. The two churches are separated by a very narrow house only one metre wide, amazingly someone actually used to live there until 20 years ago. The churches used to be the home of the monks of Carmo and the Carmelite nuns. Both churches are rather dark inside but the lack of light did not diminish the pomp and glitz of the golden statues and features along the walls and ceilings. The mural on the tiles is rich in details, perspective and colour. These azulejos (famous traditional blue and white hand painted tiles) make a special trip to the churches worthwhile. Behind the churches we found a small square with stalls selling local crafts and vintage knick-knack.
We had already walked a fair bit by now and lunchtime was approaching fast. A friend, who is local to the area, had recommended us to have the traditional dish of Francesinha at Restaurant Brasao. When we got to the popular restaurant we were told that there would be a wait before we could get a table. We did not mind and sat down outside, by now the temperatures had come up to t-shirt weather and we enjoyed the sun.
A Francesinha makes a perfect lunch for children actually, as it has all the ingredients of comfort food. It is basically a sandwich, filled with sausage, meat and ham, topped with cheese and then drowned in delicious gravy. Ours came with a side of French fries, but it would have been filling enough without. It set us up for a long afternoon exploring the rest of the city and I will tell you more about that in my next post.