Twenty years ago during a particularly pleasant work related boondoggle I visited Porto Portugal for the first time. Though I include the stop on my travel resume, the visit was brief. In fact, most of my time in “Porto” was spent sampling fortified wines in Taylor and Fonseca’s cellars on the Villa Nova de Gaia side of the Douro River. (Gaia is not quite Porto.) I didn’t go to a single historic site in Porto proper. Still, Oporto, rising on a hill on the north side of the Douro, looked intriguing. Though my “work” schedule did not permit a tour a return was predestined. Years later I’d finally get a chance.
Located along the Douro river estuary in northern Portugal, Porto is one of the oldest European cities. Celtic settlements in the area date to 275 BC. The Celts were followed the Romans in the 4th Century. It is the Roman name that stuck; the Latin “Portus Cale” evolved into both the name for the city and the country. After the Romans, a Moorish occupation in the 8th Century was followed be the Christian reconquest. Later, during the Age of Discovery, Porto and Portugal reached its peak as a world power. Ships sailed from the city’s port as Portugal explored the world and expanded its empire. Porto’s long and diverse history was recognized in 1996 with a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Today Porto is Portugal’s Second City. The metropolitan area is home to nearly 1.7 million people. On the slopes of the old town modern life competes with historic charm. The city’s signature historic arched metal bridges carry modern trains, metro cars, and automobiles across the Douro to Villa Nova de Gaia. Porto’s public transport is a mix of old and new. Below ground the metro system is modern. On the surface an historic tramway that began operation in 1872 still ferries people through the meandering streets. Touring with an unmuzzled canine meant that public transport was generally not an option for us. Instead we worked through the town’s steep hills using the oldest mode of transport, the feet. For sure, being on foot is the best way to see most cities. But with the hills, walking Porto takes a lot of effort.
There is one mode of transportation that we were able to take our dog Gigi on. Teleférico de Vila Nova de Gaia extends from the upper deck of the Luis I Bridge to river level near Vila Nova de Gaia’s port houses. Riding in a cabin suspended from a cable high above the ground was not Gigi’s favorite travel experience; she was particularly happy to reach the bottom station. Nevertheless she soon forgot about the trauma and was even allowed to come along on a tour at Graham’s port lodge. Gigi did not get much out of the tour. And she certainly didn’t get to taste the vintage port. Nonetheless our pooch was happy to be along with us just as long as she didn’t have to go back in that dreaded teleférico.
Porto has plenty of things to see. Sé do Porto, Porto’s cathedral, sits on the hillside overlooking the river. Inside the cloisters are dramatic. Six hundred meters away the tower and church at Torre dos Clérigos is also worth visiting. Another favorite is 750 meters further on. Igreja de São Francisco (Church of Saint Francis), the most prominent Gothic building in Porto, is not particularly distinguished on the outside. The inside, however, is mind blowing. In the early 18th century the church’s lateral aisles and apse chapels were extensively decorated with exuberant gilt woodwork. The massive walls of gold-coated woodcarvings make this quite unlike any other place we’ve been. Too bad the inside of São Francisco did not photograph well.
Really though, there is one thing that distinguishes Porto and Portugal. The Portuguese are particularly affable and accommodating. It was that way when I first visited twenty years ago and it remains that way today. The Portuguese people are a friendly lasting memory. The people are always a reason to return.