Porto a little schizophrenic. In the best sense of the word. After all, it tends to be in several places at once. You can either come to Porto, or simply pour it into a glass. Both taste delicious. And if you pour yourself a glass of Port in Porto, you really won’t want to return to the world of reality.
Even so – Porto attracted people even when the liquid version did not yet exist. First as a rich merchant port, later as a centre of business. Rich, and to become even richer, the city has plenty of sights definitely worth seeing. A great many building styles, decorated with gold and exotic wood, brought back by the Portuguese from their voyages overseas. Thanks to this mix of architecture and wealth, the historical part of Porto is listed as a UNESCO heritage site.
You could start your walk on Penaventosa hill. This was apparently settled three thousand years ago. It is still the site of the Sé Cathedral, originally dating from the 12th century. Austere to many, but definitely impressive. There is an amazing view over the city from the terrace in front of the cathedral, a sight anyone who visits Porto has to see. And while the Sé Cathedral seems ascetic, the 14th-century Church of São Francisco literally glitters with gold. Its interior alone contains over 200 kilograms of gold. The highest landmark, however, has to be Igreja e Torre dos Clerigos. A church with a high, narrow tower. This soars to 75 metres and is still the highest in Portugal. There are 240 steps leading to the top, but the view of the Douro River and its valleys is breath-taking. Just a few steps from the church tower stands the monumental Baroque Bishop's Palace, built in the 18th century.
It is also worth visiting the Palácio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace), the old town hall building and the Mekor Haim synagogue. Yet there’s plenty more. There are so many sights that not even the people who live in Porto visit them all. Best to get down to the river and on the Cais Ribeira waterfront you can board one of the cruise boats. A view of Porto from the water is unforgettable.
And when you return to the harbour dock, go to see the Praca da Liberdade square with the Avenida dos Aliados. Then head towards the Rua de Santa Catarina pedestrian zone. And perhaps think of commerce, too. You could treat yourself to something on one of the main shopping streets.
And now it’s time to head for the other bank of the Douro. And how else than over Porto’s most famous bridge – the Ponte Dom Luis I. This dates from the end of the 19th century and has two floors. And then take public transport, (ideally a tram – as trams originated in Portugal), to the Vila Nove de Gaia, home of the wine cellars and Port stores.
People lived where Porto now stands back in ancient times. The oldest settlement apparently dates back to the 8th century BC. This is when the Celts built their first settlements. And then other tribes and nations came and went. The Romans, East Germans, Moors and later finally the Portuguese. In the 12th century the city was the seat of kings, and in the 15th century Henry the Navigator ushered in a period of seafaring discovery. The city grew rich. It subjugated new territories and traded in exotic spices and wine. The city went through an era of destruction with the arrival of the Napoleonic army, and did not see better times until the late 19th century. This was when the city started to attracted major investments again and work began to construct industrial buildings.
The port of Vila Nova de Gaia was established soon after Alfonso III was unable to reach an agreement with the Bishop of Porto regarding on shipping charges in the 13th century. As a result, the barrels of wine matured solely in this port on the edge of town. This strict decree remained in force for 7 centuries, until 1987.
The port is now surrounded with vineyards, where the wine matures on slate terraces. It is a real experience to see the grape harvest here. The narrow streets of the port are lined with wine cellars and storerooms, where the Port is stored and blended. There are around fifty vineyards here and each offers its own – clearly the very best variety.
The history of Port as we know it today, however, is a few centuries more recent, dating back to the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries. This was when barrels of wine sailed from Porto to England, and because of the war with France had to remain for a long time at sea. To prevent the wine from spoiling, brandy started to be added. At the end of the 18th century a protected wine region was declared along the upper reaches of the Douro. The only regions older than this are Tokai in Hungary and Chianti in Italy.
Port was even so popular in England that it is still royally supped in the British army on official occasions.
Yes, although you do have to try Port when in Porto, you have to eat, too. And it’s definitely worth it here. Try, for instance, cod with cream sauce or Francesinha. This is a traditional sandwich with ham, sausage and melted cheese, topped with a beer sauce.
And don’t forget the local coffee. There’s probably nowhere else in the world where you can find such a concentration of cafés as in Portugal. The coffee here is very strong, so make sure you’re well prepared. Something sweet? So you have to try Pastel del Nata. These are little pastries filled with yolk cream and sprinkled with cinnamon.