Porto

Porto or Oporto is the second largest city in Portugal. The city itself is small with a population of 237,559 people. However, Porto’s metropolitan area has an estimated 1.7 million people.  Located along the Douro river estuary   in northern Portugal Porto is one of the oldest European cities and its core, as “Historic Centre of Porto, Luiz I Bridge, and Monastery of Serra do Pilar”. was proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996. The western part of its urban area extends to the coastline of the Atlantic and it was once an outpost of the Roman Empire.  

Port wine, one of Portugal’s most famous exports, is named after Porto, since the metropolitan area, and in particular the warehouses of the Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank of the Douro where Port is stored, packaged and exported.

The skyline of Porto dominated by the Clérigos Tower.

Porto is very much a working city though in recent years it has attracted a lot of tourism primarily because of it picture pretty waterfront, rising steeply up from the River, and the photogenic Luis Bridge.  Most of the tourism activity of the city is targeted in this riverfront area. The steep alleyways, living quarters and shops of the Ribeira district on the north bank and the Port lodges and tasting rooms of the Vila Nova de Gaia across the river. Other than that, the city does not have many other touristic sights as such but still is a fascinating and everyday working Portuguese city going through a fast upgrade.  The city’s trademark is the elegant two-tiered Ponte Dom Luis 1 Bridge which joins the two banks. Inaugurated in 1886 and replacing a former bridge (Ponte Pensil dating back to 1841) it has a low-level tier for cars and pedestrians and an upper level for pedestrians and trams.

The rest of city holds little of actual tourist interest other than the various churches and buildings many decorated with the beautiful blue tiles, azulejos. The Sao Bento railway station, in the city centre, is one such building its magnificently decorated main hall is a draw for tourists and sight seers with its beautifully tiles. Built in 1900 the station is decorated with 20,00 magnificent azulejo ceramic tiles depicting Portugal’s past, the tiles were positioned over 11 years beginning in 1905 and finished in 1916 by artist Jorge Calaco.  The British pop group James used the station hall as a venue for a free concert in November 2014.

Unusual modern architecture

The Casa da Música is a modern concert hall in the Boavista district.  It was designed by architect Rem Koolhaas and opened in 2005.Built on the site of an old tram terminus station in Boavista roundabout (Rotunda da Boavista), it was the first building in Portugal aimed from its conception to be exclusively dedicated to music. It was open to the public on 14 April 2005, with performances by Cla and Lou Reed while the official inauguration occurred the next day. It immediately became a city icon. Featuring a 1300-seat auditorium suffused with daylight, it is the only concert hall in the world with two walls made entirely of glass. There is an usual sculpture of a large Red Hand on the outside which generates some curiosity especially from Nick Cave fans and even the man himself.

Less formal concerts are held in the Coliseum of Porto (Coliseu do Porto) a theatre and concert venue in an old Art Deco building in the centre of the city on R. de Passos Manuel 137. The building itself is worth a look, an example of Portuguese Streamline Moderne and Art Deco styles, built in 1908. Many famous contemporary artists have played at this venue.

Bridges across the Douro.

There are six bridges in Porto spanning the Douro valley. Nearest the estuary is the concrete Arrabida traffic Bridge constructed between 1957 and 1963. Then you have the Ponte Dom Luis 1 Bridge constructed between 1881 and 1886. The engineer being Theodore Seyring a disciple of Gustav Eiffel.

Ponte Dom Luis 1 Bridge

Very visible just east of Porto’s landmark is the Infante Don Henrique Bridge opened in 2003 to take the excess traffic.

Eiffel himself is reputed to have designed the oldest bridge still in existence, though no longer in use, the Dona Maria Pia railway bridge built between 1875 and 1877 was part of the Linha Norte system of the national railway. The wrought iron double-hinged, crescent arch bridge was at the time of its construction, the longest single-arch span in the world. It is often confused with the Dom Luis 1 Bridge which was built nine years later and is located 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) to the west but resembles the structure. It was closed in 1991 and replaced by the modern Ponte de San Joao which now carries all the trains entering Porto from the south. Further east is the last bridge, the Frexio Bridge opened in 1995 for road traffic.

Wine tasting in the Vila Nova de Gaia.

A highlight of any trip to Porto is a port tasting tour. The whole riverside on the south bank of the river has been redeveloped in recent years but gives a lovely view across to the north

Vila Nova de Gaia with a view across to the north Bank.

bank to the tumble of building on the other bank. There are numerous bars, shops and café but the area is dominated by the port wine trade and all the various lodges offer tastings and tours. The whole idea is to get you to purchase but a nice way to spend the early part of an evening is to purchase a tasting selection, various prices, with some light snacks and relax tasting various ports at your leisure.  There are numerous to choose from.  I had a nice afternoon in the Royal Oporto wine company museum, sampling various ports. Very interesting checking out the differences between the Rubys and Tawnys along with some light snacks.

Porto city Centre

The main part of commercial Porto revolves around the Avenida dos Aliados a broad double avenue that stretches from the Praca da Liberdade up to the Camera Municipal or City Hall. The Avenida is lined with shops, stores and cafes. Another busy shopping street is Rua Santa Catarina on which at 112 stands the Café Majestic. The exterior is very Art Nouveau while the interior is lavish 1920s ambience.  It is extremely popular with tourists and locals alike and it is reputed J.K Rowling often drank coffee here in her pre–Harry Potter days. Another curiosity worth paying the entrance fee to see is the Lello & Irmão Bookstore on Rue das Carmelitas 144, with its stunning interior. Opened in 1906 it has a marvellous stairway and the wooden walls and a stained-glass ceiling. If you buy a book the entrance fee is taken off the price. Again, this bookstore is associated with J.K. Rowling and her days in Porto as an English teacher in the 1990s.

Travels by Tram.

Porto has a new metro system which is mainly overground but has an underground section under the city centre. The metro goes out as far as the airport linking it efficiently with the centre of the city. At one point it goes over the Ponte Dom Luis 1 Bridge on the upper tier. However, a popular and novel way to take a few trips around Porto is by the old electric trams to give you a different perspective on the city.  Like Lisbon Porto once had an extensive tram system but is now limited to just three lines 1, 18 and 22.

Linha 1 begins in the Ribeira, near the Church of Saint Francis and goes in one direction alongside the river to the costal part of the city, Foz do Douro, at the mouth of the river. This is an extremely popular line especially in the Summer and travels west under the Arrabida Bridge. Another option is to walk out along the river, heading west, and get the tram back or of course vice versa.

Linha 18 is a restored track and the shortest and least popular or interesting from a tourist point of view. It intersects with Linha 1 at the Museu do Carro Electrico (The Tram Museum) and travels north east into the city centre.

Finally, there is Linha 22 a circular line which talked 30 minutes to do a circuit of the city centre passing a number of the beautiful old churches and intersecting with Linha 18 at the Carmo stop.

Churches

In 711-716 an invasion by an Islamic army comprising Berbers from North Africa and Arabs from the Middle east plus other Muslims from all around the Islamic world, conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula and founded the Islamic State of Al-Andalus. This State endured until the final Reconquista of the Algarve in 1294. Lisbon and the rest of what would become Portugal, was reconquered by the early 12th century. Porto was once part of this Muslim dynasty before being “liberated”. The recapture of Porto is credited to Vímara Peres, a knight who is said to have taken back Porto from its Moorish occupiers in the year of 868. You can visit his statue Porto’s first known lord, located just outside of the Sé, Porto’s Cathedral. At the base are two dates 868-1968. The first one being the date of the recapture, the second one referring to the construction of the actual statue by sculptor Salvador Barata Feyo.

To cleanse the recaptured land construction began immediately on huge and numerous Christian churches. Since the Reconquita the building of great churches has been an ongoing project. Some churches haven taken centuries to complete.

Porto, of course, has many beautiful churches the biggest being the Cathedral or Se. Building commenced in 1110, during the Reconquista, and was not completed in its entirety until 1737. Set high up it dominates the Porto skyline and overlooks the river. From the Cathedral it is an interesting walk down the steep Rua Escura “Dark street” to the Ribeira waterfront.

Torre dos Clérigos – “Church of the Clergymen” is a Baroque church with its tall bell tower, it can be seen from various points of the city and is one of its most characteristic symbols. was built for the Brotherhood of the Clérigos (Clergy) by Nicolau Nasoni, an Italina architect and painter who left an extensive body of work in the north of Portugal during the 18th century.

Torre dos Clérigos

Construction of the church began in 1732 and was finished in 1750. The monumental tower of the church, located at the back of the building, was only built between 1754 and 1763. The tower is 75.6 metres high, dominating the city. There are 240 steps to be climbed to reach the top of its six floors. This great structure has become the symbol of the city.

Nicolau Nasoni entered the Clérigos Brotherhood and was buried, at his request, in the crypt of the Clérigos Church, with the exact place remaining unknown.

The Church of Saint Francis (Igreja de São Francisco) is located near the Riberira waterfront and was established by the Franciscan Order in Porto in 1245. Originally a small church and convent it was extensively extended and is now a prominent example of Gothic architecture. It is said that the interior was decorated with 300 kilos of gold dust. Riches amongst the poverty of the Riberiro. Under the church are catacombs which hold the bones of generations of Franciscan monks and members of Porto’s wealthiest families. Some of bones are visible in an ossuary under a glass floor.

The Igreja de Santo Ildefonso is another magnificent church located near Batalha Square. It was completed in 1739 and has withstood sieges, storms and artillery fire.  Approximately 11,000 azulejo tiles cover the façade of the church, which were created by artist Jorge Colaco and placed in November 1932. The tiles depict scenes from the life of Saint Ildefonso. and figurative imagery from the Gospels.

  The Igreja de Santo Ildefonso

You can relax with a coffee or a beer at the Café Java in the square opposite the Igreja de Santo Ildefonso – visiting churches can be thirsty work!!

The Church of Our Lady of Lapa (Igreja da Lapa), in the Largo da Lapa, north of city centre -Lapa Metro –  holds particular significance in Porto as the place where Portugal’s former king and first emperor of Brazil’s heart is kept. The monarch, known as Dom Pedro IV in Portugal and Dom Pedro I in Brazil, requested his heart be gifted to Porto upon his death, and so has been kept by the church alter since 1835. The construction of this church began in 1755 and it took one hundred years to complete. The church also has an interesting graveyard which was built to meet the huge demand during various cholera epidemics which was first brought to Oporto in 1832 on the boats that carried troops from Ostend to help the Liberal army during the civil war.

The Church de Carmo on Rua do Carmo another 18th century masterpiece of worship. It is also decorated with a blaze of azulejos.  The neighbouring Igreja das Carmelitas is less of an eye-catcher but between the two is a house. It was built to comply with an ancient law that stipulated that no two churches were to share the same wall.

The last church I recommend visiting is The Chapel of Souls famous for its exterior of blue & white tiles painted with scenes from the lives of saints. Also known as Capela das Almas in Portuguese, it is a relatively small church located in in the middle of the main shopping street of Porto, named Rua de Santa Catarina, Santo Ildefonso district. It is always at the top of must-see landmarks for tourists to see and probably the most photographed building in the city. It also dates form the early 18th century and the exterior facade was clad in 1929 with tiles depicting scenes from the lives of saints. Specifically, there are scenes depicting the death of Saint Francis and the martyrdom of Saint Catherine. The Azulejos are works by Eduardo Leite and they were produced in Lisbon by the “Viuda Lamego” Ceramic Factory.

The Chapel of Souls famous for its exterior of blue & white tiles.

The Monastery of Serra do Pilar is a former monastery located in Vila Nova de Gaia. The monastery is situated on an outcrop overlooking the Dom Luis 1 Bridge was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. The monastery is notable for its church and cloister, both of which are circular. Construction of the first monastery at the site began in 1538 and was completed in 1564 and the cloisters were finished in 1583. In 1597, work began on the new church and the monastery was slowly updated in phases over the next several decades. The new circular church was inaugurated on July 17, 1672, and the final phases of the monastery were completed by the end of the 17th century.  It was from this monastery that General Arthur Wellesley surveyed the French positions across the river and placed his artillery to support his troops in their attack during the Second Battle of Porto in 1809.

PORTO IN THE PENNISULAR WARS

After the retreat and evacuation of the British army, under Sir John Moore from Corunna, northern Spain in January 1809 Napoleon ordered Marshal Nicolas Soult to invade Portugal from the north. Soult’s first attempt to invade Portugal was stopped by the local Portuguese militia on February 16th, 1809. However, the French army made a second attempt in early March 1809 and captured the Portuguese town of Chaves and from there moved south. On March 20th Soult took Braga after a defeat of Portuguese militia. On March 29th, 1809 he wiped away another Portuguese army defending Porto and his cavalry rode into the city pursuing the retreating Portuguese troops. The Portuguese tried to escape from the French in the city but were chased by the French cavalry throughout the streets, and their regular units were annihilated. Troops and thousands of fleeing civilians raced down the steep streets of the northern part of the city desperate to get across the river. Most were drowned when a bridge of boats across the Douro River (near where the Iron Bridge now stands) collapsed because of their weight and of Portuguese artillery fire (who were aiming at the French cavalry behind the Portuguese soldiers and citizens. This terrible loss of life became known as the “Ponte des Barcas” tragedy and is remembered with a brass plaque on the waterfront in Riberia.

Porto was then occupied by the French army though their advance faltered. Soult progressed no further south than the Vouga river, halfway between Coimbra and Porto, while another French army under General Victor remained at Mérida, in Spain 270km east of Lisbon.

After taking command of the British troops in Portugal on 22 April 22nd, Arthur Wellesley (later named 1st Duke of Wellington) quickly seized the opportunity to attack Soult before turning to confront Victor. With an army of 18,000 British and Portuguese troops he immediately advanced on Porto. The French retreated across the Douro and destroyed all boats and bridges and all river crossings to the north side of the river were heavily defended. As British troops streamed into Vila Nova de Gaia on the morning of 12th May, Wellesley surveyed the French dispositions from the grounds of the convent Mosteiro da Nossa Serra do Pilar. Before long he had received two encouraging reports from scouts sent out earlier to scour the south shore. The first was news of a large ferry boat found 5km upstream at Avintes; although the boat had been damaged by the French, it could be repaired and put into use in a short time. The second came from an intelligence officer, Colonel John Waters; a barber who had crossed from Porto in a skiff had told Waters of four wine barges that lay unguarded and undamaged on the north shore east of the city.

Wellesley had already taken note of a large, isolated stone building that stood on the heights above the opposite bank of the river outside of the eastern suburbs of the city; this was the Bishop’s Seminary and there was no sign that it has been garrisoned by the French. This observation and the stroke of luck, concerning the wine barges gave Wellesley an opportunity. While a detached force led by Murray was sent to cross the Douro at Avintes, Waters crossed the river in the skiff accompanied by the barber, the Prior of Amarante (as a guide) and a number of local boatmen. The unlikely ensemble returned with the four barges and with confirmation that the seminary was unoccupied. With the words “Well, let the men cross”, Wellesley now set in motion one of the most audacious moves of his military career. In the mid-morning and in full daylight. a company of the 3rd Foot (The Royal East Kent Regiment “The Buffs”) crossed the river in the wine barrages and clambered up to the seminary and secured its iron gate. As more and more infantry reached the seminary, the building was gradually turned into a fortress. Furthermore, the approach roads to the seminary were within shrapnel range of three artillery batteries which Wellesley had positioned in the convent gardens. Even though the crossing point was out of sight of the majority of the French troops, it seems incredible that a full hour elapsed before the alarm was raised. By this time, some 600 British infantry had crossed the river. By the time the French realized that Wellesley’s forces were on the north bank, the entire battalion of the Buffs were preparing defensive positions in the seminary.

Soult, who was asleep at the time, remained unaware of these developments. General Maximilien Foy, who was the first to see the British crossing, requisitioned three battalions of the 17th Light Infantry and led an attack on the seminary around 11:30 am. Wellington opened up on them with his artillery from across the river. Those who made it through the barrage were met with heavy rifle fire from the windows and roof of the seminary. Foy was wounded and his soldiers beaten back with heavy losses. Reinforced later in the day by three more battalions, the French attacked again. By this time, however, three more British battalions had occupied the seminary and surrounding buildings, and the French were defeated once again. Soult then withdrew the troops guarding the Porto boats in order to reinforce Foy.

As soon as the French left the riverside, the people of Porto immediately set out in “anything that would float” and ferried more British troops over. Four British battalions, including the 29th Foot (Worcestershire Regiment) and the Brigade of Guards climbed the steep hill into the town from the river. and attacked the French from the rear. The French, already planning a leisurely evacuation of the city, instead fled precipitously north-eastward. Soult’s late attempts to muster a defence were in vain. The French quickly abandoned the city in a disorderly retreat.

This battle ended the second French invasion of Portugal. Soult soon found his retreat route to the east blocked and was forced to destroy his guns and burn his baggage train. Wellesley pursued the French army, but Soult’s army escaped annihilation by fleeing through the mountains.

The Seminary overlooking the Douro framed by two bridges – Infante Don Henrique Bridge and the Dona Maria Pia railway bridge.

Today the Seminary occupied and so stoutly defended by the British on that morning still stands on the hill on the north bank overlooking the Douro at the Largo do Padre Baltazar Guedeas. Now swallowed up by the suburbs of the city it can be reached via the Rua de São Vitor directly down to the small square called Largo do Padre Baltazar Guedeas. The former seminary, now an orphanage, dominates the square. Follow the line of the Rua de São Vitor below the level of the square and round to the south face of the orphanage where a commemorative plaque can be seen at the west end. There are views over the river from here towards the promontory where Wellington sited his artillery and towards the bay from where Hill’s Brigade embarked. It is still impressive and a formidable defence position with a plaque, on the west side referring to the events of May 12th, 1809.

Across the river the convent Mosteiro da Nossa Serra do Pilar where Wellesley observed the French positions and placed his artillery is also still there. It can be reached by turning onto the Rua de Rodrigues de Freitas then immediately left again (signposted Monumento) onto Rampa do Infante Santo. The narrow drive leads uphill to the Mosteiro da Nossa Serra do Pilar. This is a still a fine point from which to view the city of Porto. 

Monumento aos Heróis da Guerra Peninsular.

At the Boavista roundabout on the main throughfare heading west from the city centre is a massive memorial.  The Monument to the Heroes of the Peninsular War is situated in the middle of the large rotunda in the Boavista district of Porto. It is a 45 m (148 ft) column slowly built between 1909 and 1951, is a project by the celebrated Porto architect José Marques da Silva and the sculptor Alves de Sousa. The column is topped by a lion, the symbol of the joint Portuguese and British victory, which is bringing down the French imperial eagle. Around the base are sculptures of soldiers and civilians, the latter representing the people of Porto caught up in disaster on 29 March 1809 when the bridge (the Ponte das Barcas, supported by twenty linked boats) they were crossing to flee from Napoleon’s troops collapsed, and more than four thousand people drowned in the River Douro. Completion of the column was delayed by two World Wars, and the monument was finally unveiled in 1952, some years after the deaths of both the sculptor and the architect.

Further Reading

“A History of the Peninsular War, Volume II” by Sir Charles Oman, published by Greenhill Books 1995, ISBN 1853672157.

“Wellington’s Peninsular War” by Julian Paget, published by Pen & Sword 1992, ISBN 0850526035.

“Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814” by Jac Weller, published by Greenhill Books 1999, ISBN 1853673811.

FOOTBALL

Porto is also the home of one of the country’s most successful football clubs, FC Porto.  Also, there is Boavista Porto’s “other” team.

Futebol Clube do Porto, commonly known as FC Porto or simply Porto, is best known as one of the big three Portuguese clubs. The club was founded on 28 September 1893 as Foot-Ball Club do Porto by António Nicolau de Almeida, a local port wine merchant and avid sportsman, who became fascinated with soccer during his trips to England. Porto is one of the ” Big Three (Portuguese: Os Três Grandes) teams in Portugal – together with the two Lisbon based teams and have appeared in every season of the Primeira Liga since its establishment in 1934. They are nicknamed Dragões (Dragons), for the mythical creature atop the club’s crest, and Azuis e brancos (Blue-and-whites), for the shirt colours. The club supporters are called Portistas. Since 2003, Porto have played their home matches at Estadio do Dragao, which replaced the previous 51-year-old ground, the Estadio das Antas. The Estadio do Dragao is in the east of city with its own metro station. FC Porto have enjoyed huge success, both domestically and in Europe, having been managed by amongst others Bobby Robson, in the mid-1990s and Jose Mourinho from 2002 to 2004.

Having its own station combined with the infrastructure, the metro functions as the main way of reaching the stadium, with different lines linking the various city areas and a direct connection to the airport.

Boavista Futebol Clube, commonly known as Boavista or Axadrezados was founded on in 1903 by British entrepreneurs and Portuguese textile workers, in the Boavista area of the western part of the city. It is one of the oldest clubs in the country and plays in the Primeira Liga Portuguese football’s topflight.

Its stadium, Estadio do Bessa, was built in 1973, although football has been played there at the former ‘Campo do Bessa’ since the 1910s, and was revamped for use in Euro 2004 and today is a very modern 30,000-seats stadium. Boavista were regulars in UEFA competitions in the 1990 and early 2000s but in June 2008, Boavista was sentenced to relegation for its part in the Apito Dourado (Golden Whistle) match fixing scandal, for three games in the 2003–04 season. After a long legal battle, in June 2013, Boavista was entitled the right to come back to the Primeira Liga and after a six-year absence, Boavista returned to the Primeira Liga in the 2014/15 season. The Panther is the club’s symbol and nickname. Their ultra-fans as known as the Panteras Negras. The Club plays in a black strip.  

The Estadio do Bessa is a considerable distance from Porto city centre. The nearest metro station is Francos from where it is a 15-minute walk.

Porto Airport.

Porto’s Sá Carneiro International Airport is located in Maia, 10 kilometres north of the city centre. You can easily get to central Porto using the Metro. Line E (purple) runs every 20 minutes during weekdays, and around every half an hour on weekends and holidays. Tickets can be purchased from vending machines or at the airport’s tourist information office.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Oliver Fallon Ranger’s Travels 2021;

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