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December 17, 2004
In the early 1800s, the land (the building which previously occupied it having burned down) was given by Queen Maria II to the merchants of Porto as a site for construction of a meeting hall (her generosity is remembered by busts and portraits around the corridors and main salons). The neo-classical "palace" was funded by merchants themselves, who formed a guild for the purpose and finished in 1842. Both the grandeur of the exterior, with its sweeping steps and columns, and the interior, with a vast central chamber (the Pácio das Nações – named after the dozens of shields around the walls), were designed to reflect Porto’s commercial prosperity and impress visiting merchants. It was the jewel in Porto's bid for World Heritage Status, and various important treaties have been signed here.
It’s not a stock exchange now — its main use is as a cultural/convention centre and venue for dinners, guild members’ wedding receptions, and the like. Monthly meetings of the committee of the merchants’ guild are still held in the imposing President’s Salon (look out for the furniture, all of which is made of Brazilian and Portuguese woods, most if it original from the mid 1800s). The next-door room formerly held the Commercial Court (Maria thought that, as she had given them the space to look after their business, they could contact their own legal affairs too — it was only moved to within the main court system in the 1900s, and its procedural rules form the basis for those operated today).
The tour leaves the best until last — the sumptuous "Arabian Room", with its decoration of blue and gold arabesques. It has (as intended) the feel of a mosque; if you look closely, the paintwork could do with a touch-up, but the overall impression is magnificent. Look out for the curious pairs of double doors (each inset with stained glass panels pursuing the Arabian theme) which don’t look outside but into a corridor which encircles the room (currently used for junk when I poked my nose in). It apparently has fantastic acoustics, as well as a receiving room (Porto debutantes are "presented" here) whose main purpose is a recital room for classical musicians.
As you go round, the tour will draw attention to the flooring — occasionally just tiling but mostly beautiful wooden parquetry in a dizzying combination of designs, including some trompe l’oeil (apparent 3D stairs, etc).
Guided visits: April-October 9, noon-6:30pm (5:30 November-March). Entry by guided tour only (various languages—turn up to find out which tour you want, i.e. which language, and it's as well to book in advance), €5. Note: no photography allowed inside. The gift shop’s postcards particularly don’t do justice to the Arabian Room.
From journal Tawny or ruby? More than just port in Porto
Cinnaminson, New Jersey
October 29, 2004
No visit to Porto can be complete without a visit to the building of Porto Bourse. This is by far the most interesting interior you will find in the city. Each hall in the building is incredible.
This used to be Portuguese stock exchange, where all the trading occurred on the floor of the Hall of Nations, until about 10 years ago. Nowadays, the Hall of Nations can be rented for special occasions. The ceiling of this room has symbols of all nations, and tiles on floor are inspired by Pompeii designs.
The grand staircase which leads to the 2nd floor halls is made of granite. Because it is very difficult to work with granite, it took 68 years to finish the building. On the ceiling above the staircase, there are frescoes of culture and other virtues. Chandeliers are extremely heavy. The ceiling, columns, and walls have floral carvings.
On the 2nd floor, there are several halls that are shown to the visitors. In the remaining halls, people are working. One of the rooms shown during the tour is the President’s Room, which is used to accept the most important people. On the ceiling, there is a fresco of Juniper; on the walls, there are paintings of Roman life, and the floors are made of very beautiful parquet of Brazilian and African woods. The Board of Directors Room, which is used for board meetings monthly, is also called the Golden Room because of the beautiful gilded carving, in the 1st Empire style, on the ceiling. The General Assembly room is where elections take place. All the walls and ceiling in that room are made of plaster, painted to imitate bronze and wood, and you would never believe that this isn’t real wood paneling with coats of arms until you are told by the guide. There is, however, a real bronze French chandelier and real, very elegant carved wood furniture.
Then there is the Portrait Room, with portraits of the last six kings of Portugal, beautiful parquet on the floor, and an inlaid table with amazing artwork. The door with the Arabic design stained glass leads from the Portrait Room to the room that Palacio da Bolsa is most famous for, the Arabian Room –- made of plaster, wood, and gold leaf -- which took 18 years to finish. The background is red and aquamarine, with Arabian designs and words "Glory to Allah". This room was built to show the whole world that businessmen of Porto are rich. On the ceiling, several stained-glass windows in the shape of octagonal stars are intertwined with the red, pink, and aquamarine designs framed with gold. This is by far the most amazing room in the palace, and in the whole Porto. No postcard or photo in the guidebook does it justice; you really have to see it for yourself.
From journal Travels In Portugal - The Best Of Porto