Tawny or ruby? More than just port in Porto

As Portugal's second city, I was astonished to find Porto overlooked and relegated in guide-book parlance to the "off-the-beaten-track" category. Its neglected status is good news for visitors, though, making it less busy or expensive than the capital, but equally as charming. Liberal port and splendid views - sheer heaven!

Tawny or ruby? More than just port in Porto

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SaraP on December 7, 2004

Porto is divided in two main areas - the city centre and Vila Nova de Gaia, across from the Douro (where the port houses wink on the hill).

In the centre, churches abound:

* Igreja de Santo Ildefonso dates from 1737, its beautiful stone facade covered in typical Portuguese blue-and-white painted azulejos (tiles) depicting the saint's life

* the large square Se (cathedral) is a fortress of a building, whose walled plaza offers good views across to the Douro's south bank

* St. Francisco's church has the most fantastic engraved wooden allegories on the inside of the walls, and even the columns are covered in gold leaf (170kg in all).

In addition, visit :

* the six-storied, 76m-high Torre do Clerigos (Cleric's Tower) for the best views of the city

* Palacio da Bolsa (Stock Market) in Ribeira may look impressive from the outside, but that doesn’t prepare you for the magnificent interior

* the main square is Liberdade, with the town hall at one end and national bank and post office occupying spectacular buildings on the sides
* even the humble station has tiled walls showing battles, victories, and steam trains

* the city is dotted with statues of Portugal's warriors and heroes, especially at the war memorials
* the museums of contemporary art and of trams!
${QuickSuggestions} As you cross the bridge from Riberia (currently under scaffolding) across to the Douro, the mood changes and thoughts turn to port as you are welcomed by a sign to Nova Vila de Gaia. All along the riverside are colourfully painted boats that formerly carried casks but are now used for tourists. On the road running alongside the river are maps pointing out each of the two dozen port houses you could visit (listing the facilities available at each). Some, like Sandeman, are right on the waterside, which makes them convenient but also busy (especially with coach parties) and more expensive.

Branching out, the Douro valley itself (curiously the Valley of Gold) is a scenic highlight - 125 miles of wide panoramas running from the Porto inland to the Spanish border. This is where the best port grapes come from, and a trip inland, by coach or train or on the Douro itself (which takes a bit longer), is a peaceful way to soak up the atmosphere and the port.
${BestWay} Porto is compact but very hilly - take good walking shoes and don't expect to see everything in one day! On a 2-day break, you could concentrate a day's efforts each in the town centre and in Vila Nova de Gaia, needing little time getting between the two.

Having said that, Porto is one of those places where wandering is a joy - who know what could be up each alleyway.

Apart from travelling on foot, the 4€ ticket from the airport into town (via your hotel, if you ask the driver and it's on his route), dropping you at Placa de Liberdade, is also valid for travel all the rest of that day (or the day when you're heading back to the airport). Tickets are available for 1, 2, or 3 days, and most bus drivers speak a modicum of English. Taxis are plentiful, but don't always use a meter - be aware of the sneaky addition of extra charges after dusk and on the weekends.

Residencial Universal

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SaraP on December 12, 2004

The normal price for this well-placed hotel is €60 for a double, but it halves its rates for the period of October 1 to March 1. Our two-night stay came through on my credit card bill as £45, which has to be a quite extraordinary bargain for an establishment so well-situated and equipped. On top of that, the breakfast is not bad at all. It’s from 7am to 11am and is buffet-style, with okay coffee, fresh rolls/jam/honey, etc., yoghurts, and ham or cheese (and the usual squash masquerading as juice).

You can't really beat the place for location, either (assuming you want to be in the town in the first place, rather than at the snootier hotels of Vila Nova de Gaia or Ribeira)--Avenida dos Aliados runs along the Praca da Liberdade, and moreover, the Aerobus stops right outside the hotel.

Make sure when you book (they are very good at returning faxed bookings within 12 to 24 hours) that you specify a room at the back of the hotel, and in the winter, that they turn the heating on in your room (you may have to remind them, but they are charming when you do and also provide blankets, etc., to make up for it!).

Residencial Universal
Avenida dos Aliados 38
Porto, Portugal
222 006 758

Forno dos Clerigos

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SaraP on December 7, 2004

I would not normally trouble you with merely a coffeehouse, but this is exceptional. Conveniently located just off Liberdade, it is very reasonably priced, friendly, and serves the most exquisite selection of cakes.

As with almost all Porto coffeehouses or bars, the coffee menu is an exercise in itself, with a choice of perhaps a dozen strengths and combinations (though the syrups and flavourings that seem popular in other European cities are, thankfully, not in evidence here to taint the excellent coffee)- a pingado (double espresso shot with a dash of extra water or milk) will set you back 1€ or get a lager. (Try the very refreshing bottled version that contains essence of lemon-much nicer than it sounds; it’s a cross between light lager, ginger beer, and homemade lemonade.)

The piece de resistance, however, is the pastries, puddings and buns section, which runs along a counter for a good 10 feet - many are Portuguese specialties, featuring egg custards, glace fruits, sponges, the revolting-sounding, but delicious, "chocolate salami" (the reference to salami comes from its appearance - chunks of shortbread embedded in a chocolate, dark or milk, base, which makes it look as though it does indeed belong in a delicatessen!); sweet and more-ish little coconut fancies; and, my personal favourite, macaroons - to die for.

A tip: if you are short of cash or watching costs, takeaway cakes are a fraction of the price of eating in - 1€ per macaroon if you’re eating in as opposed to about 10 for 2€ if bought for takeaway. Be careful, though, as they also have a short shelf life, so don't export too many and expect them to last.

Forno dos Clerigos
Rua dos Clerigos, 67
Porto, Portugal
222 001 181

Pedro dos Frangos

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by SaraP on December 13, 2004

After a long day of pounding the pavements (and assuming you haven’t filled up on too many Clerigos macaroons), you will be just about ready for the gigantic portions at Pedro dos Frangos ("Pedro of the Chickens"). It’s up a rather dark side street, but marked by a protruding illuminated sign that is so hard to miss when you find the right spot.

As to what the restaurant serves (if you can’t translate "Frango"), the game is given away as you press your nose up against the steamed-up window to see the rows of chickens turning on spits over the fire in front of a counter jam-packed with Porto folk. You can either eat down here or make your way upstairs (there are actually two more floors to this Porto institution, and if you come after 8pm, it’ll be full, so you may have to queue for a little while).

Eat your heart out, KFC - for €6.50, you can have a whole spit-roasted chicken plus scrumptious homemade chips (tasting of real potato) and various salads or spicy rice. The standard portions are really meant for two, but many a hearty diner seemed to be giving it his best shot, so there’s no need to be shy. For the more dainty eater, there are half portions (at almost exactly half the price) of chicken or other dishes such as squid (battered rings, which are somewhat less good and more batter than fish), octopus or a Porto speciality, tripe; alternatively, you can simply order chicken legs/wings/breast – whatever you fancy. (For my money, half-chicken and half-something else to share between two people is a good experimental call.)

A special mention goes to the delicious hard brown bread (for which you will be charged by the piece in most restaurants, so don’t nibble speculatively) and for the fiery chili sauce. Decent Portuguese wines come by the bottle, half-bottle, carafe, or glass. The waiters are cheery types of limited but loud and enthusiastic English. Service is pretty brisk (it’s only one step from being a fast-good joint), so don’t expect a leisurely dinner or to linger all evening, as the next diner will be watching out for your table and expecting you to move on quite promptly.

Pedro dos Frangos
Rua do Bonjardim 219
Porto, Portugal

Igreja and Torre dos Clerigos

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by SaraP on December 12, 2004

I suspect visitors fall into two categories - the type who like to get as high as possible to get their bearings or (like me) prefer to work it out at ground level so as to appreciate the view more once I finally get up there and know what I am looking at.

This tower will be good for either, though it lacks any signposts at the top to assist in what you’re looking at (or looking for). The entrance is slightly tricky to find and you have to approach either through the church itself (of which more below) or by going up the steps to the tower and, turning to the left, following the wall to the (unsigned) entrance door. Pay your 1.50€ fee and brace yourself for the 225 steps – good news is that there are stopping points as you climb (and you can credibly claim to be taking a photo through the slits in the walls); bad news is that the same set of steps take you up as well as down and it’s a narrow squeeze to pass at some points, so it may be worthwhile letting people finish if you can hear them approaching to pass.

You can see for yourself the views, which I snapped. Here’s some history... The church was built between 1731 and 1749, the tower was added between 1754 and 1763 (and was at the time the tallest tower in Portugal – 6 floors and 76m tall). The clerigos were the local clergymen, both fully blown and those who preparing for priesthood. Both the church and tower are the work of a Tuscan painter/architect called Nicola Nasoni – apparently he did all of the works for free and was declared a lay brother of the priesthood after 30 years in recognition of his otherwise unrecognised work.

The church itself is a pleasant place to rest up after the exertions of your climb, but frankly, no great shakes – nice carved organ, jacaranda choir-stalls, and some attractive marble.

The tower and church are open from 10 to noon (closing bang on, so you’re warned not to dally up at the top) and then from 3 to 5.30pm.

Torre Dos Clerigos
Porto, Portugal

Palacio da Bolsa

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SaraP on December 17, 2004

Well worth a visit is the Palacio de la Bolsa ("stock exchange" or "commercial centre"), which takes up a whole block next to the market. It looks uncompromising, square, and uninviting from the outside, but this belies the treasures within.

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.

Palacio da Bolsa
Praca Infante D. Henrique
Porto, Portugal


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