Porto – my penultimate pause

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In my mind’s eye Porto is an oil painting melting in the rain, all of its colours running down the canvas, and its tall, thin buildings reflected in pavement puddles, for the unseasonal sunshine I had enjoyed for months broke as I arrived and I saw much of Porto in the rain. I remember the kaleidoscope of its pigments and its multi-coloured houses at least three stories high, some faded with age but still striking. Many buildings sported painted tiles on their exteriors, some a pretty Delft-like blue and white, like the Church of the Carmelitas and the Chapel below.

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Porto perches on a hill rising sharply from the ancient harbour front of Ribeira, a honey pot for tourists who can sit in one of its cafés gazing across at the famous Port company logos on the other side of the River Douro, fixed onto the facing hillside of Vila Nova de Gaia like postage stamps.  Here they can sip on a port aperitif as they relax and soak up the atmosphere.

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The lanky buildings lining the harbour are mustard yellow, pale blue, pink and carmine red. On the opposite bank an old wooden gondola-like barge, a Rabelo, is probably moored to remind you that Porto’s internationally renowned port wine industry dates back centuries. These boats were used to transport the wine from the up-river vineyards to the cellars here in Porto where they would age for years before being exported.   It was said to be a treacherous journey and the sailors painted saints on dangerous rocks to give them safe passage, and put a coin in the boat’s alms box when they reached port.

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One has to be prepared to climb as one explores Porto, for its streets descend and mount as if you are in a human-sized game of snakes and ladders. Some streets have retained their former splendour, others can look dilapidated, but if you open your heart you see these as part of Porto’s charm, and everywhere there is colour even if it is dulled by age or rain.

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A tour should take in at least the following :  Firstly, the long, wide Avenide dos Aliados which descends down to Liberdade Square. At the top is the imposing marble and granite city hall with its huge bell tower and eye catching statues – colossus men and classical ladies holding up the pillars, and the flamboyant writer Almeido Garret seemingly proclaiming his brilliance.  At the farther end a naked lady smiles cheekily down at you near the more serious King Pedro IV.  Be sure to look inside the city hall at the windows, tiles, ceiling and insignia.

Below : The impressive city hall with storm clouds

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Go on to visit the São Bento train station and have your breath taken away by the ceramic tiled interior depicting the history of Portugal.   Then you can decide whether you think this is the most beautiful railway station in the world as claimed.

After the station walk up to the gothic twin-towered Porto Sé Cathedral to admire more tiled facades, an attractive 17th century fountain complete with Porto’s Coat of Arms, and spectacular views over the red roofs and labyrinths of the Porto streets below.

Walk back through the town navigating through streets which have kept some of their baroque shop fronts then stop for a well-deserved rest and a snack in the iconic Majestic Café, beloved of the towns’ residents since the 1920’s. Inside this vintage café you will possibly forget your coffee as you gaze around at the ornate mirrors, chandeliers and cherubs, but you won’t forget your food.

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On you go and if you are feeling fit you can climb the 75 metre high Torre dos Clérigos for its impressive town views. On the main street the attractive shops sell pretty sardine tins, bottles of port of course, and many other delicacies to take home. Don’t miss popping in to the famous Lello & Irmão  book shop, where you can sit and admire its imitation carved-wood interior, art nouveau winding staircase and stained glass skylight inscribed with the shop’s motto Decus in Labore – There is Honour in Work. If you catch the time just right you can take a photograph at one of the few hours you are permitted to do so.  Rumour (or maybe legend?) has it that JK Rowling was inspired to write the Harry Potter books in this exquisite book shop.  She evidently DID live and teach English in Porto for some years and is said to have frequented the store’s café, so maybe it is true.  Nearby I happened across a host of black-robed university students who may also have played a part in her imagining the scholars of Hogwarts.

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Above : The Torre dos Clérigos, clouds, and colour;  and below the 1906 Lello & Irmão Book Shop.

Then catch a vintage tramcar, a remnant from the first tram network in the Iberian Peninsula, which takes you down to the river on a trip into the past with its red leather seats and brass handles on its doors and windows.

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Another day cross the formidable double-decker Ponte de Dom Luis I iron bridge then take a tour around a port company to learn how this fortified wine is produced and see the big oak casks in which it matures. I visited Cálem’s cellars and learned that there are an astonishing number of Port varieties and colours, and that, contrary to my philistine practices, Vintage Port should be consumed quickly once opened. The House of Cálem was a family firm founded in 1859, originally exporting primarily to Brazil.

I also looked in on the Sandeman Port Company’s fascinating exhibition on their marketing strategies during the enterprise’s long lifetime. This firm, started by Scotsman George Sandeman with a £300 loan from his father, has always been a world leader in terms of branding and advertising. Even in the 1700’s it made bespoke bottles with family seals, now precious antiques, which could be refilled by a local wine merchant. In 1805 it became the first Porto wine company to brand a cask, the concept being very new at the time. In 1877 it became the first to register its brand, doing so very quickly after a Law was passed in Britain allowing companies to register trademarks with the UK Patent Office. Their trademark is therefore one of the oldest still in existence. Sandeman went on to become business leaders in terms of labelling and advertising, creating their iconic “Don” silhouette in the 1920’s and using innovative practices – such as buying paintings by famous artists for its advertising campaigns and employing others to create posters which have now become collectors’ items. One such campaign was the beautiful but controversial “Centaur” poster designed by French artist Jean d’Ylen. Anyone interested in business practice would also have been enthralled by this exhibition.

The port wine companies grow their grapes in the Douro River Valley which is renowned for its beauty, with terraced vineyards rising up steeply on either side of the river and ancient wine estates (‘Quintas’) scattered on the hillsides ready to receive your visit.   But when I drove inland to see the verdant, hilly vineyards I did so in a rainstorm of nothing less than biblical proportions and could not fully appreciate their beauty.

Unbeknown to me Porto was my penultimate stopover. The plan was to keep on travelling down the Portuguese coast past Lisbon, then leisurely meander back to my home near Geneva. However when I reached Coimbra my travels were unexpectedly halted when my father died. This incredible journey of unanticipated self-discovery, in ways that I had never imagined, was therefore almost over.   I had learned so much about myself, received many life-lessons, met with nothing but warmth and hospitality everywhere I travelled, and discovered that one can keep developing and growing at ANY age.

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Cheers !

– * –

Note: I have now completed this first Journey around Europe alone, and am back in France, where my French home borders Geneva, Switzerland. I still want to catch up on the stories of my travels so I will continue to write about them here.  MK

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