Day 4 – Porto
You know that a city is significant to the country when the entire country and Port wine is named after it. Like India was named after the river Indus, Portugal is named after its second largest city – Porto, also known as ‘Cidade Invicta’ (Unvanquished City). We arrived in Porto very late/or early (whichever way you look at it). The mall where we had to pick up our apartment keys was already closed and a security guard opened it for us. We were the last customers for the agency who rents many apartments all over Europe. However, the agent at the desk was getting calls from customers with questions such as “how do I turn on the heater?”. He remained calm, multi-tasked while mending the front desk. He struck a polite conversation in perfect English and even had a charming sense of humour. “Huh!” I thought, a little unsure, a little curious and a lot impressed. He was our first impression of Porto.
We picked up our keys, drove around the apartment block about three times – once because we missed the turn and another because we missed the obscure parking entrance. By the time we unlocked the apartment, we were knackered and retired for the night.
The following day was gloomy and rain was finally on its way. We set out to explore Porto – one of the major cities of Portugal. Coimbra, also known as University City was the capital of Portugal for over a century, but during the peak of Portugal’s maritime discoveries, port cities like Lisbon and Porto began to gain importance. The first thing I noticed were the narrow rusty homes huddled together. The yellow, red and green houses were washed with rain over the years and almost all the iron balconies hung clothes, lingerie, linens and Portugal National Football Team’s flags alike.
As we started to explore the city, it started to pour. We were in the Henry the Navigator Square and ran for cover. We ended up in a cafe right at the square, next to the Police Headquarters, where we tried the native dish of Porto – Francesinha (Little Frenchie). It is said that a returned emigrant from France and Belgium, named Daniel da Silva adapted the Croque-monsieur to fit the Portuguese palette and the created the heart stopper – Francesinha which essentially has 5 types of meats between two thick slices of bread and sealed it with melted cheese and served with a tomato and beer special sauce!
With a full belly, we decided to bear the rain and run across the street to explore The Bolsao Palace, but unfortunately it was closed for the day (they have very specific English tour timings, so make sure to book in advance – don’t be like us :)). Gutted and with the rain still going strong, we explored the Saint Francis Monument Church next door, not really expecting much but I was not disappointed as with all Portuguese churches. The simple granite exterior fools everyone of what really the interior holds.
The church began construction in the mid 13th century by the Franciscan Friars, when they first entered Portugal. They were not easily accepted by the Bishop at the time but the church was built and completed from the generous donations of the rich families who believed that this would pave the way to ‘Paradise’. The interiors of the church was an example of Baroque richness and believed to have been covered by 400 to 600 kgs of gold at one point which is the obverse of ‘Franciscan Poverty’. But in 1809, when Napoleon troops invaded Porto, they decided to use the church as a horse stable.
As we explored the city centre, we passed a long queue and which turned out to be for Livraria Lello. I told myself that the queue would eventually decrease and that I would come back for the bookstore later. One of the most endearing things about Porto is its history with J.K. Rowling who taught English and lived in Porto. It’s believed that many details in the Harry Potter books were inspired by Porto – one of them being Livraria Lello, the bookstore which inspired the interiors of Hogwarts, particularly its changing staircases.
As my luck would have it, the bookstore staff later told me that this day was the busiest they have ever seen (due to the Bank Holiday weekend) and even much later in the evening, the queue had not diminished one bit. The Potterhead in me would not allow me to leave Porto without having seen this bookstore. So I bought a ticket and queued. The crowd took away all the pleasure that I usually experience in any bookstore – there I was trying to capture a photo without someone’s head or hand or face in the frame. I rummaged through the books to pick up one that I would cherish as a souvenir. Moreover, the €5 ticket price could be redeemed on a purchase.
The store was magnificent and the architecture is nothing short of magical. Their website states that the bookstore have been opened in its current location in 1906 by the Lello brothers – José and António Lello. The credit for this incredible architecture would go to an engineer named, Xavier Esteves, who’s eclectic style, combined with Art Noveau created a truly enchanting space. The bookstore had snaking a remarkable crimson staircase, stained glasses, busts of renowned Portuguese writers etc.
As you enter, you will notice the most captivating ceiling which looks like carved wood, but it is simply painted plaster used to deceive most inexperienced eyes.
If you paused a moment and looked up, you will also notice the most splendid stained glass ceiling with the expression “Decus in Labore” (Honor in Work) which is the motto of the house and applies to anyone who enters it. How coincidentally symbolic for any woman who walks through the doors of Livraria Lello?
After having had to tear myself away from the magnetic charm of this bookstore, we walked down towards the Ribeira on the banks of the Douro river (river of gold). Douro river origins in Spain, through Portugal and into the Atlantic in Porto. On the banks of the windy and twisty Douro river is the lush and fertile Douro Valley which is where the Port wines are all made. The Ribeira district in Porto still has old cellars to store crates and crates of Port.
As we walked downwards, we noticed a small sign which says Port wine tasting for €2. We walked in into a small corner space with minimal Port wine on display, a coffee machine and some small selection of souvenirs and food. We sat down on the high chair as the waiter/salesperson started to ask us questions about what type of wine we wanted to taste. I learnt from him that Portugal is also famous for green wine. We then went into a discussion about the different Portuguese colonies around the world and then the conversation began to turn towards our political views.
So, here we were – sitting in a corner bar/cafe (whatever that place was), sipping on a glass of port and having the most perceptive conversation with someone who, at first glance, seemed almost jittery and shy but turned out to be completely able to hold a conversation that most people won’t be able to. No doubt that Porto is pretty. Almost everyone who we mentioned about Porto told us about the famed beauty of this city. But my humble opinion is that, Porto’s beauty is not in its Ribeira and azulejo tiled buildings and churches. Porto’s beauty truly lies in its people.