I fell for Portugal – for its azulejo-covered façades, its food, its terracotta rooftops – hook, line and sinker. Our first stop, Porto, was everything it was cracked up to be: full of character and cultural gems, and picturesque to boot (even when the sea mist rolled in and enveloped the city). It’s a city for the flâneurs and flâneuses amongst us; a city which, quite simply, is made for wandering. Instead of giving you a minute-by-minute account of what we got up to in the two days we spent there, this week and next I’ll be sharing a selection of places we visited (and, more importantly, things we ate), and a few of my favourite photos.
Built on the site of the Benedictine Convent of São Bento da Avé Maria, Estación de Porto-São Bento is one of the prettiest train stations I’ve ever seen. Inside, there are floor-to-ceiling friezes: the upper part depicts different forms of transport used across the country; while the lower panels consists of vast azulejo ‘paintings’, each of which documents a major historical event in Portuguese history. After a delayed flight – or rather, delays exiting the plane – due to a passenger who knew he was ill when he boarded the plane, but boarded anyway and then proceeded to faint on board, it was just what was needed to turn my frown upside down.
The Palácio da Bolsa is testament to Porto’s rich trading past, and when we stepped inside, it was evident that no expense was spared on this stately pile. We booked ourselves onto one of the last tours of the day, and spent the entirety of the tour drinking in the lavish interiors, from the Pátio das Nações (Hall of Nations) with its octagonal skylight and elaborate mosaicked floor, to the Sala do Tribunal where port is declared ‘vintage’ and the Salão Árabe, the jewel in the crown of the Palácio da Bolsa. Modelled on Granada’s Alhambra and gilded with 20-odd kilos of gold, the Salão Árabe is worth the ticket price in itself (€9, adult; €5.50 student). Thanks Travel-Gourmand for the tip – this was a real highlight of our trip!
Spit-roasted chicken? Count me in. Pedro dos Frangos (Rua do Bonjardim 223) serves up hearty plates of chicken ‘n’ chips at cheep and cheerful prices (sorry, the pun was too good to miss), and is an ideal dinner spot for budget-conscious travellers.
In Porto, we visited more churches than I have fingers to count them on, but for good reason. More often than not, there was either a lavish, gilded interior (see Exhibit 1, Igreja dos Carmelitas Descalços, above) or a magnificent tiled façade (see Exhibit 2, Igreja do Carmo, below) – and in a few instances, both. Happy days.
Livraria Lello & Irmão (€5; voucher redeemable against a book) is, perhaps, a little too pretty for its own good. Beautiful as it was, with its intricate plasterwork, striking forked staircase and stained glass ceiling, it was a little – shall we say – swamped with visitors, which slightly detracted from the experience. That said, it was quite amusing to see people posing in armchairs with random books they’d plucked off the shelves. When we visited, they had a miniature exhibition on Le Petit Prince, which was très mignon.
If there’s one thing I love more than meandering through the streets, it’s viewing them from above. Enter, Torre dos Clérigos (€5, adult). A spiral staircase consisting of some two hundred and twenty five steps is all that stands between you and a bird’s eye view of Porto. It’s a bit of a squeeze at the top, but well worth breaking a sweat to get there. Our first day in Porto was somewhat overcast, so we saved this for our second day, when clearer skies were on the cards.
Anyone that knows me will know that I have a bit of a (okay, a very) sweet tooth. As such, seeking out sweet treats – be they croissants, tarts, cakes or otherwise – is high on my agenda when exploring somewhere new. Confeitaria do Bolhão (Rua Formosa 339) has a windowful of goodies – and just as you think you’ve decided what you’d like, you step inside and discover there’s more! We bought a tarte de lima (lime tart) and a tarte de maracujá (passionfruit tart) to share, and both of them were scrumdiddlyumptious. (I’d go back to Porto just for those tarts, if the truth be told.) Even if baked goods aren’t your thing, it’s worth making a detour to Rua Formosa to explore its little parade of olde-worlde shops and cafés.
Just a short walk away from Confeitaria do Bolhão was Capela das Almas, an azulejo-clad chapel on one of Porto’s busiest thoroughfares. Whilst the interior, with its whitewashed walls and hand-painted tiles, is beautiful, it’s the exterior which puts it firmly on the tourist trail. There’s barely a brick that isn’t covered by azulejos, depicting the lives of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine, and it’s a real feast for the eyes.
If you fancy trying the humble bifana (a crusty roll stuffed with thinly sliced pork in a spicy sauce), Conga (Rua do Bonjardim 316), known as the ‘Casa das Bifanas’, is the place to go. Plus, at just €2,20 each, they’re probably one of the best value lunches around. When we stepped inside, the staff smiled at us knowingly, and rustled up our bifanas in record time; we took them to the nearby Praça do Município, and tucked in at one of the tables set up under the trees.