We finally made it to Porto Portugal. We love the city’s character. It began coming into prominence (not to speak of prosperity) when it became one of the first on the Iberian Peninsula to be recaptured from the Moors. Then it began to prosper as a trading city and center for provisioning Crusaders who were leaving by ship for the Holy Land.
This maritime heritage served it well as Portugal was prospering from its opening and initial near-monopoly of the spice trade with Eastern Africa and India and the colonization of Africa, Brazil, and Macau. As this trade began to fade in the 17th century, the British’s taste for wine—and especially Port wine—created an increasingly lucrative substitute. Douro Valley wine was shipped by river to Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia (on the other side of the river) for aging and shipping to England.
Today, the Porto metropolitan area (which includes the still separate city of Vila de Gaia) is Portugal’s second-largest city and one of its primary industrial, wine, and tourist hubs. Even wine and tourism, however, have not fully insulated the city from the wretched state of the Portuguese economy. Educated young people are leaving in droves and this, combined with the lowest birthrate in Europe, is contributing to the oldest, most rapidly declining and most rapidly aging population in the EU. But even with its economic problems, and with some sections being littered with dilapidated and abandoned buildings, the city—at least for tourists—has many charms.
The central city is divided into a number of different sections.
- The Neo-Classical Cathedral District around the Se, the stately Praça da Liberdade (Liberdade or Freedom Square) headed by the stately City Hall and flanked by the beautifully and historically-themed tiled São Bento train station and pretty, renovated commercial streets, such as the balconied Rua dos Flores;
- The medieval Barredo or Jewish Quarter (which has more than its share of dilapidated and abandoned buildings) and the also medieval but increasingly popular riverside Ribeira quarter (with its steep, narrow, twisting streets and small, tightly-packed buildings and increasingly active nightlife);
- The gardens of Cordoaria, prominently marked by the towering Torre dos Clérigos church; and
- Business and shopping district with its office buildings and the center of the city’s leatherworking district and shops.
Our primary exposure to the city came through walking and experiencing the neighborhoods and admiring the city’s many, many displays of azulejo tiles (not to speak of sitting for port and wine tastings). But we did take the time to explore a handful of the city’s most notable buildings and structures.
Among the more interesting are:
- São Bento train station, with its beautiful, historic azulejo tiles that tell the stories of the history of Portugal and the Douro Valley wine industry;
- The Se, or Porto Cathedral, which began life in the 13th century as a fortress and contains several small religious treasures as well as azulejo tiles that trace the life of Mary and the tale of Ovid’s metamorphosis.
- Santa Clara Church, whose practically austere exterior belies a flamboyant interior of gilded carved wood, and whose convent sheltered many royal and wealthy girls from arranged marriages they could not abide;
- Sao Francisco, whose alter and interior are coated with more than 450 pounds of gold, whose Tree of Jesse carving was used to teach the bible before widespread literacy and whose crypt is filled with treasures, and whose basement is filled with human bones.
- The city’s six bridges which finally connected Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia after centuries of being separated by a deep chasm that was not bridged until the early 20th century, when a student (turned colleague and then competitor) of Gustave Eiffel designed two bridges, the Maria Pia Bridge and most notably, the huge, graceful Luis I Bridge, that was (at least until Eiffel build the Eiffel Tower) the largest metal structure in the world and ends in dramatic fashion at a huge, hilltop monastery.
- Remnants of the city’s second walls, financed by private subscription and built in the 14th century when the city outgrew its first walls. While the second walls stood untested by the feared Spanish for 400 years, they were largely torn down in the 18th century, prompting the French to capture the undefended port.
- For Harry Potter fans, the lovely Lello & Irmao bookstore (J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for the Wand Shop and for the sweeping staircase in Professor Dumbledore’s office) which is now so popular that it charges a 3E admission (refundable if you buy a book) and still has long lines waiting to get in, and the almost equally pretty Majestic Café (in which she reportedly began wring the book).
Although we did partake of a number of traditional Porto’s favorite dishes (especially the city’s clams Bulhao, wonderful custard tarts, and Pao-de-lo Humido cakes, we managed to avoid one of the city’s “great” culinary innovations—the Francesinhas. The huge sandwich consists of multiple types of meat, cheese, and a salad and as accompanied by a huge serving of French fries, slathered with what is supposed to be an incredibly hot, spicy sauce.
This being said, we did have some wonderful meals.
After our last few experiences, we have begun to lose our traditional resistance to hotel restaurants—at least restaurants at good hotels. And Palacio das Cardosas is a good hotel. So after a review of the menu, we accepted our concierge’s recommendation to eat here. We are glad we did. Dinner for which we had unfortunate little time, began with a very unusual and tasty amuse bouche (vaporized oyster with celery and lime) and a couple of unusual spreads for bread. The egg yolk with truffle salt was the most interesting. Two wonderful main fish dishes followed: slow-cooked seabass fillet with oyster risotto and lemongrass foam and baked redfish with pumpkin puree and celery pickles.
We also had dinner at another restaurant of star Douro Valley chef Rui Paula. After a large Douro Valley lunch and many, many wine and port tastings, we confined ourselves to two dishes: traditional Clams “Bulhao” (in white wine, olive oil, lemon, and garlic sauce) and a seabass (relatively plain, except when combined with the wonderful lobster-packed risotto). Our sommelier recommended one of the most characteristic representations of a Douro Valley red—a wonderfully delicate 2012 Mapa red that combined a number of the valley’s indigenous grapes.
The restaurant is three miles outside the city center, but well worth the detour. Housed in the first floor of an old stone building, you enter a waiting area where you sit on a couch watching vintage silent movies. The multi-room dining area with its original stone walls is atmospheric. More importantly, knowledgeable and attentive servers serve wonderful food. Although we had only two dishes, both were wonderful. Joyce had a perfectly cooked seabass with clams and mussels in a fennel-tinged fish sauce. Tom returned to his carnivorous ways with an also perfectly cooked (medium rare) veal loin with marrow bone sauce. A pot of the most unusual and delicious whipped potatoes either of us ever had accompanied the veal. They were layered with caramelized onions and cumin and topped with cornbread crumbs, which added a crunchy texture. Tom had two different glasses of red wine. While Herdade Poro Carro red from Setubol had a forest floor tinge, he especially enjoyed the 2010 Quadus (from the Douro). Joyce enjoyed and stayed with a 2012 Douro white from Niepoort.
Our dinner began with a very interesting bread with sausage baked inside. We then split clams (in an olive oil, garlic, and coriander sauce) and tasty sea bream baked in salt (to retain the moisture) and flamed in vodka (a dramatic touch). We split a bottle of 2012 CARM Reserve from the Douro. Although we liked the cozy atmosphere of this tiny, rustic restaurant, and we enjoyed the food, it did not aspire to or reach the level of our other three Porto dinner restaurants.
Prior to an afternoon trade tour and tasting of Graham’s ports, we had lunch here. We began with an amuse-bouche of codfish salad with cornbread. Then came a foie gras torchon with persimmon and chicory sauce appetizer. The sommelier suggested that we split a Dow’s Lagrima White Port (which turned out to be Tom’s favorite of many white ports he tasted). Next came clams in a green sauce which was nice, but not as flavorful as some of the other white wine garlic, and olive oil sauces we have had. Joyce had a very nice roasted grouper with clams “Xerem” and polenta. We added a glass of 2014 Anselmo Mendes Contracto Vinho Verde Alverinho and of 2014 Intensus Biancho from Alentejo (both of which were okay, but not among our favorites).
We had two appetizers for lunch here. The stuffed crab spread was in a creamy, tomato-based sauce with small toasts. After sending back the overcooked first version, we enjoyed an octopus tempura with sweet and sour dipping sauce. Tom added a glass of Fine White Port from Niepoort. Joyce had a 2014 Branco da Gaivosa white from the Douro Valley
We stayed at Palacio Das Cardosas where we had a lovely room overlooking the square. It was a perfect location. We got into town a little too late to return the car to the rental agency. But the concierge went out of his way to help us determine where we could return the car instead (unfortunately, it was at the airport). Each time we had a question or concern, the staff was outstanding in helping us. We highly recommend the hotel.
And, of course, since we were in Porto, we had to explore ports and the Douro Valley, which is a separate blog.