Like much of the Iberian peninsula, northern Portugal has a rich and fascinating history that envelops and engulfs you in every street, in every building, as you climb steps, turn a corner, or look at across the Douro River that swirls and churns through the ancient city of Porto.
If you're vaguely interested in the events and stories of the past, then Porto is a city where you happily spend days exploring the multitude of churches (all lavishly decorated with gold shipped back from Portugal's then colony Brazil) and the massive cathedral that also doubled as a fort - strategically located to ensure the best defensive position.
The old city of Porto is listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site - it's a fascinating blend of architectural styles throughout the ages and parts of the ancient city wall still stand. It's rare that a train station stops you in your tracks but the tile-adorned São Bento station is a unique work of art in itself - huge and elaborate images created in the iconic blue and white tiles of Portugal. It was technique that was originally developed by the Moors (who controlled this part of the world for centuries), the blue and white palette was influenced by the Delft school of the Netherlands, but the Portuguese have taken this type of tile work to a new level - using it to protect and decorate buildings, but also to tell stories which was particularly important when in yeas gone by when much of the population was unable to read.
Before my recent visit, the only thing I really knew about Porto was that it was where port wine came from. An invention of English merchants in the early 1700s in order to be able to safely transport the wines of the Douro Valley on longer journeys. The locals laugh that the only thing that Porto gives to port wine is its name - the wine is grown in the Douro valley, transported down the river, and transformed into port wine in the cellars that are located in Gaia on the other side of the river from Porto.
But Porto is about much more than its past - it is very much a city of today and the future. Fantastic restaurants such as DOP and Quarenta 4, the vibrant gallery and shopping district of the Miguel Bombarda district, sipping white port and tonic on the rooftop bar at Porto Cruz, and enjoying the warm evenings drinking outside and exploring the bars of 'the Galleries' area.
One thing I didn't expect was Porto's strong connection to the phenomenon that is the Harry Potter novels. Author J.K.Rowling apparently spent several years living in Porto when she was a teacher and the Lello bookstore claims to have been a major source of inspiration. This is a special place and worth a visit - it's easy to imagine it's the kind of hideaway where you might find Dumbledore, and the staircases are designed in such a way that they do seem to move beneath your feet.
There's also two churches which are built side by side but have an incredibly narrow house between them (built to avoid some planning regulations at the time) - it reminded me of the hiding spot in one of the books where the house magically expands once you enter through the door.
I spent a fantastic morning exploring the Serralves contemporary art museum. It's located in massive gardens that are worth exploring themselves, but the museum is presenting some of the best of the world's contemporary art. In June they host a massive festival (that runs continuously for 40 hours). This year will be the tenth anniversary of the event and is set to attract around 100,000 visitors.
One of my most surprising encounters in Porto was the enormous sculptural work of Janet Echelman, installed on the Praca Cidade San Salvador. Titled She Changes, the sculpture acknowledges the area's fishing heritage and is constructed to resemble a giant fishing net. What I loved was the movement that the sculture achieves, the net billowing in the winds from the Atlantic ocean.
It seemed the perfect representation of the city of Porto - strong links to the past, exciting and relevant right now, and adapting and evolving for the future.
Best Time To Go:
- May through to October.
- The Porto tourism office is a good starting point for details of events and festivals.
- TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932) flies from London Gatwick to Porto twice daily, with return fares starting at £126 including all taxes and surcharges.
- I stayed in the Intercontinental - a great hotel right in the centre of town. Rooms start from €190 per night.