By: Jaime Cobas
Porto put the “Portu” in Portugal, a name that harks back to its Roman origins, it is the economic capital of northern regions and is surpassed only by Lisbon, the capital, in terms of economic and social clout. It is situated along the banks of the Douro River, which winds down from Spain to end its course here, in the Atlantic Ocean, on the western part of the Iberian Peninsula. Its historic center is the Ribeira district (literally, river side) with cliff side tiled roof houses, winding roads, zigzagging staircases and churches with glazed tile façades, which has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage zone, to be preserved for posterity.
Porto is not only the cultural capital of the country, featuring modern architectural gems by the Portuguese Alvaro Siza and the Dutch Rem Koolhaas, both Pritzker Prize winners, it is also vying as a culinary Mecca that retains the essence of its cultural heritage along with serious international ambitions.
or the visitor, there are three main areas to explore; the central, older part, traversed by Avenida Aliados; the Ribeira, a riverside district that is the magnet for nocturnal leisure activities with the Gaia municipality, just across its banks, where the port wine exporters maintain their warehouses and host daily “ wine tastings” and the Boavista area, a newer offshoot, dominated by shopping centers, high rise buildings, and two important cultural hubs.
Claes Oldenburg Sculpture at Fondaçion Serralves
Not to be missed in the Aliados area is the Igreja de Sao Francisco ( Rua Infante Dom Henrique #110) a Gothic church that shelters a baroque fantasy smothered in gold leaf that is overwhelming in its exuberance. Across the street, is the Palácio da Bolsa (Rua Ferreira Borges) the still operating stock exchange, of neo classical architecture with an impressive light filled central staircase, murals that line the exchange rooms, beautifully appointed offices and meeting rooms and, the “ piéce de resistance” the Saláo Arabe, a magnificent ballroom with carved and gilded stucco walls, in complex geometric patterns with a parquet floor, that is a sumptuous volume of craftsmanship and proportions. On the Ground Floor there is a restaurant and a gift shop that has a very good assortment of souvenirs that are of high quality, handmade and artistically designed, not the regular touristy variety.
The Casa da Musica (Avenida da Boavista # 604) by noted Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, opened in 2005, it is conceived as a giant crystal that fell from space, with a multi faceted exterior that contains in its core a rectangular “ shoe box” style concert hall with impeccable acoustics. Its interiors are “ high tech”, where the sinews and conduits are visible behind a perforated metal skin, features a variety of functions and spaces, including a room with wall to wall “azulejos” the blue hued glazed tiles that are characteristic to many walls in the country. Its exterior curved surfaces (the “splash” when the meteorite crashed into being) are a favorite of the skateboarders that animate the surroundings. It is an area vibrant with activities and a magnet to the youth.
Casa da Musica, exterior and interior views.
As a finale to our Porto weekend the hotel recommended Shis, which is the Portuguese pronunciation of the letter X. The taxi driver drove along the seashore and stopped at what looked like a wood framed bus stop; he told us we had arrived. The surprise, the X factor, was that this marked a stairway down to almost sea level. As one descends the restaurant unfolds, first an esplanade with tall glass windscreens and tables with market umbrellas. Then, a blond wood framed pavilion, with large plate glass windows overlooking the sea, below, and the Castel de Sao Juan da Foz, an ancient fort with ramparts and guard houses that juts into the sea, at left.
The city is readily accessible by express bus service from Lisbon, a two and a half hour drive (with a short pit stop for water and facilities) via Renex or Rede Expessos, that feature air conditioned buses, with reserved, reclining seats and 8 to 12 daily departures, (about $13.00 one way); by train, or by air ( the airport is about 9 miles from the city but with metro and bus connections) You can also go by bus, with a stop at Fatima, the continue on to Oporto, for a nomianal up-charge.