Safely back on terra firma, I begin my descent to the quayside via Se cathedral, proud on its promintory above the Duoro. Porto’s Cathedral, Se Do Porto, was begun in the 12th century, with many additions over the centuries. It is stern, but impressive, having the appearance of a fortress atop a hill. Two square towers, topped by cupolas, frame the crenallated entrance. The giant rose window above the porch is its most ornamental flourish.
In the 17th century several alterations in the baroque style added some finesse , including a new portal and with cupolas added to the towers. The Baroque loggia on the northern facade is by Nicolau Nasoni, an Italian architect who was a major figure in the architecture of Porto. He also contributed much to the interior of the cathedral in the decoration of the new Baroque apse. Nasoni designed the Episcopal Palace, adjacent to the Cathedral, in 1734, although he didn’t live to see its completion. Vast as it is up close, it looms even larger when viewed from the river or the far quays. He also designed the Clerigos church tower, soaring above the rooftops of Porto and was buried in the crypt there in 1773.
Facing Nasoni’s loggia, is a figure on horseback. The statue commemorates Vimara Pires, a warrior who led the liberation of the city from the Moors in 868. The main square in front of the cathedral offers fabulous views of the city, and the perfect place to hang out in the embrace of the cathedral. It has provided historic settings to. It was on this spot in 1142 the Bishop persuaded some passing Crusaders, English, German and Flemsh, to help free the city from the Moors, again.
Below the cathedral lies the oldest quarter of the city, a warren of cobbled alleyways. I follow the quaint, winding lanes, down and down and down.The area is reminiscent of a Greek island village, and I feel suddenly remote from the hectic modern city with even the music of pneumatic drills absent. At the base of this steep descent, the Ribeira quayside is lined with crowded bars. Rising almost vertically above are the coloured houses. The terrace umbrellas might usually function as parasols, but today their function is more in the Irish context. I find a vacant table at last at the very end of the quay in the shadow of the bridge.
It’s Champions League night, and the local heroes of Porto take on, of all people, FC Bruges. My last European adventure had taken me to that most beautiful Belgian city. That was also a European night three years ago when FC Bruges beat an Austrian side and I caught the late second half for a famous home victory. Jovial Belgians take up most available seats but this small bar is less magnetic for crowds. One man at the adjacent table makes up for it with a stream of consciousness commentary on all events in Flemish, and occasianally English. I try to pretend he’s a pneumatic drill. Every time it rains, the same joke caption booms: Come to Oporto for the sunshine! Sunny Oporto! And, once seated safely under my umbrella, it does rain a lot, and very heavily. A few inches from my shoulder a cascade of water forms a solid sheet, as Ribeira’s gutters jam. I pull up my hood and gather my anarok about me. My Flemish friend leaps unexpectadly to the aid of a fellow countryman in a wheelschair, helping him to a sheltered table. So, a nice man, I think.
I have booked the Six Bridges Cruise on the Duoro and have long ago decided that today’s not the day. But, downing my beer, the sun hoves into view, and a large window of blue with it. I make my way to the kiosk to redeem my online booking for an actual ticket. I fish the form out of my shoulder bag. Quite literally fish it, because the water has got in through the drawstrings and the sheet is a sodden mess. The young lad at the kiosk is unfazed, all I need is the number he says, and somehow deciphers the smudged characters. The boat arrives in ten minutes and I’m on.
The cruise does what it says on the tin. Taking us under the six bridges that span the river. Heading inland at first, then turning and making our way to the end of the estuary where Foz meets the Atlantic. The narrow boat sits low in the water and its timber benches give it a pleasantly antique feel. You can imagine, if you wish, that you are skating along on the traditional craft, the rabelo, used in the portwine trade. However you see yourself, the shifting views from the river will quickly grab your atention. The deck is not too crowded, as you would want to be mad to go on the river on a day like this. But it’s the madness of Wonderland, with magic in the air.
From the Ribeira quayside we head inland under the Dom Luis I Bridge and on to the Infante Dom Henrique Bridge,This carries motor traffic, and pedestrians, and is the most recent bridge. Completed in 2003, its shallow arch seems to float magically above the river with no visible means of support. A little further upriver is the Maria Pia Railway Bridge, similar in style to Dom Luis I but with a single deck. It was also built by Seyrig in 1877. Railway traffic ceased in 1991 but has been wisely retained as a city landmark. The plain white modernist Sao Joao now carries the railway. It was designed by Edgar Cardoso, a local engineer and professor. Ponte de Freixo is another concrete bridge. It has eight spans and was built in 1995. This is where we turn to head once more through the city which crowds the steep river banks, jostling with a friendly flotilla of tour boats and pleasure craft.
The Duoro widens as we approach the Atlantic and is spanned by the modern Ponte de Arrabida. also designed by Edgar Cardoso. This is a sleek modernist arch carrying a six lane highway. The elegant concrete arch forms the portal to Porto for the Atlantic traveller. We turn as the prow tips the bay, bathed in welcome sunshine, with the resort town of Foz appearing at the eastern edge of the city.
We disembark on the Gaia side, which makes a quiet contrast to the full voiced choire of Bruges supporters on the far bank. There’s a modern bar on the waterfront for lunch and a long drawn out pint, where I can absorb more of the river view of which no one could grow tired.
Next door is the cable car which I take to the top of the hill in high good spirits. Be a bird, or a superhero for a few minutes, drifting above the orange tiled roofs, floating further and further above the mighty river.
If life is a river and your heart is a boat
And just like a water baby, baby born to float
And if life is a wild wind that blows way on high
Then your heart is Amelia dying to fly
Heaven knows no frontiers
And I’ve seen heaven in your eyes
No Frontiers is a song by Jimmy McCarthy, most famously the title song from Mary Black’s 1989 album.