A major attraction in Porto is a visit to Vila Nova de Gaia, home of the Port Wine trade, established in the late 17th century. The wine was named, of course, for the city. Designated a wine region in 1756, it is the second oldest in the world, after Chianti. It’s a fortified wine, usually sweet and viscous, stronger than regular wine, being up to 20% alcohol. The most common Port is Ruby.
In 1678 Liverpool merchants first visited. War with France meant French wine was in short supply and Port filled the gap. British brand names such as Cockburns, Croft, Osborne and Sandeman proliferated. Brothers George and David Sandeman from Perth, in Scotland, founded their company in 1790. The distinctive logo features the Don, a somewhat sinister figure draped in a cape with a wide brimmed Iberian hat.
At Sandeman, where tours and a free exhibition hall are promised, the door is blocked by a liveried man, who, upon enquiry had two words: No Inglesi. Enquiring about the exhibition I get the same two words. No Inglesi! No Irish neither, and I didn’t stick around to ask about the dogs. Much as I love the personal touch, it might have been better to put up a sign. I took a stroll around the neighbourhood and came upon a nearby restaurant offering sampling trays. I thought I’d try this in the pleasant noon sunshine. Unfortunately, after a long rest on the terrace, service was not coming my way, and only the odd glimpse of waiters at a distant table hinted that it was there at all. Perhaps the life of the Port connoisseur is not for me.
The Gaia quayside leads me back beneath the Ponte Dom Luis I, and I take the bridge’s lower deck back to Ribiera. The Gaia side resounds to the all too frequent music of heavy construction and maintenance, the noise not much contained by plastic drapes. On the Porto side there is some lessening of the torture.
Immediately beside are the remains of Ponte Pensil, a suspension bridge built in 1843 but dismantled for the construction of the Dom Luis I. The supporting posts remain and the riverside plinth now functions as a bar. As clouds rolled in and the din softened with distance, I decided to try it out. The terrace is the perfect place to watch the constant river traffic, and well sheltered from the spectacular cloudburst that follows, thunder forming a neat counterpart to the screaming metal on the far bank. A funicular runs up to the high city. It’s rather a long wait as one of the two cars is damaged and we can only board every second trip. The journey takes us past ancient city walls ending not far from Se Cathedral to complete a conveniently circular trip.
On my last morning in Porto, It’s bucketing down outside, but the vertical rain leaves my balcony dry and I breakfast there with a Nespresso and wait for the deluge to pass. I take a walk to Boavista when the rain clears. The street is straight but more narrow and dingy than I had reckoned. About a kilometre later, it widens at a huge circular plaza. Bovista plaza is nailed to the map with a mighty palm tree. The central sculpture is the Monument to the Heroes of the Peninsular War where Portugese and British defeated Naploleon from 1808 to 1814.
The Casa da Musica is a polished asteroid of hard angles and soaring slants. It was designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and opened in 2005. Entering it via a sleek flight of steps has been compared to boarding an alien spacecraft. The feeling doesn’t evaporate on steeping inside. It is polished and sparse. I make my way up several flights of stairs, curving from view but with the promise of the roof garden and cafe which is said to have great views over the city. Unfortunately the steps lead eventually to a closed door. Oh well, it’s raining again so a rooftop garden might not have been the best idea.
Boavista is busy but lacking in oases. South of the Avenue is the Agramonte Cemetary. This dates to 1855 and is the last home of the city’s wealthy residents. Mausoleums line the avenues of this city of the dead, decorated with sculptures by Soares Dos Rios amongst others. The sun is out and some refreshment on an outdoor terrace is called for. I find a pokey bar and order from the waitress. Ten minutes later there’s no sign, so I have to go in. The waitress breaks off from her phone call to point to an elderly gentleman behind the bar. I explain to the ancient how to pull which drink for me and carry it out myself, wondering if I’ll get to finish it before the barman is himself carried off to nearby Agromonte.
The Rua de Julio Denis travels due south and leads to the Crystal Palace Gardens, a landscaped park with fine views over the city. The orginal Crysal Palace was built in 1865 for the International Exhibition. The oriinal iron and glass structure was replaced in 1950 by the modernist dome of the Rosa Mota Pavillion. This is named for Olympic marathon runner, and hosts concerts and sporting events.
Towards the city centre is the National Museum of Soares dos Rios. The neo-classical facade is distinguished by its red stucco upper storey. Formerly the Palace of the Carancas, the frowners, noting the disapproving atitude of the resident family Moraes e Castro. Soares dos Rios, the sculptor, was born in Gaia in 1847. He studied in Paris and Rome and returned to Porto to become the Professor of the Academy of Fine Arts, and committed suicide aged just 42. His most famous sculpture is The Outcast, which might be a window to his soul.
Having paid, I found that much of the exhibiton rooms were closed for renovation. The remainder was eerily vacant of artworks. Perhaps it’s meant to be an installation, signifying absence. There was an exhibition of Magellan’s explorations, featuring charts and maps that looked interesting but the text was only in Portugese.
The eerily vacant gardens to the rear allow me time as an outcast. Although shadowed by a security guard, he’s drawn away by two tourists trying to escape over the back wall. There is something of a cycling heritage, with an early velodrome cited here. Of all the galleries I’ve ever visited, this was the one with least art in it. Climate activists would be forced to eat their own soup. Perhaps it would have been better to close altogether, as this was a waste of time.
The Lello Bookshop on Rua das Carmelitas is famed amongst fans of Harry Potter, it’s magical interior. filtered through the imagination of JK Rowling. Lengthy queues had formed as fans paid homage to the Scottish author. Nearby, two churches, Igreja do Carmo, and the Carmelites church stand, almost, side by side. The Carmelites Church dates to the 17th century, and was originally a convent. Next door is the more exuberant Baroque facade of the Igreja do Carmo. Between them, Porto’s narrowest house forms a wedge a metre wide. The narrow building was to keep the convent nuns separate from the monks. As the clergy would caution us at the school dance on a saturday night, during the slow set: leave enough room for the Holy Ghost.
Clerigos church and tower, rising to 250 feet, is a major landmark of the city. Designed by Italian architect, Nicolau Nasoni, the church was built for the Brotherhood of the Clerics, and occupies a dominant island position where the street drops sharply towards the city centre. The tower can be climbed, if you’ve the breath for it, and the views from the top are said to be breathtaking.
The city centre is, sadly, off limits, and I pick my way back uphill through the labyrinth of alleyways.Somewhere off Rua Almada I find a bar with blue tables, the perfect colour to enjoy the sinking light of evening. The bar is one where you order and carry, which is an improvement on the prevailing level of service. Outside it’s raining so I wait within while the sound system plays Iggy Pop lsinging the Passenger. Ignatius wrote this with Ricky Gardiner for his second solo album Lust for Life in 1977. David Bowie is on piano and backing vocals.
I am the passenger, I stay under glass
I look through my window so bright
I see the stars come out tonight
Over the city’s ripped back sky
And everything looks good tonight
Singin’ la la la la la le lah
La la la la la le lah
La la la la la le la, le la la.
It’s time to say good bye. Any finish to a day in Porto is best with a nighttime wander about the Ribiera. The quayside takes on a magical quality with lights illustrating the dizzy combination of street stacked on street, tumbling down to the river, and above, bridges criss crossing the sky. It’s busy, of course, and there are few vacant seats at the riverside bars, but I find a place and the service, for a change, is swift and friendly. It’s a long uphill home, but on a night like tonight, I could grow wings. I’ll just take my time.