From the archives 2005: Oporto by Cauvery Madhavan

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  • Cauvery Madhavan in Oporto

Porto general view cmykCan a concrete bridge be incredibly sexy, graceful and languorous as it straddles a deep river gorge? Believe me it can and when you see it, you won’t want to take you eyes off the Ponte da Arrábida – its stylish and single 270m span, is simply breathtaking. Can a city have more than one such beauty? Welcome to Porto, a city of bridges like you have never seen before. From the classic elegance of Gustavo Eiffel’s first great work, the Ponte Maria Pia, to the bold modern lines of the Ponte do Freixo, the many bridges that span the mouth of the great Douro River are unforgettable.

Porto itself towers magnificently on the slopes above the river, an ancient city with an impressive collection of historical and contemporary architecture whose skyline is dominated by the imposing towers of the Se fortress. The medieval quarter, the Ribeira, lies on the quayside and its steep and winding streets with houses layered one above the other on the precipitous granite inclines seem to defy gravity. Start your exploring here – the tiled and painted facades of the narrow houses will transport you back in time.  The many taverns and ‘tascas’ are perfect when you get thirsty for the traditional draught beer ‘fino’ served up with local gastronomic specialities  like smoked ham and grilled smoked sausages.

A short but spectacular ride in the Funicular dos Guindais (cameras at the ready!) takes you straight up to Batalha Square. From here, you can shop along the Rua de Santa Catarina, as you head for that jewel of Art Nouveau design – the famous Café Majestic, a much loved, century-old landmark for lunch. Fortified thus, you can chose to climb the 225 steps of the tower of Clérigos or browse around in the neo-gothic Livraria Lello, a bookshop with the most beautiful interiors. The São Bento train station is worth a look too – fabulous floor to ceiling panels of blue and white tiles recall dramatic events from Portuguese history.

The most amazing contemporary addition to Porto’s architectural heritage is the Casa da Musica, an incredible feat of design and engineering and no better place to enjoy a concert if you like music. If you do attend a performance, try taking in a guided tour of the Casa da Musica as well. These are led by enthusiastic young architects who give you a fascinating insight into the design process and the ethos behind the concept. You’ll leave very envious of the people of Porto!

Across the Douro River facing Porto is the town of Villa Nova de Gaia. Here some of the greatest names in port wine have extensive cellars where port is blended and aged, and most of the companies have very interesting tours and tastings. Bars and restaurants dot this side of the river as well, and an evening spent here, watching Porto and its lovely bridges bathed in the atmospheric light of an Atlantic sunset, is just magical.

Porto is a food lover’s paradise and if you like seafood you have landed in heaven. ‘Bacalhau’ is dried and salted cod that is cooked in a variety of ways; I loved the oven-baked version with onion, olives and potato. Octopus was particularly delicious as were the prawns, clams, mussels and crab. Smoked sausages, pork, game and rice-based dishes are part of the traditional fare too. Try the unusual and rich egg-based desserts – there is enough walking to do in Porto to get rid of the calories!

Several cruise companies run trips along the Douro river which is a great opportunity to admire the wonderful bridges and to learn a little of their history. A trip down the river is the best way to get the most complete and dramatic views of Porto.

This ancient city gave its name to both Port wine and to the nation of Portugal. Get yourself there, be impressed and have a wonderful time finding out why it has, so deservedly, been classified as world heritage site.

  • A very efficient network of flights, trains and buses makes it easy to travel out of Porto to other Portuguese and European destinations. Check options on www.cp.pt
  • Buy yourself a Passe Porto, readily available at hotels and tourist offices, for unlimited travel on all public transport plus significant discounts at all attractions, leading restaurants, hotels and pubs. Details from www.portoturismo.pt
  • Look up the fantastic Douro cruising options: Itineraries vary from one hour to one week. Some of the operators are: www.barcadouro.pt   www.douroacima.pt and www.douroazul.com
  • Check www.portoturismo.pt for upcoming events including, Porto Interceltic Festival (March), International Theatre Festival and Children’s Week (May). In the summer there are numerous events to suit all tastes and ages.
  • Why not stay at a historic Pousada which are situated in castles, monasteries, fortresses and places of special natural beauty? Pousadas are real treasures of Portugese architectural heritage, which have been adapted for modern comfort. Look them up on www.pousadas.pt
  • The Douro region has such a rich and fascinating heritage. Make sure you visit Braga and Guimarães both a few hours drive away from Porto, small towns that big on history, tradition and atmosphere.
  • For football fans – catch a game at the impressive Dragon Stadium built for Euro 2004 and home to FC Porto.

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