With several beautiful bridges spanning the Duoro River, all within a short space of one another; it is little wonder that Porto, in the north west of Portugal, is known as the City of Bridges.
Each bridge is sublime in its construction with steel and concrete outdoing each other in perfect arches that can be best seen by taking a boat trip that will gently glide you under letting you appreciate their workmanship and sheer beauty.
For me the Dona Maria Railway Bridge built by Gustavo Eiffel is the most beautiful and the similarity between it and the Eiffel Tower is startlingly obvious.
Porto city lies on the north bank of the River Duoro and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
What strikes the visitor most is how less it of a commercialised tourist resort spot it is and how more it is a real, living, breathing city.
Porto is loud and brash but with a hint of seedy decadence that makes it the most authentic and attractive of Portuguese destinations. The people of Porto don’t speak in whispers they shout from the rooftops and the gabble of noise brings the city to life, never more so than down at the old port.
Here narrow houses overhang tiny streets and short round men in grimy string vests lean from tiny windows shouting at gummy middle aged women below who are cooking plump sardines and huge green peppers on rickety barbecue pots.
The aromas are mouth watering and if you ask nicely they’ll let you try one. We visited during the festival of Säo Joäo, (23rd June annually) a madcap revelry that involves plastic hammers, garlic bulbs and the most fantastic display of fireworks that I have ever seen.
Behind the port are fascinating buildings many of which are decorated in the baroque style. The Sao Bento train station was built on the site of an old monastery and has a whiff of ‘Brief Encounter’ about it. Blue azulejos (tiles) on the wall depict Portuguese history. Its well worth a look as is the Lello Bookshop, an impressive example of art nouveau, whose womb-like staircase draws you in and up to its small café where academic types sit around all day reading and sipping port. Most of the books are in Portuguese but that is no matter as it is surely one of the most beautiful bookshops that you will ever see.
Do not miss the Casa da Música, Porto’s new auditorium that looks like a skip from the outside but is breathtaking in its attention to detail within. It has been listed as among one of the top ten auditoriums in the world.
West of Porto is the lush Duoro Valley, another UNESCO Heritage Site. Hire a car or, better still, take a meandering train journey through its verdant and spectacular scenery. On each side of the valley the terraces produce excellent wine and olive harvests, the results of which can be sampled in the many fine restaurants along the way. Something which can’t be found on the terraces is a Portuguese dessert known as a chocolate explosion. Cut into this hot pudding and count your calories as the warm thick chocolate gushes out. It’s positively sinful.
The small town of Pinhäo is situated at the confluence of the Duoro and Pinhäo rivers and is the epicentre of the port winemaking area. The Vintage House Hotel operates regular wine tastings and its rooms offer beautiful views of the Duoro River.
On your way back to Porto take time to visit the small town of Amarante set on the banks of the Tâmega River. Built in 1790, the towns impressive bridge was the scene of a heroic defence by the people of Amarante who fought off French Marshall’s Soults advance for fourteen days before his army defeated them and burnt down their houses. Accommodation in this town doesn’t come better than the Casa da Calçada. Set on the site of an XVI century palace this gorgeous manor house is the perfect place to return to after a hard days sightseeing.
A tour of the Calem wine caves in Porto are a must. See www.calem.pt
A boat tour (www.douroacima.pt ) from the Cais da Ribeira (port) will take you under the Bridges of Porto as you wine and dine.
The Oporto Cathedral is one of the city’s oldest monuments and one of the most important Romanesque monuments in Portugal.
The city of Braga with its Baroque churches and the extraordinary flight of stairs at the pilgrimage sanctuary of Bom Jesus has to be seen.
Don’t miss the dramatic scenery of the National Park of Peneda-Gerês.
Viana do Castelo has opulent mansions built in the Renaissance and Baroque style with breathtaking views.
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