a vida portuguesa

Back in March, through 4 weeks of voting, you picked Porto, Portugal as the best city to visit in 2011. Last month I made good on a promise to explore the city before the end of the year. What I found as a guest of Visit Portugal was a city that captivated me with its artistic nature. From the gigantic battle of design and ego that was waged over Porto’s two most famous bridges to Harry Potter’s birthplace, what’s uniform in Porto is an attention to unique.

The best way to show you Porto is to look at what the city has inspired, slowly working your way back to Portugal’s second largest city.

A Tale Of Two Cities

Somewhere around 300 BC, the Romans conquered the settlement of Cale – named after Greek for “beautiful” or Latin for “warm”; either way renaming it Portus Cale. Say that 5 times fast and you can see how the name Portugal likely came about. Porto is now known as a city of bridges, one of two in Europe to have 6; all of which cross the Douro River. The other city in Europe with 6 bridges is Vila Nova de Gaia (Gaia for short) – and it happens to sit across the Douro. Yes, Porto is right next to Gaia, taking up the limelight and making up two of the 12 cities in the Porto Metropolitan Area.

luis i bridge gaia porto

For travelers, the differences aren’t obvious and if you didn’t know better, would be convinced you haven’t left town, even after walking across Luis I Bridge.

casa da musica barSound And Sight In A Little Big Fight

One of the most obvious displays of deliberate creativity in Porto is the Casa da Musica (House Of Music). The Casa da Musica is at its core a music hall; but it’s surrounded by individual rooms focused on different aspects of sound, art exhibitions, band practices, reading rooms, and things that vaguely have something to do with the giant concert hall in its core.

The Casa da Musica is free to enter, deliberately to signify that money isn’t a part of the creative process. (Although it helps to have wealthy investors.) The building itself was designed by the Dutchman Rem Koolhaas who wanted it to look like meteor crashing into the pavement. Cost and physics prevented him from making the exterior more elaborate and he almost had a fit when told his bar overlooking the concert hall required support beams. That, and the fact that the porous floor needed to be covered by glass because women in heels found it nearly impossible to walk across – and men below were enjoying more than a view of the concert hall.

sao bento train station porto tilesSmaller battles were waged however in the VIP room, which is decorated with thousands of hand painted tiles, representing scenes from other museums across Portugal. Not one to be told what to do, the artist slipped in his signature hidden in grass, quickly noticed by museum’s staff. It would take another 7 years and an 8-year old to find the other mark of the artist – a tile that’s 90 degrees in the wrong direction in surprisingly plain sight.

  • I picked up these and many other stories on a tour of the building. 3 Euro and interesting enough that I didn’t notice it was an hour long; I would highly recommend it.
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You’ll get a preview of those tiles, known as “azulejo” and all over the city or if you arrive by train to the Sao Bento station. There are over 20,000 hand painted tiles throughout the station painted by Jorge Colaco in the early 1900s.

Where Harry Potter Was Born

The Livraria Lello is over a hundred years old and consistently voted as one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores. What makes it enchanting these days for thousands of tourists is it might be where Harry Potter was conceived. Not literally (you’ll have to ask his parents for that information) but it’s widely rumored to be where J.K. Rowling first came up with the series’s overall concept.

Livraria Lello bookstore porto

Rowling has never actually discussed details about her inspiration but was teaching English in Porto when her marriage to a Portuguese man failed in 1993. Prior, in 1990 the idea of a boy attending wizard-school came to her and the depression that followed her divorce fueled many of the darker tones of the Potter series (including the dementors). Rowling completed the first Harry Potter manuscript in 1995; spending two years of her free time in Livraria Lello.

calem portoControversial – especially for Potter fanatics who know about Edinburgh’s The Elephant House – so you let your imagination decide (*cough* Hogwarts).

  • By the way, the Livraria Lello is still a private shop and photos (you can see mine here) haven’t been allowed for the past 6 months since the owner found it difficult to maintain business with the influx of curious tourists. I was given special access thanks to ATTTurismo so don’t think I broke any rules. This time.
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The Blood Of The Heart Is Made Of Port Wine

Although I’m very familiar with wine in a bottle (and glass), it was kind of Porto Calem to teach me where their ideas for every blend come from and the work that goes into turning grapes into goodness. A 20 minute tour of their cellars ends with tastes of their selections. 4 or 5 glasses and I’m out the door, my thirst quenched; followed by a francesinha to kill any lingering hunger.

Though despite this taste, there’s more much more of Porto to be found. Some of it you can see, others you taste, but I think the reason so many of you voted it the best city to visit is for everything that’s much less tangible.