Published: June 8, 1997
Oporto, Portugal's second-largest city and the capital of its port wine industry, is in the middle of a major restoration of its historic heart. The 1755 earthquake that heavily damaged Lisbon spared Oporto (known as Porto by the Portuguese). With many streets unchanged since the Middle Ages and an endless variety of tiles (azulejos) and wrought-iron balconies decorating its buildings, this city along the Douro River has a remarkably unspoiled assortment of architecture.
Now, these treasures are getting a freshening up. In the historic center, Barredo, much-needed restoration is being carried out under Fernando Namora, an architect who is an Oporto native; Barredo was added to Unesco's World Heritage Site list this year. Work is also under way in the districts of Ribeira and Miragaia.
A lively arts scene is nurtured by the Serralves Foundation, one of Portugal's most dynamic cultural centers. Art galleries are flourishing in the hilly, riverside Miragaia district, and farther upriver in Ribeira, several bars offer art exhibits, live jazz and rock and poetry readings.
Even after restoration, much of Oporto's charm will be hidden away in its labyrinth of steep streets. But now that the sun has finally won over the ocean mists of spring, signaling the approach of the hot, dry summer weather, the colorful tiled and painted building facades have come into their own.
The Feast of St. John, the city's patron saint, on June 24, occasions several days of celebration. On the 23d, streets fill with people tapping one another on the head with plastic hammers, a curious ritual that traces its roots to the 19th century, when the long-stemmed garlic flower was used in similar fashion in midsummer games that, in turn, came down from pagan celebrations. That evening, there will be fireworks over the Douro, and all-night dancing on the city's squares.
On June 24, barcos rabelos, the boats traditionally used to transport casks of port, will race on the river. Each port wine lodge, where the harvest from the Upper Douro is transferred to begin the aging process, still owns a boat (although they were long ago phased out of use), and the sight of the flotilla on the shimmering Douro is impressive.
The Serralves Foundation, in a large Art Deco house within an extensive park with fountains and a rose garden, is exhibiting works by the German artist Robert Schad, who creates steel sculptures, through June 22, followed by a retrospective of the Portuguese art scene in the late 1970's from July 3 to Sept. 7. The foundation -- which gets almost half of its money from public funds -- will also present the Jazz in the Park festival in the adjacent park on July 19 and 26 and Aug. 2, when the Dave Holland Quartet will perform. Tickets are $6.50 to $13, based on a rate of 154 escudos to the dollar. The foundation, 977 Rua de Serralves, (351-2) 617-2038, is open 2 to 8 P.M. weekdays; 10 A.M. to 8 P.M. weekends; closed Monday. $2.60.
The Soares dos Reis Museum is named after the 19th-century sculptor whose work is displayed there, along with Portuguese and international art. The museum is being restored; only the 19th-century galleries are open, as well as temporary exhibits. From July 31 to mid-September, Frederick William Fowler, a Scotsman who was a pioneer of photography in Portugal, will be the subject of an exhibition. The museum, on Rua D. Manuel II, (351-2) 200-7110, is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 A.M. to 12:30 P.M. and 2 to 5:30 P.M. Admission: $2.25.
During Baroque Music Week, July 20 to 27, concerts will take place throughout the city. This year's program is devoted to Bach, and includes an organ recital by the Austrian organist Bernhard Gfrerer at the Cathedral on July 21 and a performance of the ''Magnificat'' by the Portuguese Ensemble Barroco Europeu at the Igreja da Lapa, a large 19th-century church on Largo da Lapa north of the historic center, on July 27. Free. Call or fax (351-2) 308-019.
The Ritmos-Festas do Mundo, a world-music festival, will fill the docks of Cais da Alfandega, between Miragaia and the river, with infectious rhythms at 8 P.M. on June 27 to 29. Bands from Brazil, Angola, Uzbekistan and Congo are expected. $3.25; (351-52) 646-800.
A day's tour could start at a cafe on the Praca da Ribeira, surrounded by buildings beautifully adorned with azulejos, with a view of the port wine lodges across the Douro and the open-air market nearby. Finish with tea and pastry at the aptly named Cafe Majestic, a mirrored 1920's tearoom awash with stucco angels at 112 Rua de Santa Catarina.
From Praca da Ribeira, it's a short walk to the Church of Sao Francisco on Rua Infante D. Henrique, with its stunning Baroque interior whose gilded carvings conceal the 14th-century Gothic structure. The church no longer holds regular services. It is principally used for concerts and theater productions. Open Monday to Saturday 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. May through September; 9 A.M. to 1 P.M. and 2 to 7 P.M. October through April; (351-2) 200-6493. $3.25.
Behind the church, the Stock Exchange (Palacio da Bolsa), circa 1840, bears witness to the city's rich trading history. Its monumental granite stairway is typical of the local stone-carving tradition; the Arabian Hall was inspired by the Alhambra in Granada. Open Monday to Friday 9 A.M. to 12:30 P.M. and 2 to 5:30 P.M.; (351-2) 200-4497. Admission: $4.55 (includes a guided tour in English).
At 144 Rua das Carmelitas across from the church tower (Torre dos Clerigos) is the 1906 Lello & Irmao bookstore, with an extravagant neo-Gothic wooden stairway and stained-glass windows. Some of Portugal's greatest 19th-century writers, including the romantic poet Camilo de Castelo Branco and the novelist Eca de Queiros, were published by Lello & Irmao. (351-2) 200-2037.
Nearby on Praca Almeida Garrett, the waiting room of the 1896 Sao Bento train station is decorated with realistic azulejos, painted in 1930, depicting events in the city's history as well as rural life in northern Portugal.
The Cathedral, known as the Se, which started as a 12th-century fortress church, dominates the cityscape from atop the Pena Ventosa hill. The granite church has a graceful medieval cloister and twin buttressed towers, and the architectural elements range from Romanesque to Gothic to Baroque.
Beneath the Se is the Dom Luis I Bridge, built in 1886 by a Belgian firm that was inspired by the ironwork on Gustave Eiffel's railway bridge farther upriver. On the other side of the Dom Luis I Bridge, sprawling along the riverfront Vila Nova de Gaia district, are some 80 port wine lodges, creating a closely knit patchwork of orange-tile roofs. Most are open to visitors free, with a tasting culminating the tour, and two are noteworthy for more than the standard presentation.
At Sandeman, 3 Largo Miguel Bombarda, (351-2) 370-2293, there is a small museum with an exhibit on the barco rabelo. Open daily 10 A.M. to 12:30 P.M. and 2 to 6 P.M. April through September; 9:30 A.M. to 12:30 P.M. and 2 to 5:30 P.M. October through March.
A neighboring lodge, Ramos Pinto, has an extraordinary collection of advertising posters from the 1920's and 30's; reproductions can be purchased. The lodge is at 380 Avenida Ramos Pinto, (351-2) 300-716. Open weekdays 10 A.M. to 6 P.M., Saturday 10 A.M. to 1 P.M.
Where to Stay
All prices are for a double with breakfast.
The Grande Hotel do Porto, 197 Rua de Santa Catarina, (351-2) 200-8176, fax (351-2) 311-061, is in a five-story building commissioned in the 1880's by a prosperous Oporto native. Its comfortable, old-fashioned charm extends to the 100 spacious rooms, decorated in a standard spare style. $81.
For a view of the Atlantic, the Hotel Boa Vista, 58 Esplanada do Castelo, (351-2) 618-0083, fax (351-2) 617-3828, in the fashionable oceanside suburb of Foz, has a rooftop terrace. The 39 rooms are furnished in contemporary style. $91 to $101.
Budget: The Pensao Castelo de Santa Catarina, 1347 Rua de Santa Catarina, (351-2) 595-599, fax (351-2) 550-6613, looks like a miniature castle, faced with blue azulejos and set in a quiet garden. Many of its 25 rooms open onto the rose-filled inner garden. $49.
On the large, shady, mosaic-paved Praca Carlos Alberto, the Pensao Sao Marino, at number 59, (351-2) 325-499, a short walk from Torre dos Clerigos, is a family-run hotel. Its 14 rooms are clean and functional. $26 to $42.
Luxury: Even if you aren't a guest, the palatial Hotel Infante de Sagres, 62 Praca Dona Filipa de Lencastre, (351-2) 200-8101, fax 314-937, is worth a look. The reception rooms, some with carved wooden ceilings, are filled with Portuguese antiques and reproductions. The 74 rooms are decorated luxuriously. $114 to $179.
[View near by in the same building a Jewish association and initial Talmudim society - Kehillah Or Ahayim, next the palatial Hotel Infante de Sagres, -- Praca Dona Filipa de Lencastre, 22
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In a more contemporary mode, the glass-clad Hotel Ipanema Park, 124 Rua de Serralves, (351-2) 610-4174, fax 610-2809, is in the Boavista district, the business and shopping area 10 minutes from downtown. It has a health club and two pools, and organizes chamber music concerts and film previews. The 281 rooms have the latest modern amenities and are decorated with Brazilian furniture. $130.
Where to Eat
All prices are for dinner for two with wine.
Among the many restaurants along the Ribeira docks, on the Douro's rocky banks, is the trendy Dom Tonho, 13-15 Cais da Ribeira, (351-2) 200-4307, owned by the rock star Rui Veloso. Its picture windows look out onto the river, (…) and any of the half-dozen or so cod dishes. $52.
The Taylor's port lodge, 250 Rua do Choupelo in Vila Nova de Gaia, (351-2) 370-0993, runs a delightful restaurant with a terrace and view of the city across the river. The menu changes daily and includes a choice of fish or meat. A glass of dry white and glass of tawny port are free. $52. Lunch only; closed weekends.
The fishing district of Matosinhos, five miles to the west, has a number of popular bistros, such as A Casa da Boa Gente, 160 Avenida de Serpa Pinto, (351-2) 938-0750, which serves fish fresh from the nearby market, grilled outside on the restaurant's doorstep and presented with a dash of olive oil, or baked with onions and potatoes. $26. Closed weekends.