Porto, the City of the North

19/07/2018 11:07

On Douro River banks, before its waters melts in the Ocean’s, they say that one of Jason’s Argonauts called to find a city in the place where, years after, Greeks or Romans would introduce the crop of the vine. Barely dominated by the Arabs soon was formed a county called Portucale that finally become knew simply as the port, Porto.

Just as the legend attributes to Ulises the foundation of Lisbon, for Porto chose Calais, one of Jason’s fifty Argonauts who set off for Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece. Son of Boreas and Oritia, they say that Calais died in the return journey beside his twin Zetes, victim of the Harpies. Another version says that was Hercules who killed him in revenge for being abandoned in Misia. And yet another version places him beyond the Strait, landing in Douro’s mouth. It’s also said that the name, Cale, has its origins in the Celtic tribes that inhabited the place or that comes from the Greek voice καλός, meaning beautiful, to form the place-name that Romans used: Portucale. Portucale had two town cores, one on each bank of the river: Portucale Castrum Antiquum which today is Vilanova de Gaia and Portucale Castrum Novum on the right bank of the river, today Porto itself.

Muslim invasion set the city under Umayyads rule retaining it for a whole century and a half. In 868 the Kingdom of Leon occupied the area thanks to Vímara Peres establishing the Portucalense County between the rivers Minho and Douro. In 1095 Alfonso VI of Leon offered the territory in fief to his daughter Teresa, wife of Henry of Burgundy. Their son, Afonso Henriques, would become the first Portuguese monarch.

Past and present Porto can be seen as a panoramic view from the Tower of the Clerics, a Baroque jewel in the city, work of the Tuscan Niccolò Masoni. It was finished in 1763 in the place then known as Cerro de los Ahorcados – Hangmen Hill – and also Mallows Field. Getting to the belfry is a challenge for the lungs by its two hundred and forty steps leading to 246 feet from the ground. Dr. Katia Andrade describes it in the Poemário do Porto as Altiva e digna, / É o exlibris / Da cidade do Porto. (Haughty and dignified, / It is the exlibris / Of the city of Porto. The church was founded by the Poor Clerics brotherhood, a merger of three brotherhoods that agreed in 1707 who were also in charge of the hospital building that separates the temple from the tower.

In that past the city was protected by two walled perimeters. The oldest is known as the Cerca Velha, built up in the Roman period. Cerca Nova, or Muralhas Fernandinas, were built in the 16th century and reached the river line in the Ribeira neighbourhood. The first was almost completely demolished in the early nineteenth century; once protected the nearest perimeter around the cathedral and had four doorways: Porta de Vandoma near the current conjunction of the streets Chã and Saraiva de Carvalho, Porta de São Sebastião, the Arch of Sant'Ana in the namesake street and the Door of Lies that was previous and curiously known as Door of Our Lady of the Truths. In the Terreiro da Sé there were several medieval houses that were demolished in 1940 to make room for the current square, among them was a tower that was preserved, slightly displacing its location; this is the Tower of Dom Pedro Pitoes where today several tourist services are offered. There is also a statue of Vímara Peres, vassal of the king of Asturias, Alfonso III and conqueror of the city in the year 868.

On top of the hill of Pena Ventosa rose the , the Cathedral of Porto whose works began in the twelfth century, its granite façade with its two crenelated towers reminds a fortress. Here King John I and Felipa of Lancaster joined in marriage in 1387, and here the Prince Henry the Navigator was baptized. Nasoni, the Tuscan present in so many baroque works in the city, participated in the design of the external lodge decorated with tiles made by Valentim de Almeida. The Gothic cloister is also tiled; on the upper floor the ornamentation reproduces scenes from the Metamorphoses of Ovid.

Next to the cathedral are preserved a couple of fountains that formerly supplied water to town, these are the fountains of Sao Miguel and Rua Escura, this last was displaced when the cathedral square was reformed. From the Terreiro da Sé, where in 1940 the pelourinho - a pillory - was installed, this time with a purely decorative purpose, there is a good view over the city, to the left, in the foreground is the facade of Sao Lorenzo dos Grilos and the Museum of Sacred Art and Archaeology, behind the Episcopal Palace.

About the second wall, the Fernandina, there are still some sections with defence towers next to the Convent of the Poor Clares that can be appreciated descending towards Luis I bridge, another icon of Porto, by the interminable steps, mainly ascending, of the stairs of Guindais, or, more comfortably by the namesake funicular. This wall had four gates protected by defence towers and fourteen minor doorways, the only one that has been kept stays in Cais da Estiva, this is the Porta de Carvão, Gate of the Coal.

This is the famous Ribeira neighbourhood that stretches along Douro’s northern bank. The houses, not without a certain air of decay, display their façades decorated with discoloured tiles, among which stand iron railings and satellite antennas. Under the balconies are the terraces of the restaurants that reach Ribeira Square. Here, in a corner is the small chapel of Nossa Senhora do Ó and the Casa del Infante, where was born on March 4, 1394 Henry the Navigator, enthusiastic sponsor of discovery journeys. Today the building houses the Municipal Historical Archive, but before it had been mint and customs until at the end of the nineteenth century were built the dependencies of the Alfandega Nova, the new customs house with some French air, not in vain it was built by the French Jean Colson. In 1993 the famous local architect Eduardo Souto de Moura adapted the premises to host the Museum of Transport and Communications. Opposite, a restaurant with an outdoor barbecue specializes in one of the typical dishes of the city, the francesinhas, a kind of steak sandwich with ham covered with cheese and tomato that melts and is topped with a fried egg.

Above the Ribeira, another square is dedicated to the Infante and in it stands Ferreira Borges Market, built at the end of the XIX to replace that of the Ribeira. Between 1939 and 1978 it supplied fruit to the city. After a deep remodelling it hosts today two concert halls and other cultural venues. Besides, across the street, is the Instituto do Vinho do Porto. The most outstanding building is the neoclassical Palácio da Bolsa. Eight years after the fire of 1833 that considerably affected the cloister the space was ceded by the Queen Maria II to the Commercial Association of Porto by an order published on June 19, 1841: É concedido ao Corpo do Commercio da cidade do Porto o edificio queimado do extincto convento de sam Francisco da mesma cidade, para estabelecer a praça, ou bolsa, e o tribunal do commercio da primera instancia. (It is granted to the Corps of Commerce of the city of Porto the burned building of the extinct convent of San Francisco of the same city, to establish the square, or stock exchange, and the commercial court of the first instance). Inside it has some extraordinary halls; in particular the most important is the Arabic Hall, inspired by the Granada Alhambra. In the Chamber of the Court are declared the years fit to dedicate a vintage wine elaboration. Also, here is the office that occupied Gustave Eiffel between 1875 and 1877 and the fine Patio das Naçoes illuminated by a wide skylight.

Behind the Bolsa is the Church of San Francisco whose interior overflows with baroque ornamentation that barely leaves a free space and where a hundred kilograms of gold have been used in sheets to decorate chapels, columns and walls featuring the altarpieces of Joseph family tree and the Martyrs of Morocco. Opposite is the church museum with its collection of sacred art and the catacombs where, between 1749 and 1866, the brothers of the order were buried.

When Oporto overflowed its walls it grew to the north; paradoxically it is called Baixa to the higher district than the riverside and which can be reached by train thanks to the São Bento Train Station officially inaugurated in 1916 although the trains were already arriving since November 1896, twenty years before. They say that it is one of the most beautiful train stations in the world and at least its vestibule is completely covered with more than twenty thousand tiles where some moments of Portuguese history are staged: Valdevez Battle, the arrival of John I and Felipa of Lancaster to Oporto or Ceuta takeover. The tiles appear to spread to the neighbouring Igreja dos Congregados.

Around the University of Porto is the triangular Clérigos square, next to the tower already mentioned. Here opens the library Lello & Irmão, the one that inspired J.K. Rowling for the Harry Potter saga. The Scottish writer lived in the city between 1991 and 1193 and seems to have been helped by the wooden stairs, painted plaster walls and neogothic decoration of the premises. Currently to enter the bookstore tourist form long queues that surpass the square. Two steps away is Gomes Teixeira or Lions Square, by the fountain in the middle. This was made in Paris by the Compagnie Générale des Eaux pour l'Etranger and assembled here in 1885. In front are the centenarian Cunhas Stores that have been assuring for years Vendemos mais Barato - we sell cheaper - as others also claim in the corner of Mouzinho da Silveira Street opposite to the train station. The next corner is occupied, laden with blue tiles, by the Church of the Carmo. At the opposite end of the University building are the Garden of Cordoaria with the groups of statues by Juan Muñoz, the Portuguese Centre of Photography, formerly a jail, and the small temple of São João de Taipas in whose crypt are some of the burial places of Bridge of Barcas tragedy victims, happened in 1809 during the second Napoleonic invasion.

The heart of the Baixa, at least the administrative one, lies in Aliados Avenue and in Praça da Liberdade where are located the Paço do Conseilho, the city hall, and numerous office buildings with a certain French air. In the centre there is an equestrian statue of King Pedro IV, first emperor of Brazil and in front of the consistory another of the poet Almeida Garrett, son of the city. Another nice square is the one of Batalha of which they say that its name is due to the battle fought here facing Christians and Muslims, these last leaded by Almanzor. In the lower side of the square there is a statue by sculptor Texeira Lopes installed in 1866 representing Pedro V, to one side the National Theatre São João that opened for the first time in 1798 and in the opposite corner a building that by the shape it seems to have housed a large department store that had to see its heydays between the 1950s and 1970s, a couple of cafés and three hotels complete the L-shaped space that closes the church of Sao Ildefonso with its rich tiled facade.

Right here starts Santa Catarina Street, where fashion stores are concentrated in a stretch that has been closed to traffic. At the corner of Rua 31 de Janeiro, which descends vertiginously towards the Church of the Clérigos, the modernist decoration of the old jewellery of Reis & Filhos is preserved, just beyond the cafe Majestic serves its breakfasts and aperitifs since 1921 when it opened with the name of Café Elite. The modernist decoration witnessed gatherings and meetings of city intellectuals. The newspaper Ilustração Portugueza echoed the inauguration with a chronicle by André de Moura: Acaba de dar-se entre nós o exemplo do que deva ser un café. Trata-se do novo estabelecimiento desta clase, que vem de inaugurar-se num dos grandes puntos centrais do Porto, à entrada da Rua da Santa Catarina. É um dos mais noblemente sumptuosos que conhecemos, pelo que se justifica bem o seu título: Majestic. (We are referring to the newest establishment of this modern type of café, that was just inaugurated at one of the important central points of Oporto, the entrance of the Rua da Santa Catarina. It is one of the most noble and luxurious cafés that we know of, for which its name is Majestic.)

A little further on, the reflection of the tiles reveals the presence of the Chapel of Souls, clad with 15,947 pieces from the Lamego Widow Ceramic Factory, with scenes from the lives of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine. In the surroundings, in Passos Manuel Street, is the Coliseum, one of the main concert halls of the city, inaugurated during the Salazarist dictatorship. And the Market of Bolhão, which first stone was laid on July 20, 1914 and which today awaits a necessary reform.

Contemporary architecture has also found its places in Porto; in fact, two renowned architects are originally from the city: Álvaro Siza Vieira and Eduardo Souto de Moura. Next to Boavista roundabout, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas built a large polygonal structure that became the seat of the National Orchestra at the turn of the millennium. It is the Casa da Musica with modern concert halls with exceptional acoustics. Siza Vieira was in charge of the design of the Museum of Contemporary Art opened in 1999 in Serralves gardens grounds, a large eighteen hectares park.

Porto ends, or begins, in the Atlantic, where the Douro flows. There where it has its beaches, in Matosinhos, in Foz that were once guarded by the fortresses of São Francisco Xavier, better known as Castelo do Queijo, by the shape of the rocky formation upon it was built, or Castelo do Foz or Fort of Saint John the Baptist. Alongside the latter, a couple of lighthouses lighted the mouth of the river, Felgueiras and the São Miguel-o-Anjo Lighthouse, now replaced by new signs.

© J.L.Nicolas


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