05 May 2019
Porto offers a taste
of Portugal and
a taste of Port wine
Second cities, generally speaking, are more relaxed than capital cities, and often offer a much gentle experience for tourists and visitors hoping to get first-hand experiences of local languages and cultures.
Compare Milan with Rome, Birmingham with London, Thessaloniki with Greece – or perhaps Cork with Dublin. I was in Porto, the second city of Portugal, for a few days earlier this year as a late birthday celebration, and it was my second visit to Portugal – I had spent a few days in Lisbon a few years ago (see Church Review / Diocesan Magazine, March 2015).
I wrote last month about my journey from Porto along the Portuguese Way or path of the Camino de Santiago, starting at the Sé or Cathedral. But Porto is worth visiting for its own charms and delights.
I was staying in the historic centre of Porto, which Unesco designated a World Heritage Site in 1996. The architectural highlights of the city include Porto Cathedral, the oldest surviving building, the small Romanesque Church of Cedofeita, the Gothic Igreja de São Francisco (Church of Saint Francis), the remnants of the city walls and some 15th century houses.
Part of Portuguese identity
The story of Porto is deeply embedded in the identity of Portugal as an independent nation on the Iberian Peninsula. The early Celtic-Latin name of the city, Portus Cale, is sometimes said to be the origin of the name of Portugal, and the city has given its name to Port wine, one of Portugal’s best-known exports.
Porto dates back to ca 300 BC, when Celtic people settled along the banks of the Douro. Under Roman rule, the city developed as an important commercial port, and later it was a centre for Christian expansion.
Porto was captured by the Moors when they invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711. In 868, Count Vímara Peres, a subject of King Alfonso III of Asturias, reconquered the area from the Minho to the Douro River, including Portus Cale, later referred to as Portucale, and established the County of Portugal.
John I of Portugal and Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt, were married in Porto in 1387, symbolising a long-time alliance between Portugal and England, the world’s oldest recorded military alliance. It was also from the port of Porto that Prince Henry the Navigator, son of John I of Portugal, set off in 1415 on an expedition that initiated the Portuguese Age of Discovery.
Nicholas Comerforde was the first British consul in Porto in 1642, two years after Portugal reasserted its independence from Spain. The Methuen Treaty in 1703 established trade relations between Portugal and England, and the first English trading post was established in Porto in 1717. The production of port wine then gradually passed into the hands of a few English firms.
A cathedral where the city was born
Porto’s Cathedral, or the Sé do Porto, is an historic landmark in the old centre where the city was born.
Built on the highest point in the city, the Sé is the most important church building in Porto. Set on a rocky outcrop, it looms above the Morro da Sé, the city’s oldest district, with its narrow streets, old houses and shops, and residents whose families have lived here for generations, surrounded by the old city walls.
There is evidence that Porto was the seat of a bishop from the fifth and sixth centuries, and a pre-Romanesque church was still standing in 1147. However, it is said the cathedral was first built by Bishop Hugo, a French bishop who came to Porto before Portuguese independence, around 1113-1136.
The large square around the cathedral was the centre of commerce and trade in the city in the Middle Ages. Here in 1147 the crusaders from northern Europe agreed to join the Portuguese army and help King Afonso Henriques in the conquest of Lisbon, then held by the Moors.
The present Romanesque cathedral was started in the second half of the 12th century, and a second stage of building work began under Bishop Fernando Martins (1176-1185). Craftsmen from Coimbra worked under the guidance of the Master Soeiro Enes who was responsible for the high capitals of the nave.
The cathedral was rebuilt and renovated many times throughout the centuries and continued constantly into the 16th century. This explains why it is a mix of architectural styles. It is predominantly baroque in style, but the façade and the nave are Romanesque and the cloisters and one of the side chapels are Gothic in style.
Inside the cathedral, the Romanesque nave is narrow, reaching up to high barrel vaulting. The large pillars make the nave seem narrow with a high ceiling. The decoration is restrained, with bare walls and only the high altar and some of the chapels are decorated in a Baroque style.
The romanesque apse was torn down in the 17th century and a new chancel was built in the mannerist style by Bishop Goncalo de Morais (1606-1610), later decorated with wall paintings by Nicolau Nasoni and choir stalls. The carved altarpiece (1727-1729) by Santos Pacheco and Miguel Francisco da Silva is an important work of Portuguese Baroque.
The Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni added the elegant Baroque loggia to the north side of the cathedral in 1736.
The elegant Gothic cloisters were built in the 14th and the 15th centuries, during the reign of King John I, who married the English princess, Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt, in Porto Cathedral in 1387. The cloisters were decorated with baroque azulejo tiles by Valentim de Almeida between 1729 and 1731. They depict Biblical scenes from the Song of Songs, the life of the Virgin Mary and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Casa do Cabildo or Chapter House has a coffered ceiling painted with allegories of moral values by Giovanni Battista Pachini in 1737.
In the middle of the square in front of the cathedral, a column marks the former site for hanging criminals. The square also offers impressive views over the city, the Douro River and the wine cellars on the waterfront.
Jewish presence and revival
There has been a Jewish presence in Portugal since Roman days. After the Spanish Inquisition, when the Spanish crown ordered the expulsion of Jews in 1492, about 60,000 Spanish Jews fled to Portugal, with 30 families banished from Castile finding shelter in the Olival area of Porto. However, in 1496, the Portuguese king, who had married a Spanish princess, decided to expel the Jews from Portugal.
Today, Porto is also home to the largest synagogue in the Iberian Peninsula and one of the largest in Europe: the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue opened in 1938.
The story of this synagogue dates back almost a century to 1923, and to the efforts taken to re-establish the Jewish community in Porto by Captain Artur Carlos de Barros Basto (1887-1961). He was descended from a Sephardic Jewish family that had been forced by the Inquisition to convert to Christianity around the 15th century.
Captain Barros Basto, known as the ‘Dreyfus of Portugal,’ returned to Judaism after he heard the family story from his father on his deathbed, and he became the most important figure in reviving Jewish life in Portugal in the last century.
He found at least 20 Ashkenazim Jews in Porto, but because there was no synagogue in the city they needed to travel to Lisbon for all their religious matters. Generous support for building a new synagogue in Porto came from the Committee for Spanish-Portuguese Jews in London, and the Kadoorie family, originally from Baghdad and involved in banking in Mumbai (Bombay), Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Sir Eleazar (‘Elly’) Kadoorie (1867-1944) was a prominent Jewish philanthropist and banker who died in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. His wife Laure Kadoorie (1866-1919) was descended from a family that fled the Portuguese Inquisition.
When the synagogue opened in 1938, it was just a few metres from the German School, and the Portuguese authorities rapidly planted large trees to screen the School and the Synagogue from each other.
Harry Potter’s bookshop
I also joined the queues to visit Livraria Lello, said to be one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world. It is one of the oldest bookshops in Portugal and is visited by thousands of people every day, attracted more by its reputation than its contents. The shop was visited regularly by JK Rowling when she was living in Porto and teaching English, and it is said to have inspired many of the scenes in her Harry Potter books.
The shop first opened in 1906 and was refurbished in 2017, when the façade was restored in its original colours, along with its stained glass and the shop’s unique twisting, spiral stairs. The interior is best known for the forked crimson staircase and the majestic ceiling. This ceiling looks deceptively like carved wood but is in painted plaster, a technique also used in decorating the stairs.
The bookstore is close to Porto University, Clérigos Church and Tower, and the twin Carmelite churches on the Rua das Carmelitas.
The Casa da Música (the House of Music) is a spectacular, multifaceted building in Porto and is a masterpiece in modern architecture by the innovative Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.
Other interesting buildings in the city include the Stock Exchange Palace, with its Arab Room, the Hospital of Saint Anthony, the Municipality, the buildings in the Liberdade Square and the Avenida dos Aliados, the tile-adorned São Bento Train Station and the gardens of the Crystal Palace.
Porto’s Port trade
Porto is known as the city of bridges, and on my last day in Porto I took a riverboat cruise on a rabelo, one of the traditional old boats once used to carry Port Wine from the Douro Valley to the cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia. This 50-minute journey offered another view of the city and the river, but also brought me under the famous six bridges of Porto.
Port wine (vinho do Porto), or simply Port, is a fortified wine produced with distilled grape spirits exclusively in the Douro Valley in this part of Portugal. Port is typically a sweet, red wine, often served as a dessert wine, but it also comes in dry, semi-dry, and white varieties.
It is striking how many of Porto’s Port lodges were founded by English families, with names such as Cockburn, Graham, Dow, Sandeman, Taylor and Offley lining the banks of the River Douro and lighting up the night sky in Porto.
Long before ‘Brexit’ – indeed, over 300 years ago – British wine merchants were developing a niche place for themselves in the wine market, cornering the trade in wine exports from the Douro Valley to England after the wine trade with France had been closed off by war.
This feature was published in May 2019 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory)