13 February 2019

São Bento station in Porto
is one of the world’s most
beautiful train stations

The São Bento Railway Station in Porto is one of the most beautiful train stations in the world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The São Bento Railway Station is not only the main railway station in Porto, but is also regarded by many as one of the most beautiful train stations in the world. Its façade is a well-known landmark in Portugal, and its interior decoration is one of the country’s great works of art.

The station stands in the centre of Porto, on a site between the Praça Almeida Garrett, Rua da Madeira and Rua do Loureiro, as well as the escarpment of Batalha, where a tunnel was carved into the hill.

The station is named after Saint Benedict because it stands on the site of the Benedictine Convent of São Bento da Avé Maria, built by King Manuel I of Portugal in 1518. The monastery was burnt in a fire in 1783 and later rebuilt, but it was in a state of great disrepair by the end of the 19th century.

A railway station was planned for central Porto as early as 1864, but the plans were not presented until 1887. The station was designed by the Porto architect José Marques da Silva (1869-1947), whose design was strongly influenced by French Beaux-Arts architecture.

Work on the tunnel lasted from 1890 to 1893, and the first train arrived at São Bento in 1896, but a landslide in 1897 blocked the opening of a tunnel on the south edge of the station site. The tunnel was completed in 1898, the new station was built in 1900-1916, and the station was opened officially in 1916.

The symmetrical, three-storey, granite building has a U-shaped plan, with its main façade facing south-west.

The tiles on the north wall depict the Battle of Arcos de Valdevez (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The station’s forecourt is covered with 20,000 painted tiles in the Portuguese tradition of blue and white azulejo tiles. They date from 1905-1916 and were designed by the Portuguese painter Jorge Colaço (1868-1942).

Colaço was born in Tangier, the son of a Portuguese diplomat, and studied art in Lisbon, Madrid and Paris. Although he was a canvas painter and caricaturist, he specialised in designing and painting azulejo panels to decorate large surfaces. His designs had a late Romantic taste, celebrating the achievements of Portuguese history.

Along with historical themes, he also produced ethnographic and landscape scenes. His other important works include tile panels in the Palace Hotel, Bussaco (1907), the Sports Pavilion at Eduardo VII Park, Lisbon (1922), and the façade of the Church of Saint Ildefonso, Porto (1932).

His 20,000 blue and white azulejo tiles in the forecourt of São Bento present major events in the history of Portugal and they are integrated into the design of the building with frames in granite that decorate the lines of the atrium.

The scene to the left of the entrance, on the north wall, depicts the Battle of Arcos de Valdevez (1140), with two opposing groups and other knights in the background.

Below, another composition depicts the meeting at Toledo in the 12th century between Egas Moniz and Alfonso VII of León, offering his life and the lives of his wife and his sons after Egas Moniz felt humiliated when he failed to negotiate a Portuguese surrender. Alfonso finally recognised Portugal’s independence at the Treaty of Zamora in 1143.

The tiles on the south wall depict the arrival of King João I and Princess Philippa of Lancaster for their wedding in Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

To the right on the south wall, the tiles depict the arrival of King João I in Porto with his fiancé, Princess Philippa of Lancaster, to celebrate their wedding in the Sé or Cathedral in Porto in 1387.

Below is a depiction of the Conquest of Ceuta in 1415, when the Infante Dom Henrique defeated the Moors.

The upper part of the frieze is lined with azulejos depicting a chronology of different types of transport in Portugal, including the transportation of Port Wine in a Barco Rabelo on the River Douro.

The lower and upper frame of the frieze consists of a line of tiles in blue, browns and yellow in stylised geometric patterns.

The wall into the station is divided into multiple compositions. To the left, a vision of the procession of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios in Lamego, an exhaustive description and detail showing crowds in an urban setting. Under this composition are two panels that represent her promise and a miraculous fountain.

The lower panels show a picture of a cattle fair and pilgrim camp. The central panels of the wall represent four work scenes: the vineyards, the harvest, the wine shipment down the Douro and work in the watermill. There are similar presentations on the pilasters.

Above these are medallions depicting romantic scenes and, below, allegories associated with the railway referencing time and signalling, in an expression of contemporary Art Deco.

São Bento is the main terminus of Porto’s suburban lines and the western terminus for the scenic Douro line between Porto and Pocinho. The station was listed as a heritage site in 1988.

São Bento station was listed as a heritage site in 1988 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The tower and church of
Clérigos are Baroque
masterpieces in Porto

The Torre dos Clérigos at the Igrejo dos Clérigos is one of the landmark sights in Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

One of the best-known and most visited churches in Porto must be the Clérigos Church (Igreja dos Clérigos) or the Church of the Clergy. But it is visited mainly not because it is a beautiful Baroque church in Porto, but because of its tall bell tower, the Torre dos Clérigos, which dominates the city skyline and which is one of the best-known symbols of Porto.

The church was built for the Brotherhood of the Clérigos (Clergy) by Nicolau Nasoni, an Italian architect and painter who left an extensive corpus of work in northern Portugal in the 18th century. He came to Porto in 1725 to work on the Sé or cathedral, and his works in Porto include the façade of thed Misericórida Church, the Archbishop’s Palace and the loggia on the north side of the cathedral.

The 18th century complex at Clérigos was commissioned by the Brotherhood of the Clérigos, founded to offer support to poor priests in Porto. It was built in the old town, on the ‘hill of the hanged men,’ where executed prisoners were once buried.

The Igrejo dos Clérigos was designed by the Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni and built in 1732-1750 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Work on building the Clérigos Church began in 1732 and was finished in 1750. This is one of the first baroque churches built in Portugal with a baroque elliptic floorplan. The bell tower and the monumental stairway in front of the church were completed in 1763.

The main façade of the church is heavily decorated with baroque motifs, such as garlands and shells, and an indented broken pediment. This is based on an early 17th-century Roman scheme. The central frieze above the windows presents symbols of worship and an incense boat. The sides of the church follow the elliptical floorplan of the interior.

Inside the Igrejo dos Clérigos in Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The main altarpiece in the church is made of polychrome marble and is the work of Manuel dos Santos Porto.

The two organs in the church are adorned with luxurious floral gold carving. These organs, now over 200 years, are still in use each day with a free 20-minute live concert at noon.

Clérigos was a personal commitment for Nasoni, who worked on the building without charge, and he saw it as his masterpiece. He later joined the Clérigos Brotherhood and at his own request he was buried in the crypt of the Clérigos Church, although the exact place of his burial is no longer known.

The high altar and twin organs in the Igrejo dos Clérigos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The monumental tower attached to the church was built in 1754-1763 and dominates the skyline of the city. The baroque decoration of the tower also shows the influence of Roman Baroque, and its design was inspired by Tuscan campaniles.

For many years the Torre dos Clérigos was the highest tower in Portugal, and it served several roles during its history. During the 19th century, a mechanism known as Meridiana fired a mortar from the tower to announce to the people of Porto when it was 12 noon, allowing merchants to break for lunch. It served also as an orientation mark for vessels in the Douro estuary.

The tower is 75.6 metres and six floors high, with a climb of 240 steps up its stone spiral staircase to the top. It takes more patience than effort, with many visitors ascending and descending all at the same time.

The first stop is on the fourth floor, where a special curved room, lined in dark brown cork, has touch screens with real time images of the outside view from above, and a room with a chronology that highlights the influence of Nicolau Nasoni on Baroque architecture in the Porto region.

A circular balcony around the tower provides views of the city below, including the Lello bookshop.

At the top of the tower, 49 bells form a large carillon, programmed to play twice a day at 12 noon and 6 p.m. It is connected to two atomic clocks – one in England, and one in Germany – that guarantee its precision and accuracy.

There too the tower offers a clear view across the city and the river and out to the Atlantic. At night, especially during summer, the tower offers a unique Clérigos fora d’horas (‘after hours’) programme, with spectacular views across the city.

A view down Rua 31 de Janeiro from the steps in front of Igrejo dos Clérigos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)