14 February 2019
A boat trip on the River Douro
under the six bridges of Porto
Porto is blessed with its imposing architecture and rich cultural heritage, the welcoming people population, the great food and wine – including its Port Wine – and the walks by the River Douro.
During my time in Porto last week, I visited a number of churches and synagogues, museums and towers, restaurants and railway stations, sculptures and music halls, took the cable car by the river and crossed some of the bridges.
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.
The boat brought us by the gardens of the Crystal Palace, the Solar do Vinho do Porto (the Port Wine Institute) and the Hospital of Saint Anthony (Santo António) which reflect the importance and wealth of the city. But we also the cellars, the cold warehouses, a variety of architectural styles, and only turned back at the mouth of the sea, Foz do Douro, before getting to see its beautiful beaches and walks.
These six stunning bridges connect Porto one side of the Douro and Gaia on the other, and no two bridges are alike, so that each bridge has its own story in architecture and engineering.
The Dom Luís Bridge was designed by Gustave Eiffel’s collaborator, the German engineer Théophile Seyrig (1843-1923), although many tour guides try to tell visitors that this is the bridge designed by Eiffel.
The Dom Luís I Bridge is a double-deck metal arch bridge. When it was first built its 172 metres span was the longest of its type in the world. It is often confused with the nearby Maria Pia Bridge, just 1 km to the east.
The Infante Dom Henrique Bridge was launched in 2003. This was the last bridge to be built in Porto, and it is a remarkable example of how engineering can present elegant solutions to difficult challenges.
The D. Maria Pia Bridge is a beautiful railway bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel and Théophile Seyrig. It is sometimes confused with the Dom Luís bridge, but it was built nine years earlier in 1877.
Most tour guides attribute this bridge to Eiffel, but it is difficult to attribute responsibility for the actual design of the bridge. It is probable that a large part was played by Seyrig, Eiffel’s business partner, who presented a paper on the bridge to the Société des Ingénieurs Civils in 1878. Eiffel, in his account of the bridge, which accompanied the 1:50 scale model exhibited at the 1878 World’s Fair, credited Seyrig, along with Henry de Dion, with work on the calculations and drawings.
The D. Maria Pia Bridge was superseded as a railway in 1991 by the São João Bridge, built just a few meters away.
The São João Bridge was designed by the engineer Professor António Mesquita Cardoso (1913-2000) to replace the Maria Pia Bridge.
The Freixo Bridge, behind the São João Bridge, was launched in 1995. A new road called ‘VCI’ surrounds the city between Freixo bridge and Arrábida bridge, and this is the road many visitors travel from the airport into Porto.
The Freixo Bridge was built as an alternative to Arrábida and D. Luis I bridges. It was designed by António Reis and Daniel de Sousa. The bridge has a total length of 705 metres and eight spans.
The Arrábida Bridge is an arch bridge of reinforced concrete, that carries six lanes of traffic over the Douro River. It was also designed by Edgar Cardoso and built in 1957-1963.
The Arrábida Bridge is a superb piece of engineering and it is possible to climb the arch of the Arrábida bridge from the inside – although I am told the view from the top is not spectacular.