Lisbon may be Portugal's capital and metropolis, but its second city, Porto, gave the country its name—and nearly lost control of its own in a linguistic mixup.
But that's for later. For now, we're talking about a city almost half the size of Lisbon, but with a core and a vibe that seemed to us much more intimate, even though it's the center of a metropolitan area of two-and-a-half million.
Our visit was almost an afterthought: We were going to Lisbon, via an air connection in Barcelona. When I found that the return was a good bit cheaper from Porto than from Lisbon, the die was cast, and we took the train up the coast to the north, stopping overnight at Coimbra, the ancient capital.
Arriving by train in Porto is a treat in itself. The main rail station, Sao Bento, is a Beaux Arts gem, lined with tiled historical scenes in typical Portuguese 'azuleo' colors.
The heart of the old city is focused on two features: the waterfront of the Douro River, and, being Portugal, on steep hills rising from it. Walking down from the station to our waterfront Airbnb wasn't easy: my suitcase threatened to run me over. There's a lot of steep in Porto! If you look closely at the bridge below, you'll see that way below the obvious roadway, there's a second roadway, perhaps 60 feet below.
A hundred years ago, the port area along the waterfront, La RIbeira, was a busy commercial port, with warehouses mixed with old merchants' houses in narrow spaces; it was also home to port workers, sailors and rough bars. These days, most of the commerce is upriver and the area's bars and restaurants attract both tourists and locals.
With houses above and behind it, the city's old river wall fronts an open space that, by late afternoon or evening is more or less covered by cafes and restaurants. Same scene below, but with the cafe tarps set up, and at night.
Another night scene along the river, with the Luis I Bridge crossing over to the Serra do Pilar Monastery on the other side, in Vila Nova de Gaia, and a day view. That bridge, by the way, is not the famous one built by Gustave Eiffel across the gorge; that one can be seen in the picture near the top; this one was built a few years later by one of his one-time apprentices.
The city on the other side of the river is Vila Nova de Gaia, which is where all the famed Port wine is actually produced. Which brings us back to the name. Porto's Celtic-Latin name, Portus Cale, became, in medieval times, a name for the region north of the Douro—Condado Portucalense, essentially Portucale County, which eventually came to be applied to the whole territory of Portugal. So, Porto, which is on the north bank of the river ended up giving its name to both the country to the south of it and to the wine produced on the south side.
But as long as good wine flows, no one seems worried about it.
These boats, called 'rabelos' used to bring the casks of raw wine along the river to Vila Nova for aging and blending. Now they are mostly kept for their advertising value, and only a few actually carry wine rather than visitors. If you're curious what it looked like when they were really working, here's a clip from 1923.
Because Porto is near the mouth of the Douro, it's 'just around the corner' from spectacular beaches on the Atlantic.
The vintage trolley that follows the river's edge from the old customs house at La Ribeira to the beaches, passing a variety of scenery and parks, is a popular way to get there.
The flamboyant flowers below are in the park that's back-to-back with the beach.
Below: Long-abandoned buildings in gentrifying areas are being renewed. Here and there the steepness of the city pops up in an unexpected view.
The Clerigos Tower (no elevator, but great views for those with strong legs and hearts) is visible from many parts of the city.
A portion of 14th-century city walls, rebuilt in the 1920s as an attraction rather than defense; a much more ambitious restoration plan ran out of funds. Below, a rather spectacular church facade among more mundane companions.
Two more river scenes, one at dusk looking up the river. And an unusual car, looking back to the past: the BMW Isetta, a three-wheeled model from the 50s.
We spent most of our five days in Porto searching for a mailbox to send off our postcards to grandchildren and friends' children. No one could tell us where we could find one; they had, people told us, mostly been removed in an austerity move. In the end, we found two, within a block of each other. The man on the left is bronze.
A few food words, or rather one: Francesinha. If you ever want to see a food fight, it seems, you can strike up a conversation about which place serves the best, which is authentic and where it originated. There are even associations devoted to it. The agreed on must-haves are are two square slices of toasted bread, sliced ham, sliced steak or roast beef, sliced linguica sausage, sliced cheese (on the outside of the sandwich, and the whole thing topped with a spicy sauce based on tomato and beer. And usually with fries under, around and even in the sandwich.
But if that's not your thing, there's always McDonalds...but seldom one like this. It's built in the grand space of the former Imperial Cafe, once one of the city's fanciest spots. The pictures tell you the story, or sad story, depending on how you feel about Mickey D.
Porto's cathedral is not very large; it didn't become a cathedral until well into the 20th century, but it is quite handsome, and has a huge skylight over the crossing, where others might have a spire. The effect on the view from the entry is amazing; light floods the center and draws you in. Below, one of the local kids who enjoyed some risky positions in the cathedral's fountains.