Monday, 15th July 2019 – Porto, Day 5
Monday was our final day in Porto, but between a late checkout (at 4pm) and an even later flight (9pm) we had a whole day to enjoy further. We were slightly restricted as to where we could go by the fact that quite a lot of touristy things are closed on a Monday. We checked to see what was open and the answer was most of the churches and the Palácio da Bolsa, the former stock exchange.
We headed down to the Loja das Conservas to try and buy some tines of fish to take home, only to discover they didn’t open until 11am. We decided we’d head straight down to the Palácio da Bolsa that being the case, because you can only go round it as part of a guided tour. On arrival we discovered that the next English tour was at 12:15 so we bought tickets for that and had some time to spare. We scooted round the corner towards the Igreja de São Francisco, and promptly got sidetracked into a quick peek inside the Igreja de São Nicolau on the other side of the road.
This church dates from 1671 and was put up to replace a small medieval chapel, but was damaged in a fire less than a decade later. A century later the facade was tiled with the ubiquitous blue and white azulejos and very spectacular they look. Inside it’s rather more restrained with a single nave and much of the brickwork decorated only with white stucco. There is a gilded rococo-style altar piece but I think they may have decided they weren’t even going to try and compete with the Igreja de São Francisco over the road which is so over the top that it’s hard to credit it exists.
I was interested to note that the floor panels can all be lifted and can only assume it’s so that bodies can be buried under the floor but people won’t walk over the tombstones. Both wood and cement panels had hand-holds cut into them anyway.
In the sacristy there are several works of art including a sixteenth century silver cup and a chalice in gilded silver and there is also a statue of São Elói (St Eligius), who is apparently the patron saint of metalworkers. There are also some very fine tiles that are not blue and white, both on the floor and on the walls. I particularly admired these.
In contrast, the Igreja de São Francisco across the road is very stark on the outside and completely covered in gilt carvings inside.
No photography is permitted inside the actual church but there is an attached museum and a side-chapel where I was allowed to take pictures (to be fair, most of the sights we visited in Porto were happy for photography to happen). There’s been a church on the spot since 1425 with a small church and yet another convent established by the Franciscan Order. The Palácio de Bolsa is now on the site of part of it, and the Romanesque church is unrecognisable as such under the overlaying Gothic architecture, and the insane Baroque decoration which is believed to have taken 300 kilograms of gold dust to achieve. First, however, we visited the museum which is in a very fine set of rooms.
It also links to the catacombs where the monks and members of Porto’s wealthiest families are buried and their bones deposited in an ossuary which you can see through a glass floor.
It’s all a bit odd to those of us from a more northerly and Lutheran tradition (despite my lack of belief) and there’s something a bit disturbing about all those funerary monuments collected together like some sort of bizarre collection.
The museum was pretty heavily gilded, as you can see here.
However, it in no way prepared us for what we were about to see inside the church. I’ve managed to find a photo on a tourism in Porto website but it really doesn’t capture the sheer opulence of the interior of the place. It contains so many altarpieces and there is so much gold it’s hard to take it in. Even the “Tree of Jesse” sculpture by Filipe da Silva and António Gomes depicting the family tree of Jesus, and considered one of a kind, doesn’t manage to steal the show because the competition is overwhelming.
The only visible trace of the Gothic is the rose window, but I doubt many people notice that in the general “noise” of all the gold. Talking to one of the guides on our way out afterwards, she told us that it’s not uncommon for very devout visitors to be reduced to tears by the sheer magnificence of it and I can see why. As someone with an interest in both history and art it pretty much stopped me in my tracks. We realised we were now running out of time so we pitched up back at the Palácio da Bolsa to join the tour.
The original architect was Joaquim da Costa Lima Júnior, between 1840 until 1860, and the general design of the building, inspired by Neopalladian architecture, but he was not responsible for the final room that the guide takes you to (of which more later). We started in the Pátio das Nações, which is a courtyard only in the sense of being in the middle of the building. It is covered by a glass-panelled octagonal dome designed by Tomás Soler and built some time around 1880. The lower part of the dome is decorated with the painted coats-of-arms of Portugal and those countries with which Portugal had commercial relations in the 19th century.
From here the very informative guide took us through the courtyard to the very grand stairway, built in 1868 by Gonçalves e Sousa. This leads to the upper storeys and is decorated with busts by sculptors António Soares dos Reis and António Teixeira Lopes, the former of whom at least seems to have used the same model repeatedly much as he did in the works we saw in the museum the day before.
From the staircase we were led through a series of rooms including the Commercial Court Room, which is decorated in French renaissance style, and is where new members of the Port Wine brotherhood are enthroned, including Prince Albert II of Monaco, the President of the Portuguese Republic Professor Cavaco Silva, and others. The windows have been restored the the last decade and it’s a really impressive room with impressively painted walls and ceiling.
The adjoining Jury Room is equally attractive and apparently, as well as serving as offices, most of the rooms can be hired for parties, with the Nations Courtyard the most expensive at €10,000 for one night’s hire. Anyway, the Jury Room, as I’m sure you’ll guess, is where the jurors waited to go through to make their deliberations in the Commercial Court.
Next up was the Telegraph Room which caused some consternation to the younger visitors who couldn’t get their heads round the idea of a time before mobile phones! The telegraph equipment is still there and could apparently still be used to pass information to and from ships entering the mouth of the river Douro.
Along the corridor Gustave Eiffel’s office which currently contains a sculpture (there’s an exhibition of pieces from the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art going on) and not much else – but then it’s not a very big office.
The President’s Room comes next, decorated with paintings showing the traditional work of Roman civilization, and with a fabulous parquet floor made with exotic Brazilian and African woods. It’s the first of several ornate floors of impeccable craftsmanship.
From here on in it’s worth looking more closely at the floors as they become ever more impressive. This is in the Golden Room which is still used by the Board of Directors for their monthly meetings.
And this is the General Assembly room where the Porto Commercial Association holds two annual general assemblies. At first glance the room seems to have been entirely lined in carved woods. It hasn’t. It’s all plasterwork, every last bit of it, and it’s a really brilliant job. Apparently the Livraria Lello, which we would visit later, was decorated using the same techniques. This may well look like wood, with the grain evident in every section, but it’s cleverly painted plaster.
The penultimate room is the Portraits Room, decorated in Louis XVI style, and honouring the last six kings of the Bragança dynasty. Here the parquet work really excels itself, giving the illusion of being 3 dimensional in an almost Escher-like style.
They save the most mind-blowing till last on this tour. You are allowed into the overwhelmingly glorious Arab Room, built between 1862 and 1880 by Gonçalves e Sousa. It’s decorated in the 19th century Moorish Revival and you can also rent it for a party (€7,000 which seems pretty reasonable under the circumstances). The guides just call it the Wow Room and you can certainly see why.
There is no untouched surface and it was apparently inspired by the Alhambra. The floor is incredible, made out of mahogany, jacaranda, Aspidosperma Olivaceum, rosewood and plane wood. It was renovated in 2010 and it is very popular for ceremonies, concerts and the like. Even the furniture is in the Moorish style.
As are the windows.
We were allowed to stand around for a while and just stare at the decoration. It was a lot to take in and if I lived in Porto I would really want to find an excuse to throw a party in this room. I don’t think I’d be able to resist!
We finished the tour and then dropped by the canned fish shop, picking up half a dozen varied types to take home. We then scooted back to the hotel, packed the tins into our cases, and then checked out. We left our luggage with the hotel and caught a taxi over to Gaia for lunch at Taylor’s port lodge (of which more in a separate post).
After lunch we got a taxi back to the hotel, packed away the port we were now in possession of, and asked the concierge about the best way to get into Livraria Lello. He walked us there, organised a pair of fast track tickets, and we were in, past the massive queue waiting outside! Apart from it being in a beautiful building (they claim it’s the world’s most beautiful bookshop and I wouldn’t disagree), why would anyone queue to get into a bookshop, you’re probably asking. It’s been a bookshop for over a century, but its current fame is down to the claim – not I should say mentioned anywhere on the bookshop’s website – that J K Rowling took some inspiration for the Harry Potter books from it. And so the insanity began, with the shop eventually introducing an entry fee, refundable against the purchase of a book, to try and stave off the hordes that just came to gawp and stay in business as a bookshop.
Even with the number of visitors strictly controlled we didn’t stay very long because it was too crowded for either of us to feel comfortable. I did buy two Portuguese cookbooks though, one with a bunch of everyday recipes, the other a rather more haute cuisine sort of tome. We’d got our money back, contributed towards the shop’s actual business, and I now had two different recipes for Portuguese duck rice, one of my favourite dishes.
We headed back down to the hotel, stopping off at the Samsonite shop to buy a holdall type bag so I could take the strain off my suitcase (no pointing in having a vast amount of baggage allowance and not using it), and then we sat in the hotel bar over a caipirinha each for the 45 minute wait for our car to the airport and our return home, away from all that glorious port.
I liked Porto. It’s not an obvious beauty in the way of some cities, and bits of it are downright shabby if not scruffy, but it has its own charms, with most of the people we encountered being friendly and helpful (with just one notable exception, the miserably git in the funicular ticket office). I would like to go again and spend a bit more time, and hopefully go down the Douro valley as well.
The flight was late back into Gatwick, and the ground crew didn’t appear to be expecting us (their airline, their scheduled flight but even so the pilot commented that they seemed surprised to see us) and the baggage tool forever to come off the carousel, but we were booked in overnight at the Gatwick Hilton (a bit of a come-down after the Intercontinental) so we weren’t too bothered that it was well past midnight. After a good night’s sleep and breakfast I collected the car from the car park, drove back to the hotel to collect Lynne and the luggage, and we were home well before lunchtime to be greeted a a bunch of Klingon (or cling-on if you will) cats and to deal with a large pile of laundry.