Porto is the commercial centre of northern Portugal, a fascinating city with a long and colourful history that is reflected in the culture, lifestyle and architecture. In many ways, Porto is a northern European city, with granite church towers, stolid dark buildings, and hidden Baroque treasures. But there is a real southern European feel here, as well, particularly around the Ribeira barrio where the narrow backstreets, hung with washing, and dusty old-fashioned shops have a hint of Naples about them.
Posed majestically on the rocky cliffs overlooking the Rio Douro, Porto is linked by six bridges to Vila Nova de Gaia, where most of the port-wine lodges are located, fronted by their moored barcos rabelos. These days, large ships dock at the seaport of Leixões, but coal barges, fishing trawlers and other small vessels still sail up the river, and a river trip is a great way to see the city. The climate in town is temperate, and the Portuenses, as the inhabitants are called, are traditionally industrious – as reflected in the well-known Portuguese saying: “Coimbra studies, Braga prays, Lisbon shows off and Porto works.”
In Roman times, the twin cities at the mouth of the Douro were known as Portus on the right bank and Cale on the left. During the Moorish occupation, the entire region between the Minho and Douro rivers was called Portucale. When Afonso Henriques founded the new kingdom in 1143, he took the name of his home province and called it Portucalia.
Porto prospered from the seafaring exploits of the golden epoch of discoveries. Its shipyards, adapting Douro river caravelas, produced caravels that sailed around the world. Prince Henry, who initiated and inspired exploration, was born here.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the wines of the Upper Douro were robust table reds. Then, in 1820, a “climatic accident” occurred, with warm weather producing unusually sweet grapes, with a resulting sweet tipple, particularly appreciated by the British. In the following years, the wine companies added aguardente, or brandy, to stop the fermentation and fix the sugar content. This was the beginning of the sweet fortified wine, so famed today. England’s long connection with the city they called Oporto had been developing with the wine trade. The Methuen Treaty of 1703 opened English markets to Portuguese wines, and the English shippers of Porto became increasingly rich and powerful. In 1727 they established a Shippers’ Association, which regulated the trade and controlled prices paid to Portuguese growers. Thirty years later, to combat the English monopoly, the Marquês de Pombal founded the Alto Douro Wine Company. Today the business is organised and controlled by the city-based Port Wine Institute.
Porto is an energetic and lively commercial city with an individual taste in food and drink. Regional specialities include roast pork, fresh salmon, lamprey, trout and tripe. The most popular bars and restaurants (justifiably so) are by the river around Cais de Ribeira and in Vila Nova de Gaia opposite.
On Rua da Alfândega, stands the much-restored Casa do Infante, where Prince Henry the Navigator was born in 1394. For a time it served as the customs house; it is now a museum with three floors of exhibits relating the history of Porto’s trade and industry. Also on display are the Roman foundations and mosaics discovered during excavation.
Take the steep roads down to the river, and you will find yourself drawn to the Cais da Ribeira, one of the liveliest parts of the city and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Many small shops and restaurants are built right into what remains of the old city wall, some showing watermarks around 2 metres (6ft) from the floor where the river has burst its banks. During the day you can take a river trip from here, and in the evening its restaurants brim with customers.
This is the best place to go in Porto to taste a wide variety of port wines. It is located in the old wine cellar and stable of the Quinta da Macieirinha, where King Carlo Alberto died in 1849, after abdicating the throne of Sardinia. The mansion is set in a rose garden and contains most of its original furnishings, and also houses the intriguing Museu Romântico.
Read more about Portugal in Insight Guides: Portugal
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