O Porto! Wine city a bouquet of vintage sites

Europe editor Kenneth Kiesnoski embarked on a walking tour of Porto, Portugal's intriguing, but often overlooked, second city. His report follows:

espite the near-cultlike status Porto's dockside wine cellars enjoy among the world's port-wine aficionados, Portugal's scenic second city -- also known as Oporto -- offers much more than just that famed, fortified fruit of the vine.

On a recent visit the day of a high-profile soccer match between home team F.C. Porto and and archrival Lisboa Sporting, I navigated the energetic crowds of "football" fans that clogged newly scrubbed, city-center streets to take in some of Porto's architectural, cultural and retail highlights.

Porto portal

It was just steps from my base at the Pestana Porto Carlton Hotel -- on the city's oldest square, Praca da Republica, in its oldest quarter, the riverside Ribeira -- to the remains of the city's oldest medieval gate, a fitting start to a tour of historic Porto.

Casa do Infante, the relatively modest 14th century house reputed to be the birthplace of Portuguese explorer-king Henry the Navigator, was nearby.

Around the corner, a retail shop run by the Regional Center of Traditional Arts (CRAT) raises funds for the restoration of 2,500 of Ribeira's historical structures, which -- despite the desirable addresses -- house mainly poor and working-class families.

At CRAT, which is open daily save Mondays and holidays, I selected a handful of Moorish-style azulejos, or hand-painted tiles, from shelves crammed with Portuguese folk art.

Local crafts in hand, I crossed the Rua do Infante and entered the Sao Francisco church, one of the most ornate houses of worship in Porto.

Its austere Gothic facade was deceiving, as some 1,000 pounds of gold coat the baroque interior, a popular venue for weddings and concerts, although regular services are no longer held there.

Of particular note is the 18th century Tree of Jesse wood carving, which traces the biblical lineage of Jesus Christ with a literal family tree.

The church adjoins the Palacio do Bolsa, or stock exchange building, built in 1842.

Daily tours explore its myriad rooms, including the standout Arabian Hall, a polychrome copy of a room in the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain.

Huffing and puffing, I next scaled the winding streets up hills behind the Bolsa, pausing to gaze back admiringly over the Ribeira, which is framed by the graceful arch of the Ponte Dom Luis I -- surely Porto's most photographed icon.

The double-decker span, designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel -- builder of the Eiffel Tower -- soon will be closed to foot and auto traffic, reserved for commuter trains crossing the Rio Douro.

Farther along, on the Rua das Taipas, looms the 18th century Torre dos Clerigos; at 246 feet high, the tower -- open daily save Wednesdays -- is basically an Enlightenment-era skyscraper, and remains one of Porto's tallest structures and best vantage points.

Torre dos Clerigos, a 17th century bell tower that remains one of Porto's tallest vantage points.Retail therapy

I passed on scaling its 240 steps and headed for the Rua da Galeria de Paris, a pedestrianized retail street upgraded for Porto's reign as a European Union cultural capital in 2001.

Nearby is the Livraria Lello bookshop, regarded -- by locals -- as the most beautiful in the world; the claim is not without merit, as the shop's gilded woodwork swoops overhead in sumptuous art nouveau curves, gracefully blending two streams in Porto's architectural heritage.

Around the corner at Praca Dona Filipa de Lencastre 62, lies Porto's priciest hotel, the Hotel Infante de Sagres, where year-round rates range from $180 per night, single, to $1,000 for a presidential suite.

Built in 1952, the modernist structure is plain from the outside, but its sumptuous interior lobby and large suites attract top-notch clientele from around the globe.

After a quick tour of its eclectic rooms, I hustled myself over to the Rua de Santa Caterina, a retail esplanade notable for two reasons: First, it's home to the Via Caterina shopping center, which -- although your standard-issue, overpriced mall -- is open on Sundays, a rarity in Porto, and it houses an F.C. Porto fan shop, predictably crowded the day of my visit with souvenir hunters.

Second, the street is also where I found the circa-1921 Majestic Cafe, the culinary equivalent of the Lello bookshop; both a cafeteria and a proper restaurant, the beautifully decorated cafe is a stereotypical smoky Old World haunt of intellectual and artist types.

I made another retail pilgrimage stop at A Perla do Bolhao, another art nouveau edifice housing an upscale grocery store.

Two must-see historic sights remained on my agenda, the Sao Bento train station -- which features early-20th century azulejo murals depicting the history of travel -- and the fortress-like cathedral, or Se.

On display at the cathedral is one of the few medieval statues, controversial to this day, of a nursing Virgin Mary.

Negotiating around both attractions took some skill, as the run-down -- and by night, dodgy -- Cathedral District is a jumble of dilapidated structures under renovation and torn-up streets being laid with track for the city's new subway and light-rail system.

Other transit improvements include the scheduled debut later this year of a funicular from the foot of the Ponte Dom Luis I uphill to the Sao Joao National Theater near the Se, and the expansion of the restored historic tram service that now runs west along the Rio Douro from Sao Francisco church.

Outer limits

For the time being, Porto offers extensive bus service by way of public transit; I hopped Bus 78 from the city's historic center to a more modern addition to Porto's roster of attractions, the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art.

The museum, a radical modern structure by Alvaro Siza Vieira that features exhibition space for art created after 1960, shares the grounds of the parklike, 45-acre Serralves Foundation estate with the art deco-style Casa de Serralves.

After touring the museum, I strolled through the seaside Foz do Douro district on the Atlantic, popular for its beaches, bars and restaurants, and dined at Cafeina, a trendy little coffeehouse cum restaurant steps from the beach.

For more information on planning client stays in Porto, contact the Portuguese National Tourist Office in New York at (800) PORTUGAL, (800) 767-8842, or visit www.portugal.org.

Room key: Pestana Porto Carlton
Praca da Ribeira 1, 4050-513 Porto, Portugal
Phone: (011) 351-22 340-2300
Fax: (011) 351-22 340-2400
Reservations: (011) 351-22 361-5678
E-mail:[email protected]
Web: www.pestana.com
Manager: Carla Sa Chaves
Rates: $99 to $230, double, per night; specials available
Commission: 8%
Built: 16th to 18th centuries; renovated in 2000
No. of Rooms: 48
Location: On Douro River, in Unesco-protected city center
Facilities: Restaurant, bar, meetings rooms
Noteworthy: Fantastic views, central location, helpful staff
Not worthy: Noise, obstacles from reconstruction of plaza

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