Port wine, ancient art and architecture, designer restaurants. Porto, Portugal's second largest city has all these and more to offer
Situated on a gorge cut by the Duoro river, Porto, Portugal's second largest city, has a beauty and charm waiting to be discovered. Porto may not be a must-see of a European itinerary, but here is an elegance that grows on you and compares to Barcelona, Paris, or Prague. The city's place on the UNESCO World Heritage List and its selection as the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2001 are well deserved. This could well be attributed to the Duoro, port wine, art and architecture and the juxtaposition of history and modernity. Porto is more laidback, though, than its immediate neighbours, which we were pleasantly surprised to discover. The walk to the Praca De Liberade from the City Hall offers a glimpse of the skyline of Porto, with its numerous towers and spires. The Torre dos Clerigos, a granite bell tower, is the tallest landmark. It forms part of the Baroque and Rococo style Igreja des Clerigos. We discovered an abundance of public art in the form of azulejos or mosaics, especially in the San Bentino railway station across from the Praca de Liberade.
Vibrant street life
A short walk uphill from Praca de Liberade is the Romanesque cathedral built between the 12th and 13th Centuries with an interesting gold-and-silver-plated Capela do Santissimo Sacramento to the left of the high altar. From the cathedral, we chose the winding paths of the old quarter to savour the dense planning of the old city. Narrow cobbled streets, children playing, small markets, neighbours chatting from overhanging balconies - street life doesn't get any more vibrant. Even though we had a good map, we did get lost a couple of times and sought the help of locals to find our bearings.After the old quarter, we stopped at the Palacio de Bolsa and took a guided tour of the building. Home of the Porto Chamber of Commerce and Industry, this neoclassical building was started in 1842 and took nearly three generations to complete. We entered through the Hall of Nations with the metal and glass dome, which also used to be the trading hall. A beautiful stairway in carved granite topped with two bronze chandeliers led us to the Court Room, followed by the Presidents' Room, Golden Room, General Assembly, Portraits Room and finally the extravagant Arabian Room. The last is stunning with its gold-and-silver-painted walls and ceiling decorations proclaiming the glory of Allah. The doorway is purposefully set asymmetrically, conveying the imperfection of humans. After this, we reached the Ribeira, which is the waterfront district of Porto, chock-a-block with cafes, promenades and one of the most happening places in Porto. The best places to sample the sweet port wine are the wine lodges across the Duoro by crossing the Ponte Dom Luis I designed by Gustave Eiffel. Almost all the lodges offer free tasting along with a tour of the cellars and the museum. Most close early and some are by prior appointment, so our visit had a very tight schedule. If the Ribeira retains its old world charm, the area around the wine lodges is a hip place with designer restaurants, landscaped plazas and docks from which cruises on the Duoro can be taken. There is a lovely view of the old city from here. There are seven bridges that span the Duoro, each an interesting piece of design and engineering. The other enviable thing about Porto is the design and utilisation of the waterfront, whether it is the walkways, jogging tracks, parks or the cafes of the Ribeira. Being architects, we did not want to miss the museum of contemporary art and auditorium of the Serralves Foundation designed by the world renowned Pritzker Prize winning architect Alvaro Siza. The building is unique in its minimalism and play of light on building forms. The occasional punched openings or a projecting volume provide limited relief to the restrained composition of the external facade. The stark white edifice is an interesting counterpoint to the lush green settings of the park in which it is set. Designed in neoclassical styles evocative of French gardens, it is organised on two perpendicular axes in which the views, vegetation and light and shade provide an ideal setting for reflection or leisurely stroll. The park also has works by world-renowned sculptors such as Claes Oldenburg, Coosje van Bruggen and Jardenheiro. The Tea House in the park is open for both lunch and tea. There are nice cafes all over Porto, so food was never a problem. Our last meal was at the Café Majestic, the oldest and most famous café in Porto with its chandeliers, marble tabletops and patina covered mirrors. Started in 1821, it is a hit with both tourists and locals. How to get therePorto is well connected by air to major European cities. By train: Three-and-a-half to four hours from Lisbon to the San Bentino railway station in Porto. Trains leave every hour. By bus: Rede Expresso bus service operates from and to Lisbon. Duration is four hours.Where to stayThere are numerous hotels and pensions west and east off Avenida dos Aliados that lead to the City Hall. Pensao de Acuar, Hotel da Bolsa, Grande Hotel de Porto and Holiday Inn Court are some examples. The tourist office is also only a block away from the City Hall.C. S. RAGHURAM AND KAVITHA SELVARAJ