Porto: Churches, bridges and bookshops

For the last two and a half years, I’ve had an ever-growing list of posts lingering in my drafts folder that I held off publishing while we were in the throes of the pandemic, and it’s got to the point where I haven’t been sure what to do with them as it’s been so long.

Rather than keep them indefinitely in some sort of draft post purgatory, I’ve decided it’s time to finally hit publish.

The many posts cover pre-pandemic trips to Brittany and Venice, among others. I’m starting with my trip to Porto, which I was part-way through blogging about when the first lockdown hit…

From a unique bookshop that wouldn’t be out of place in Diagon Alley to a magnificent criss-crossed steel bridge and a tower boasting superb views, the centre of Porto is teeming with interesting sights.

But the most iconic are the numerous churches clad in blue and white azulejos (tiles), which are dotted around the city. They’re a striking sight and quite unlike any churches I’d seen before.

Capela das Almas

Our tour of the city’s churches began with the Capela das Almas (Chapel of Souls), a small, beautiful chapel on a corner of the shopping hub, Rua de Santa Caterina.

From the outside, it was breathtaking. Inside it wasn’t quite as exciting, but I was nevertheless enchanted by my first glimpse of the famed azulejos-clad churches.

Igreja de Santo Ildefonso

The weathered grey stone and blue and white azulejos-covered facade of the Church of Saint Ildefonso hides a more opulent interior

At the bottom of the Rua de Santa Caterina, lies another striking azulejos-covered church, the Igreja de Santo Ildefonso (above).

With its weathered grey stone walls, chipped tiles and missing stained glass window panes, I assumed the church was really old and was amazed to discover it was only built in the mid-19th century, its tiles dating from 1932.

Inside the Igreja de Santo Ildefonso

I was further surprised on going inside because despite its rundown exterior, the opulent interior boasted high ceilings and an altar adorned in gold (above).

Ponte Dom Luís I

The iconic Dom Luis I Bridge over the Douro River, connecting the cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia

From the Igreja de Santo Ildefonso, we ambled southwards, past the Teatro Nacional São João, and down through the narrow, winding streets to the Douro River, where we had our first glimpse of the most impressive of Porto’s bridges – the Ponte Dom Luís I (above).

Designed by one of Gustave Eiffel’s students, the double-decker bridge is a criss-crossed metal phenomenon and visitors can walk along either the top or the bottom.

The pedestrianised pavements are fairly narrow, but a great place from which to take photos of Porto, the neighbouring city of Vila Nova de Gaia and the Douro.

Mercado do Bolhão

A stall selling all manner of cured meats and sausages in the Mercado do Bolhao in Porto

The following day, we made a beeline for the Mercado do Bolhão, an enormous market in the centre of the city. The market was filled with food stalls selling fruits and vegetables, bread (including one stall selling a rather phallic-looking loaf, below), nuts, dried and candied fruits, and cured meats (above).

Stall selling bread at the Mercado do Bolhão

There were also lots of stalls selling items made of cork, tablecloths and tea towels, as well as place mats, coasters and trays made from tiles.

Livraria Lello

The ornate exterior of the Livrario Lello bookshop in Porto

From the market, we strolled through the city’s streets to Livraria Lello (above), a gothic bookshop that is said to have been one of author JK Rowling’s many inspirations for her Harry Potter series. You have to buy a ticket to go inside from a small shop a few doors down – but if you buy a book, the cost of the ticket is deducted from its price.

The stained glass ceiling inside the Gothic Livraria Lello bookshop in Porto

The bookshop was small, but pretty, with lots of dark wood and eccentric features. Upstairs, there was an eye-catching stained glass roof (above), while busts of famous writers, such as Cervantes, were on display and small gargoyle-like creatures adorned the upper shelves.

The gothic staircase in the middle of the Livraria Lello bookshopin Porto may look as though it's made of wood, but it's actually made from plaster

The pièce de résistance was the decorative, plaster staircase in the middle of the bookshop (above) that is said to have provided the inspiration for the staircase in Dumbledore’s study.

Torre dos Clérigos

The church of the Torre de Clerigos (Tower of Clerics) in the centre of Porto

Our next port of call was the Torre dos Clérigos (or Tower of Clerics), the tallest building in Porto and part of the Igreja dos Clérigos (above).

You have to climb 225 steps to reach the top of the tower, which are broken up along the way by exhibits recounting the history of the clerics and the tower’s Italian architect Nicola Nasoni. Nasoni, who was also a painter and goldsmith, was responsible for a number of buildings in Porto and the surrounding area, as well as places in Siena and Malta.

Getting to the top of the tower was no mean feat. The staircase to the top was very narrow and it was a struggle to squeeze past anyone coming in the opposite direction. The viewing platform, which went all the way around the top of the tower, was also tiny making it difficult to move around.

View over the Ribeira district, looking towards the Se Cathedral, from the top of the Torre de Clerigos (Tower of Clerics) in Porto

At a few points, it felt quite claustrophobic as other people pushed past or tried to squish into the small bit of viewing platform where I was standing.

The views from the top of the tower were fantastic (above), but it was so busy it was hard to stop and look at the information boards that explained which of the city’s monuments were visible from that part of the tower.

Igreja de São Francisco

Last but not least, we headed to the Igreja de São Francisco (below). The enormous church is one of the oldest in Porto, and while its grey stone exterior lacks the distinctive blue and white azulejos of so many of the city’s other churches, its plain façade belies its magnificent interior.

The grey stone exterior of the Igreja de Sao Francisco in the Ribeira district of Porto

We began our tour in the elegant, sombre crypt (below), home to a series of wooden graves beneath our feet, each one marked by a number. Black and white tombs lined the walls, and as we walked around, we found a hole in the floor, which was covered in glass and through which a mass of (I’m assuming human) bones was visible.

Tombs line the walls of the crypt at the Igreja de Sao Francisco in the Ribeira district of Porto

In the rooms above the crypt, there was a small museum displaying artefacts from the church, along with a large, ornate chapel and a couple of lavishly decorated rooms (below).

One of the lavishly decorated rooms in the museum adjoining the Igreja de Sao Francisco in Porto

We then made our way to what we thought was the unassuming main body of the church, where it was forbidden to take photos. On venturing inside, I was taken aback to find it was one of the most elaborate and ornate churches I’d ever seen.

The ceiling, chancel, altars and many of the pillars were covered in intricate woodcarvings – many of which were gilded. The gilt had faded over time, but it must have been spectacular in its heyday, embodying the epitome of wealth and opulence.

Much of the decoration was paid for by Porto’s rich families who wanted the church to resemble paradise when they stepped inside – and they must have come close to achieving that ambition.

Some of the pillars were covered in faded paint work or frescoes rather than the gilded woodcarvings. Some were blue, some red, others featured a faded floral pattern.

It was an incredible, albeit intimidating, church and I was amazed to discover that Napoleon felt it would be a good place in which to stable his horses when he invaded the city in the early 19th century.

The church is no longer used for services and is now only open to visitors. It’s a jaw-dropping building that has to be seen to be believed and a must-do if you’re ever in Porto (be warned the staff are a tad on the stern side).

The Ribeira district on the banks of the Douro River in Porto

I enjoyed our days mooching around the streets of central Porto, occasionally getting lost, and seeing the many sights it has to offer. Many of the city’s buildings, not just its churches, are covered in charming azulejos in a range of colours, and it was a joy to wander the streets, soak up the atmosphere and admire the stunning architecture.

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