By: Jaime Cobas
Claes Oldenburg Sculpture at Fonda?ion Serralves

Porto put the Portu in Portugal, a name that harks back to its Roman origins, it is the economic capital of northern regions and is surpassed only by Lisbon, the capital, in terms of economic and social clout. It is situated along the banks of the Douro River, which winds down from Spain to end its course here, in the Atlantic Ocean, on the western part of the Iberian Peninsula. Its historic center is the Ribeira district (literally, river side) with cliff side tiled roof houses, winding roads, zigzagging staircases and churches with glazed tile facades, which has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage zone, to be preserved for posterity.

Porto is not only the cultural capital of the country, featuring modern architectural gems by the Portuguese Alvaro Siza and the Dutch Rem Koolhaas, both Pritzker Prize winners, it is also vying as a culinary Mecca that retains the essence of its cultural heritage along with serious international ambitions.

For the visitor, there are three main areas to explore; the central, older part, traversed by Avenida Aliados; the Ribeira, a riverside district that is the magnet for nocturnal leisure activities with the Gaia municipality, just across its banks, where the port wine exporters maintain their warehouses and host daily wine tastings and the Boavista area, a newer offshoot, dominated by shopping centers, high rise buildings, and two important cultural hubs.

Not to be missed in the Aliados area is the Igreja de Sao Francisco ( Rua Infante Dom Henrique #110) a Gothic church that shelters a baroque fantasy smothered in gold leaf that is overwhelming in its exuberance. Across the street, is the Palacio da Bolsa (Rua Ferreira Borges) the still operating stock exchange, of neo classical architecture with an impressive light filled central staircase, murals that line the exchange rooms, beautifully appointed offices and meeting rooms and, the piece de resistance the Salo Arabe, a magnificent ballroom with carved and gilded stucco walls, in complex geometric patterns with a parquet floor, that is a sumptuous volume of craftsmanship and proportions. On the Ground Floor there is a restaurant and a gift shop that has a very good assortment of souvenirs that are of high quality, handmade and artistically designed, not the regular touristy variety.

For lunch or dinner, but preferably at night, when it is livelier, there is Don Tonho, (Cais de Ribeira #15) a riverside restaurant that serves fresh seafood and typical Portuguese dishes, prepared with a modern twist. The main room is on the second floor of this former residence, its walls composed of enormous rough hewn stones, with large windows overlooking the Douro and the endless parade of people enjoying the night and the view of the spectacular iron traceries of Don Luis Primero bridge that connects to the opposite bank with the brightly lit the wine lodges, making this area a lively spot to gaze and graze.

Also interesting and informative is the Museo Nacional Soares dos Reis (Rua Dom Manuel II # 44), housed in the neo classic Palcio do Carrancos, it features an eclectic collection of the best of the best, Portuguese paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts, including a wing depicting the development and introduction of modern inventions, and samples of the most important native artists, throughout history, most notably from the nineteenth century to today. After such a banquet of artistic endeavors, retire to the small cafe on the Ground Floor for a small Oporto and a snack, while perusing an informative book purchased in its well appointed library cum gift shop.
For modern architecture buffs, there are many bonbons to savor; you can visit Alvaro Siza’s Biblioteca Almeida Garret( Jardim do Palacio de Cristal) a modern museum/ library nestled within a garden with tree-lined paths, located to one side of the domed stadium, it is a cultural oasis with a wood screen facade unobtrusively inserted in this sylvan setting. In the same manner, Sizas Fundao de Serralves(photo at left) (Rua Dom Joo de Castro # 210) is Portos Museum of Contemporary Art, with an impressive permanent collection and sponsoring traveling exhibitions displayed in an arrangement of cubic white spaces bathed with natural light. This modern structure is contained in an 18 acre park, extensively landscaped, which also contains de Casa de Serralves, the original, pink hued, Art Deco residence of the 30?s, with forged iron grilles designed by Rene Lalique, and fantastic parquet floors that contrast with the modern art exhibited. Within the landscaped grounds, one ventures in the Casa de Cha a delightful snack bar, a small amphitheater for musical performances, lily ponds and modern sculptures, like the bright red Oldenburg garden trowel. There is also a gift shop that features one of a kind hand made articles by local artists and artisans that are unique and help to subsidize the local creativity.

The”Casa da Musica”(Avenida da Boavista # 604) by noted Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, opened in 2005, it is conceived as a giant crystal that fell from space, with a multi faceted exterior that contains in its core a rectangular shoe box style concert hall with impeccable acoustics. Its interiors are high tech, where the sinews and conduits are visible behind a perforated metal skin, features a variety of functions and spaces, including a room with wall to wall azulejos the blue hued glazed tiles that are characteristic to many walls in the country. Its exterior curved surfaces (the splash when the meteorite crashed into being) are a favorite of the skateboarders that animate the surroundings. It is an area vibrant with activities and a magnet to the youth.

Casa da Musica, exterior and interior views.

As a finale to our Porto weekend the hotel recommended Shis,which is the Portuguese pronunciation of the letter X. The taxi driver drove along the seashore and stopped at what looked like a wood framed bus stop; he told us we had arrived. The surprise, the X factor, was that this marked a stairway down to almost sea level. As one descends the restaurant unfolds, first an esplanade with tall glass windscreens and tables with market umbrellas. Then, a blond wood framed pavilion, with large plate glass windows overlooking the sea, below, and the Castel de Sao Juan da Foz, an ancient fort with ramparts and guard houses that juts into the sea, at left.

Its chef, Antonio Vieira, based most of his selections on the sea, and all of the entrees have a marine theme, such as tataki salmon tartare or grilled tuna and scallops with artichokes. Many of his innovative recipes, are a fusion of oriental and Italian anchored to the Portuguese flavors and cooking methods, like the alheira de casa, a native sausage made with meats, in this case with game, in a Cabernet Sauvignon reduction. There are two menus, one for sushi and another with an international variety of offerings.

Shis Restaurant Entry with view of the lighthouse.

The city is readily accessible by express bus service from Lisbon, a two and a half hour drive (with a short pit stop for water and facilities) via Renex or Rede Expessos, that feature air conditioned buses, with reserved, reclining seats and 8 to 12 daily departures, (about $13.00 one way); by train, or by air ( the airport is about 9 miles from the city but with metro and bus connections) You can also go by bus, with a stop at Fatima, the continue on to Oporto, for a nomianal up-charge.

Oporto is the gateway to the Douro region, the country’s oldest wine region, which fostered a rich cultural legacy with an international flair, now aglow with architectural gems, colorful art galleries, and a glittering nightlife that keeps it alive with youthful vitality. The outsized trowel in the Serralves garden stands as a symbol for this commitment to cultivate and nurture the arts in a community that values the humanities and its constituents.

Photographs by Jesus Llanos and Jaime Cobas