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Portugal Part 1: Porto

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

Portugal, established in 1143, is one of the oldest European nations and the oldest country on the Iberian Peninsula. It is also one of the most peaceful nations in the world according to the Global Peace Index. The official language of Portugal is Portuguese. This romance language is spoken by over 250 million people worldwide, only 5% of whom live in Portugal. Did you know that a person who speaks Portuguese, as either a native or additional language, is called a lusófono? I did not, until my visit.

Sunset over the Ponte de Dom Luís I Bridge

Other surprising facts that I learned about Portugal are that it is home to the world's largest waves ever surfed, the largest cork forest and the oldest operating bookstore. I began my travels through this spectacular country, in the picturesque city of Porto.

Porto, located in the north of Portugal, is the second largest city in the country. The city is filled with hills, at the top of which you get gorgeous views of ...

... the winding, narrow, cobblestone streets ...

Fonte dos Leões (Lions Fountain)

... fountains (this one was built in the 19th century) ...

Igreja dos Carmelitas and Igreja do Carmo


(These two churches are separated by a five-foot wide house that was occupied until the 1980s. It is one of the world's narrowest buildings and was constructed to keep the monks and nuns of the Carmelite Order separated.)

Torre de los Clérigos

... more churches, ...

(Clérigos tower and church, built in 1917, are great examples of Baroque architecture. Standing at almost 250 feet, the tower is probably the most recognized building in Porto.)

Azulejo Tile Murals

... tiles or"azuelos" which means “small polished stone” in Portuguese, and ...

Camara Municipal do Porto on Liberdade Square

... gorgeous buildings.

The Camara Municipal do Porto or Town Hall Building is located in the Baixa area. In the middle of the building is a tower that stands 230 feet high with a carillon clock at its center keeping time, and looking down over the Avenida dos Aliados. In the front of the building, there is a statue of João Baptista da Silva Leitão de Almeida Garrett, a poet, politician, revolutionary and humanist.

Livraria Lello

The next portion of this post is written especially for two of my nieces. Because all things Harry Potter warm their hearts, and the two of them fill mine, I braved the line at the Livraria Lello in the Clérigos neighborhood of Porto.

This bookstore is over 100 years old and still not the oldest operating bookstore in Portugal or the world. (That honor goes to Livraria Bertrand which opened in 1732 and is located in Lisbon, Portugal.) In 2013, the Lello bookstore was designated a public interest monument, and it is regarded as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, attracting thousands of visitors a day.

The interior of the bookstore is a mix of Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and Gothic styles. The golden, spiral staircase with bright red steps, at the center of the store is absolutely lavish.

My favorite part of the bookstore was the 55-panel, stained glass ceiling created by Dutch master Samuel Van Krieken. In the center are the words, "Decus in Labore," the motto of the Lello brothers, which means "Dignity [or Honor] in Work."

The stained glass panels have to be removed and cleaned from time to time in order to restore and conserve them. There is a tradition that during each restoration, a subtle detail is added to the glass to reflect the era in which it was cleaned. A smiley was added during the last cleaning in 2018. See if you can spot it when you visit.

"What does any of this have to do with Harry Potter?," you might be wondering. When author JK Rowling worked as an English teacher and lived in Porto, she visited the bookstore regularly. It is said that the Livraria Lello inspired many of the famous Hogwarts scenery in Harry Potter.

After my visit to the bookstore, it was back out to discover more of Porto. Porto lies at the mouth of the Rio Douro or Douro River. The Douro River runs for 200 miles, snaking through northern Portugal.

Ponte de Dom Luís I Bridge

There are a total of six bridges that cross the Douro River. Among them is the Ponte de Dom Luís I Bridge which connects Porto to its sister city, Gaia, also located in the Porto District. This bridge was built by a student of Gustave Eiffel, who designed The Eiffel Tower.

Gaia Cable Car

Yes, it's touristy but, I highly recommend taking the Gaia cable car from the bridge into Gaia. This five-minute, gradual descent will give you panoramic views of Vila de Gaia, the Ribeira and the river all at once.

Vila Nova de Gaia

After crossing the bridge and taking the cable car down, you will arrive in Vila Nova de Gaia or simply, Gaia. Here, you are rewarded with port, of course. Port is a fortified, sweet wine made with grapes indigenous to Portugal. The grapes are grown in the Douro Valley, after which the wine is transported to Gaia to age.

Traditional port boats known as "barco rabelos" line the river in Gaia bearing the name of various, famous, port houses. In centuries past, these boats would carry barrels of port from the Douro Valley to Gaia. Now, the wine is transported by truck and these quaint boats are used primarily for sightseeing.

Despite the name "port," the wine actually never sets foot in Porto during production. The rules are a little confusing because of a few exceptions that were made to grandfather older brands in but, as a rule of thumb, only fortified wines made in Portugal can be labelled "port." I decided to do a port tasting to experience true "port" in its place of origin. I chose to visit Burmester Cellars, a port house which was established in 1750.

From left to right and top to bottom row: Casa Burmester White 2021, Casa Burmester Red 2020, White, LBV 2016, Colheita 2005

There is so much to know about port, of which I know very little. I can share that the three most common ports I encountered on my trip were White (made from white grapes and aged in wooden barrels), Tawny (made from red grapes and aged in small, oak casks for a longer time) and Ruby port (also made using red grapes but aged in large wood casks for a shorter time). These wines can also be aged in stainless steel but that is less common.

The dry, white ports are great for aperitifs or with light appetizers. Rubies can also be served as an apertif or with desserts and pair especially well with chocolate. Tawnies, also pair well with dessert as well as cheese and nuts. Tawnies are sometimes aged for 40 years resulting in a more complex flavor. These older tawnies pair well with more complicated and intense flavors.

And if all that is too complicated, these wines are also great to sip on their own.

After a full day, I started my walk to dinner along the Douro River which roughly translates to “river of gold.” Beholding it under the light of the setting sun, I could see why.

In my next post, I will share about the wonderful meals I had in Porto, Portugal. Stay tuned.

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