Hammer Time Porto, Portugal
A flash flood of humanity cascades down Porto’s steep streets, rushing toward the ancient Ribeira district, which stretches out along the north bank of the Douro River. Nearly everyone in the crowd, tens of thousands of Porto’s residents and visitors alike, wields a colorful plastic hammer. They’re using the not-so-menacing mallets to “pop” one another playfully on the head.Purchasing our own bright-blue bludgeons from a vendor’s prodigious pile, we go with the flow, marching in time to the “squeak,” “squeak,” of hammers hitting heads, in what has become the defining feature of Porto’s most popular event: the centuries-old Festa de São João (St. John Festival), held every June 23.Nearly 100,000 partiers surge on. Branching off like tributaries, they engulf the Ribeira’s many narrow, cobbled medieval streets and arcades.It’s definitely party time. Along the length of every artery, strung between multi-story buildings, thousands of neon red, yellow and green garlands crisscross overhead. From makeshift grills, sizzling sardines and roasting red peppers send swirls of aromatic smoke throughout the Ribeira.Down by the river, the calm waters of the Douro reflect the many weathered, pastel-colored facades of centuries-old tiled buildings. Coveted outdoor tables overflow at every café, restaurant and bar. Patrons await the fantastic fireworks show that will illuminate the party at midnight.Revelers release hundreds of colorful, illuminated flame-propelled balloons that drift lazily up into Porto’s summer sky. As darkness descends, music permeates the air, as street concerts and impromptu dance parties break out in every square. Totally into the spirit of this thing, we’re constantly on the lookout for unsuspecting victims to hammer! All night long, the continuous squeaking never ceases.Even though the beer and wine flow as freely as the massive crowd, not once do we see anyone strike their hammer with malice. It’s all in good fun. The smiles, laughter and good cheer are ubiquitous.São João is one of Europe’s liveliest street festivals, but unbelievably, like the city of Porto itself, it’s relatively unknown outside Portugal.Even though acknowledged by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, for most lay travelers, Porto is known only for being the shipping hub for world-famous port wines produced exclusively in the vineyards of the nearby Douro Valley.Do a Google search of “world’s best and Porto,” and you’ll be introduced to the city’s charismatic core. Porto pops up near the top of lists for world’s best bookstore, train station and café.The city is undergoing a cultural renaissance, and was voted “Best European Destination 2012” by European Travelers’ Choice. Porto is the real deal, one of Europe’s last “undiscovered” urban destinations.Fearful of missing any hidden treasures this fascinating city holds, we hire a private guide through ToursByLocals, an excellent service that connects you with passionate, knowledgeable guides in hundreds of locations worldwide. Miguel Ribeiro, a 15-year veteran of the travel industry, picks us up at our hotel in his comfortable, air-conditioned van to take us on our way.
A World Heritage city
High up on Penaventosa Hill, which rises steeply from the Douro, Miguel begins our tour at Terreiro da Se’ — Terrace of the Cathedral. From our vantage on the terrace’s western side, a jumble of densely packed terra-cotta roofs appear to tumble down the sloping hill toward the meandering river. The Douro is speckled with barcos rabelos, replicas of the ancient boats that delivered port wines from the Douro Valley. Their sails, brightly blazoned with the distinctive logos of various port-wine cellars, flutter, snapping briskly in the breeze.Lining the far riverbank, in the technically separate city of Vila Nova de Gaia, we see a winding warren of aged, white-washed rectangular stone port cellars, or “caves.”Several towering, spectacularly arched wrought-iron bridges, designed by Gustave Eiffel and an assistant, span the Douro. The view of Porto’s urban landscape is breathtaking, as brilliant as any we’ve ever experienced.
The Cathedral District
Architecturally fascinating churches abound in the Cathedral District and its immediate surroundings. In the imposing Central Cathedral, Miguel ushers us along tiled Gothic cloisters to a stunning 17th-century gilded painting of the Last Supper.Santa Clara Church (15th century), nestled inconspicuously behind a small square, has a remarkably plain façade. The interior, though, is anything but basic. Gifted 17th-century artisans transformed the inside of the church into one of Portugal’s most exceptional examples of intricately carved woodwork and gilding.But nothing quite compares to the over-the-top opulence of the Rococo-style Church of Saint Francisco. We’re nearly blinded by the 450 pounds of encrusted gold gilding that appears to melt from the altar, including tall columns, pillars and carvings of animals, cherubs and Biblical figures.Igreja dos Clérigos (18th century), is both church and massive 240-step stone tower. Visible from virtually everywhere in the city, architect Niccolo Nasoni’s tower (1763) is a useful landmark and celebrated symbol of the city.Miguel takes us to the Baroque church of Igreja do Carmo, to marvel at its façade decorated with captivating murals of blue-and-white tiles that depict the legendary founding of the Carmelite monastic order.Noticing how taken we are with the gorgeous tile work, Miguel alters his original itinerary to show us more.
Grout and about
To best experience the city’s rich tradition of painted tiles, Miguel leads us on a calf-burning ramble up and down Porto’s most precipitous avenues.“The Moors,” Miguel shares, “invaded the Iberian Peninsula during the 8th century, bringing with them a flair for decorating floors, walls and ceilings with azulejos, these many colorful tiles.”Multi-story buildings adorned with vibrant scarlet, golden, jade, aqua, indigo and pink tin-glazed ceramic tiles surround us. With intense Portuguese sunlight glimmering on colorful tile facades and brightly painted wrought-iron balconies, it feels as though we’re inside a giant kaleidoscope that readjusts with every step. We see striking examples of Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Classical and Art Nouveau tile work. Our favorite, though, might be the yellow-and-white Mannerist “carpet tiles,” that imitate geometric patterns used in Moorish carpets.All along the course of our wanderings, Miguel introduces us to the best cheese shops, bakeries, pastry shops and meat vendors. Shop owners know Miguel personally, so they allow us to sample local specialties like Monte, a creamy cheese made from ewe’s milk; Broa, a delicious, golden, roughly textured loaf made of rye and cornbread; Farinheira, a tasty sausage made with pork, wine and flour; and Torte de Viana, a sponge cake roll with a sweetened egg filling.
World’s best: Lello & Irmão (1881)
Passing beneath the Gothic Revival façade, and over the threshold of Rua Carmelitos 144, we literally gasp at our first glimpse of the fantastical surroundings of Lello & Irmão, arguably the world’s most beautiful bookstore. Its open, galleried floors, with their dark, wood-paneled walls, elaborate carvings, bright stained-glass ceiling, swirling ruby-red grand staircase, all softly lit in golden hues, create a whimsical atmosphere.It’s no surprise that here, in magical Lello & Irmão’s, while teaching English in Porto, J.K. Rowling found inspiration for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.
São Bento Railway Station (1903)
The name of this historic station comes from a Benedictine monastery built on this site in the 16th century. Though the station’s imposing Parisian-inspired stone exterior, with its sweeping mansard roof, duly impresses, what most astonishes and makes São Bento one of the world’s most beautiful train stations, is its unparalleled interior vestibule, swathed in Jorge Colaço’s 20,000 blue-and-white azulejo tiles.“It took Colaço 11 years to complete these murals,” Miguel explains, as he takes us on a tour of the different landscapes, ethnographic scenes and important Portuguese historical events depicted.The Majestic Café (1921)Walking down Rua Catarina, Porto’s most chic, pedestrian-friendly shopping street, Miguel introduces us to the Art Nouveau Majestic Café, where we step back in time to the romance, elegance and style of the Belle Époque.Varnished wood shines. Long walls of framed, contoured Flemish mirrors reflect rich leather upholstery, polished green marble columns, dangling chandeliers, white marble table tops and scurrying waitstaff. Every table is packed. Luckily, in just a few minutes, we’re seated and enjoying the café’s sophisticated atmosphere. We linger over espressos, and a tray of tantalizing Portuguese desserts, while listening to the soft sounds of a grand piano and accompanying violin.