Historic Center of Oporto: Portugal's Baroque City Par Excellence

Its medieval streets form, as if falling into the Douro river, a dense irregular pattern, while in the most modern part of the city Porto opens up into wide avenues and squares. After playing a decisive role in the early years of independence, which was reflected in its Gothic architecture, thanks to the prosperity generated by the wine trade in the 18th century, Porto developed a Baroque architecture of great beauty. Inhabited since the 8th century B.C., it began to have some relevance as a Roman camp. Today it has become the second most important city in the country and a great commercial and economic center with a great wealth of monuments.

A view of the city

Its confrontations against the Arabs, against the Spanish during the reign of Philip II, against the Napoleonic troops in the 19th century and its important participation in the liberal struggles have earned it the nickname of the invincible city. The name of “Portugal" derives from the place name "Portuscale", reminiscent of the current Porto ("Portus"), and Vila Nova de Gaia, on the left-wing bank, called "Cale" in Latin and today converted into the industrial area of the city. The Romans used it to link Braga with Lisbon and Cadiz with Galicia.

In the Middle Ages, the city was already known as "O Porto" ("the port" in English), with abundant barge traffic across the Douro. The Visigoths established an episcopate here, which was often raided from the coast by Swabian, Arab and Norman pirates. Taken by the Muslims, it was recovered by the Christians in 878 and again by the Arab king Almanzor in 997, until its definitive reconquest. The territory then extended its possessions from the Miño to the Douro. The city was rebuilt in the 11th century by Franks and Basques, which is why it was known as "Portus Gallorum".Sometime later, in 1109, Queen Teresa, illegitimate daughter of Alfonso VI of León, brought the county of Portugal as a dowry for her marriage to Henry of Burgundy, from whom Afonso Enriques would be born, who would break away almost without a fight from the kingdom of León and would be crowned in 1139.  In 1147, Afonso Enriques convinced a party of crusaders that the fight against the Saracen was as valid in Portugal as in the Holy Land, and with this army he seized Lisbon and moved the capital there, leaving Oporto as the residence of the princes of Burgundy. 

Tripeiros and Navigators

During the 13th century, there were serious dissensions between the bishopric of Oporto and the crown. In 1350, during the reign of Afonso IV, the nobles were forbidden to settle in the city, hence the small number of palaces. In 1376 fortifications were erected to protect the medieval town and the port: the so-called Fernandine walls, which were begun by King Afonso IV in 1336 and completed by his successor, Dom Fernando. The remains that can still be seen have a height of about 10 m and are crenelated and reinforced by several bastions. 

Afonso Henriques (1106-1185) the first Portuguese Monarch

The former Alfãndega ("customs house"), now converted into the city's historical archive, was the birthplace of King Henry the Navigator, third son of João I. During his reign, in 1406 Bishop Gil sold his ecclesiastical rights over Porto for an annual rent.

The nickname of "tripeiros" (tripeiros) that its inhabitants receive has its origin in that, to help Henry in the capture of Ceuta in 1415, all the cattle of the region were confiscated and the owners were only allowed to keep for themselves the guts, viscera and tripe. In the 14th and 15th centuries the Portuenses shipyards, which maintained commercial relations with Flanders, were famous.

As an old Portuguese saying goes: "Lisbon has fun, Coimbra sings, Braga prays and Porto works".  On the other hand, if part of Porto's architecture shows British influence, it is due to the colony that developed in the city. Since the Treaty of Methuen in 1703, which established a free trade agreement between the two powers, the wine industry has been marking its wines on the city's docks destined for more distant countries, especially the United Kingdom. In 1757, the Marquis of Pombal, King Joseph I's prime minister, created a state company to control the vines of the upper Douro and thus put an end to this English monopoly on Port. In protest, during the so-called Revolta dos Borrachos ("Drunkards' Revolt"), the premises of the company were set on fire. 

In any case, for the rest of the century, Portugal seemed more like a colony of the Commonwealth than an independent nation. After expelling the Napoleonic troops and in view of the fact that King João VI seemed to be in no hurry to return from his exile in Brazil, a revolt broke out in Porto in 1820 against the ill-concealed British occupation, which returned sovereignty to the country and transformed the absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. In 1832 King Don Pedro made himself strong there on his return from Brazil, but fled before the landing of troops from the island of San Miguel. The monarch regained the initiative and besieged the "miguelistas", who finally surrendered their weapons. Porto also played an important role in the establishment of the Republic in 1910, as did the Carnation Revolution of 1974 to establish democracy in the country. 

From Romanesque to Baroque

The old town of Porto revolves around the cathedral, on a hill called Alto da Penaventosa, on the site of a Gothic castle. Defensive and massive in appearance, the Sé ("cathedral" in Portuguese) is a fortress church, with robust buttresses, built in the transitional Romanesque style during the 12th to 14th centuries.

Porto's Sé Cathedral

The rose window on the façade, the twin towers and the central nave belong to this early period. It has two cloisters, one Romanesque and the other Gothic, which is somewhat later and where a rich tilework depicts the songs of King Solomon and pagan scenes such as the Metamorphosis of Ovid. The chapel of San Vicente dates from the end of the 16th century. Later, the façade was modified with a curved portico and the balustrades and cupolas of the bell towers.In the 18th century a baroque loggia was added on the northern side, attributed to the Italian Niccolo Nazzoni, probably the most prolific architect of the city.  The interior has also been renovated over time. Thus, it comprises three naves dotted with baroque chapels with great ornamentation, among which stands out that of the Santísimo Sacramento (“Blessed Sacrament” in English), with an altar of embossed silver of the 17th century. The main altar has remarkable sculptures from the 18th century.

In the Renaissance baptistery, next to the entrance, a beautiful relief can be appreciated, work of Texeira Lopes that represents the baptism of Christ.

Niccolo Nazzoni in 1773

In the same square stands the Archbishop's Palace (18th century) of elegant baroque style although of medieval origin, as well as a solid granite pillory in Pombaline style. A short distance away is the Jesuit church of São Lorenço, better known as Dos Grilos church, completed in 1570. It has a single nave and preserves in its interior a 17th century altarpiece of great beauty. In the adjoining convent is the museum of sacred art. Also nearby, in a rich baroque mansion signed by Nazzoni, is the museum of Guerra Junqueiro, a famous Portuguese poet with a beautiful collection of art and various personal objects. Behind the cathedral is the church of Santa Clara. An arch leads to the old convent courtyard, which is accessed through one of its walls. The other entrance opens into the church, which was completed in 1416, but whose interior was renovated in the 17th century with gilded carvings that completed the altars and the presbytery. The choir is from the same period, with a marvelous ceiling that shows Mudejar influences and a beautiful choir stalls.

Dos Grilos Church in Porto

Manueline details can still be seen on the façade. The baptismal font is Gothic. In the cloister of the convent is preserved a canvas of the old Fernandine wall that surrounded the entire city. 

Fruit of the "English" Wine

The basilica of São Francisco, neighboring the Bolsa palace, preserves in Gothic style rose window, some pointed arches and, in general, the exterior layout of its masonry dating from the 14th century. The portico of the facade and other elements, as was often the case in Porto, are baroque.

Basilica of Sao Francisco (or St. Francis Church)

It houses a lavish decoration with wood carvings of great variegation, for which it took more than 200 kilos of gold dust to cover this kind of fantastic grotto, at first sight not very similar to the Franciscan rule. Oporto, Portugal's baroque city par excellence, also hosted during the last years of the 18th century and during the 19th century an urban redistribution with an abundant representation of the neoclassical style. The large British colony chose the Palladian style, then fashionable in Victorian Britain. Perhaps the most representative building of this trend is the Stock Exchange (in Portuguese, "Bolsa Palace"), which still functions as such. Built near the river on the site of a convent that disappeared after a fire in 1832, in addition to its grand staircase of granite and marble with frescoes on the walls, the main attraction of the building lies in its large oval hall of Arab inspiration divided into two floors with colorful stained glass windows. The Museum of Ethnography and History, in a song also attributed to Nazzoni, is very illustrative of the art, crafts and culture of the region: a reconstruction of an ancient wine cellar, a linen loom, collections of ship models, coins, furniture and costumes make up its most outstanding rooms.

To the west of the city rises the church and tower dos Clérigos, by Nazzoni, completed in 1732. The temple, variegated to rococo in baroque stone, is next to a tower between slender and gloomy in the shape of a lamp, built in 1748. This tower of 76 m, which is accessed by 225 steps, was once a reference for the navigators of the river and today is a symbol of the city. In addition to various civil buildings, including the São João theater, the Batalha and Sereiras palaces, the Santo António hospital and the Da Relação prison, Porto is home to one of the most beautiful railway stations in the world: the São Bento station, built on the ruins of a former Benedictine convent.

Dos Clerigos Tower 

The tile decoration of its main hall, a 1930 work by Jorge Colaço, depicts rural scenes and various episodes from the founding and history of the city. Those of the upper panels are polychrome and smaller than those of the lower section, which were glazed with the typical blue coloring of Portuguese tilework.

For its part, the church of O Carmo also has a remarkable baroque facade of the 18th century, with another side covered with 19th-century style tiles, as well as beautiful sculptures inside. Twinned to the Carmo is the church of the Carmelites, Baroque from the early 17th century but modified by Nazzoni. 

Another notable monument is the Soares dos Reis Museum, in the 18th-century palace of Carrancas. It was once the residence of a Jewish family and later of the Portuguese Royal family, and it is said that the Duke of Wellington slept there one night during his campaign against the Napoleonic troops. It preserves fine porcelain, goldsmithery, glassware and a rich collection of paintings from the 16th century, as well as a remarkable exhibition of sculpture from the 19th with works by Teixeira and Soares himself, who was director of the museum for many years. For its part, the church of Cedofeita, in Romanesque style from the early 17th century, is surely the oldest building in the city, although curiously it is far to the north, somewhat distant from the historic center. Cedofeita means "made fast"; but there is no record that it was in fact so. It has a single nave completely vaulted and retains its original sobriety. Completely different is the church of San Bento da Victoria, built between 1597 and 1646 by Diego Marques. San Bento was probably the first building in Portugal to be influenced by the baroque and the horror vacui is not yet as absolute as in the churches of San Francisco and Santa Clara, but it is already clearly perceived. The choir stalls are exceptional.

Soares Dos Reis National Museum in Porto

The French Bridges

The most popular image of Porto is undoubtedly its three bridges. The oldest and innermost is the Dona Maria Pia, with a single metal arch of 354 m, inaugurated in 1877 according to the project of the French engineer Gustav Eiffel.

Donna Maria Pia Bridge

This bridge was intended only for railroads, with a rail 61 m from the water. The Dom Luis I bridge has two floors, one at 10 m above the river and the other at 70 m. It has a span of 172 m and was built by the Belgian company Willebroeck in 1886 according to the drawings of Teofilo Seyring, a disciple of Eiffel. It connects directly with the Ribeira district, as its name suggests, bordering the river, the usual scene of street markets. Ribeira, a labyrinth of alleys with solid mansions, is the oldest part of the city and in it the old jetties overlook the river as if the rabelo boats were still descending the Douro with their cargo of barrels. 

Dom Luis I Bridge (strikingly similar to Donna Maria Bridge)

The Arrábida Bridge, the closest to the sea, was built in 1963. It has a concrete vault with a span of 270 m, making it the largest arch in the world made of this material. The Porto-Lisbon highway and the ring road pass over it. The upper arch has a length of 500 m and is about 80 m above the water level of the Douro. Porto, crossed by streetcars and trolleybuses in its famous Liberdade and Batalha squares, remains an indelible memory, with a particular personality. The Spanish poet and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote these verses: "In its gorge, Porto dreams of the haughty Urbión". Because the Douro, which has traveled through Portugal irrigating vineyards, flows into the Atlantic in the nearby Foz do Douro, where the sea gives up its life and remembers its fountains in the Soria massif of Urbión.

Arrábida Bridge Spanning The Duoro River

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