January may be in its infancy but, if you’re like us, you’ll be dreaming of warmer climes with stimulating landscapes, colourful cultures and flavoursome food.
Planning a city break is the perfect panacea to banish the winter blues and kickstart the year ahead and the wealth of adventures in store.
In this article Leave Work to Travel puts the spotlight on heart stopping Porto, Portugal’s second largest city.
The Pull of Porto
Often overlooked in favour of the country’s capital Lisbon, this strikingly stylish destination is located on the banks of the Douro, known as the ‘river of gold. The city serves up an architectural, cultural and gastronomic feast to whet every appetite.
Our explorations began among the swathes of Sunday visitors and locals in downtown Ribiera, a Unesco World Heritage Site pulsating with energy.
By midday the waterfront, glistening with sunshine, was buzzing with crowds browsing through souvenir stalls and enjoying coffee, beer and wine washed down with brunches.
Counting calories is a crime in Porto and no visit is complete without the scrummy Pastel de Nata custard tarts from which there is no escape. The highly addictive delights taunted us in pastilerias (bakeries), restaurants as well as supermarkets and garages.
Arresting Art Deco
Usually a railway station would not feature on a traveller’s ‘top ten sights’. Porto however, is an exception, and taking in the 20,000 decorative tiles at São Bento Railway Station which depict Portugal’s past and present is a must.
Built on the site of a former Benedictine monastery, legends abound that a ghost still haunts the halls of the landmark attraction on which creator and tile painter Jorge Colaço laboured for 11 years.
Outstanding Art Nouveau
Patiently queuing to be enraptured by the magnificent Livraria Lello bookstore in Porto is also un-missable.
Voted the world’s third most beautiful bookstore by the Guardian and Lonely Planet, the pièce de résistance is the jaw-dropping red staircase said to have inspired the impressive Grand Staircase in Hogwarts.
The experience was well worth the queue (the length depends upon the time of year) and the fascinating people you can bump into which included the mother of a Hollywood actor who checked out when I googled him.
An abundance of Harry Potter books (JK Rowling used to live and teach English in Porto) can be purchased. The entrance fee - highly unusual but understandable given the popularity - is 5€ if you buy a ticket online and 6€ to pay on the door, The minimal cost is deducted from any purchase.
Many of Porto’s buildings have a propensity for stopping visitors in their tracks. Just a few minutes’ walk from the railway station is the Igreja do Carmo Catholic Church.
A classic example of beautiful baroque architecture built in second half of the 18th Century, its exterior displays a multitude of the country’s trademark blue tiles with scenes of the origins of the Carmelite Order nuns.
A narrow house separating the Igreja do Carmo from the Carmelitas church to its left was designed to prevent any contact between the monks and nuns.
Portugal’s global economic and trade prowess is highlighted in the statue of maritime hero Prince Henry the Navigator, a 14th century Prince synonymous with Portugal’s Age of Discovery,.
His string of achievements includes despatching expeditions around the Africa’s Ivory Coast, opening up opportunities for Portugal to tap into Africa’s vast riches.
Among the joys of exploring Porto are an abundance of lookouts across the mind blowing backdrops.
The views are equally mesmerising from Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite bank of the Duoro which is accessible by a five minute ferry ride.
Festooned with bars with live music, wineries and vineyards, we partook in Port tasting (a tough job but someone has to do it!). Surprisingly, Steve was particularly taken with the rose.
We savoured a glass of the local vihno verde while smiling at the sight of dancing couples who were spontaneously swept up in the city’s infectious romance.
Another lingering memory is the palpable excitement of passengers boarding river boat cruises which sailed up the Douro in a stunning sunset amid spectacular scenery.