On the far western edge of Europe, Porto, Portugal offers an ideal blend of traditional and modern life.
Our first week in Porto we spent getting to know our way around the city and absorbing as much of its history as we could. Here is what we have learned to date.
Brief History of Porto
Lisbon is the capital and largest city in Portugal and Porto with a population of nearly 250,000 people and slightly over 1.7 million people in its metropolitan area, is its second largest city.
Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its written history dates back more than 2,000 years to the Roman Empire. Ruins have been discovered from the first known inhabitants – the Celts – who settled into the region around 300 BCE, almost a quarter of a century before the Romans arrived. It is believed that pre-roman Celts did not have a written language. The early Roman writings refer to the tribes and much evidence of there settlements has been unearthed.
Portus Cale (called Porto today) became an important commercial and trading port used by both the Romans and later, the Visigoths. Then in 711 CE, the Moors would conquer and control the Iberian Peninsula for approximately the next 150 years.
In 868, on behalf of the King of Asturias, Alfonso III, Vimara Peres successfully reconquered and secured the region from the Moors around and including Portus Cale. The Kingdom of Asturias was made up of several counties and soon after the defeat, King Alfonso III appointed Vímara Peres as Count of Portugal. It wouldn’t be until 1139 before Portugal was officially recognized as a country.
Next to Porto’s Cathedral we found this interesting and detailed statue of Count Vimara Peres astride his powerful horse.
In 1387, Portuguese King João I married English princess Philippa, creating the oldest written military alliance in Europe. They had eight children, including Edward who succeeded his father as King of Portugal in 1433. Their most famous son however, was their 4th son, Henrique, who earned the moniker, Henry the Navigator (1394-1460). Henrique set in motion Portugal’s Age of Discovery. Beginning in the 15th century, the Age of Discovery or Exploration applied to a number of European countries, but the Portuguese sailors were the first explorers. They discovered previously unknown lands including the Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde, Brazil as well as exploring and colonizing the African coast. The Portuguese discovered a route to India around the Cape of Good Hope and they sent the first maritime trade and diplomatic missions to China and Japan.
This large statue of Infante Dom Henrique better known as Henry the Navigator, who is pointing out to the sea, made us pause and really wonder what it must have been like discovering new lands.
A revolution occurred in Porto in 1820 resulting in Portugal’s first liberal constitution. However when Miguel I took the throne in 1828 he overturned the constitution. Porto rebelled and battled the King, but it wouldn’t be until 1919 before the monarchy was overthrown for the final time whereby the country formed a republican government. The first government of the Republic lasted less than 10 weeks and the longest-ruling government lasted a little over a year. Eight different presidents were inaugurated during the tumultuous 1920’s. Chaos, government corruption, assassinations and religious persecution ensued. The cost of living increased 25x, and the currency crashed. Between 1920 and 1925 Portugal was in a crisis.
António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970)
The future Prime Minister and Dictator of Portugal spent 8 years of his childhood education studying in a seminary. He considered a career in the priesthood but elected instead to study law at the University of Coimbra and while there he developed an interest in finance. He graduated with his law degree, specialising in finance and economic policy and following graduation, in 1914, he became an assistant professor of economic policy at the Law School and by 1918 he had earned his doctorate. Salazar began his political career shortly after a military coup in 1926.
He accepted the position of Finance Minister but after one brief appearance, quickly resigned, due primarily to the continual in-fighting. Salazar refused the position multiple more times, until in 1928, when Portugal was on the verge of economic collapse, he was convinced to again accept the position as Finance Minister. Prior to accepting, he negotiated with the newly elected President Carmona that as finance minister he would have complete veto power over all expenditures in all government departments. Granted with this unusual power, it took him one year to balance the budget and stabilize Portugal’s currency.
In July 1932, President Carmona appointed António Salazar as the 100th Prime Minister of Portugal. Salazar was opposed to anarchism, communism, democracy, fascism, liberalism and socialism. His rule was both conservative and nationalist. He demilitarized the country and over the years he regularly employed the typical dictator tools of censorship, imprisonment and forced exile. He also used the secret police to quell opposition, always remembering the political instability and chaos of the 1920’s. During Salazar’s Estado Novo regime, the few elections that were held did not meet democratic standards, resulting in his continuous hold on power.
Although not a democracy, Salazar ensured that Portugal was one of the 12 founding members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) as well as a number of other key European organizations.
In 1968, Salazar suffered a severe brain hemorrhage and not expecting him to recover, a new Prime Minister was appointed. Although he partially recovered, he remained house bound and was not told he had been removed from power. His confidantes allowed him to “rule” for 2 more years in privacy until his death in 1970.
Following his death the ruling nationalists would last less than 5 years before being overthrown.
Salazar’s controversial 48-year dictatorship has been both praised and criticized but all agree that António Salazar was one of the most influential figures in Portuguese history. American author, Paul H. Lewis described Salazar: “Though he never took Holy Orders he continued to live the solitary, ascetic life of a priest – never marrying and devoting all his time, first to his academic career as an economist at Coimbra University and later to running the government. He was cold, intellectual and dedicated to his job.”
Following the Revolution of 1974, all statues were removed and destroyed and currently there are neither museums nor monuments that could provide an opportunity to study, understand, learn from or heal from this man’s 48 year rule.
Praça da Liberdade and Avenida dos Aliados
Praça da Liberdade (Liberty Square) connects to Avenida dos Aliados (Avenue of the Allies) and these bold names represent Porto’s city and business center. Avenue of the Allies was named to honor the 14th century British-Portuguese alliance. In 1718 Liberty or Freedom Square was created and a hundred years later the municipal government moved into the square creating the political, economical and social center for the city.
Porto’s town hall, Câmara Municipal, built in the early to mid 20th century, dominates the north end of Avenida dos Aliados. (pictured above in the paragraph about António Salazar) The building has 6 stories and the clock tower is 230 feet (70 m) high. The oldest building on the square is the former Palácio das Cardosas, now a 5-star InterContinental hotel, and it anchors the entire south side of the square, opposite City Hall. Flanking the east and west side of the oblong plaza are wonderfully ornate, massive commercial buildings built in various architectural styles. Many of the buildings are banks but our favorite was the “A Nacional” insurance company building with its incredible details.
Like many European cities we have been in, Porto was once completely enclosed within a fortification of walls, towers and gates. A first series of walls were built in the city around 1336. We walked through ancient gateways and spotted remnants of old walls throughout the old town but the most visual remains can be found towering near the bridge, Puente Don Luis I. These walls and the tower were completed during the reign of King D. Fernando in 1376.
Palácio da Bolsa
Palácio da Bolsa is interchangeably called The Stock Exchange Palace or Bolsa Palace. Construction began in 1842 and the exterior was finished by 1850. The striking statue of Infante Dom Henrique or Henry the Navigator stands in the center of the plaza in front of the Palace.
The interior decoration was not completed until 1910 and you will need to pre-book a guided tour to have access to the interior of the Palace. Architect Gustavo Adolfo Gonçalves e Sousa built the magnificent Arab Room (inspired by the Alhambra in Granada) as well as the opulent stairway that leads up from the central courtyard, called the Nations Courtyard, to the upper stories. The absolutely beautiful Arab room, built between 1862 and 1880, is definitely the highlight of the Palace.
The eclectic and richness of the styles of furniture, art and sculptures as well as the decorative carvings, plasterwork and tiles in the Tribunal Room, Assembly Room and Golden Room are fascinating to study. We found the unique shapes and colors of glass in the chandeliers and lamps throughout the Palace to be especially pleasing.
Porto is a wonderful city to visit. English is widely spoken allowing us to have lengthier and more enjoyable conversations. We are definitely looking forward to discovering more of this city.
Saúde from these Portuense,
Ted + Julia