Portugal may be half the size of Washington State but the cultural and historical sites are immeasurable.
Porto’s variety of cultural offerings in and around the city easily kept us engaged for our entire month long visit. Here is a taste of some of our favorite discoveries and experiences.
Casa do Música
Opened in 2005 the contemporary shaped 1300-seat Casa da Música concert hall had a spaceship-like feel as we mounted the stairway up into the belly of the hall. Look to the lower left on the photo below to see the staircase.
After months of closures, precautions and restrictions we were thrilled to be able to buy tickets and attend a live Mendelssohn concert. The talented special guest, Ukrainian violinist, Diana Tischenko was extraordinary to watch and listen to. Both musicians and members of the audience were each seated the necessary safe distance apart from one another. Each guest was personally escorted to their seat one at a time, we wore our masks the entire evening and there was no intermission option for the audience. At intermission a speaker entertained us with her notes about the artist, Felix Mendelssohn and his works. It was an extremely well managed event and we enjoyed a stimulating evening out.
Before attending the concert we met up with a good friend at the large 148 ft (45 m) tall column named The Peninsula War Monument, which stands in the center of a rotunda across the street from Casa da Música. The tall monument commemorates the victory of the Portuguese and British over the French troops during the Peninsular War (1807–1814). The column is so tall that you can barely see that there is a lion mounted at the top, the symbol of the joint Portuguese and British victory, pouncing and holding down an eagle, the symbol of the defeated French army.
Closer to eye level at the monument’s base, are sculptures commemorating soldiers and civilians. The civilians represent the people of Porto who in 1809 were fleeing from Napoleon’s troops. While trying to escape the enemy soldiers, hordes of citizens were attempting to cross the Ponte das Barcas, a bridge built on barges, when the bridge collapsed, drowning more than 4000 of Porto’s citizens.
Natural History and Science Museum
We visited Porto’s Natural History and Science Museum because it was hosting a temporary exhibit called “Um Século e Tanto”, which loosely translates as “Quite a Century”. The exhibition was showing National Geographic’s most important work, using maps, objects, photographs and documentaries.
National Geographic was founded in 1888 with a mission that knowledge and exploration of the planet should be shared between members. 130 years later, National Geographic continues as a non-profit, world recognized institution with ongoing research in dozens of fields.
Inviting guests in to the exhibition began with an impressive art installation of 360 front covers of National Geographic magazine. We visited the museum late in the day so had just over an hour to experience it all. Frankly we could have stood and examined this first fascinating display for the much of that time.
There were dozens of objects to see although, in general it was the photos that were our most memorable. One that fired our imagination was an amazing photo that had been enlarged into a wall-sized mural. It was a scene from the underground Mexican, Cave of Crystals, where a National Geographic team, wearing orange suits, were completely dwarfed by the gigantic crystals they were climbing over and through. Looks almost other-world like.
We gazed at pictures of galaxies, of life found in the deepest part of the oceans and of photos taken during the discovery of Machu Picchu. And then, as we rounded one corner, there was the iconic, June 1985 front cover of the “Afghan Girl” called “the most recognized photograph” in the magazine’s history. Steve McCurry was the photojournalist who captured the green eyed girl wearing her red headscarf at the Nasir Bagh, Pakistan refugee camp in 1984.
We learned that this photo lay amongst dozens of others on the cutting room floor before it was rediscovered and plucked from the floor. It was eventually chosen to be a front cover and destined to become National Geographic’s most famous edition.
It was nearly 20 years after the photo was taken, in 2002, before the girl was identified. She had left the refugee camp 10 years earlier and returned to a remote region of Afghanistan, her native country.
Coincidentally our apartment in Porto had a couple of hundred National Geoegraphic magazines stacked on shelves and although we did flip through some of them, they were in Portuguese, so we couldn’t read them.
We do highly recommend catching this temporary exhibition if it arrives anywhere near you.
University of Porto – Monstros Marinhos
Monstros Marinhos or Sea Monsters was the title of an interesting temporary science and art exhibition we visited. The numerous sculptures, masks and installations were built by artist Ricardo Nicolau de Almeida and the materials he used were plastics collected exclusively from Portuguese beaches. Look at the array of baby soothers alone that were saved from the oceans.
The exhibition was very well done but it is a sad reflection on the amount of plastics littering our oceans and beaches.
This is where we also discovered the Portuguese artist, Nadir Afonso (1920-2013) who created our brightly colored cover photo, at the top of the blog.
Afonso began his career in architecture before becoming a ‘geometric abstractionist’ painter. His best-known work may be his Cities series and we have included a number of them in our link entitled University of Porto Temporary Exhibitions, found at the bottom of this blog.
Livraria Lello & Irmão
If you love books, bookstores and Harry Potter, then you may want to plan a visit to this 1906 charismatic bookstore that reportedly inspired JK Rowling in her Harry Potter series. As a young woman, she lived and worked in Porto for a time and it seems likely that Lello Bookstore inspired her descriptions of Diagon Alley shops as well as the astonishing moving staircases in Hogwarts corridors.
Lello’s is actually quite small but the art nouveau interior is striking and the large red carpet lined staircase dominates the space connecting the two floors. You almost expect any one of the connecting staircases to begin to move, especially when you step on to the landing about half way up the stairs to the 2nd floor.
The 26′ x 11′ (8 x3.5 m) stunning stained glass skylight placed above the forked staircase also caught our attention. We especially liked the embedded motto – Decus in Labore (Honor in Work).
It is believed that Porto University students may have also inspired JK Rowling’s Hogwart school uniform. We walked past more than a few students wearing black suits covered with long calf length black capes and we commented to each that they certainly looked very Hogwarts-like.
Galerias Palladium Clock
Porto’s Palladium clock with it’s moving figurines may not be as famous as Prague’s Astronomical Clock but there was local history and meaning to unearth.
One question we never did get an answer to, was why the 4 figures, Almeida Garret, São João, Infante D. Henrique and Camilo Castelo Branco only appeared at 12 noon and 6 pm daily rather than hourly. And, of course, we felt compelled to delve a little into the history of who the figures represented.
Almeida Garrett (1799-1854), was a renowned Portuguese poet, novelist and playwright who supported and influenced the creation of theaters and art institutions in the city.
São João – Saint John the Baptist – represents the Festival of St John of Porto, held on the night of 23 June (St John’s Eve), in the city of Porto.
Infante Dom Henrique – Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), played a vital role at the beginning of the 15th century, called the Age of Discovery, with his key support of Portugal’s maritime exploration, discoveries and trade.
Camilo Castelo Branco – (1825-1890), was a prolific Portuguese writer who published more than 260 novels, plays and essays.
There is a reason Porto is a World Heritage Site and there is a rich, varied and proud culture waiting to be explored and savored.
Saúde from these Portuense,
Ted + Julia
- includes the Casa da Música
- includes the Monument to the Heroes of the Peninsular War
- includes the Monument Infante Dom Henrique
- includes the Cordoaria”s Garden