I really like the way the severe stone stairway leads to Porto’s Cathedral. If you were so inclined you can imagine that you’re climbing a stairway to Heaven.
I really like the way the severe stone stairway leads to Porto’s Cathedral. If you were so inclined you can imagine that you’re climbing a stairway to Heaven.
The Romanesque Sé Velha de Coimbra is almost as old as Portugal itself. The construction of the cathedral was ordered and financed by Dom Afonso Henrique, the first king of Portugal. Construction took many years, but the construction was advanced enough by 1185 that the coronation of Dom Sancho I, the second king of Portugal, took place in the cathedral.
The cathedral’s construction was finished early in the 13th century, with the construction of the cloisters begun around the same time. While there have been several additions to the cathedral, it is the only Romanesque cathedrals in Portugal to survive relatively intact over the centuries.
It’s a beautiful structure, strong like a fortress. This photo is of the eastern façade, with the semicircular apse. I love the way the wispy cirrus clouds contrast with the angles and edges of the stones.
In March we visited the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza in Guimarães, Portugal. A beautiful structure, it’s hard to believe that a century ago the palace was in ruins. It was renovated based on an analysis of other European palaces of the 15th century. The newly reconstructed palace was opened to the public in 1959 and once served as an official residence of Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar.
The palace is full of interesting rooms with priceless antiques and paintings, but this arched staircase, with a simple wooden door at the bottom, caught my eye. It’s primitive and elegant at the same time.
Portugal is full of beautiful and wonderful sights. From the beaches of the Algarve to the wilderness areas of the Minho, beauty is found everywhere. Porto is home to one of the most beautiful railroad stations in the world.
The Convent of São Bento da Avé Maria originally stood where the São Bento Station now sits, but the original convent was destroyed in a fire in the 18th century and the rebuilt convent was in a state of disrepair when the decision was made to raze the convent and to build the station.
Porto architect José Marques da Silva was chosen to design the station. The French Beaux-Arts was opened in 1900. The exterior is quite striking.
The interior of the station, though, is what puts the São Bento Station on the list of most beautiful railroad stations. Between 1905 and 1916, renowned artist Jorge Colaço covered the walls of the station with hand painted azulejos depicting historical events and scenes from around Portugal. Colaço created many works of art throughout Portugal but São Bento Station is arguably his best work.
While most of the artwork are the blue and white tiles most commonly used, the top border is a mural of polychromatic tiles depicting the history of transportation. One of the larger murals depicts Infante Dom Henrique’s victory at the battle of Ceuta.
Another mural celebrates the marriage of João I to Philippa of Lancaster. The murals are all quite beautiful.
It’s important to remember that the São Bento Station is a working railway station and is a major transportation hub in the north of Portugal. It may look like a museum but it still serves its original purpose and moves a lot of people every day.
São Bento Station is a beautiful landmark and a can’t miss destination if you’re traveling in Portugal.
The Franciscan Order has had a presence in Porto since the early 13th century. Initially, the order was persecuted by the existing religious community and the order left for Vila Nova de Gaia. During the reign of King Ferdinand, it was ordered that their property in Porto be restored to them and around 1425 the Igreja de São Francisco was completed. Despite many changes to its interior and a 19th century that destroyed the cloister, the church remains Porto’s finest example of Gothic architecture.
The Franciscans were a mendicant order and the plain exterior of the church is in keeping with the simple austerity of the order. The only adornments are the crosses and a beautiful rosette window.
During the 1833 siege of Porto, a fire broke out, caused by gun fire, that destroyed the cloisters and damaged the church. The facade was rebuilt with the rosette window being the only remnant of the original Gothic facade.
The heavy stone exterior hides one of the most amazing interiors of any church in Portugal. Over the centuries, many prominent families became supporters of the church. The families poured their wealth into the church and during the 17th and 18th centuries much of the original austerity gave way to in incredible display of wealth.
The interior was entirely lined with elaborate gold-covered carvings. There’s really nothing that can prepare you for stepping into the space. Photography in the main interior is not allowed, but this photo from Wikimedia shows the amazing interior.
Next to the church is an annex that houses a museum, a chapel and the catacombs. It’s very interesting, especially the catacombs. Before the first public cemeteries, most people of wealth were interred in the church catacombs. The the walls and floor of the catacombs has individual tombs. You were good for 10 to 15 years, but eventually the bodies were removed from the tombs and placed in an ossuary. There’s a glass window in the floor where you can look down and see the many bones that were placed there over the centuries. It could have been worse, though. If you were poor and died, your body was usually just thrown in the river.
Among the museum items was a really nice collection of alms boxes.
Finally, there’s a beautiful chapel attached to the church. While not as extravagant as the main church, it is quite beautiful.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit Porto, please add the Igreja de São Francisco to your list of must-see places. Until then, though, there’s a really interesting website that provides a virtual tour of the church. It’s well worth checking out.
Older than Portugal by more than a century, Braga is the country’s oldest city and the spiritual capital of Portugal. It’s also the rainiest city in the country. We spent two soggy days in Braga.
Braga’s history spans several millennia, getting its name from early Celtiberian settlers called the Bracari. When Rome conquered the area around 136 B.C. the city was renamed Bracara Augusta in honor of Roman Emperor Augustus. Over the next centuries the city passed through the hands of the Suebi, the Visigoths, the Moors and the Gallicians before Portugal ultimately won its independence.
Our hotel was just two blocks from Avenida da Liberdade, the pedestrian-only thoroughfare that leads to the heart of Braga, Praça da República. Avenida da Liberdade is a wonderful mixture of old and new, with high-end stores and historical sites like the Baroque Raio Palace and the 1st century Fonte do Ídolo, a Roman fountain built during the time of Roman Emperor Augustus. Despite the grand old age of the city, Braga has a cosmopolitan feel. Brightly colored buildings and storefronts line the avenue, including the fantastic Theatro Circo.
At the top of of the avenue is Praça da República. Located at one end of the Jardim da Avenida Central, the Praça da República is a great place for people watching. The Arcada, at the end of the Praça, features two old cafés, Café Vianna and Café Astoria, and a central fountain. We had breakfast at Café Vianna and enjoyed the view; from the Arcada you can see all the way to the sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte, 5km away from the city’s center.
From the Arcada we wandered through the Jardim da Avenida Central. Braga is a religious center and it seems that everywhere you look there’s a church or monument celebrating the city’s faith. The park is no exception. You’ll find the huge Convento dos Congregados, the tiny Igreja da Penha and the modernist monument celebrating Pope John Paul II’s visit to Braga in 1982.
At the far end of the park there’s a view that epitomizes the dedication the city has to its faith. The azulejo-covered Igreja de Nossa Senhora-a-Branca catches your eye first, but a few blocks behind the stone Igreja de São Victor is just as beautiful. It seems that everywhere you look there’s a church.
While we’re at this end of Central Avenue, there’s a little park that I loved. Jardim da Senhora A Branca features one of Braga’s Cruzeiros, a monument topped with a cross, and beautiful orange trees. I love the fact that you see fruit trees in the middle of the city.
Now, back to the churches. There were churches and chapels of all sizes and religious monuments throughout the city. The Sé, or Cathedral, is probably one of the best known and a highlight on any tour of Braga. First built in the 12th century, the Cathedral underwent several renovations resulting in the gothic and manueline structure that exists today. A national monument since 1910, the Cathedral is the seat of the Archdiocese of Braga.
We stumbled across the tiny Capela de São Bentinho while out looking for a lunch spot. Tucked down a narrow little lane, it’s a beautiful little chapel.
Scattered throughout Braga are Cruzeiros, or crosses. This one is located near the Arco de Santiago.
On the other side of the Arco de Santiago is this beautiful monument.
Finally, we always try to find a restaurant or food that’s unique to the city. Most of our dining in Braga was at pubs or cafés. Braga is known for its frigideiras, or meat pies. One of the best places for them is Frigideiras do Cantinho, a small restaurant near Braga Cathedral. While the food was good, the interesting thing about Frigideiras do Cantinho is that the floor is glass and the restaurant is built over Roman ruins. It’s quite unique.
Despite frequent downpours, resulting in soggy shoes, we enjoyed our visit to Braga. It’s a beautiful city with a lot to recommend it.
One of the highlights of any visit to Coimbra is the Universidade Velha, or Old University. Coimbra University is one of the oldest academic institutions in Europe and probably the most important university in Portugal. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is a beautiful and historic University and well worth the visit.
When we set out for Universidade Velha, we knew only that it was on top of the hill that makes up Coimbra’s Old Town. Unfortunately, we chose the hardest, albeit most picturesque way, to approach the University. We entered through the Torre da Almedina and climbed the steep series of stairs known as “the backbreaker”, Rua Quebra Costa.
Rua Quebra Costa is picturesque. We entered through the Barbican Gate and wound our way up the path toward the Torre. Just after the gate we came upon a beautiful sculpture celebrating Portugal’s national music, Fado. After passing through the Torre we found another beautiful piece of artwork, a bronze statue called “Tricana de Coimbra”.
We struggled up the steps, passing the Old Cathedral and the Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro, stopped to catch our breath at the New Cathedral, and eventually made our way to the Old University. It was a trip worth making, but only once. Next time we’ll take the bus to the University.
The Universidade Velha is centered around the Paço das Escolas, or Patio of the Colleges. This was once the Royal Palace of Alcáçova and, beginning in 1131, the home of Dom Afonso Henríques, Portugal’s first king. Almost every king of Portugal’s first dynasty was born here. Interestingly, the first Portuguese king not born in the Palace was Dom Dinis, who founded the University in Lisbon in 1290.
We entered the Paço das Escolas through the Porta Férrea, or Iron Gate. Designed by 17th century architect Antonio Tavares, the gate was the first major architectural work following the University’s acquisition of the Royal Palace in 1537. It’s an elegant structure, with figures representing the University’s major schools at that time, Law, Medicine, Theology and Canons, as well as figures honoring the two kings who figure so prominently in the University’s history, Dom Dinis and Dom João III.
There’s a second entrance to the Paço das Escolas located next to the famed Biblioteca Joanina. The Minerva Stairs were built in 1725 under the supervision of Architect Gaspar Ferreira. The stairs are still one of the main entries into the Paço das Escolas.
Once through the gate you’re struck by the beauty of the Old University. Two things stand out over all others- the bell tower and the statue of Dom João III. The statue, designed by Francisco Franco and erected in 1950, shows a dignified Dom João III looking towards the Palatial home of the University since he ordered it moved to Coimbra in 1537.
The bell tower is the patio’s most prominent landmark. Known as “the Goat”, it was erected in the first half of the 18th century and is the work of Italian architect Antonio Canevari. The bell, which calls the students to class, rings 15 minutes behind the other clock towers in Coimbra. The purpose of the delay is to keep from confusing the town’s inhabitants and the University’s students regarding the various duties signified by the bells each day.
The tower is roofless; it once doubled as an astronomical observatory. Visitors can climb the tower; I’m sure it provides phenomenal views of Coimbra, but we chose not to make the climb.
The main attraction, for many people, is the Biblioteca Joanina. One of the most beautiful libraries in the world, it was a 17th century gift to the University from Dom João V, for whom it is named. Four huge columns frame the front doors of the baroque structure, but this is not where you access the library. Tours of the library start at the bottom of the Minerva stairs, where you enter the Academic Prison. It’s the last existing medieval prison still existing in Portugal and was in use until 1832. Originally the prison for the Royal Palace, it was later used to hold students who committed disciplinary offenses. By the way, the university had its own legal code, separate from the general law of the kingdom.
After a quick tour of the academic prison we’re allowed to climb the stairs to the middle floor, called Depository 4. This is now a museum. Originally, only librarians and the Royal Prison Guard had access to the floor (the guards accessed the Academic Prison from here). Access to the books stored in Depository 4 were restricted to a select group of staff.
The highlight of the library is the magnificent “Book House”. The top level is a series of three chambers with two floors. 72 gilded book shelves hold about 60,000 priceless books, including a copy of Camões’s Lusiads from 1572 and a Latin Bible from 1492. Each room has a fantastic ceiling painting and at the far end of the third room is a beautiful painting of Dom João V. It’s so beautiful that I can’t imagine anyone actually reading in the library.
There are two colonies of bats who live in the library. Their job is to eat the insects that could harm the books. We didn’t see any of the bats, but there are plenty of places for them to sleep during the day.
I’m sure that some people stop their tour after visiting the Biblioteca Joanina, but those who do are missing out. Next door to the library is the Capela de São Miguel, an ornate Baroque and Manueline chapel built in the 16th century and remodeled in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The altarpiece dates from 1605 and in 1663 the interior was covered with tiles. There’s a magnificent baroque pipe organ, built in 1733 by Friar Manuel Gomes to replace the old one, that consists of around 2,000 pipes. The organ is still used on special occasions.
The chapel is full of outstanding religious artwork, including a painting of Our Lady of Conception, the patroness of the University, and another of Our Lady of Light, the patroness saint of students. It’s a beautiful structure. I was inspired enough to try out my limited knowledge of the Portuguese language. “A capela é muito linda,” I told the student at the door. I apparently used it correctly, because he smiled and replied in English, “Yes, it is.”
After a quick break in the cafeteria for a snack and a glass of wine, we moved on to the Royal Palace. The entry to the Royal Palace is the Via Latina, a magnificent staircase built during the late 18th century. It seems to be a popular spot for selfies or group photos, depending on whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert. We’re not really into photos of ourselves so we climbed the stairs and entered the Palace.
There are several really nice rooms in the Palace. First up was the Arms Room, which houses the weapons of the former Royal Academic Guard. The weapons are used today only for formal academic ceremonies such as the opening of the school year and the awarding of PhDs.
Next to the Arms Room is the Yellow Room. Each school has a different color. Coimbra’s School of Medicine’s color is yellow. The Yellow Room is where the School of Medicine’s faculty gather for events.
The Sala dos Capelos, or Great Hall of Acts, was originally the Palace’s Throne Room. Today it is the space where most official ceremonies are held and where PhD oral exams are conducted. It’s a magnificent space lined with portraits of all Portuguese kings except those who ruled during the sixty years when Spain ruled Portugal.
The Private Examination Room was once the room of the King of Portugal. This is the place where graduate students held their Doctoral exams. Traditionally, these were private exams and were done in secret and at night. The paintings lining the room’s walls are portraits of former rectors.
After a visit to the second-floor balcony overlooking the plaza we made our way back down to the Paço das Escolas and took in the view of the Mondego River and Coimbra from the far end of the plaza. The Universidade Velha is just a small part of the current University, but it’s a huge part of its history. There was so much more to see- the Botanical Gardens, for example- but we’ll have to do that on our next visit to Coimbra.
We made a day trip to Guimarães from Braga. This beautiful city is a historically significant place, known as “the birthplace of Portugal” because Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first king, was born here. The castle, though, has a history older than even the founding of the country.
Guimarães was founded as Vimaranes in the 9th century. It may have been named for the first ruler of the County of Portugal, Vimara Peres, who ruled the county from this area. There’s a beautiful statue of Peres at the Cathedral in Porto.
In the 10th century, Countess Mumadona Dias, the most powerful woman in the Northwest Iberian Peninsula, ruled the County of Portugal from Guimarães. A devout woman, she had he Monastery of Guimarães built. To protect the monastery from raids by the Vikings and the Moors, she had a castle built on the hill overlooking the monastery in the place where the Castle of Guimarães now stands.
In 1096 Alfonso VI, King of León and Castile, gave the County of Portugal to Henry of Burgundy as dowry for his marriage to Alfonso’s daughter, Teresa. Henry expanded and remodeled the castle. It was here that his son, Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, was born.
The castle was remodeled once more at the end of the 13th century, this time by King Dinis. This is the castle that exists today. Over the next several centuries, though, the castle fell into ruin until, in 1836, a plan was made to demolish the castle and use its stone to repave roadways. Fortunately, the plan was never carried out. In 1910 the Castle of Guimarães was declared a National Monument and in 1937 the first of several restoration projects was started.
The castle sits high above the city and provides some great views of the surrounding area. It was built as a military fortification, and withstood several sieges during its early history. The green space around the castle would not have existed during its use as a fortress; all of the trees and shrubbery would have been removed to eliminate hiding places for enemy invaders.
There are eight towers surrounding a central keep. The keep would have been where the castle’s owner would live. The walls and towers would provide a shield for them from any attacks.
The castle is adjacent to two other national monuments- The Igreja de São Miguel do Castelo and the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza. The palace can be seen from the castle walls.
The Igreja de São Miguel do Castelo is a tiny church in the shadows of the castle. Legend has it that this is where Afonso Henriques was baptized. That may be stretching history a bit as the first reference to the church wasn’t until the 13th century. A restoration project at the end of the 19th century took place and then, in the 20th century, several more projects were carried out to restore the church to its original medieval character.
The area of the castle, the palace and the church are part of the historical center of Guimarães and is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s a lot of history here in the Birthplace of Portugal.
Porto is Portugal’s second largest city and has long been an important part of the country’s history. There have been people here since the time of the Celtiberians, and the Roman name Portus Cale gave Portugal its name. Porto is an interesting, bustling city with a lot to do. We spent two days in the city on our visit to Portugal.
We stayed outside the historic center of the city because driving in Porto is not for the faint of heart. Our hotel, Hotel Porto Nobre, was a beautiful old house north of the city and with convenient access to the historic city center.
The purpose of our visit was to decide where we want to live when we relocate to Portugal. It was pretty evident that Porto was not what we’re looking for. Porto is a large and busy city and we’re looking for a smaller place with a much slower pace. That being said, we enjoyed our time in the city.
The historic center of Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and most of what we wanted to see and do are in the city center. We took the bus from the hotel to the Avenida dos Aliados, generally regarded as the heart of the city. It’s a beautiful place to start our tour of Porto, with magnificent mansions and buildings lining the avenue. The north end of the square is topped by the beautiful City Hall.
Praça da Liberdade sits at the southern end of the avenue. This is a great place for photos of the avenue. A statue of Dom Pedro IV is quite beautiful as well. The architecture and the statue give an old European feel to the square.
We decided to have lunch at one of the many restaurants that line the avenue. This was our chance to try Porto’s most famous delicacy, the francesinha. Frequently mentioned as one of the best sandwiches in the world, the “little frenchie” has ham, sausage, beef and cheese, all smothered in a secret sauce. This is not a sandwich you can eat with your fingers. It is quite good.
After the francesinha, we needed a long walk. Our first stop was São Bento Railway Station, one of the most beautiful railway stations in the world. The interior is covered with about 20,000 azulejos painted by Jorge Colaço between 1905 and 1916. The azulejos depict events from Portugal’s history.
Livraria Lello, the famous bookstore, one of the world’s most beautiful booksellers,was our next stop. It is a magnificent work of art. The exterior is art nouveau. The interior is highlighted by the staircase that reportedly was the inspiration for the moving staircases in J.K. Rowlings’s Hogwarts. Unfortunately, the interior is so crowded that it’s difficult to move, much less enjoy the beauty of the place.
Just up the street from Lello is Igreja dos Clérigos and the famous Torre dos Clérigos. Designed by Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni, the baroque tower was added to the Igreja dos Clérigos between 1754 and 1763. Nasoni, who designed numerous works in Porto during his 50 years in the city, had designed the original church, which was built between 1933 and 1750.
The tower is over 75 meters tall and provides spectacular vistas for visitors who climb the 225 steps to the top. This view of the tower was taken the next day from the Cathedral.
Our second day began at Avenida dos Aliados and breakfast at Café Guarany. It’s a beautiful art nouveau café that opened in 1933. We had a great breakfast there while avoiding the crowds at Porto’s other famous café, Majestic.
After breakfast we took a walk to Porto’s famous market, Mercado Bolhão. Our timing was right. The market has been moved to a new location so the old location can be renovated. Yes, the old location was a bit decrepit, but I liked the feel of the place.
After the market we stopped at the Cathedral. Construction was begun in the 12th century and was continued until its completion in the 16th century. That probably explains why it has several different architectural styles, including a Gothic chapel and cloister, a Romanesque rosette window and nave, and a Baroque loggia designed by Nicolau Nasoni. There’s also a statue of Vimara Peres, a 9th century nobleman who defeated the Moors and was the first ruler of the County of Portugal.
Our next destination was Vila Nova de Gaia, famous for its port wine caves. We were looking at Vila Nova de Gaia as a potential retirement spot because of its vicinity to Porto and all of that city’s amenities. We took the metro across the Dom Luis I bridge, one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. It’s a two level bridge, one for automobile and pedestrian traffic, and one level for trains, and was designed by a disciple of Gustave Eiffel.
We walked through the part of town above the waterfront for a while and really didn’t like it as a potential home. We probably didn’t give Vila Nova de Gaia a fair chance; it’s actually quite large and I’m sure that there are parts of the city that would appeal to us, but we just didn’t connect with the city like we did with some of the other places we visited.
We made our way to the Teleférico de Gaia, an aerial gondola, and had a drink at the bar before taking a ride down to the waterfront. The views from the teleférico were awesome, but the waterfront was underwhelming. We toured one of the port wine cellars, had lunch at one of the restaurants, and then road the teleférico to the top so we could ride the metro back to Porto.
We made our way to the Igreja de São Francisco, our final destination. The gothic exterior of this 13th century church is misleading. Inside, over 120 pounds of gold gilt cover virtually every surface. Photography of the interior isn’t allowed, but I found a photo to accompany my exterior photo.
We enjoyed our time in this great city. It’s bustling city with a long history and plenty to keep you interested. Our visit just touched the surface and I hope that we’ll be able to spend more time in Porto in the future.
My wife and I spent the first two weeks of March exploring Portugal. It’s a beautiful country and we enjoyed our visit immensely. I’ll go into our journey in more detail over the next few weeks, but for now here’s our itinerary.
All flights from the U.S. fly into Lisbon, the largest city in Portugal. It’s a beautiful city with a myriad of cultural and historical sites to visit. It was our first taste of Portugal and we were impressed, but our plan was to explore some of the smaller cities and towns along the Silver Coast. We picked up our rental car and headed north.
Our first stop, after Lisbon, was the beach town of Nazaré. Nazaré is one of the most popular beach towns on the Silver Coast. It’s famous for it’s world class surfing at Praia de Norte, where waves can reach huge heights. In 2011 Garrett McNamara surfed a world record wave of 78-feet.
Aveiro was one of my favorite cities on our tour of the country. It’s a beautiful place. It’s also the home to a vibrant university, which probably contributes to the youthful feel of the city.
Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and is a wonderful place. One of the oldest cities in Europe, Porto has been around since the Romans founded it as Portus Cale. Porto has an international feel. Its most famous export is port wine and people from all around the globe visit the port wine cellars every year.
Viana do Castelo
Another favorite stop on our tour, Viana do Castelo was an important port during the 16th century when it was a major entry port for Portuguese explorers during Portugal’s great Age of Discovery. It’s still a vital seaport and a beautiful city.
Ponte de Lima
Ponte de Lima was not on our original itinerary but, after being mentioned several times during our trip, we decided to stop in the town after leaving Viana do Castelo. A small town of only about 2,000, Ponte de Lima is a fantasticly beautiful little village that feels much larger than it is.
Founded by the Romans as Bracara Augusta in 20 BC, Braga is the historical and cultural center of the Minho region. It’s a beautiful city. It has long been a religious center of Portugal. It seems that everywhere you look there’s a church and it’s biggest annual celebration is Semana Santa, or Holy Week.
Guimarães is considered the birthplace of Portugal. That’s because it’s the birthplace of the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques. It was named the European Capital of Culture in 2012.
Another city that has historical ties going back to the Roman Era, Coimbra has for centuries been a cultural center of Portugal. That’s because it’s the home to the University of Coimbra, the oldest academic institution in the Portuguese-speaking world. It’s also famous for its version of Fado, the Portuguese music that was named to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2012.
After our two week tour we returned to Lisbon and then flew home. It was a great trip and we returned with memories that will last a lifetime. Over the next few weeks I’ll share the various aspects of our trip. Stay tuned.
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