Porto Journal: Gem of Europe is Ready for Visitors

Casa da Música (photo credit Duccio)

By Ron Bernthal

Portugal was the last country in Europe to register its first case of COVID-19, giving the Portuguese an enormous advantage over other EU countries. They were able to thoroughly prepare their containment strategy regarding the pandemic, including taking rapid and decisive action by the Portuguese government which mandated a total lockdown when the country had only a handful of cases.

Driving to Porto on the way to, or back from, Porto, stop in the village of Ericeira for lunch at Te Maltilde, overlooking Atlantic Ocean. (photo Ron Bernthal)


“The medical fight against Covid-19 has had good results mainly because the government acted quickly,” said Manuel Carvalho, director of Público, one of Portugal’s best-selling daily newspapers. “Schools were closed around 12 days after the first case and a state of emergency declared just two days later.”

Travessa do Jasmim, a narrow, stone passageway in Lisbon’s historic Principe Real neighborhood. (photo Ron Bernthal)

Portugal’s public health system works well partly because of the country’s demography. The few major urban areas are not so densely populated as in other countries, and residents are spread evenly through the countryside, enabling the health services to offter a broad and efficient network throughout the country.

As of late May, 2020, Portulgal has opened its public transit, as well as libraries, zoo’s, aquariums, bookstores, hair salons, and has opened swimming and surfing along its beautiful beaches. Museums, art galleries and other cultural places are also open, along with restaurants, cafes, bakeries and outdoor terraces, while maintaining 50% maximum capacity. Food stores and pharmacies were always open for residents. TAP Air Portugal, the country’s national carrier, is planning to reinstate its air service from U.S. airports to Lisbon and Porto.

Passenger ferry on the Tagus River at sunset, travelling from Cais do Sodré ferry station in Lisbon to small village of Cacilhas, just ten minutes away on the other side of the river. (photo Ron Bernthal).

The country has eight centuries of history with marvelous castles and architecture, and in recent years has become a must-visit place for foodies, adventure seekers, golfers and surfers. Although Portugal is about the same size in area as the state of Maine, its landscape, culture, architecture and gastronomy varies from north to south, including the islands of Azores and Madeira, and Portugal has long been considered one of the safesty countries in Europe.

Whether you arrive by air at Porto’s modern Aeroporto Francisco Sá Carneiro, or at Campanhã Station on the three-hour, high-speed Alfa Pendular train from Lisbon, the relatively new Metro E line is the best way to get into the city. The E, or Violet, line opened in 2006 and its fast and stylish trains are a good introduction to the city, where 13th and 14th-century buildings coexist with ultra-modern, über-designed cultural venues, dazzling public art installations, and an array of hip, new shops.

Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city is a cosmopolitan center dating back a thousand years. Its historic district, Ribeira, along the Douro River, was a trading center in the 17th century, when boats carried barrels of Port wine down the river from the terraced vineyards in the mountains east of the city to ships in Porto’s Atlantic Ocean harbor.

The modern Metro line E at Aeroporto Francisco Sa Carneiro station takes just 30 minutes (euro 1.20) for the comfortable ride to downtown Porto. (photo Ron Bernthal)

For a few days in Porto start by visiting the city’s Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art (Rua D.João de Castro 210), a beautiful, Modernist-style structure designed by noted Porto architect Alvaro Siza. Opened in 1999 on the grounds of a large Porto estate, the museum offers vibrant contemporary paintings, photographs and modern graphic designs by Portuguese and European artists in an ever-changing display of rotating exhibitions.

Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art (photo credit Paulo Magalhaes)

From the museum, take a taxi downtown to A Vida Portuguesa (Rua Galeria de Paris 20), a trendy shop on the second floor of an 1866 fabric store, but first ask your driver to make a short detour to the Matosinhos neighborhood to view American artist Janet Echelman’s outdoor sculpture called “She Changes.” This huge, billowy mesh net, supported with steel poles as high as 150 feet, changes shape and colors as the salt air blows through it from the Atlantic Ocean just a block away. The sculpture has been an iconic symbol of modern Porto since its 2005 installation.

At the lovely designed A Vida Portuguesa there are Portuguese textiles, toiletries, and woven puchandos bags made in northern Portugal. Walk down steep streets towards the Douro River, stopping at Retrosaria das Flores (Rua das Flores 57), where high-end Portuguese wool is for sale along with colorful shopping bags made of chita alcobaca, a unique Portuguese fabric printed with birds, flowers and fruit. A block from the Douro, in the city’s historic Ribeira district, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, you will find two separate shops, part of Porto Signs, a local business selling unique handmade items. The two shops, named Tradiçãor (Tradition) and Inovação (Innovation), offer cork products, fired-clay statuettes, locally designed t-shirts, and Portuguese wine and tea. (Rua da Alfandega 17; Rua Infante Henrique 71).

For lunch walk to the nearby Restaurante Forno Velho, in the lovely Hotel Carris Porto Ribeira (Rua Infante Henrique 1), a business hotel that consists of five restored historic buildings. The restaurant offers traditional Portuguese cuisine, including grilled meat and local specialties like fried sardines, grilled octopus, salted codfish, and prawns with baby squid.

Afterwards, walk along the pedestrian street that parallels the Douro, a fascinating streetscape lined with historic wine cellars (port wine was first exported from here in the 14th century), crafts shops and small galleries. The high, metal-arch bridge spanning the river is the Ponte de Dom Luis I, built in 1886 by a disciple of Gustave Eiffel.

The Hotel Carris Porto Ribeira is composed of several restored, historic buildings near the riverside of Porto. (photo courtesy Hotel Carris Porto Ribeira)

Casa da Musica (House of Music) is a stunning, white concrete concert hall designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Opened in 2005, as part of Porto’s urban development plan that began with the city being named European Capital of Culture in 2001, Casa da Musica offers numerous classical, jazz, ballet, and opera performances in its modern theatre. The 4:00 p.m. public tour offers a behind-the-scenes look at the unique architectural features of the asymmetric building, which won the 2007 Royal Institute of British Architects award. The eclectically designed 7th floor restaurant, named Kool, after the architect, is open for lunch and dinner.

For a great excursion outside Porto well-paved roads take visitors from the city eastward into the Douro River Valley in 1-2 hours, passing well-tended wineries that offer tours and tastings, and through small villages where gourmet restaurants and high-end inns and spa resorts are now part of the landscape. There are also 12th-century monasteries and 1Sth-century palaces, one of which has been converted into an excellent art museum, the Museu de Lamego. The Douro Valley, with its home-grown wine, excellent cheeses, smoked sausages and ham and fresh cod, is becoming renowned as a culinary tourism trail.

Vineyards and the Douro River are well worth visiting during a day-trip from
Porto (photo VisitPortugal)

Many are young couples view all of Portugal as an affordable destination for a honeymoon or a romantic weekend, often heading directly to the Algarve region in the south where white-sand beaches and picturesque fishing towns dot the landscape. But other areas are gaining in popularity. Just outside of Lisbon, Sintra is easily accessible by rental car or train. It is a small town brimming with romance, perfect for starry-eyed honeymooners and tried-and-true couples looking to rekindle that old honeymoon spark. Portuguese royal families used to vacation here. The Moors built a castle that overlooks the village, and lBth-century houses and inns were designed in the European romantic style. It is no wonder that Sintra’s entire historic center, Vila Velha, is a UNESCO World Herimge site. The National Palace of Sintra (http://pnsintra.imc-ip .pt), occupied since the 13th century, houses a collection of medieval azulejos (painted ceramic tiles) well worth the visit. There are numerous other palaces, monasteries and museums in Sintra, but just meandering around the old town, perhaps stopping for lunch or a drink at a local restaurant or bar, is a better way to experience the charm and beauty of this popular destination.

Pena Palace Sintra, one of the most visited sites in Portugal. (photo Joanna Tricorache)

A one-to two-hour drive north of Sintra (depending upon whether you take the faster inland highway or the slower but more scenic coastal road along the Atlantic) leads to Obidos. Located just 15 miles from the coast, the walled town, perhaps Portugal’s most photogenic landscape, and its surrounding territory was a belated wedding gift from King Dom Dinis to his wife, Dona Isabel, in 1228. The idyllic town of just 11,000 residents offers upscale hotels and restaurants in addition to residential real estate prices only a king could afford. Wonderfully preserved, Obidos attracts visitors who come to view the adorable white houses with blue and yellow trim, all surrounded by sweet-smelling flowers and vines.

In the evening, atter the mass-market tour buses depart, the setting sun infuses the sky with gold and crimson. Even the air becomes an aphrodisiac as couples stroll the town’s narrow lanes, perhaps stopping for tapas and wine at Bar Lagar da Mouraria, where beamed ceilings and stone floors serve to enhance the romantic atmosphere.

A bakery in Obidos prepares excellent breads and pastries (photo Joanna Tricorache)

The journey from Obidos to Coimbra in Portugal’s Beira Litoral region can be accomplished in less than two hours. But why rush when a leisurely drive with stops along the way includes lovely beach time near the quiet village of Foz do Arelho. More active couples may choose to crank it up a notch and head straight for Escola de Vela da Lagoa (www.escoladeveladalagoa.com), a sailing and windsurfing school that also rents equipment. Coimbra is a city of romantic accommodations and charming streets that wind up and around its numerous hills. It is also a university city, which means there are lots of cool bars, caf6s and music clubs. Coimbra was Portugal’s capital in the 12th and 13th centuries, and its university was founded in 1290. There are plenty of Romanesque and Gothic buildings, convents and churches to explore, and for late-night partying, check out the ambience and architecture at Cafe Santa Cruz (Praca 8 de Maio), the music and art at Bar Quebra Costas (Rua Quebra Costas 45-49) and the lively outdoor patio and student crowd at Cafe Tropical (Praca da Republica).

Visit Portugal
TAP Air Portugal
Porto Convention & Visitors Bureau