Bicycling through Alentejo and Beira it didn’t seem like there were many tourists in Portugal. I remember being quite surprised how few tourists there were even in the historic center of Évora. Well, we found them. In addition to Sintra everyone seems to go to Porto and Lisbon. Lisbon, ok, I get it. There are some fantastic museums, and Jerónimos really is one of Portugal’s great attractions (especially if you haven’t been to Tomar, Batalha, and Alcobaça…).
Porto, on the other hand, well, I didn’t quite get it. Locals claimed Porto gets more tourists than almost anywhere else in the world, something I haven’t been able to collaborate with my internet research. But I can hardly blame the locals for thinking so. The streets were indeed crowded with tourists, and there’s not really that much to see in the city.
One of the draws to the city is actually the azulejos (oh my gosh, haven’t we seen enough already??!!). Indeed if you arrive to Porto by train like we did (we left our bicycles in Lisbon), then the very first thing you’ll see are the azulejos at the São Bento Railway Station.
The ones on the outside of the Igreja do Carmo are also pretty impressive:
If you haven’t had enough already, then be sure to go to the cathedral as well:
In fact azulejos are so important to Porto that they’ve even opened an azulejo bank (thank you, Mike, for pointing that out to me) to help people find missing tiles when they’re restoring buildings. I don’t know if tourists have discovered the azulejo bank, but they certainly flock to a bookstore, the Livraria Lello, so much so there’s a 5 Euro entrance fee. We dropped in on the last day of our walking tour. There’s really nothing to see. The reason for its popularity? Well, a tenuous connection to the Harry Potter author, Rowling, who shopped there (or something) while she lived in Porto.
Porto’s main attraction is the UNESCO-listed historic center which must include the picturesque waterfront as well. It’s definitely a fun area to explore.
I should add that the talha dourada, the gilded woodwork that the Portuguese are particularly proud of, at the Igreja de Santa Clara, was the most stunning example we saw in Portugal. Also, not to be missed is the Árvore de Jessé, carved from a single piece of wood, at the São Francisco Church. Neither of these Porto churches allowed photography.
In the end I felt that three days in Porto was enough. Five days in Lisbon, on the other hand, wasn’t!
Taking advantage of the extended hours and free entrance at the Museu do Oriente on Friday evenings I headed there our first day in the city. They specialize in art from Portuguese trading centers in Asia. Their Japanese screens are well known. I liked the collection of Chinese snuff bottles.
If there is one museum not to miss in Lisbon, it’s the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. The main collection is fantastic. I’d definitely go back again. Unlike the Museu do Oriente, Gulbenkian was not constrained geographically. There are pieces from ancient Egypt, 12th-century Persian bowls, Ottoman tile work, Persian carpets, Chinese carved jade and Ming vases, Japanese inro, European furniture and paintings from folks like Rubens and Gainsborough, even a stunning marble statue of Diana, lover of French King Henry II, modeled after the god Diana (aka Artemis). The pieces are consistently extremely high quality. If the name Calouste Gulbenkian sounds familiar, maybe it’s ’cause you’ve read Daniel Yergian’s The Prize. Gulbenkian is the phenomenal deal maker, Mr Five Per Cent, who adds so much color to those pages. There’s a new biography, published this year (2019), by Jonathan Conlin. I haven’t read it. When Gulbenkian died in 1955, he was the richest man in the world.
Gulbenkian was such a skilled negotiator (and rich man) that he managed to buy this Rembrandt from Russia’s Hermitage Museum in 1930:
The Fado Museum was also fun, but it was more fun to go listen to live fado music two nights at a hole in the wall place in Barrio Alto.
Ferda and I watched a number of Portuguese films before coming to Portugal. By far our favorite was Capitães de Abril about the 1974 coup to overthrow the Salazar dictatorship. As part of the 45th anniversary celebrations, there were some photos from the day of the coup displayed in the area of the city where the photos were taken. I came across a few at Praça do Comércio.
Have I been in Portugal too long? I felt like I was starting to see the Manueline (often nautical) symbols –the armillary sphere, the Order of Christ cross, ropes, ships — everywhere I looked.
Or maybe I was just learning what to look for, like Prince Henry the Navigator, the one who started it all, at the prow of this monument:
of course, also available in azulejo form, as always:
I knew I was getting jaded when it took so much effort to appreciate the cloister at Jerónimos Monastery and the nearby Belém Tower, the last UNESCO World Heritage Site that we visited in Portugal.
Judging from my photos it appears that at this point in the trip I was more interested in street art than yet another church, monastery, cloister, or altar.
I certainly don’t want to end this series of blogs about Portugal on a sour note. I’m thrilled I went and learned so much about this little country that ushered in the age of globalization and naval power that we still live in today 500 years later.
Ferda and I packed up our bicycles and flew back to Antalya. Where to next?
Here’s our cycle route, 7 weeks of touring, ~1433km: