Port, Parques, Pontes, Pataniscas: Porto

So, out of laziness and lack of time, I’ve skipped writing about a few trips in the past year–Norway again; Cambridge and Edinburgh, UK; a gorgeous road trips through Aragón and the Val d’Aran in Spain; Charlotte, SC… And, let’s face it, I don’t always have something particularly remarkable to share, as much as I may have enjoyed my experiences. So just recently, on another holiday I didn’t think I’d write about, I was completely taken by surprise, and simply wowed, by a place I visited: the Fundação de Serralves in Porto.

Among other things, it’s not a place travel guides stress much. From Rick Steves’s guide to Portugal: “Porto’s contemporary art museum, surrounding park, and unique Art Deco mansion are an enjoyable half-day excursion for art lovers—and worthwhile for anyone looking to relax in a lush green space.” To Lonely Planet: “This fabulous cultural institution combines a museum, a mansion, and extensive gardens.” To my personal friend: “The gardens and museum of Museu Serralves are also worthwhile—I especially love the gardens.” Coming from the land of modern art museums, and not a particular fan of gardens, I almost skipped the place, and only made it there because six leisurely days for an initial visit to Porto allows for a bit more than the very essentials. I went in the afternoon (by Uber–normally a mode of transportation I loathe, but cheap and convenient in Porto) and spent four hours there before closing. Had I known how truly marvelous the place is, I would have spent the whole day.

First there is the Casa de Serralves, a mansion constructed between 1925 and 1944 mostly (but eclectically) in Streamline Moderne style. Although I am normally a sucker for nineteenth-century curlicues, I could not get enough of the sleek spaces, the smooth woods and marbles and glass, the curved luxuriousness, and especially the home’s absolute openness to the exquisite outdoor spaces surrounding it.

Despite what I thought was an unfortunate exhibit “installed within and against the unique architectural and decorative elements,” the sensorial experience of the largely empty house remained unspoiled.

The grounds were an aesthetic event in themselves: not a garden, but a combination of multiple gardens, French and English-style, manicured and wild, dedicated to specific plants and flowers or designed for composite effect. And woods. And lakes. And grottoes. And lawns. And orchards. And when you were almost ready to explode with joy, a barn with livestock and PONIES! (Boom!)

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You really could and did lose yourself in there although, somewhat eerily, the setting’s solitude was often interrupted by images of… yourself, reflected in various outdoor structures like Ângelo de Sousa’s “Um Jardim Catóptrico” (photos 1 and 2 below), Dan Graham’s “Double Exposure,” and the lakehouse itself. (This also happened inside the mansion, as in the washroom picture above).

The Serralves grounds are of course an enormous open-air museum whose collection includes a wealth of sculptures, like Richard Serra’s “Walking is Measuring” and Veit Stratmann’s interactive “Pour le Parc” (interactive in the sense that you can climb on it an spin to your heart’s content). But in addition to these, the Foundation was currently exhibiting works from the 32nd São Paulo Biennial, so you would suddenly find a mysterious barn- or shack-like structure inside of which to linger watching video art. Sneaking past a deep black curtain to watch and rewatch Cecilia Bengolea and Jeremy Deller‘s “Bombom’s Dream” (starring a talking gekko) gekkoon a screen below which you could see the surrounding woods and a small pond was surreal; and stretching yourself on a hammock to watch Priscila Fernandes‘s “GOZOLÂNDIA” (about laziness!) was simply entrancing.

Could there be more after all that? I still hadn’t made it to the museum itself, a wonderful building also featuring an impressive proprietary collection that I found myself tragically speeding through, as well as more interesting pieces from the Biennial, like Sonia Andrade’s “Hydragrammas,” a fascinating sort of curiosity cabinet of found-object art.

Just the Serralves Foundation would have made the visit to Porto worthwhile. But of course that is not even what one goes to the city for… Once you get past the calf pain (there seems to be no place that requires walking downhill), it’s just a love affair with the hills, the stone pavement, the tiled exteriors and interiors, the grand (and crumbling) remnants of the empire, the boulevards and promenades, the river and its bridges and ribeira walks…

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Places above that I found especially wonderful are the Churches do São Francisco (with its impressive rococo decoration and otherwordly catacombs and ossuary) and do Misericórdia (with its lovely little museum housing the Fons Vitae and gorgeous interior by Nicolau Nasoni, most famous for the Torre dos Clérigos, which, no, I didn’t climb). At the latter, if you’re very good, you might find yourself all alone while an amazing street musician outside plays “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”). Here too is an interesting blog post on the fabulously ornate São Bento train station. Something I did not particularly enjoy was the Livraria Lello (of Harry Potter fame, since J. K. Rowling used it as a model for Hogwarts descriptions): it is a beautiful, beautiful place but too crowded with hordes of people (prominently of the children variety) wanting a photo on the staircase, and too stifling for activities like book shopping, or breathing.

(Another place I found especially wonderful was my Airbnb rental!!!! One of the cutest places I’ve found on the site (which I’ve been using for a long time, with great luck), and wonderfully hosted by lovely Joana. Also in an wonderful location right by the Praça de Gomes Teixeira, literally steps from the Lello Library and nice little shopping places including A Vida Portuguesa, a place where snobs like me can get fancy crafts and souvenirs!

One also comes to Porto, of course, for the food and the wine. I did not make this an especially culinary-oriented trip, as traveling solo (and exhausted by early evening) I never got to make elaborate dinner plans (saving my splurge for the Douro Valley, which will be the subject of my next post). I did enjoy both my first and last nights just having great wine and cheese with a view at the Wine Quay Bar. I spent quite a long afternoon just sipping wine at the Cafe Majestic. I didn’t manage to get to Graham Winery’s Vinum during regular kitchen hours, but did have an afternoon repast of calamari and croquettes also with a view (from the other side of the river). I thought I’d died and gone to heaven with the little nest of foie gras brûlé (brûlé!) with a pear ice cream “egg” at LSD/Largo de São Domingos at the bottom of Rua das Flores almost next to the Misericórdia. I really really enjoyed the pataniscas de bacalhau (cod fritters) at Solar Moinho de Vento and some really good steak at Reitoria, both within a block of my apartment. I had what is presumably one of Porto’s top francesinhas at Casa de Pasto O Golfinho, also on my street. And, just around the corner, I had breakfast almost every morning at (or from) the delicious Padaria Ribeiro. Come to think of it, this might actually have been a culinary-oriented vacation.

Porto is the city where port wine (made in the Douro Valley) goes to age and thus one of the main attractions are the port lodges on the Gaia side of the river, where you can take a tour that tells you about the wine’s history and production as well as a tasting of your choice. I visited two cellars: the Real Companhia Velha, which claims to be the oldest port producer with a 250-year history, and Graham’s Lodge, which everyone recommends chiefly for the privileged views (and, I suppose, for the ports, which I found particularly good). Knowing very little about port wine, which I’ve always considered a vile concoction, I found both the tours and the tastings quite illuminating. At RCV the guides actually walked you through the actual tasting, and I discovered I can deal with their sweet white port (lágrima), which is pretty much a type of sherry, but never want to drink either their or anybody else’s ruby port (here is random internet info about port types). At Graham’s I chose a tawny tasting with the 7 to 9 year old “The Tawny,” plus the 10 and 20-year aged versions. They pretty much leave you on your own with the three glasses, so I found this handy blog post describing a somewhat related tasting and really swirled the wine throughout my entire mouth as instructed. My inner wine conoisseuse wannabe found itself partial to the 20 (predictably?) but, perhaps surprisingly, second one in line was “The Tawny.” You’ll tell me which one you like best, and I’ll tell you about my next port adventures in the Douro Valley in my next story.

About WRF

New York-based Spanish Cultural Studies professor and academic author venturing (nervously) into new forms of writing: travel and food-logue, cultural commentary, pseudophilosophical speculation, opinion, reminiscence, prophecy, examination of conscience.
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