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The Perfect Trip: Northern Portugal

The Douro winemaking region – declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001 – is famed for its steeply terraced vineyards rising from the banks of the Rio Douro

Lounge on a sun-drenched beach, explore the country’s only national park, and discover one of the world’s oldest wine regions on a relaxing European getaway that’s cheaper than you think


Days into your trip: 1 – 2

At the stroke of 9am, the bells of the Torre dos Clérigos ring out above Porto. The church tower soars over the city, an imposing shaft of speckled granite crowded with carved Baroque flounces of fans, shells and urns. Below, the city stretches to the horizon, a crowded jumble of terracotta rooftops bisected by the gently curving Rio Douro, its surface shining ice-blue in the mid-morning sun.

Across a square at the tower’s foot, another sound can be heard. The mid-pitched whine of a vacuum cleaner. As the bells cease their ringing, the vacuum is abruptly switched off and a face appears at the door of a bookshop. Several visitors wait patiently outside. Manuela Ferreira, a cleaning lady in a blue dress and greying hair, opens the door with a smile, admits the gathered few, and resumes her work. Around her, the visitors pause, awestruck, gazing upward.

This is Livraria Lello, a century-old Art Nouveau bookshop known as one of the most beautiful in the world. Rising up in the middle of the floor is a twin-spiralled staircase of caramel-tinged wood arching and doubling back like a dragon’s spine under a sky of stained glass. Every inch is decorated, from the delicately carved wooden brackets to the dusky pink walls, scored with curlicued vines. Everywhere are books, slotted into vast shelves, stacked high on tables, covering every topic.

The extraordinary shop has proved so popular that visitors are now admitted an hour before opening each day, just for photography and gape-jawed admiration. Manuela has been cleaning here for four years. “I still find it so beautiful,” she says, not pausing as she dusts a shelf. “Sometimes there are so many people wanting to come in, I spend all my time answering the door instead of getting my work done.”

The Livraria Lello is just one of countless examples of striking architecture found across Porto, a city crowded with elegant spires, imposing Gothic churches and structures dating back through the proud 2,000-year history of Portugal’s second city. At the riverside by the metal-arched Ponte de Dom Luís I Bridge, Porto crowds the banks: brightly-painted building façades in yellow, pink, purple and blue overlook the water. This is the UNESCO-protected Ribeira District, a warren of old houses, narrow alleys and hidden plazas, where locals sip espresso from tiny high-rimmed cups, or gather for more leisurely glasses of light, fresh-tasting vino verde (young wine), accompanied by platefuls of fresh anchovies.

Yet, beyond the picturesque old town – past the shopping street of Santa Caterina, with its lavishly ornate shop fronts, and the expanses of tiled murals in the São Bento Train Station – a distinctly modern face of Porto can be found.

The Casa da Música (House of Music) concert hall sits in a broad square in the city’s north-east, resting lightly on the ground like a visiting UFO – fittingly, for a building described by its Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas as being like a fallen meteor. Its blunt-edged, angular structure of white concrete and glass stands in stark contrast to classical Porto, and, while it has won a slew of architectural awards, it caused quite a stir when it first opened in 2005.

“We are proud of our city, and this was very different, so it’s not surprising that there were all kinds of reactions,” says Rui Pedro Pereira, the assistant musical director. “Most people loved it, but some taxi drivers would say, ‘What are they doing with that awful building? They are destroying the look of the city.’”

This softly-spoken, bespectacled man grew up in Porto and spends his days creating musical programmes with orchestras from Portugal and across the world. He wanders through the Casa da Música, with its soaring ceilings and sleek spaces, leading to the cavernous main auditorium, a timber-lined square space patterned with touches of gold leaf.

The concert hall is filling with patrons for an early evening performance, and broad windows reveal a view of the square outside, a concrete space crowded with skateboarding kids, lounging hipsters and lunching musicians. It’s a world away from the stately beauty of the city’s old town, but locals are embracing it. “This building has captured the attention of Porto,” Rui says. “Even the taxi drivers love it now.”

Head out to Portugal for surfing beaches, craggy highlands, traditional villages and wine – check out LPMI’s June 2017 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.