Something to write home about
Barry Toberman found his inner bookworm in Porto and came home intoxicated with after-dinner stories
Literary experiences will bookend a visit to Porto, home to one of the world's most beautiful celebrations of the written word, a cafe of splendid style with connections to JK Rowling and even a top-notch restaurant in a setting to tempt the palate of any bibliophile. It is at the famous bookshop, Lello, in Rua das Carmelitas, that we start an all-too-brief visit to Portugal's second city.
Located close to the old Jewish quarter, its ornate wooden carvings and grand, sweeping staircase test observance of the "no photography" instruction to the limit. The higher level affords a tantalising glimpse of cabinets housing rare volumes, although there are also mainstream titles and some weird and wonderful reference works, as well as artworks and decorative items for sale. I really did not want to leave, only to subsequently regret the time spent book and decor browsing when having to rush through the aisles of the A Vida Portuguesa (The Portuguese Life) department store a few doors down.
As it sounds, the shop is a showcase for Portuguese creative talent and the myriad fun and practical items range from chocolate "sardines" in appropriate packaging (a personal favourite) to an ornament putting an ironic gloss on the tough economic times.
This depicts the Portuguese John Bull equivalent being strangled by a snake - a metaphor for the grip of the bankers on the country's fortunes. It was in the main shopping drag that we found the Majestic Cafe, where JK Rowling spent many days while writing Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone. It is now restored to its original splendour, with art noveau decor and gorgeous gilt-framed mirrors. The waiters may be formally attired but the prices are pleasingly casual - a few euros for a coffee and 12 euros for an afternoon tea including smoked salmon sandwiches.
In the premises of a former bookstore, the Book restaurant is a new venture, owned by the nearby Hotel Infante Sagres, a luxurious establishment where guests have included royalty and stars of the music and movie worlds (Bob Dylan U2, Pet Shop Boys, John Malkovich, Martin Scorsese). Although the restaurant exudes a modern vibe, there is copious evidence of its literary past and, just to make sure, quotes from Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw on the menu.
In a nice touch, books are deployed as mats for the entree course. And you can feast on the lunch buffet for 11 euros. Incidentally, there seems to be a Portuguese predilection for creamy desserts and even on a short stay, I sampled diverse interpretations of creme brulee - all top notch. Again submitting to culinary temptation, I could not get enough of the wafer thin straw chips served with the main course at lunch at a fine dining establishment, D Tonho, by the medieval city wall. Walking off some of the calories is a veritable pleasure - even allowing for some steepish gradients - as the city has many fabulous historical and cultural monuments.
Not least is the imposing neo-classical 19th century Palacio da Bolsa, home to Porto's chamber of commerce and some stunning banqueting venues, of which the unmissable Arabian Room is the crown jewel. The Calem family has been instrumental in the chamber of commerce and a must for those who enjoy a tipple is a tour of the Calem Port Wine Cellars, not just to taste the port, but to get a flavour of local history and insight into the production process. The hefty barrels, our guide explained, had the durability to protect thousands of litres of their precious content during a major flood.
We took a short Douro River cruise, affording some impressive vistas, and on a rainswept final day we made it to the beach area, albeit for a transient view from the comfort of our vehicle.
Inclement weather cut short the outdoor element of our visit to the Serralves Contemporary Art Museum, although we did manage a brief foray into the lovingly-tended park. Inside, we toured a fine, but temporary photographic display of the work of German Thomas Struth, and happened upon a favourite exhibit in the gift shop - a "chandelier" of bottles.
There is a well known saying that "Porto works, Braga prays, Coimbra studies, and Lisbon gets the money." Our guide revealed that from the 14th to 16th centuries, noblemen were unwelcome in the city as they were not working people. Working particularly well is the futuristic Casa da Musica. Constructed to celebrate its selection as European culture capital in 2001, the building's bold and wavy design incorporates a liberal amount of glass and aluminium, giving a pleasingly open feel to "the most illuminated concert venue in the world".
Taking a tour, we also learn of its wide array of activities, from major concerts to an iPhone orchestra. And for younger visitors, the venue turns into a night club once a month. Casa da Musica is around a 10 minute walk from the Porto synagogue, situated in a nice residential area, with major hotels close by. Said to be the largest shul building in Iberia, it holds weekly services and can be viewed by appointment. Another of Porto's many virtues is an efficient public transport system, with all attractions linked by bus, tram or metro.
But irrespective of your travel needs, make time to wander inside the Sao Bento train station. The entrance area features intricate tiled murals depicting historical scenes and aspects of local life.
Know before you go Porto, Portugal
Where On the right bank of the Douro river in Northern Portugal
Climate Typically Mediterranean. Cool winters with a lot of rainfall. Summer is marked by sunny and dry weather
WHEN to go During summer when warm nights on the river-front are alive with al fresco dining and music
Euro Languages Portuguese
Flight Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Visa None required for UK passport holders