Jewish spirit in Porto

With two new Jewish museums in Portugal’s second city, Porto is embracing its heritage


Portugal has had five centuries to dwell on its mistake. It was in 1496 that King Manuel I forced the Jews to convert or depart, with the Netherlands, Bordeaux, Italy and the Ottoman empire all gaining from this influx of new immigrants.

Now, the beautiful city of Porto is playing its part in understanding the country’s past — and future — with the opening of two new Jewish museums, one focused on the Holocaust, another offering a more general view of Jewish history in Portugal.

While the city is famous for its port wine, for its place on the Douro River and for its picturesque streets and tiled buildings, this chance to explore Porto’s Jewish heritage gives visitors another good reason to visit.

For starters, there’s the imposing Neo-Moorish style Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue, walking distance from both of the two new museums. As he showed us around, Shamash Erez Vaguima, originally from Israel and now a Porto resident, proudly told us that it’s the largest shul in the whole of the Iberian Peninsula and probably the last in Europe to be built before the Second World War — it was inaugurated in 1938.

It owes its existence to Captain Barros Basto, the Portuguese Dreyfus figure, who tried to bring the region’s crypto-Jews back to the faith of their ancestors. The captain was raised in a Porto Christian family but found out from his dying grandfather that he had Jewish ancestors. This made a huge impression on him and when he visited a synagogue in Lisbon, he converted, later marrying into the faith.

His particular interest was in providing a Jewish education to children, seeing this as the only way of rejuvenating the old communities, but along the way, he made government enemies and eventually false charges were levelled. Shortly before the Second World War, he was condemned and stripped of his rank, eventually dying in poverty in 1961.

Things now look rather rosier, as Erez explained. “Porto currently has a vibrant and growing community with 700 members, from 30 different countries — the city as a whole has probably over 1,000 Jewish residents. While we welcome visitors to the Synagogue, it is always done by making a prior appointment.”

And the two new museums are an important part of the picture, explains curator Hugo Vaz. “Because Jewish tourism is growing, especially because of the law of return passed in 2015, with people coming to discover their roots and some also seeking Portuguese citizenship as descendants of the expelled Jews.

“As a community we have a cultural mission to educate, using tools such as films, museums, and synagogue tours. Of course, we need to educate for its own sake, but also to combat future antisemitism.”

Porto’s Jewish Museum is bright and airy and unlike many I have visited, looks to the future rather dwelling on the past. Although small, it is clearly set out with four sections: at the start, a historic explanation of Portuguese Jewry, another area on Porto, and two focused on the 20th and 21st centuries. The community has also a 90-minute film on Netflix, Sefarad, which follows individual stories from Portuguese Jewish history, from the 15th century to the present day.

The Holocaust Museum, created by the Porto community in association with B’nai B’rith, explains the horrors of the of the Shoah in a way that modern teenagers can understand. “We have many local students who come and leave in tears, having previously little knowledge of the events,” explained Hugo. “I usually ask the 16-18 year olds whether they think it could ever happen again? Before the war in Ukraine, the answer was always no. Now, they are not so certain.”

The museum opens with greenery as it tells of the situations of Jews before the war; subtly it ends with greenery too, but in between does not shy away from the truth. One large photograph is of the Auschwitz dormitories where some inmates, including the writer Elie Wiesel, are actually smiling. The picture, Hugo explained, was taken on liberation day. Perhaps most poignant of all is the Remembrance Room, a shocking vision full of the victims’ names.

“The question I am mostly asked,” said Hugo, “is why is a Holocaust Museum here in Porto? After all Portugal was neutral during the war. The answer is because we were sympathetic and have lots of documentation; Portugal took in 50,000 refugees, with many more escaping through the country. Also, we never closed our borders to those without their proper papers.”

For those looking for hotels that cater for Orthodox visitors, the comfortable and modern Hotel Da Musica provides kosher food. Here we discovered more of Porto’s history, one of the oldest cities in Europe and the second city of Portugal. During the Middle Ages, Jewish people lived in four distinct areas close to the cathedral and inside the city walls.

Many were active in business and the civic community and our guide, Sandra Lains, took us to the largest area, the Olival Jewish Quarter, a sort of ghetto that functioned for over 100 years, with iron gates at each end which closed at sunset. Home for many, until the expulsion decree in 1496.

The hotel also has the advantage of leading straight on to the Mercado Bom Sucesso, a newly renovated food market, originally built in the 1950s, while our second base of the trip was set above a historic café, not far from the Olival ghetto.

Each floor of the Pestana Porto a Brasileira, a new five-star hotel, is themed around one of the spices or products imported during the Portuguese maritime expansion of the 15th and 16th centuries — anise, coffee, cinnamon, tea, pink pepper and chocolate. The smells are gorgeous and it’s also a great location to explore Porto’s other museums and monuments.

No visit to Porto would be complete without a cruise down the river Douro. We passed underneath the six bridges of the city including the Maria Pia designed by a certain Monsieur Gustave Eiffel, and the Dom Luís I, which links the port wine houses of Vila Nova de Gaia with Porto’s bustling downtown Ribeira district.

The city is the centre of this fortified wine trade, usually red and sweet, although I was surprised to learn that it also comes in dry, semi-dry, and white varieties. Similar fortified wines are produced outside Portugal but under the guidelines of the European Union Protected Designation of Origin, can’t be labelled as port unless they come from here.

Many have tours too; Taylor’s wine cave is extensive, while the wine tasting and information on how it’s made were both educational. We followed that experience with a visit to WOW (World of Wine), a new cultural district encompassing seven museums, a hotel, bars and 12 restaurants, including 1828, whose food was as memorable as the views.

If you don’t have time to visit all seven museums, the two focused on Chocolate and the History of Porto are both comprehensive, especially the former with its own chocolate factory in the last room.

While there’s plenty to keep you in Porto, it’s easy to discover more Jewish heritage on a couple of day trips.

A spectacular train ride alongside the Douro, towards the Spanish border, takes you to Torre de Moncorvo, once an important centre of Jewish life and now a building of Jewish studies. It’s also possible to see a house used as a Place of Inquisition, home to the ancestors of Argentinian writer and poet Jorge Luís Borges.

In Braganza — also home to the Tasca do Ze Tuga restaurant, run by the winner of Portuguese Masterchef, with an extensive tasting menu — the Jewish community welcomed around 3,000 people after the expulsion from Spain in 1492 before themselves becoming ‘New Christians’ or being expelled.

An interactive exhibition in the new Interpretation Centre of Sephardic Culture graphically shows the immigration routes of many of the important families of the region, along with a stark depiction of a typical Inquisition trial, giving a real insight into the trauma suffered by so many.

Happily, five centuries on, there’s more reason than ever for their descendants to return.

Getting There

Ryanair flies direct to Porto from Stansted and Manchester from £12 return.

Rooms at the Hotel Da Musica cost from around £75 per night.

Rooms at Pestana Porto a Brasileira cost from around £120 per night.

Project Travel and Events can organise personalised tours in and around Porto.

For more information, go to Porto and North Portugal Tourism

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