Not only Porto is a city of undeniable architectural beauty, but I also consider it to be a city of churches. Not in the religious sense, that is, and I don’t wish to imply that, statistically, there are more churches here per square meter than in any other city of Portugal.
The fact is churches are everywhere, and I am pretty sure we haven’t seen them all. As much as I love the occasional visit to a museum (especially an art museum), my favorite art History lessons are always learned outside looking at buildings. For the lack of a name for this condition I call it “architecture geekiness.”
The day we arrived in Porto, we decided to walk up to our guest house from Campanhã station. We wanted to have that smitten feeling you first have when you start exploring a new place. Then again, it could have gone wrong, and we could have fallen out of love instantly but you know by now that’s not what happened.
I won’t say that the Campanhã surrounding area is the most attractive of the city, but as you approach the historic center the scenery changes and starts, slowly, to pull you in without much effort. When we laid eyes on the Cathedral, it was a pretty impressive sight. You see, it wasn’t our first time around a medieval church, but the Porto Sé is quite remarkable. The Baroque lateral facade was what, I believe, made the first impression in my memory.
When you leave the cathedral area and start walking further towards the city center, a blue tiled facade stands out. As much as I love tile work, that wasn’t what caught my attention. It was the “oddity” of seeing blue and white tiles on the facade of a church. And this church wasn’t the most ostentatious we had seen yet. In fact, with every discovery came bigger and stronger awe.
If there is something that the Baroque style has shown us (and this style is quite profuse in Porto) is that there is no such thing as too exuberant or over the top. In fact, it outgrew even more into the Rococo style and then by the late 18th Century it was completely stripped to a clean, bright, washed down Neoclassicism.
As we were reaching the Batalha square (just a couple of streets down from our guest house), another blue tiled facade makes itself noticed. A much more detailed facade this time. If you ask me, even years from now, what are my first memories of the Batalha square I will sharply mention three landmarks: the (sadly) abandoned Cinema Batalha, the sober National Theatre S. Joao and, at the top of those stairs, the church Santo Ildefonso.
This church’s tower is a piece of architecture that is often shown as THE landmark of Porto: postcard image, picture perfect, tall and high enough to stand out and call for attention. Its Baroque facade isn’t short of beauty either. But yes, if you ask me, the tower is what everything revolves around. In fact, when you see the city roofline from the Cathedral, the Torre dos Clérigos stands out perfectly. The view from the top is famous too, but I couldn’t (yet) gather the strength and courage to climb it.
Carmo and Carmelitas
These two churches will be the hardest to write about because I was so overwhelmed when I found them. My best definition for these two churches standing side by side is a live Art History class before your eyes (and without much effort, I will add). The Carmelites church, on the left, built on the first half of the 17th Century, a clear example of the early Baroque aesthetics. On the right, the Carmo church, built during the second half of the 18th Century, a clear example of the Rococo aesthetics.
Both the churches are so close together that you can quickly think they are a single building with, oddly, two different facades — make sure you look closely, there is a very narrow building between them. But if you step back and position yourself in front of the Porto University Rectory building across the street, you will have the time to soak it all in and then compare the details of one and the other.
Irmandade das Taipas
A much more sober example of architecture if we consider all the other buildings that made us stop and admire. With still some use of blue and white tiles, the facade leans towards a neoclassical aesthetics. Surrounded by buildings that probably get more attention (like the old prison that we visited and will let you know about it later this month), the church still makes the more alert stop and turn on their heels to admire one more church facade. Honestly, in Porto, you should keep your head turning and your eyes wide open every step of your way.
As in many other encounters in this city, we found the Trindade church a bit by chance and later one night when the sun was setting. To be honest, it is hard to miss if you are not looking specifically for it. Not that it isn’t a remarkable building, like all the other churches we found, but because it casually blends in with the other buildings nearby: the City Hall right in front and the shops next to it. Aliados avenue is one of the most beautiful boulevards I’ve seen, and it’s easy to miss anything behind the opulent City Hall building at the very top of the street.