The Serralves museum

One of the first things we had thought of doing when we read about Porto was to visit the Serralves Museum. In recent decades the space where contemporary art is shown had also become a statement about modern architecture. This museum, designed by Alvaro Siza, and completed in 1999, is one such (one view is in the featured image). The accounts that I had read spoke of the integration of the building with the large garden around it. If one is forced to choose only one thing to see in Porto, it has to be this.

Unfortunately, when you are a tourist, things do not always go your way. We arrived at a time when the foundation was busy preparing its garden for an upcoming weekend of interaction with the public. One part of this involved closing the garden for a week. We could peer into the garden from the windows of the museum, and from the gate, but could not stroll around it. C’est la vie, as we said to each other. Our unfortunate vie that day involved missing out on the Casa de Serralves, which is an Art Deco structure, the gardens, and the artwork and installations in the garden.


The Serralves Museum, nevertheless lived up to its reputation. There were four exhibitions on when we visited. For us the most attractive was the one on the work of Silvestre Pestana, a Portuguese artist whose work we had never seen before. The panorama above was a work which took our breath away. Some of the works were poems by Pestana. I’m afraid a barrier of language closes this off from those who do not speak Portuguese. However, the remainder of the works, often integrating music and flickering neons, videos, and performances take one’s breath away. The Serralves is reputed to be very picky, but this certainly told us of the vitality of contemporary Portuguese art.

Piece by Giorgio GriffaIn another wing of the museum there was a retrospective of the work of Giorgio Griffa. The main body of his work dates from the 1960s and 70s, although there was also a section of his work from later periods up to the 1990s. This isn’t contemporary, but it was interesting to view these works all together. Especially interesing was the early period, when art was being re-examined in terms of the simplest objects that make it up. A beautiful example is in the photo alongside.

Two other exhibitions were going on. One of them was supposed to build an exhibit over time, and would have required repeated visits over a year to appreciate. Our general sense was of a very vital place, well worth visiting during every trip to Porto. We walked into the library, book shop and cafeteria. All of them were very satisfactory, adding to the general sense of having seen something worth our short time in Porto.

Five bridges of Porto

Porto slopes down from a height to the Douro river and comes to an end at the river bank. The river separates it from Vila Nova de Gaia, a town which is a tourist magnet because of its warehouses of Port wine. Five bridges cross the river from Porto. On our first evening in the town, we decided to take a cruise along the river and under the bridges.


The westernmost of these is the Arrabida bridge (photo above), completed in 1963. The single arch across the river was once the longest in the world. This was one of the two works of Edgar Cardoso, one of Portugal’s iconic engineers, which we saw. The deck of the bridge, and the traffic it carries, passes high over the boat. Porto stretches even further to the west, right to the shores of the Atlantic. As the boat passes beyond the bridge, you see the river widening out, and Vila Nova de Gaia coming to an end. The river cruise turns around well before coming to the ocean.


Dom Luis 1 bridge (featured photo) is the iconic bridge of Porto. The double decker bridge was completed in 1887 and had a record arch span at that time. The bridge was designed by Teophile Seyrig, who had earlier worked with Gustave Eiffel. The upper deck was strengthened by Edgar Cardoso a century later. We saw trams crossing the upper deck. All other traffic crosses along the lower deck. As we passed below it we saw three other bridges lined up ahead.

The next bridge up river was the Ponte Infante Dom Henrique (photo above). It was completed in 2003 by Antonio Adao da Fonseca. I admired the clean modern lines of this concrete bridge as we passed below it. Beyond this were a pair of railway bridges.


The Ponte Maria Pia (photo above) was the first of Porto’s bridges. Gustav Eiffel’s engineering company, then little known, designed and completed it in 1877. Teophile Seyrig, who then worked for the company, is usually credited with having designed it. At that time it was the longest single arch bridge in the world. It was superseded in 1991 by the bridge we passed under next. This is the concrete Ponte de Sao Joao (photo above), designed by Edgar Cardoso, and completed in 1991.

The boat ride lasted about an hour. Interestingly, there are no explanations or commentary during the ride. You see what you want to see. Fortunately, I had taken the time to read up on the bridges before, so I could appreciate them. There must be much along the river which I missed. I am not a fan of continuous commentary, but it would be nice if there was a cruise which could point out the main structures of interest as we passed them.

Porto’s Sao Bento railway station

It would have been wonderful to arrive into Porto through the Sao Bento station. Unfortunately the Alfa Pendular express trains seem to prefer Porto’s Campanho station. We took some time to check in to our apartment and have lunch before we could set off on exploring the town. Our first stop was the Sao Bento station. It is a few steps from the Sao Bento Metro station.

The Sao Bento railway station in Porto

The distinguishing feature of the station are the gorgeous panels of azulejo tiles which cover the entrance vestibule. There are supposed to be twenty thousand of these. Together, they illustrate some of the key incidents in the history of Portugal and the history of transport. They are the work of Jose Colaço, a painter who is largely famous for his large tile panels. As you can see from the featured image, the painter’s training in perspective and colour are evident in these panels.

We spent a while gawking at the tiles before we set off on exploring the rest of the town. Over the next few days, this became a familiar spot from which we would start on many walks across Porto.

Loitering in Coimbra

We fell in love with the beautiful medieval town of Coimbra. We could have left after seeing the old university and the old cathedral, but the three days we spent walking around the old town brought us to the same places repeatedly, each time from a different route. Each new view revealed charms and beauty we had not noticed before. Arco de Almedina in Coimbra Walking around Coimbra, exploring its lovely nooks and crannies, one sees how European history is reconstructed. The Roman settlement of Coimbra is showcased in the impressive Cryptoporticus on display below the wonderful Machado de Castro museum. The completely different Arco de Almedina (photo on the left) and the Moorish town which grew behind it for three and a half centuries, starting in the 8th century onwards has no plaques and guides to help you. The Portuguese capital which was established in the mid 12th century is the core of the tourist area. Our relaxed pace also allowed us to explore the other aspects of life here: the food, the music, the cafes and the wine of the Dao region.

Igreja de Santa Cruz in Coimbra

Two of the churches are worth mentioning. One is the romanesque Santa Tiago, dominating the market place in the baixa. Stone pillars hold up wooden roof beams. When you look at the roof from outside, you see that it is made with the ancient imbrex and tegula tiles. The external pillars are beautifully carved, almost baroque. Inside, the church is bare except for a beautiful altarpiece. However, the star of the Baixa is Igreja de Santa Cruz (photo above). Built in 1131 CE, the tombs of the first two kings of Portugal, Afonso Henrique and Sancho I, lie on two sides of the altar. The azulejo-lined interior was remodelled in the 16th century, when Portugal was flush with spice funds. It is possible to loiter around the cafes, restaurants and shops which line the charming square on which this church stands.

Velha convento de Santa Clara in Coimbra

On a lovely sunny day we walked across the bridge over the Mondego river. The wonderful view of the old town was not the main reason for the walk. We wanted to see the convent of Santa Clara. Before the levees were built, the river would regularly flood the convent which was founded in 1330 CE by queen Isabel, who remains the patron saint of Coimbra. Eventually, the convent was silted over and the new convent was built over it in 1677 CE. The queen’s grave was moved to the new convent. The old convent has now been excavated, and one can visit the convents (photo above, with the old town in the background). It is interesting to see the two levels together for the first time in history.

Roman cryptoporticus in Coimbra

We almost skipped the Machado de Castro museum. It was a good thing we eventually went there, because this could be one of the most remarkable collections we saw. Below the museum is the Roman cryptoporticus. Apparently, when the Romans arrived in the first century CE, they decided to build a forum on the slopes of the hill. The incredible feat of engineering required them to extend a table over the slope, on immense pillars. The table was the forum, and the levels below it contained cells with multiple uses. This lies below the courtyard of the museum. The museum contains a wonderful collection of religious sculptures (the featured photo is an example), terra-cotta, furniture, jewellery, ceramics, paintings and textiles. We lost ourselves here for an entire long morning, before walking down to the square in front of Igreja Santa Cruz for lunch.

We loved the people: the wonderfully kind old waiter at the cafe Santa Cruz, the people at Fado ao Centro, and the lovely bar across from it, the helpful students, the people at Ze Manel. Among the things we did not visit are the very highly rated Museum of the Sciences in the old university and the botanical gardens. One has to leave something for when we come back.

Heart on my sleeve

Dense graffiti in the Restauradores metro station in LisbonWe’d noticed spectacular graffiti in Lisbon. Portugal has been through a painful period of economic contraction for about 5 years, and has just started recovering in the last year or so. The unemployment rate was about 16% in 2013, and is even now unable to drop to 10%. Could the profusion of street art in Lisbon be related to this?

Graffiti in Praca San Tiago in Coimbra coimbra-sa4

Could this also be the explanation of the street art we saw in Coimbra? The Family and I talked about this as we walked around the little town. We were entranced by the two lovely pieces of graffiti you can see in the photos above. They were on two walls of a single building in Praça San Tiago in the baixa. These shared many characteristics with the street art of Lisbon. The clean lines and the comic-book colouring make these lovely works leap out at you. At the same time, they bear a clear relationship to the work we saw in the metro in Lisbon.

As we climbed up from the baixa, the density of street art did not change, but its style seemed to transform. The example in the featured image is quite different in style. The lines and the colour scheme are not something that you will come across in a street underpass or near train lines. They are altogether more cerebral.

coimbra-sa3Then, as we walked around the university, the difference was stark. The style was hurried, and the subject matter was too academic. We had a laugh at the sheep which you can see alongside. I can easily imagine this on the cover of any of the classic rock albums of the late sixties.coimbra-sa5 But the one which was clearly the work of an university student is this. Fado could be one medium which the students of Coimbra use, but this kind of graffiti binds them more clearly to students across the world. This kind of graffiti is no longer a work of visual art, but a very short essay. I can identify with this when I recall my days as a student, but I love the work of the baixa more.

Fado of Coimbra

Before leaving for Portugal I’d read that you can hear Fado on the road. Maybe you have to have some familiarity with the music in order to hear it this way. In Lisbon we sat through an expensive but very enjoyable Fado dinner, and then walked into a couple of Fado performances at bars and restaurants in Alfama and around the Rua da Misericorda. We’d heard of the open air concert in front of Coimbra’s old cathedral in May when the university year ends. We’d missed this. So, as soon as we got connected in Coimbra, I checked out reviews. Fado ao Centro was generally described as touristy but good. We were tourists, so I booked two seats at the regular evening performance.

2016-05-28 19.24.00It definitely was touristy, but in a good sense. A little film before the show started told us about the 19th century origins of Coimbra Fado in the life of students at the university, and a little about the twelve-stringed Portuguese guitar. After this there were songs, usually one vocalist with two guitarists, but some purely instrumental pieces, and a small number of songs with two vocalists. Each song was introduced. We liked the setup, and enjoyed the show. There is an opportunity after the show to have a glass of Port with the performers, talk to them, and buy CDs if you want.

2016-05-28 22.40.06A place which surprised us very pleasantly later the same evening was the cafe Santa Cruz, right next to the Santa Cruz church (photo on top). We walked in for an after-dinner drink, and a portion of the wonderful cake called the cruzeiro. Soon the place started filling up with locals, and soon a Fado concert started. The performance was even more enjoyable for us when we realized that people around us knew the songs. The general feeling of saudade which is supposed to be linked to the songs is what an Indian would think of as the emotional content of Devdas and ghazals. When I said this to The Family she asked me why I was listening to Fado when I don’t listen to Ghazals!

My weak answer to that was that it was because I was a tourist. We did not have time to catch a performance in a highly praised venue called A Capella. Maybe that worked out well, otherwise this argument would have been hard to avoid. There is at least one more bar in Coimbra where there is a Fado performance more or less every night.

A wedding in the cathedral

The old cathedral, Se Velha, was built soon after Coimbra became the capital of Portugal in 1143 CE. Since the Portuguese state of that time saw itself in terms of a militant Christianity fighting the Moors, we’d expected the cathedral to be grand.

The gargoyles in Coimbra cathedral need cleaningIn Coimbra the cathedral does not seem to be a very important structure. The gargoyles had not been cleaned for a long time; there were weeds growing out of them (see photo alongside). When we passed the cathedral in the morning its doors were still locked. People around did not seem to know whether there is an open door one can enter. We left and went up to the university, which was already bustling with faculty, students, and tourists. Of course, you might expect this in an university town. Maybe even the bishop teaches now and then.

Gilded wood statue and tiles inside Coimbra cathedralWhen we came back down after some hours we found the cathedral doors open. The inside was nice, but nothing really distinguished it from the many churches we had already seen. Perhaps it was a touch more imposing: the height must have been hard to achieve in the days before the flowering of the Gothic style. Perhaps all the really good stuff was moved to Lisbon when it became the capital in 1255 CE. There were lovely azulejos on the wall, a portrait of the queen, St. Isabel, a nice gilded altar-piece. I liked the painted and gilded wooden statue whose photo you see alongside. The most amazing things in the cathedral were the two immense sea shells which serve as baptismal fonts (one of them is in the featured photo). Apparently they were found somewhere in the Indian Ocean in 1952.

The bride arrives for a wedding in Coimbra cathedralAs we exited the cathedral we realized that a wedding was in the offing. A few men milled around a priest in formal vestments who stood at the top of the steps leading up to the door of the cathedral from the square. As we watched, guests began to arrive. Most drove up to the square and disgorged women in beautiful gowns escorted by men in suits. We did not feel out of place in the gaggle of ill-dressed tourists who were on watch. The Family wanted to wait for the bride. I looked for a good place to photograph her from, and eventually found one at the mouth of a road coming into the square from above. The Family was lost in the knot of people and cars in the square. I could get a few photos of the bride in her long white train. You can barely see at the edge of the photo her mother in a lovely purple gown.

So the cathedral still does play a role in the life of the community. It is just that the relatively hard days that Portugal is going through leaves little money to keep all large old structures in good shape.

The university of Coimbra

I’d booked our flat in Coimbra by the map: it was close to the railway station and very close to the university and the cathedral. What I hadn’t realized that the distance was mostly steep uphill.

Eaination hall in the university of CoimbraThe other thing that we realized only after reaching Coimbra is that the most important thing in the town is the university. It stands much higher up the hill even than the cathedral! The featured image in the post is a panorama taken from the top level of the university building, not the tower. And you can clearly see that the cathedral is far below.

Ceiling of the hall of exaination in the university of CoimbraThe hierarchy is clear even inside. The Great Hall of Acts in the university (photo above) is where important oral examinations are taken, for example the examination for a doctoral degree. It is lined with portraits of the kings, and details of who made the paintings, who did the woodwork, etc, are all recorded. The great importance given to learning is even visible in the coat of arms which is in the thumbnail picture above.

Chapel in the  university of CoimbraWe had to decide on what tour to take inside the university, and opted to go everywhere in the main building except climb the tower. It is also possible to take a longer tour which includes the Royal Palace, the Natural History Museum and the Old Physics Laboratories. These are supposed to be worth seeing, but we were a little short of time. After the hall we visited the chapel of St. Michael. This bright and very ornate room comes with azelujos, of course. The large organ is decorated in what is called the "Chinese style". This turned out to be largely because scenes from China are painted in gold on it.

The library of the university of CoimbraThe high point of this tour is supposed to be the Baroque Library. Since the number of people in the library is strictly controlled, you are given an entry time when you buy the ticket. We queued up to enter the grand room. We thought it was baroque, but not very large. It would be right at home in a movie with a teenaged magician looking for old spells. The press of people included a guided tour which took up the center of the small room, leaving the rest of us quite constrained. We walked around as best as we could, but it was not really possible to figure out which books were on the shelf. It was not the sort of place where I could have done much reading: it was too dark and ornate.

Don Quixoite, early edition, university of CoimbraWe escaped to the middle level, which had the hushed and clean book-lined atmosphere of a modern library. It seems that most books were actually stored here, and were taken upstairs only on request. This is what we call "closed shelf" today. Some of their more remarkable holdings were on display. In honour of Cervantes, who died exactly 400 years ago, several copies of his books were on display. I saw a book by Cervantes published in 1617, but it was not a book I knew. The oldest edition of Don Quixote which I spotted is from 1744 (see photo) . It is interesting that this edition was published 139 years after the first edition. Don Quixote still has a score of 3.8/5 on Goodreads. That is something!

A cademic prison, university of CoimbraAnother level down a little gift shop softens your entry to the only university dungeon in the world. Unseemly behaviour in the library, or disrespect shown to teachers and learning could land you here once upon a time. I’m sure the place was damp, cold, and dark. There was little you could have done in there except to jangle your chains or meditate upon ways of making sure that you were not incarcerated again. I wonder why they gave up the practice. Like much that is modern in Portugal, I’m sure that an answer would lead back to the late 18th century and Marquez de Pombal.

Coimbra on a rainy afternoon

The fast train from Lisbon stops at a station called Coimbra-B, a little away from the center of town, but very much inside the town of Coimbra. When we got off the train it was pouring. We had to take a train into the main station of Coimbra, and we got ourselves quite wet trying to do this. It was still raining half an hour later when we reached Coimbra. We’d chosen to stay in an apartment very close to the station, and we managed to do it with one umbrella between me and The Family.

The apartment was very nice, and even nicer because of the great wifi connection. We made ourselves a couple of cups of hot tea after drying off. The rain had reduced to an occasional drizzle, so we ventured out to do a little shopping for breakfast. At this time of the year the markets in Portugal are full of wonderful cherries, nectarines, strawberries and peaches. We saw, but did not pay much attention to a fruit which I later found was called a loquat; if we’d known the story of the imaginary insult behind them, we might have bought some. We shopped for jam, cheese and a ham, and then walked into a bakery for some bread. Our breakfast was arranged.

Waiting in the rain outside Ze Manel dos Ossos in Coimbra Table at Ze Manel dos Ossos in Coimbra Zany decor at Ze Manel dos Ossos in Coimbra

Dinner was another matter! We’d read of a tiny local restaurant called Ze Manel, famous for "bones", and decided to go there. We were warned that it is very tiny and unless you are there at 7:30 in the evening, when it opens, you may be turned away. We lost our way slightly in the maze of streets which makes up Coimbra’s baixa (lower town) and reached immediately after it had opened. All three tables in the kitchen were taken, and there were two Portuguese families waiting in a queue ahead of us.

Since the families seemed to be negotiating with the manager (first photo above), we decided to wait. The manager went away. Nobody left. So we waited and peered into the kitchen with its steaming pots. Soon another door opened, and the manager beckoned us into a staircase. We trooped up and into an extra room which they apparently keep for such times. We had a lovely table by the window (middle photo above), and left the long tables to the two families. The room was decorated with a bizarre collection of things which restaurants in Portugal manage to bring together: this had pens, medals and watches (last photo above).

One thing to remember about restaurants in Portugal is that they will often put down bread, cheese, olives, and even a little extra dish on the table. These are not free, but are charged. Usually the price is not high,Two portuguese cheeses but it never hurts to look at the menu to check the price of the "cover". This place had two different cheeses, one of which was the cured sheep-milk cheese which I’d encountered just the previous night. We looked at the menu as we had the cheese and olives. We ordered osso (bones), which we thought was a soup, and a fish and a meat dish. Although the food was wonderful, this turned out to be a mistake. The other families ordered only the bones, and they got the soup and piles of delicious looking bones (with meat on them). We marked this down for another meal.

Igreja da San Tiago in CoimbraCoimbra, like Lisbon and Porto, stands on a river. All three main towns are at a height and the lower town which has grown up on the banks of the river is called the baixa. After dinner we wandered through the maze of narrow alleys in the baixa, deliberately avoiding the motorable roads. They were well lit but completely deserted: tourists as well as locals were still busy with dinner. We came across a couple of churches, which were closed at this time, before we wandered back home. The weekend will be long.

A Lisbon special: a museum of tiles

2016-05-27 11.32.46A very special thing about Portugal is that building frontages are full of tiles, called azulejos. In fact this is so special that there is a whole museum dedicated to tiles. We were to leave Lisbon for Coimbra by a train out of Santa Apolonia station, and I found from my map that the museum was very close by. So we checked out of our hotel, left our luggage in a very large storage locker in the station and took a bus to the museum. The museum is housed in a beautifully restored church. It’s about four stops away from the station. The bus driver was very helpful and told us exactly where to get off. The museum was right opposite the stop.

2016-05-27 11.33.25The museum is stunning. It starts with a series of exhibits which show how the tiles were made, and how the technology of glazed and painted tiles progressed. This first hall is followed by a series of brilliant old tiles. The first three images you see in this post come from the next two halls. The brilliant combination of yellow and blue are used in so many ways: not only to extend the geometric designs inherited from the Moors, but also to create paintings. The human figures are not very finely done; it seems that there was a sharp division between painters and tile makers. However, the studies of flowers and birds and outstanding. One of my favourites was the elaborate panel pictured at the top of this post.

This floor also contains a workshop which is closed to the public, and the elaborate chapel of the church. The gilded chapel with its tiles have been restored very well.2016-05-27 11.55.28 After this one has to climb to the next floor. As one climbs, the yellow is lost from the tiles. There are elaborate hunting scenes done in blue and white. In a little chamber near the head of the stairs our eyes were drawn to portraits of Charles II of England and Catherine of Braganza (shown here). The political marriage between the two had many consequences, but the one which lasted longest was that the seven islands of Bombay went as Catherine’s dowry to England, and formed the seed of the megapolis which I live in.

2016-05-27 12.04.14The hunting scenes continued through the next chambers. The discoveries which Portuguese soldiers made also found their way into these pictures. The one alongside shows leopards, although the draughtsmanship is suspect. Are they leopards or hyenas, or a non-specific savage animal? The posture looks like a hyena’s, but the face and tail is more like a leopard’s. There were similar confusions in other tiles from this age. In one the relative sizes of lions and dogs were odd. This was possibly because the artists of this period drew fabulous beasts which they may not have seen or observed closely. Just before and after this period they draw flowers and birds which are exquisitely observed and executed.

2016-05-27 12.09.22It seems that tiles were also used for instruction. There were a few tiles with technical drawings. Here is one which seems to illustrate some principle of map making. However, technical drawings are seldom self-explanatory. Even today, if you take a technical drawing out of a book, you lose its meaning. These tiles standing by themselves in a museum lose the cultural binding to working knowledge.

2016-05-27 12.14.30After this we came to more modern tiles. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of the common era advances in chemistry are clearly recorded in the new colours available. The “caste” distinction between tile makers and painters also begin to disappear. You first see this in the changing repertoire of subjects in the tiles. Here is a set of tiles which show faces which have clearly descended from a line of draughtsmanship which leads from Hogarth to Bill Watterson

2016-05-27 12.15.48The last hall contained work by the artist Hein Semke, a German settled in Lisbon some time in the beginning of the twentieth century. The works on display showed a clear merging of German expressionism with the ceramics we had just seen. The Family and I thought that ceramics show a clear merging of technology and art, a trend that intensified through the last century and is commonplace now. The modern ceramic tiles after this, like the locusts shown here, are further examples of art and technology coming together.

An upper floor contains a panorama of Lisbon in tiles. As we looked at it and realized how little of the city we had seen, we thought this was a perfect thing to end our trip to Lisbon with. It gives us incentive to come back.