The cathedral of Porto

The cathedral of PortoThe cathedral of Porto is near the Sao Bento station. As we walked up to it, the bright sun was behind the twin towers of the cathedral, and in our eyes. The Family said that it does not look very impressive from outside. We walked into the interior gloom. The cathedral did not look very impressive inside either. A narrow but high nave was topped with the barrel vaulting typical of Romanesque churches. The baroque porch from which we had entered was clearly added on much after 1120, when this part of the cathedral was completed. The Family took a closer look at the chapels and the decoration while I sat on a bench and nursed a bad knee.

The entrance to the place of worship is seldom ticketed, and this was no exception. However, you had to pay to enter the cloister attached to the cathedral. We duly paid up to enter the much more interesting Gothic cloister built during the 14th and 15th centuries (see the featured image). The azulejo panels at this level were designed in the early 18th century by Valentim de Almeida. The tiled panels on the upper level, which you can see bits of in the featured photo, were designed by Antonio Vidal around the same time.

porto-se2We walked around the quadrangle. One of the doors leads to a renaissance staircase designed by the 18th century Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni who built many landmarks around the city. We peered at this, then walked around to the treasury inside the chapterhouse. We walked in a daze past shiny pieces meant to impress and suddenly spotted the odd decoration shown alongside. Could it really be a piece of the skin of St. Francis Xavier? We clicked a photo for our friends from Goa, and moved on. Baroque paintings decorate the roof of the chapterhouse. We admired them and moved up to the terrace.


One can take a closer look at the tiled murals here. These are genuinely beautiful, and totally Portuguese. We looked up at the steeple with a statue of a saint brandishing a cross from his niche. A sea gull sat on the large cross atop everything. Weeds grew out of the mortar. We’d noticed before that the once powerful church has entered a little bit of a backwater in this century. We went down by Nasoni’s stairs. The broad steps, evenly spaced, are very good for the knees. If you ever wonder why an architect has to design stairs, try descending a long flight of stairs made by amateurs. Your knees will tell you how bad they are.

There was a guide standing in the cloister. We asked her where Nasoni was buried. She did not know. As we exited we asked the lady who sold us the tickets where we could see Nasoni’s grave. She excitedly told us that no one knows. According to her he was buried somewhere in the cathedral, but the records are lost. Later we googled this and found that he is buried in one of the famous churches he built: the church of Sao Pedro dos Clerigos.

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.

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.


View of Alfama from near Terreiro de Paco metro stationAlfama is a highly atmospheric part of Lisbon. The city rises very sharply from the Tagus river. Our first view of Alfama came as we strolled along the riverside and reached the Terreiro de Paço metro station. The Family recognized the towers of the cathedral from the pictures she had seen. The building to the right in front turned out to be the Jose Saramago Foundation. If we had more time in Lisbon we would definitely have gone for some of their events.

Graffiti in LisbonWe turned into this district, passed the Jose Saramago Foundation, and climbed up a little. There’s a warren of little streets, passages, and stairs leading up. We quickly lost our way, but decided to keep going upwards. I began to notice the abundance of graffiti. Later we came to love Portuguese graffiti; it will be the subject of a future post. Going up eventually brought us to the cathedral.

As we climbed we stopped to admire some beautiful tiles embedded into buildings.Azulejos  in Alfama We found that Alfama is slowly being renovated. The picturesque crumbling buildings are interspersed with fully renovated buildings like this one. We had begun to notice tiles: azulejos in Portuguese. We would see much more of this soon. It turns out that Alfama is full of restaurants and Fado clubs.

Fado in progress at a bar in AlfamaLater we came back to Alfama for the singular experience of listening to Fado. This musical form apparently has two different styles: the Lisbon style is said to begin with sailors, but now it is common for women to sing Fado of Lisbon. We heard a beautiful performance of this style in Alfama (photo here). Later we would encounter the Coimbra style too.

We explored other parts of the city in the evenings, but Alfama with its very distinct identity was always the most predictably interesting. If you don’t know the secret ways of Lisbon just follow us and gravitate towards Alfama.