You can’t spend a few days around Porto without noticing the unique Portuguese architectural characteristics that separate Portugal from its neighbors. This little photo excursion will give you an idea of how it all fits together. I hope it will work to make you want to take a vacation in Porto.
Blue Tiles — Azulejos
Blue Tiles called Azulejos on the exterior of the Church of Saint Ildefonso
Azulejos is a term used for the ubiquitous painted, tin-glazed, ceramic tiles you see in Portugal, affixed to walls, floors and even ceilings. They come from the Moorish traditions in Spain; king Manuel I brought some back after a visit to Seville in 1503.
Large, undecorated plaster areas of buildings were ripe for the tile treatment. It preserved the walls and brought coolness to the interior.
Perhaps the most famous use of tiles is found inside the São Bento Station in downtown Porto. The 20 thousand tiles together depict the history of Portugal. They are the work of Jorge Colaço, the most important azulejo painter of the time. The first tile was set in 1905.
São Bento Station, Porto, Portugal
São Bento Station in Porto
Art Deco Tile Work
Portugal’s iconic tiles have weathered changes in art periods. Hardly anyone with a camera who walks down the street and sees this shop can walk away without a picture of it:
The Proto-Baroque and the Modern
The Igreja de Santo Ildefonso is an 18th-century church whose facade is covered in nearly 11,000 azulejo tiles created by the artist Jorge Colaço. The tile work is relatively new: 1932, but the interior is Portuguese proto-Baroque and I rather like it. It seems to me to be warm and welcoming, unlike some churches I’ve visited.
The church sits on a hill with in front of a big piazza favored by skateboarders and trick cyclists. It is in the heart of Porto.
Right in front of the piazza, Porto’s historic trams running along historic tram lines 18 and 22 have a stop. While trams in Porto have largely disappeared, three lines 1, 18 and 22 continue to run with historic cars from the 20s and 30s, the rest of the trams replaced by modern buses. A tram ticket costs 2.5 euro these days. See Porto Tram Tours for more information.
A historic tram car in Porto running on the 22 tram line
Lisbon has a tile museum you may wish to visit.
Mention the village of Tentúgal and if you don’t get a blank stare you’ll certainly get a glimmer of recognition for the pastry the town is famous for. Pastel de Tentúgal is a marvel of a pastry that was born out of the sugar and egg yolk surpluses of Portuguese convent life.
So would you drive the 18km from Coimbra to little Tentúgal to try one? Sure you would. You should. But then what?
There are wonders here you need to see. Strange wonders. Also: the beauty of handmade things like the pipe organ in a box you see on the right, which comes from the convent but is now stored in the Casa da Misericórdia.
So what you do is this. You go to O Afonso, the cafe right on the main highway. You have your morning pastry, your Pastel de Tentúgal. You might not stop there. There are artisinal breads, cheeses and meats galore to try.
O Afonso is run by the affable Olga Alexandre Gonçalves Cavaleiro. She speaks English, as does her husband and some of the workers. You will need her, as she is quite active in the local cultural heritage preservation scene and has volunteered to steer you to the places in this article. If she has time, she might take you to the convent and the two amazing churches we’ll describe next.
Casa da Misericórdia de Tentúgal
This is my favorite place. The altarpiece(s) are made of stone. They’re from the 16th century, and depict scenes from the bible to repeat those stories for the illiterate, which numbered many in those times. Below is a scene showing Jesus in the tomb. Here’s a close-up:
The Misericórdia was a Portuguese charity, founded in Lisbon in 1498. These “houses of mercy” were charged with the task of burying the dead as well as other tasks like marriage, charity, health care and taking in babies whose mothers had died.
Igreja matriz da Assunção —or— Igreja de Santa Maria de Mourão
This is Olga’s favorite church. The altarpiece consists of stone sculptures of the saints—and all but two are women. The second name the church is known by, Igreja de Santa Maria de Mourão, refers to the moors, which Olga says lived in harmony with the Christians in Tentugal.
The chapel on the right is quite curious. Experts can’t seem to figure it out. Let your mind wander over the possibilities.
The church was built in the 14th century, but most of the chapels are built later.
Here’s an overall shot of the church. Nice work, isn’t it?:
Then there’s the convent, Nossa Senhora da Natividade. It is in a bit of a state of disarray, but is getting restored bit by bit. It’s where many women gave up their rights to wander freely amongst society, and there is a rather pervasive sadness about the place. You can see it in some of the artifacts, like the one to the right.
When you’ve seen these things and you’re feeling a bit hungry, now is the time to stroll over to what I think is one of the best traditional restaurants I’ve ever eaten at in Portugal, Restaurante Casa Armenio, which is marked on the map. You see, there’s a special rice grown in these parts, called Carolino. So you really should try the local rice dish arroz de malandrinhos, rice with duck innards and blood, along with the companion dish Pato assado, roast duck with potatoes. You’ll be amazed at the price, considering the quality of the food. The place is a treasure.
Here is one last picture of the organ’s darling keyboard. Below that, the map.
Tentugal Attractions Map
This should get you everywhere. Once you stop at the pastry shop in your car, everything is a walk away except for the B&B in the north west.
Conimbriga is a well-preserved roman archaeological site within a short drive from Coimbra. The site has been excavated since the turn of the 20th century, so the excavations are well documented.
There are several baths, a forum, city walls and habitations to visit. What distinguishes Conimbriga from other sites is the well-preserved (and restored) mosaics in place.
The museum is also well worth a visit as well. It’s not just a jumble of everything found over the years, but a well-presented view of life in Roman times, offering a viewing of select artifacts in context with others of similar usage.
Don’t go on Monday, when the site is closed.
There is a small cafe here as well, but we recommend eating in the newer town to the north, Condeixa-a-Nova. Our choice for a quick meal is marked on the map. Restaurante Churrasqueira Veloso has take-out grilled meats and salads, but there’s a lively little restaurant inside as well. You’ll get away cheap and you won’t go away hungry, that’s for sure.
How to Get to Conimbriga from Coimbra
The drive from Coimbra to Conimbriga on the N1/IC3 is about 17.6 km and passes through Condeixa-a-Nova. If your GPS doesn’t register Conimbriga (ours didn’t), use Condeixa-a-Nova and follow the signs.
Where to Stay in Style
Hotel Pousada de Condeixa-a-Nova will pay attention to your comfort in historical surroundings.
Pictures of Conimbriga and the Mosaics
A Brasileira, Porto’s venerable cafe and restaurant is shut.
We were strolling Porto with Andre of Taste Porto Food Tours when we came across the famous cafe’s sumptuous emptiness. Andre lamented its passing, told a few stories, then informed us that there was a proposal to turn the building into a hotel and restaurant. He did not seem confident that this project would take place.
In the silence that followed, Andre strolled to the door, shielded the light with his hands, and let out a yelp of joy.
There on the back wall was the news. “A Brasileira: Hotel – Restaurant – Cafeteria” was announced on a coffee-colored, printed sign which matches the style of the web site listed below the title.
We await the good news. There’s an economic crisis on, you know, and every bit of money that can be wrestled from enormous banks hiding their shekels under a basket is good news for economic growth. So here, check out the project: A Brasileira (in Portuguese, but there’s plenty of pictures of the proposed project).
If you need a reason to go to Portugal and have a sweet tooth, you needn’t search for a reason. If you can’t find a sweet in any Portuguese village that millions of web wonks aren’t touting, usually using egg yolks like they fell freely to the earth day and night, then you aren’t looking hard enough.
What you see up on the top is a baking pan crammed with very interesting pastries called Pastel de Tentúgal. The town of Tentúgal was once equal in power to Coimbra, which is a mere 18 km away. It once had a monastery that produced these difficult-to-make little bundles of flaky egginess. Today the monastery is rising from the ashes due to the perseverance of the owners of the bakery called O Afonso. A more involved couple you will never meet (unless you happen to be extremely lucky).
There’s a little secret behind these pastels. The infinitely thin wrapper reminds one of philo dough. It’s not. It’s simply a special high-gluten flour with enough water added to make a smooth dough. That’s it. Then the dough is stretched until it is transparent in your hands on a special floor in a special building. This happens, like a dance, in three movements. It is both a graceful act and a demanding one. To do it right takes no less than two years of training.
We were so enamored with the process we made a little video. I hope you watch to the end; there’s rather a surprise ending.
How Artisan Bakers at O Afonso make Pastel de Tentúgal from James Martin on Vimeo.