Bling Abounds in Porto

The statue of Henry the Navigator in the Ribeira district points to the sea. But he easily could be pointing to the significant buildings and sites of Porto, including what Declan and I call the “bling church.”

OK, it’s actually Igreja de São Francisco, a church dedicated to the humble St. Francis. This Gothic church, which dates from the early 1400s, looks plain on the outside. But that exterior hides 100 kilograms of gold leaf plundered from Brazil that adorns altars, ceilings and just about everything in between. To be honest, the audacious display toes the line of gaudy, depending on your tastes.

I was more impressed with what can be found underneath the Church of St. Francis, expansive catacombs that served as a full-blown cemetery. The well-heeled of Porto were buried here for about 100 years, until authorities decided that burying people under a church might not be healthy. Many were disinterred and reburied elsewhere, but the disarticulated remains of others can be seen through plexiglass portals on a level lower than even the catacombs.

The church property formerly included cloisters that were destroyed in a fire during the siege of Porto in 1832. In its place rose a cathedral to commerce, the Palácio de Bolsa, or Stock Exchange Palace. Built principally between 1840 and 1850, work on the interior of the Neoclassic building continued for another 60 years.

Built to impress

And once you see the expansive Hall of Nations with its intricate octagonal glass ceiling, the grand staircase that took decades to build and Arabian Hall, you’ll see what took so long. It’s no wonder this building has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tours occur frequently, but bear in mind that you may need to wait until there’s a tour in your language. A guided tour gives you a sense of the building’s history, financed by Porto businessmen to help showcase the city’s importance in global commerce. The stock exchange operated in the Hall of Nations (Pátio das Nações), where the tour opens. Most are mesmerized by the glass ceiling and coats of arms of the two dozen or so countries that the businessmen considered important. However, Declan and I were taken by the mosaic tile in the room, especially the representations of the elements (earth, air, fire and water) as indicated by a lion, eagle, dragon and fish.

Other rooms, which contain mostly original woodwork and furnishings, showcase the ingenuity and craftsmanship of Portuguese artisans. Although one room appears to be nearly all wood, the guide explained that everything above the chair rail was plaster painted to resemble wood. When an especially curious visitor asked why that was the case, the paraphrased answer was pretty much “because they could.”

It was appropriate that the highlight of the tour, the Arabian Hall (Salão Árabe), was also the last room we visited. We knew from the colorful, painted-to-look-like stained glass windows from the adjoining room we were in for a treat. The ballroom didn’t disappoint.

The room features intricate Moorish designs with 18 kilograms of gold leaf. During its heyday, the hall would accommodate large business gatherings, with smaller salons upstairs for private meetings. Arabic writing on the walls was thought to be gibberish, but our guide said her research revealed phrases such as “glory to the sultan” and “Allah above all.”

Believe me, between the church and the Stock Exchange Palace, we saw more gilt in one day than you’d see in the hog farrowing barn. And if you didn’t grow up on a farm, just look that one up.