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A toast to Porto

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Sadly, it wouldn't be a great exaggeration to say that, for a large number of Britons, mention Porto and they will immediately talk to you of improbable European football victories masterminded by the 'Special One' prior to his Chelsea days.

Indeed, even non-football fans would automatically think of the steep hills of Lisbon or the sunny beaches of the Algarve ahead of the country's second city when they think of Portugal.

However, rough diamond though it may be – and the view offered to passengers on any of the numerous cheap flights heading into the city of its industrial suburbs will confirm this – Porto is nevertheless well worth a visit and, with its historic centre, it can boast one of the jewels of the whole of Europe.

Such is the historical significance of the city centre that UNESCO long ago declared it a World Heritage Site and it's no wonder considering it boasts such treasures as the Oporto Cathedral, as well as the smaller but no less stunning Church of Cedofeita and the Gothic splendour of the Church of Saint Francis.

The best way to take in the city's wonders is, in my opinion, to hire the services of a local guide or join a tour group and see Porto on foot.

Certainly the stories behind the Palace of the Archbishop and the churches of Mercy and of the Clerics give a valuable insight into the role religion has played in the history of not only Porto but of Portugal in general, while the neoclassicist and romantic architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries showcases how the city was built up to match the opulence of its European rivals, with highlights here including the San Bento train station and the Crystal Palace.

Porto, remains, however, a thoroughly modern and dynamic city, continually building upon the success it achieved during its year as the European Culture Capital back in 2001.

Thus, the Casa de Musica was only just finished in 2005, with the Rem Kpplhass-designed concert hall now playing host to some of the top acts in the world, while the annual Fantasporto film festival brings movie buffs and famous actors and directors to the city to showcase their latest offerings.

Given that many of the buildings in the old centre are protected from renovation, walking downtown once the shops are shut is, for the most part, a tranquil experience, with the only commotion coming from the numerous cheap and delicious fish restaurants or the boisterous bars where the locals will welcome strangers with a glass of the city's world-famous Port wine.

The exception, however, is for the festival of St John, which takes place every year on the night of the 23 June.

While the daytime meals of sardines and boiled potatoes washed down with generous amounts of red wine may not seem unusual, the evenings see the locals jumping over bonfires in the streets and hitting each other with plastic hammers and leeks.

Watching the fireworks light up the sky over Porto at midnight to celebrate the saint's day, surrounded entirely by locals, it's enough to wish Britain's collective ignorance of this wonderful city will endure for some time yet.


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