Norwich Cathedral, Norwich, England; June 16, 2019
Porto is one of the loveliest cities I’ve been to. Colorful buildings topped with orange roofs tumble down a hillside to the Duoro River, upon which rabelos and modern boats bob gently. The Ponte Luis I arches over the water, reaching from the main city to the many port wine cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia. When I was there, the sky was never anything but blue, and the river sparkled in the sun.
I arrived near midnight and took a cab to my Airbnb. The driver was chatty, and he made a great joke. He asked where I wanted to visit, and I mentioned the bridge and the cathedral. He said something about a palace and I said that sounded good. “Well it’s really another kind of church,” he said, and chuckled. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized he was talking about the Palacio da Bolsa — the extravagant stock exchange building from 1850. Another kind of church, indeed.
I had planned to visit the Sé cathedral, but as I arrived, a police escort guided a line of black cars out to the main road, and I found the cathedral closed. When I inquired at the tourist kiosk, they said that the bishop had died just a few hours before, and as the building next door to the cathedral is the bishop’s house, everything would be closed for at least the rest of the day. As I heard a tour guide spin it to his charges, “You’re here at a historic time!”
The port wine cellars are the places that port is actually made. The grapes are harvested in the Duoro River valley and made into wine (as with champagne, you can’t call the drink port unless the grapes are grown in this specific area), then immediately shipped downriver to Vila Nova de Gaia in Porto. The fresh wine is fortified with brandy (which all the port wine companies make themselves), and then it’s fermented either in giant vats (for ruby wine) or smaller oak barrels (for white and tawny wines). Some of the barrels are later re-used by Scottish companies to age whiskey in. Port wine is about 20% alcohol and sweet; you drink white as an aperitif (before dinner), ruby with dessert (especially chocolate), and tawny as a digestif (to end your meal most perfectly).
It’s a relaxing city to sightsee in, as most of the places you want to visit are pretty close to each other, and any time you have to climb a particularly steep hill, you can stop off for a quick drink at a cafe to recover. The way you wander about town is integral to the experience of being there — climb to lookouts around the city, walk across the bridge on the upper level for the views, glide along the Nova de Gaia side of the river in the teleferico, take a boat tour under the bridges of the city.
Enjoy this short video I compiled of Porto from various points around the city.
Have you been to Porto? What was your favorite part?
Counting down the reasons to visit Rochester in 3, 2, 1… Rochester has England’s third-oldest Norman keep, second-oldest cathedral, and largest second-hand bookshop. I recently visited and decided that this small city in Kent on the River Medway is the perfect day trip for visitors who are basing themselves in London but want to experience the charm of a small English town as well.
When William the Conqueror came over from France in 1066, he decided one of the ways he was going to remind the local residents that he was now in charge was by building a bunch of castles to literally tower over them. He gave a castle to one of his pals after the Conquest, but that castle was abandoned after said pal used it to stage a rebellion against William’s son, the presumptive heir to the throne. No matter; when you’ve found a good location, stick with it: William II asked the Bishop of Rochester, Gundulf, to rebuild the castle, and a few decades later, Henry I made the castle the property of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The man who held that title at the time, William de Corbeil, was, like Gundulf, also an architect, and he built the Norman keep that still stands today. So in sum: Father gave a castle to a friend, his son got a friend to rebuilt that castle, and then his other son gave that same castle to another friend. Very chummy.
Rochester Castle was the site of several sieges over the next century and a half, making the strong walls of the keep (the innermost part of the castle) all the more important, as at some points all the inhabitants of the castle had to retreat to the keep to fend off attackers. During one of these sieges, in 1215, King John burned forty fat pigs underneath one corner of the keep; the resulting fire was hot enough to burn through the wooden supports beneath wall, and that portion of the keep collapsed. It was later rebuilt as a rounded tower, which was a stronger design less susceptible to sneaky pig-fire attacks.
Like many castles that were once essential to the defense of the local noble’s claims of land and power, Rochester Castle was later used for various purposes, including a prison and an illegal source of stone for other buildings. By the 19th century it was in disrepair, and the local government set it up as a park. Now it’s an English Heritage site, which means the keep is well-preserved (one of the best-preserved Norman keeps in England or France), and the grounds are a big park, with an ice cream vendor at the entrance.
Gundulf was a busy man. Not only was he Bishop of Rochester, he built up the cathedral itself (while also building the castle next door). There had been a cathedral on site for over 400 years, but years of underfunding meant that what was left wasn’t much. So Gundulf built it basically from the ground up, and much of this remains today, although several fires destroyed parts of the building over the years and those sections had to be repaired. (Side note: I couldn’t help but call Gundulf “Gandalf” all day; there’s a statue of him out front with a long, flowing beard and his pointy bishop hat, and it was too good to resist.)
Because Rochester is on the London-Canterbury road, several kings passed through town over the years, and they usually left small offerings at the cathedral on their way. One king who was distinctly not pleased with the place was Henry VIII, who met Ann of Cleaves for the first time in Rochester. History buffs may remember that he was “greatly disappointed” by her, because he didn’t think she was as hot as her picture. Tinder dating is always a risk, guys.
I first became interested in Rochester not because of the castle or the cathedral, but because of a sign I saw as my train passed through en route to another destination. Across the brick walls of the shop were large painted letters declaring “England’s Largest Rare & Secondhand Bookshop.” That’s how you bait a Lisa-trap, right there.
Baggins Book Bazaar was just what you’d hope: several stories, with front staircases and back staircases and a fairy door; books shelved in an orderly manner until there was no more room on the shelves, at which point the books just built themselves nests on any available surface; prominently displayed copies of books on local celebrity Charles Dickens, who lived and died very near here and featured Rochester Castle in some of his stories; friendly staff who laughed gently when I said I wouldn’t mind being “accidentally” left there overnight when they locked up.
There are many little shops in Rochester that would be fun to stop into, if you had more time than I did on my visit — including one that declared itself a “dino store,” a shop of oddities, and another bookstore — but you must at least stop into Baggins when you visit, to smell that used-book smell and smile at all the human creativity and ingenuity put into print and waiting for you to discover.
Hail Britannia is the title I settled on for posts about the British adventures I’m having while living in London. It covers London and non-London locations alike. It has a pleasing ring to it but doesn’t, I hope, make us dwell too much on ‘Rule, Britannia,’ not least because I am neither in the Royal Navy nor pro-imperialism.
Sibenik is famous for two things: its cathedral, and the nearby waterfalls of Krka National Park. Rightfully so, because these things of beauty stand out.
St. James’ Cathedral is a World Heritage site, as its construction over a period of more than 100 years incorporated different styles and building techniques in a unique way. The only material used was stone from the quarries of the island of Brac, and it was fitted together in a way more similar to shipbuilding or cabinet-making than traditional building construction, which is one of the reasons it’s listed.
Also, being built between 1431 and 1555 meant that the cathedral bridged the Gothic and Renaissance styles. There are flourishes around the interior that echo famous cathedrals in other cities, and a baptistry famous for its intricate designs.
My favorite part, though, was the frieze around part of the exterior, which was decorated with faces carved in the stone. Stories go that these are the faces of donors to the project, and the unpopular donors are depicted in unflattering statuary.
Krka National Park is lovely. I met some people who didn’t like how accessible it was–they wanted their waterfalls earned through a couple hours of hiking–but the waterfalls aren’t a spectacular reveal here, so I don’t see the point. The park consists of a blue-green river flowing over little ridges, small changes in gradation, one after another, so it’s more like collections of tiered falls separated by expanses of river. The water flows at a good rate, so by the time it reaches the lower falls, which are actually a decent height at 47 meters tall, it’s rushing over and splashing down magnificently.
I visited the park with a young French woman I met at my hostel. We walked along the boardwalks trying to photograph bright green frogs and iridescent dragonflies, stopped for lunch at the bottom of the lower falls, and then decided that despite the slight chill in the air, we’d brave going in. It was cold but fun, and we got a workout in walking against the current.
The port town of Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador, and it’s one of the oldest cities as well. It’s been the site of many a battle through the years, including skirmishes with pirates and fights for independence from Spain. This contributes to the rough and ready reputation the city and its citizens have, and most people I met there were half-proud, half-sheepish about that reputation. Sure, it doesn’t have the polish of Cuenca or the political importance of Quito, but people from Guayaquil wouldn’t want to be from anywhere else.
El malecon is a revamped stretch of waterfront, a long, rather sterile boardwalk containing statues of past leaders, a botanic garden, a children’s play area, a couple restaurants, and a large clock tower. I liked the part of the walkway built to resemble sails of a ship, and the odd sculptures representing the four elements. The climate of Guayaquil is perfect for the botanic gardens, which sagged with the weight of giant green leaves and bright flowers in the humid heat.
Over a hundred years ago, some iguanas made the plaza in front of the cathedral their home, and since then, it’s unofficially been known as the iguana plaza. There are signs everywhere asking people not to touch the animals, which were roundly ignored by most visitors to the plaza. I did have to watch my step in there–most of the iguanas lounge on the fenced-off areas, but a few decide to leisurely move to another grassy knoll, usually stopping in the middle of the pathway for reasons known only to them. I’m used to seeing pigeons or squirrels take over a public area, but this was the first time I’d seen reptiles be the local pest.
My friend Andy, a native of the city, took me to the Parque Historical, which is a combination outdoor museum and zoo. The zoo area was closed when we visited (the animals are given a day of rest every week, which I think is great), but we were able to see the outside of the hacienda and the reconstructed villagers’ house on stilts. Behind the stilt house, we watched pigs rooting around in their feed and ducks splashing in water. Andy showed me the cocoa beans, which have to be dried in the sun before they’re ground up and used for chocolate. He identified a lot of plants for me, which I always find impressive, as I can maybe name five plants native to my home.
Finally, I spent a little time in Las Peñas. This is the oldest part of the city, a collection of colorful buildings on a hilltop at the end of el malecon. As is true in formerly rough waterfront areas in just about every city I’ve been to, the city leaders have put a lot of money into cleaning it up and bringing tourists in. I didn’t get to experience the nightlife there, but it’s meant to be really fun. As it was, I bought some souvenirs at the large artisan’s market and walked down the oldest street in town (cobblestoned, of course).
A lot of people, myself included, use Guayaquil as just a stopover on their way to other places, but from what I’ve seen, it’s worth spending more time there and exploring the place that claims so many proud residents–not to mention noble iguanas.
I haven’t spent much time in Spain, so I haven’t seen the churches that inspired those built in Latin American countries. The churches I saw in Quito were very different from the English, French, and North American ones I’m familiar with; much more elaborate decoration, the Virgin Mary featured more prominently, less emphasis on stonework and more on paintwork. I love the cathedrals of Chartres and Salisbury, but La Compañia and San Francisco were magnificent in their own right.
My guidebook described the Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus as gaudy, but I loved it. Every square inch was covered in gleaming gold–the ceiling, the walls, the giant columns lining the aisles, the baroque columns framing the paintings. Some other colors crept in here and there, in the paintings and altar pieces, and okay, the pews were made of wood and the floors were a mix of stone and wood, but everything else was gold. It was stunning. They were really strict about not taking photos, but I snuck a couple.
The San Franciscan order of monks was the first to settle in the area, and the church and monastery they built here is now the largest religious complex in South America. The church is elaborately decorated, with paintings and an interlocking pattern on the ceiling. Saints form a semicircle around the altar, and the ceiling above is a deep blue and gold. The choir is made up of intricate wood carvings, and it affords a good view over the nave.
The attached museum contains sculptures and paintings done in the Quito style (one of the four main schools of art in the colonial period in South America). One of the halls was filled with figures carried during religious parades, like Carnaval and Holy Week, including a wooden bed for carrying statues. I tagged along on an English-speaking tour of the museum, learning about how the position of the statue on El Panecillo is a specific form that is found in statues elsewhere (like a couple in the museum), and how Santo Domingo is always depicted with a devoted dog at his feet.
The cathedral that forms one side of the main plaza has a stark exterior and a lovely interior, sky blue patterned with gold and pink, transporting you into the heavens as soon as you walk inside. They were starting a service when I ducked in there, so I didn’t spend much time.