Porto São Bento, the tiled gateway to the city of Porto

São Bento station

São Bento’s tiled entrance hall

The main railway station in Porto is famous for its tiled walls. Dating back to 1896 (although the official opening was in 1916), the station reminds me of Brighton station every time I arrive there.  It’s full of light, colour and immediately take you back to the times when rail travel was more than just about getting from A to B.

Unlike a standard train station, the platforms aren’t the busiest area. The entrance halls with display boards actually has the largest number of people milling around, and most of them are tourists taking photos of the blue and white azulejo tiles which adorn the walls.  Telling stories of major events in Portuguese history, these were designed to educate even those who could not read at a time when transport and travel became more accessible for all classes.

Photo0246The grand entrance hall has been modernised with LCD screens indicating departure times but overall it still has an old-world feel.  As well as an old clock in the stained glass window, there are original signs which indicate arrivals and departures and the roof in the platform area brings in much needed light on a rainy day.

 

 

There are 20,000 tiles on the walls of São Bento train station and every single one is tin-glazed.  Tiles are a famous Portuguese export and much like the pottery and glassware made at Vista Alegre, the Portuguese still maintain their high quality levels and are famed for their production, holding strong against cheaper imports from other countries.

The tiles were painted in 1905 and 1906 by the artist Jorge Colaço, known at the time as the best producer of azulejo tiles in Portugal.  Needless to say, given that this is a must-see place for anyone visiting Porto, his toil was well worth it.

One of the platforms in São Bento

One of the platforms in São Bento

The main cross country and inter-country (trains to Spain and beyond up through France) leave from Porto Campanhã so if you’re just passing through and you have the time, it’s definitely worth catching the train to São Bento (3 minute journey) to see the tiled walls, Victorian ironwork and the sun glinting through the roof windows.

Visions of Vista Alegre

SAM_4228Vista Alegre is a small town which is located  approximately 5miles/8km from Aveiro, in the district of Ilhavo.  The town name means beautiful view and as you can see from the photos, with the river running through it and the masses of grassland along the Aveiro estuary, it’s a particularly apt name

SAM_4231The town itself is probably most famous for the Vista Alegre porcelain factory. The company was established in 1815 by Pinto Basto who saw the success of glass manufacturing in Marinha Grande, a town in the Leiria district, and decided to establish his own firm in Ilhavo.

SAM_4237The original grounds of the Vista Alegre quinta remain today alongside the factory where Vista Alegre’ s high end product are hand crafted from initial mixing off the clay to the varnish that protects the final product. Pinto Bastos purchased Quinta da Ermida, a mansion along the estuary where clay, sands, fuel and pebbles were readily available, to which, at a later date he added the 100 acre estate that is the present day Vista Alegre factory. Granted the title of Royal Factory in 1832 , the company enjoyed a golden era of glass and porcelain production. Fast forward to the present day, and following various restructures, it is still one of Portugal, and indeed, the world’s most well respected porcelain companies.

SAM_4242Today the grounds at Vista Alegre include the original quinta, a family church and the factory itself. The factory’s grounds have a small garden in them which is reminiscent of that often found in an English country house. There’s a museum (currently closed for refurbishment but the displays can be seen elsewhere in the town) which charts the history of the factory, the families involved over time and includes pieces from its finest collection. These collections are a true reflection of how our approach to fine dining, homewares and decoration has changed over time, with each artistic era since 1815 brilliantly represented in porcelain, china and glass. Royal families and presidents of several countries are amongst the lucky ones to have Vista Alegre on their dinner tables.

SAM_4238Nowadays the factory produces the high end pieces for the likes of Christian Lacroix and Eduardo Nery whilst their partner company, Atlantic, is the crystal and glasswear producer.  Tours of the factory are available for anyone who wants to learn more about the production process and marvel at the steady hands of the artists working there. When they say handmade, they really mean it here.  An extensive range of Vista Alegre Atlantis’ products are on sale at the two shops at the Vista Alegre factory, both of which are an absolute dream of a place to visit.  You’ll come away wishing you had ten kitchens and dinings rooms  and that you could entertain every night of the week, just to have an excuse to buy the tea sets, coffee pots and crystal glasses.  My personal favourites are the Vila Verde range, based on a tradition related to handkerchiefs that’s resurged here in Portugal which I’ll write about at a later date.

SAM_4246 In the last week of July of each year, the town pays homage to the local saint, Our Lady of Peñafrancia (Nossa Senhora da Penha de França), and of course, this is an excellent excuse for a party or two.  In the grounds of the factory, a stage is erected alongside several stalls with local food, toys and daily entertainment.  Anyone visiting Porto and especially Aveiro at that time of year should add a visit here to their plans. SAM_4234There’s also a Vista Alegre factory shop sale which is immensly popular and additional (free) tours of the factory take place- bring your car if you want to stock up!  For us, though, one of the highlights of the celebrations was a Fado night organised by the Vista Alegre Sporting Club, a local community organisation on a par with a rugby or cricket club in the UK.  With local wines, food served on Vista Alegre pottery (what else?!) and local Fado singers, the community came out in force to celebrate.  It was a simple affair, but often, it’s best to take it back to basics to enjoy great company, a friendly atmosphere and a local tradition that few foreigners get to see.