Am I ever glad that we listen to our kids. We were planning our first visit to Portugal, and thinking we might head south for sunshine and the Algarve between our stays in Lisbon and Barcelona. Knowing that our son had a very happy stay in Porto a couple of years ago, we ultimately decided to spend a few days there. While our son stayed in a hostel and we found our way to a building that began life centuries ago as a monastery before being converted to a palace on its way to five-star hotel status, all of us appreciated genuinely gracious people in Porto.
Here in Vancouver, Fall has truly arrived, and that often means rain. If the change in season has you pondering ideas for next year’s travels, and you like the notion of staying in a gorgeous palace in a historic town, I’m here to recommend romantic Porto, Portugal and InterContinental’s (IHG’s) Palacio Das Cardosas.
This is not to suggest, mind you, that it’s all sunny skies in Porto. On the contrary, people from other coastal climates are quite likely to feel at home in this hillside city, a UNESCO World Heritage site that owes its vibrant history to northern Portugal’s Douro River. Of course, Porto – the second largest city in Portugal – is roughly 1,800 years older than Vancouver, and its regional population is 1.4 million people in comparison with Metro Vancouver’s 2.3 million or so, but residents of both cities can appreciate seafood, good wine and sunshine.
This city holds appeal for all ranges of the budget spectrum. Where else can a person, in the space of mere days, visit wine cellars, learn snippets of a new language, acquire lovely cork accessories, explore the city where J. K. Rowling is celebrated for having written elements of a much loved novel, actually enjoy breakfast in an elegantly outfitted fast foot outlet … and, if you time your visit right, celebrate modern twists on a centuries-old festival before joining a Brazilian dance line through town to celebrate that evening’s World Cup game?
I’ve offered earlier insights on our Porto travels on my photography blog, and you can read elsewhere on this site how we lucked out in arriving just in time for the city’s major festival of the year, Festa de São João. The event tops any New Year’s party I’ve ever attended – and little wonder, since the city has been perfecting this festival, in one form or another, over the course of centuries. Here’s a look at what you might expect if you decide to make the journey.
TRAVELLING TO PORTO
Sometimes, getting there can be half the fun. After frustrating line ups and lack of communications at Heathrow’s newest terminal, it was a treat to enjoy train travel from the contemporary Lisbon Oriente Train Station (Lisboa Estacion Oriente; think of a canopy of metallic trees above the tracks) to Porto’s São Bento Railway Station.
Now, I love train travel, as long as the cars are clean. I’m also a sucker for gorgeous stations – think of the rich wood and Edwardian features of Glasgow Central, the drop-dead beauty of the vaulted ceilings in Washington, DC’s Union Station, and the glory of New York City’s Grand Central, for starters. São Bento did not disappoint. This station, with its 50,000+ hand painted tiles illustrating Portuguese history, gives one the sense of being in an art gallery or museum. It was built just over a century ago, on the site of the same former monastery as our hotel, so you know you will not need to catch a cab to Palacio Das Cardosas. We departed Porto for Barcelona by air, and Porto International (Francisco Sa Cameiro) was efficient and quite contemporary for a terminal first built in the 1940s. It’s also a short drive from town.
PALACIO DAS CARDOSAS: A STORIED PAST
To get to Palacio Das Cardosas from São Bento, all you need do is stop gawking at its beautiful tiles and take a right hand turn when you exit the station, and then a left hand turn at your first corner. Cross the street, and you’re home, as it were. Stepping in to the lobby of Palacio Das Cardosas is akin to stepping across the lobby of a grand old home that’s undergone a glossy renovation. A reno that involved loads of marble, capped by glittering chandeliers.
The property emerged as a gem of the InterContinental chain only recently, when it opened in 2011 following a massive refurbishment by architect Alex Kravetz. This monastery-cum-palace-cum-hotel was built in the 15th century, when it housed a convent. Time takes its toll, though, and reconstruction began in 1798 but political changes in the early 19th century were such that the work was abandoned. The building subsequently housed a miliatry hospital and Casa de Moeda, the National Mint, before it was sold at auction to Manuel Cardoso dos Santos. The gentleman died not long after, and Sra. Cardosos and their daughters, who inherited the palace, lent their name to the property. Fast forward almost two centuries, and you have the current hotel.
When we sat down across from Clara at the registration desk, Sales Manager Brenda Sá Ribeiro stepped out to add to the sense of welcome that we found pervasive throughout this five-star hotel and its young team. If our room, 108, was indicative of the other 88 rooms and 16 suites, you’ll be in for a wonderful stay. We had two sets of double windows opening up to Praça de Liberdade Square, inspring architecture and a statue of Dom Pedro IV. Popping back in to our room briefly during the evening of Festa de São João and opening up the windows over the Avenida dos Aliados, one felt both part of and suspended above the throngs of partiers. The bathroom was dripping with marble, and featured good separation of space, including a spacious walk-in shower.
An unexpected touch we appreciated this far away from home was the daily provision of a local print of major elements of our preferred Canadian newspaper. We didn’t try the hotel spa, Pevonia, or its Astoria restaurant; perhaps we’ll make time for them on a return visit.
CONCIERGE TO THE RESCUE
Any good manager knows that staff can make or break a client’s experience, and we found the concierge team especially friendly and helpful. Whether it was explaining the unexpected appearance of a plastic hammer on our bed one afternoon, or guiding us on festival protocols and dining options and transportation, we were in very good hands with charming and helpful people.
We’ll remember Concierge Rogerio Martins, however, above all – and not only for his warm smile and sense of humour. The hotel was booked solid and so, on the day of our departure, we turned in our room cards to make way for the next guests and left our luggage with the concierge staff before visiting one of the port wine cellars. It was only as we were picking up our luggage to make our way to the airport that my husband realised he must have left a small but important personal belonging in the room safe. Rogerio not only offered to pop up to our room to check, but he also graciously persisted when the new guests said they’d found nothing in the safe. Rogerio persuaded the new guests to open the safe again, and he returned to the lobby with the missing object in hand.
If you have business to conduct in Porto, you’d be well served staying here. You’re nicely situated within the city and for access to transit and, beyond standard Wi Fi access, the hotel offers a business centre, a technical concierge and limo service. Guests travelling without a roaming package can rent cell phones.
LOCATION AND ARCHITECTURE
You’re a five-minute walk from the Duoro river, and also in walking distance of the city’s renowned port cellars. The hotel looks out over the Avenue of the Allies, which is a great starting point for exploring restaurants and shops.
GETTING AROUND PORTO
Even without a vintage Jaguar such as the beauty below, you’ll find it easy to make your way around Porto. Tour buses make their stops just a couple of hundred meters away, and you have train and local transit access at São Bento. Boat tours are readily available and Porto is also highly walkable, which we find one of the best ways to explore a city. On the afternoon and evening of Festa de São João, people literally poured off the trains of São Bento from other parts of Portugal.
SHOPPING AND DINING
Due to an airline misplacing my luggage throughout our time in Portugal, I had to spend much of our time in Porto trying to contact and secure advice from any of Air Canada, TAP-Portugal or Groundforce. With no indication as to whether my luggage would be returned to me, I then had to spend even more of our time here shopping in earnest rather than fully exploring the sights.
Now, this may sound like a shopper’s dream, but I assure you it wasn’t. I’d picked up some toiletries and a couple of clothing items at a mall adjacent to Lisbon’s Oriente Train Station just before we departed for Porto. When that’s all you have, though, starting from scratch consumes an inordinate amount of holiday time.
Thankfully, Palacio Das Cardosas has wonderful staff and, between Clara, Gonçalo, Hugo and Rogerio, I soon had recommendations on places to shop, including Fashion Clinic, Maurques Soares and Rua Sta Catarina -which you’ll want to visit if only for people watching and sidewalk cafes, including the Majestic Cafe. The hotel offers a shuttle to El Corte Inglés, but I found it quicker to walk around the corner and catch transit from São Bento to this department store.
If you’re looking for a keepsake from this region, you’ll want to bring home a cork purse – or two. Portugal is a major cork producer, and you’ll see a photo here of some cork shoes and accessories. I will offer that, if your feet are on the long side, you’re likely to have a difficult time acquiring shoes here; I did not see any women’s shoes larger than the European size 41.
Palacio Das Cardosos participates in InterContinental’s Green Engage program.
As with most accommodation, pricing will depend on the time of year, the type of room you wish, and how organised you are. While your preferences and date of booking can easily drive the price upward, a quick check online currently shows rates around the time of next year’s festival starting at 160 Euros. I recommend booking early if you don’t want to see 200 Euros as your entry point. As with many brands, you’ll find that acquiring a membership can generate room upgrades where available.
This hotel and its team may be young, but they’re already racking up the awards and award nominations. The hotel has been included in both Condé Nast Traveller’s and Fodors’ Hot Lists, and is a repeat Trip Advisor Travellers’ Choice winner in 2014, in the luxury and romance categories. These are only a sampling of distinctions already achieved.
WOULD WE STAY THERE AGAIN?
Absolutely. While I enjoy shopping, circumstances were such that there’s much of Porto we’ve yet to explore, and I can’t wait to return to this city, and hotel.
FESTIVAL TIME – BECAUSE A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS …
Perspectives are entirely those of the Exceptional EA, who stayed at this memorable hotel in June 2014.
You may also be interested in …
Shelagh’s Lens travel photography
(Almost) Everything You Wanted to Know About Travel Planning (exceptionalea.com)
Travel Apps for Exceptional Assistants (exceptionalea.com)