An important maritime port and commercial town, Porto was one of the cities where Jews settled in Portugal. The history of the Jewish community of the capital of the northern region is inseparable from the history of the Hebrew presence in Portugal. In the Douro region there are also villages, cities and small towns where important Jewish communities once lived. Take three days from your holidays to discover a heritage filled with memories recalling a community that settled in this country between the 5th and 15th centuries.
The Sephardic Jews contributed in different ways to the Portuguese culture during that period, and Porto and Douro were not indifferent to such an influence, especially because Lamego was one of the two major existing Jewish communities between the rivers Douro and Tejo.
Protected by the monarchy, the Jews – philosophers, humanists, scientists and merchants – were decisive in several important moments of Portuguese history, namely for their financial and scientific contributions during the Discoveries.
The Jews worshipped in secret even after the Portuguese kings ordered their deportation from the country, following the events in Spain in 1496. While it is true that some Jews converted to Catholicism, becoming New-Christians and that many left the country, many others stayed and kept their faith in secret.
From those days, symbolic features and engravings can still be seen in the old Jewish quarters. Pay attention to the Mezuzot carved on the buildings’ stone door frames. These tubular boxes made of wood, glass or metal are a symbol of the Jewish faith and greatly respected. Note also the names of streets indicating the existence of a Jewish community, for e.g., Rua Nova, Rua Direita, Rua da Estrela or Rua Espinosa.
The various Jewish quarters in Porto
Discover the Jewish Porto and walk along the streets where a community was born and developed, a community that is supposed to have appeared just before the foundation of Portugal. The Jewish quarter of the city was situated deep in the heart of the village, which, in the 12th century, was located near the Cathedral, in the area that is today defined by the ruins of the Convent of Monchique, by the Torre dos Clérigos, Sé, Alfândega do Porto and the square and tunnel of Ribeira – and where some Jewish altars still survive in private estates.
In a single day, you will be able to see all these sites and still visit some iconic monuments in the city.
Porto’s first synagogue stood in what is today known as Rua de Santana and, as the city developed, the Jewish community spread towards the river. Walk along that route and go to Praça da Ribeira and its adjacent streets where, in those days, the important Jews lived: physicists, goldsmiths, great merchants. If you need to regain your strength, relax at one of the esplanades facing the river and see the D. Luís I Bridge and the landscape of the warehouses and Port wine cellars on the south bank of the Douro River.
Walk towards the area of Palácio da Bolsa and the old Mercado Ferreira Borges. This is where another Jewish quarter once stood, with a synagogue in its centre, in what is today known as Rua do Comércio do Porto.
Walk towards Miragaia and walk around the area of Monchique, where, in the 14th century, a synagogue was built. The Carmo Archaeological Museum, in Lisbon, has a beautiful engraving from this synagogue. On some door frames, you will find Christian crosses that Jews used to carve on the stone walls of their houses to know that New-Christians lived there.
If you follow the path towards the old Cadeia da Relação –housing today the Portuguese Centre of Photography – you will walk by the place where the new Jewish quarter or Olival once stood, an area delimited today by Rua de S. Bento da Vitória, Escadas da Vitória and Rua de Belomonte. Visit the Mosteiro de S. Bento da Vitória, built on the lands of the old Jewish quarter, and stop by the Miradouro do Largo da Bateria da Vitória to enjoy the view of the houses and the Douro River.
In the Boavista area, the hub of Jewish life in the 17th and 18th centuries, visitors can see the Kadoorie synagogue, a Jewish temple built between 1929 and 1937. Also known as Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue (“Spring of Life”), the current headquarters of Porto Israeli Community is the largest synagogue in the Iberian Peninsula.
Return to the historical centre of the city and stay at the Carris Porto Ribeira Hotel, a 4 star hotel occupying part of a set of five buildings that go back to Roman times and the Middle Ages, and is listed as World Heritage by UNESCO. Nearby, you can still find the 4-star Pestana Porto hotel, offering a breathtaking view over the Douro River.
Jews in the Douro region
In the morning, head towards the Douro region, where you must visit Lamego, a place where the Jews first lived in the 14th century, the area between the castle, and the church of Santa Maria de Almacave. In the following century, there were already two Jewish quarters in the city: the old Jewish quarter, near Porta do Sol, and the new Jewish quarter, in the current Rua Nova.
Despite the religious importance of Lamego, in 1436 more than 400 Jewish lived in these two areas. In Rua Nova, see the typical granite Gothic arch, now with a Christian engraving, suggesting the location of the old synagogue.
In the city, the Lamego Hotel is a good accommodation choice. Built in an old farm, still preserving a 1926 small palace, it is the ideal place to pleasantly enjoy the comfort, tranquillity, history and tastes of Alto Douro Vinhateiro.
Outside Lamego, in the region known for its Port wine and the Douro DOC (Controlled Denomination of Origin) wines, the most significant Jewish centres in the past were Torre de Moncorvo, Vila Flor, Freixo de Espada à Cinta, Vila Real and S. João da Pesqueira.
In Freixo de Espada à Cinta see the many Manueline doors and windows in this northern border village.
In Vila Nova de Foz Côa, walk around the Jewish quarters by the castle and visit the chapel of Santa Quitéria, which has replaced the old synagogue in Rua do Castelo.
In Freixo de Numão, a village where the Jewish population greatly increased after the Jews were expelled from Spain, see the Casa Judaica, a typical construction of the time. It is located near the Largo do Pelourinho.
How to get there
There are flights to Porto, low cost , for example, London (Stansted and Gatwick), Paris (Beauvais, Orly and Charles de Gaulle Vatry), Marseille, Lille, Tours, St. Etienne, Bologna, Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulouse, Madrid, Barcelona El Prat , Tenerife, Valencia, Venice and Palma de Mallorca.
In the summer there are low cost companies flying from Liverpool, Las Palmas, Carcassonne, Rodez and Nantes
With normal fares from London - Gatwick, Madrid, Barcelona and Paris - Orly.
The best way to reach the center of Porto from the International Airport Francisco Sá Carneiro is by metro. The trip takes about 30 minutes.