Postcard from Porto: Following the compass into the Old World

The timeline of recorded history takes on such added depth in Europe, and nothing reminds you of your own new-worldliness faster than the ancient stone walls of a towering cathedral, perched high on a hilltop and guarded by a giant knight renowned for his service battling the Moors.

The first of the Romanesque walls of the Cathedral, or Se, of Porto, Portugal, were erected in 1110. Of course, centuries of alterations and additions transformed the original design by contributing Gothic and Baroque details, many with layers of gilding gleaned from expeditions to the New World.

Following King John I’s 1387 marriage to Princess Philippa of Lancaster, he began construction of the adjoining Gothic cloister. The distinctive blue tile murals, azulejos, chronicle everything from the life of the Virgin Mary to the flirtatious ways of courtesans.

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Encouraged by the French, Spanish soldiers briefly seized control of the Cathedral in 1801 during the War of the Oranges, one of a long list of reasons for long-term hard feelings lingering between the Portuguese and the Spanish.

It is said a marble plaque installed by the altar afterwards contains magnetite to disrupt the compasses of invaders; the needle points not northward but to the altar of God.

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