I was labouring under a misapprehension. The name Palácio da Bolsa conjured up an image of a large regal residence set in suitably landscaped gardens; a Portuguese-style Versailles in the heart of Porto. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Palácio da Bolsa translates to mean Stock Exchange Palace and it was built in the mid-nineteenth century by the Porto Commercial Association, which comprised of the city’s merchants. Despite it’s functional nature the building has an impressive Neoclassical exterior and a confusing range of styles in the interior. It is clear to see that several architects were involved with the building at various times. Joaquim da Costa Lima Júnior designed the exterior of the building which was built on a site that was given to the Commercial Association by Queen Maria II.
The ground floor is dominated by the Nations Courtyard, a huge area in the centre of the building, which is now used as a restaurant. It is best seen from the first floor where you can see the coats of arms on the wall just below the glass-panelled dome. The coats of arms represent all the countries with whom Portugal had a commercial relationship. From the Nations Courtyard we were led by our guide up the Nobel Staircase, designed by Gustavo Gonçalves de Sousa, which brought us to the hallway of the first floor with its ornately decorated walls and ceiling. The lights hanging from the ceiling above the staircase are the original lights from when the building was first electrified. I have to confess that I wasn’t very impressed with the next few rooms we were led into. The Tribunal Room, a room used for upholding mercantile law, has panels on the walls and ceiling relating to the function of the room and which also make reference to the activities of the city, including the port wine trade. The General Assembly Room is an architectural joke, based on the illusion that the walls are made of wood, whereas they are actually made of a very realistic plaster imitation. The Gustave Eiffel Room is a room of no interest at all. It has two desks and chairs, a rug and a very old typewriter. Apparently Gustave Eiffel was at the Palácio da Bolsa at some point during his time in Porto, when he was designing the Dona Maria Bridge, built in 1877. We moved on swiftly from this room. The Portraits Room only holds interest if you are interested in looking at portraits of the kings and queens of Portugal, including the palace’s benefactor, Maria II. The room is decorated in the style of Louis XVI, giving the room a slightly regal appearance.
However, the disappointments of the previous rooms were forgotten once I walked through the door that led from the Portraits Room into the adjoining Arabian Room. It was by far the highlight of the tour and wisely the guide saved the best until last. The room is decorated in a neo-Moorish style. It was designed by Gonçalves de Sousa, inspired by the Alhambra Palace in Granada. On the walls are intricate patterns in gold and silver. There are pillars and arches with detailed designs in red, blue, green and gold; stained glass in the windows and doors; and Moorish lamps hanging from the ceiling. The floor is made of various types of exotic wood. The room is opulent and sensual and slightly out of keeping with the rest of the building. It is used as a reception room for important dignitaries who are visiting Porto.
I began my visit to the Palácio da Bolsa mistakenly expecting an impressive regal palace. The palace is definitely not that and it will teach me to do proper research before visiting a place. However, the Arabian Room made up for any disappointment I had with the rest of the palace and will stay in my mind for a long time after.
Palácio da Bolsa, Rua Ferreira Borges, Porto (nearest metro station: São Bento)
Open: April to October 9am-6.30pm daily; November to March 9.30am-12.30pm, 2pm-5pm daily
You have to have a guided tour, which must be booked in advance. I booked my tour half an hour before it was due to start, but during busy times it is wise to book it well in advance. Tours which last 45 minutes are available in English, Portuguese, Spanish or French and cost €8 per person (€4.50 for students and senior citizens) (as of 2016).