There can’t be many railway stations in the world which double up as an art gallery or museum, but São Bento station in the centre of Porto is one, due to the azulejos (decorative tiles) that cover the walls of the entrance hall. As a result there are as many tourists in the station looking at the tiles as there are people waiting to catch a train.
The station was designed by the architect José Marques da Silva and built on the site of the former São Bento de Avé Maria convent between 1900 and 1916. The beaux-arts-style exterior is impressive, with two clock towers and large arched windows, and looks particularly attractive after dark when it is floodlit. However, the real attractions are the panels of azulejos inside the station which depict scenes of rural and urban social history and episodes from Portuguese history. They were painted around the time the station was built by Jorge Colaço, who was one of the main azulejos painters in the early-twentieth century. As you enter the station the panels directly in front of you depict images of rural life, including olive picking, an ox and cart crossing a stream, haymaking and a water mill. To the left is a religious procession and to the right a scene of merrymaking. Along the top of the walls are panels of coloured tiles showing the arrival of the railway in a rural idyll.
In the early-20th century large-scale depictions of historical scenes depicted in azulejos were very popular and São Bento station is one of the best examples of this. On the wall to the left are two large panels showing two important historical moments: Egas Moniz presenting himself to the King of León in c.1128 and the Battle of Arcos de Valdevez in c.1140/41. On the wall to the right are two more important scenes from Portuguese history: King João I and Philippa of Lancaster entering Porto to celebrate their marriage in 1387 and Infante Henrique at the conquest of Ceuta in 1415.
Egas Moniz presents himself with his wife and sons to the King of León
At the beginning of the 12th century Portugal was under the rule of Alfonso VII of León and Castile. In 1127 he surrounded the castle in Guimarães where his cousin, Afonso Henrique, was making separatist attempts. Afonso Henrique refused to surrender and Egas Moniz negotiated with Alfonso VII on his behalf, acting as guarantor that Afonso Henrique would be obedient to his cousin. But Afonso Henrique didn’t keep his word and invaded Galicia in 1128, so Egas Moniz went to Toledo with his family and offered to die for Afonso Henrique breaking his promise. Alfonso VII was impressed by this honourable act and spared his life. In the azulejos we can see the rope tied in a noose that Moniz is offering to the king.
The Battle of Arcos de Valdevez
This battle saw the armies of Afonso Henrique and Alfonso VII fighting on this strategic area between Portugal and Galicia. As depicted in the azulejos, the fighting was done by knights on horseback. Afonso Henrique was the victor and an armistice was signed which later became the Treaty of Zamore (1143), which recognized Portuguese independence and Afonso Henrique as King Afonso I of Portugal.
The entrance of King João I into Porto to celebrate his marriage to Phillipa of Lancaster
Philippa of Lancaster was the daughter of John of Gaunt, cousin of King Richard II of England and sister of Henry IV of England and her marriage to João I was important in that it sealed the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance against the Franco-Castilian axis and prevented a potential challenge to João’s reign. The couple were blessed in Porto Cathedral before their wedding in 1387.
Infante Henrique at the conquest of Ceuta
Ceuta was a strategic port located in North Africa and was the terminus of the trade routes from the Sahara. In 1415 João I and his sons, including Henrique (later known as Henry the Navigator), made a surprise attack on Ceuta against the ruling Marinid dynasty. The battle was very short-lived, as the town was captured within hours.
São Bento station, Praça Almeida Garrett, Porto (nearest metro station: São Bento)
Train lines: Minho, Douro, Braga, Guimarães, Caíde/Marco de Canaveses and Aveiro lines