The city of Porto, or Oporto if you’re British, is the second largest in Portugal and one of the oldest cities in Europe. The main, touristy area, however is quite small and easily walkable… if you like hills. This seems to be a common refrain in Portugal, so any future visitors should be prepared!
The historic centre of Porto is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its architectural and historical significance. The area has been inhabited since at least 400 BC though the history of the city really dates to the 4th century when the area was occupied by the Romans. When I walked through the historic centre, however, I couldn’t help but notice how many of the buildings seemed to be abandoned and in danger of collapse. There were a few where only the facade seemed to be intact – I could peek through holes in the boarded up doors to see open courtyards where there used to be a house. Detroit is a well known centre for “ruin porn” photographs and I think that Porto could be the next big stop for this style of photography if the decay continues.
It honestly feels as though you’re stepping back in time, especially as you walk through the narrow streets. It doesn’t appear as though the 1755 earthquake led to much damage in Porto because the streets seem to follow absolutely no pattern, unlike the rebuilt areas of Lisbon. There are all sorts of staircases tucked away, but we were told on a walking tour that Porto residents only use stairs to walk down since it’s too strenuous to walk up. The stairs were really uneven and one had to be quite careful walking down – a few of us commented on how this would be the worst place ever to film an action movie chase sequence.
I arrived into Porto via train on June 25th, a day that was quite literally the “morning after.” Much like Quebec, Porto celebrates the feast day of St. Jean (or São João or Saint John) through raucous parties that include much public intoxication, lots of sardines and the hitting of random strangers on the head with small plastic hammers. The reception worker at my hostel was befuddled and confused, assigning me an already occupied bed, and when the attendant came upstairs to fix it he informed me that he was still drunk in the morning when he changed the sheets. At least he was honest.
Wandering through the city, on the quest for a highly recommended sandwich, I ran into a girl that I had met in Lagos. She was staying with a friend from her study abroad program, but I told her about the free walking tour I was doing in the morning and she said she would e-mail me for details later that night. I didn’t get her e-mail until the early morning so I sent her back a message, assuming that she wouldn’t be able to make it. Much to my surprise, she walked up just as the tour was starting!
I did the free walking tour suggested by my hostel. They were supposed to do a pick up at the hostel, but it never materialized and when the receptionist called the company they were told that they didn’t have enough staff to do a pick-up and that I should make my way to the meeting point. This happened again The walking tour guide told us a lot about the city and dragged us up and down the hills, bringing us to many of the top sights. I didn’t realize that the area across the river, which housed the port wine cellars, was actually a different city named Vila Nova de Gaia. We stayed on the Porto side of the river during the tour but walked out over the subway bridge – this is much safer than it sounds – to take in the view of the Douro River and the two cities. Port wine was, historically, brought down the river on barcos ribelos (small boats) and although these boats have been replaced by much faster and safer trucks, they still exist on the river for tourist cruises and photos.
There is a little bit of recent literary history in the city as J.K. Rowling actually lived in Porto, working as an English teacher before writing the Harry Potter series and many elements in that first book are said to be inspired by her time in Portugal. University students in the area wear black capes (seriously), that denote their status as students and their role in the class hierarchy. Apparently this city also has parties and festivals for students that celebrate… being a student. We also walked by the Libreria Lello (and popped inside), to see a beautiful bookstore with a winding staircase and tall shelves. The ceilings appear to be made of wood, but apparently they are actually just painted plaster… something that I’m sure helps the fire insurance bills.
The high number of students helps to add a bit of vibrancy to the city. There are lots of of small shops, craft markets and cafés appealing to the students and there seems to be an active artistic community. As I previously noted, buying local seems to be incredibly important to the Portuguese and Porto was no exception. There was a lot of graffiti on the buildings and our walking tour guide told us about some of the artists that had been active in Porto, including someone who painted hundreds of paper cranes on buildings. The picture above shows another prolific street artist who only paints on places where there should be something else. Basically, he paints over walled up doors, boarded up windows, etc.
Porto residents are very proud of their food, although they known in the rest of Portugal as “tripe eaters.” I did not partake in that particular dish, but I did have some cod – of course – and a pork sandwich with mountain cheese, whatever that is, that came highly recommended. It was delicious and the small snack bar that served it was bustling with both locals and tourists. There was nowhere to sit inside, but the patio attendant was quick to set up more tables and chairs as people headed outside with their food.
Another specialty of Porto is the sandwich known as the francesinha, which apparently translates to “little French girl.” According to our guide it started life as a crôque monsieur and then someone wondered what would happen if they added as many different meats as possible, including sausages, a lot more cheese and then covered it in a special sauce made with a laundry list of ingredients including beer.
I ordered this monstrosity at a restaurant after the walking tour, knowing that I would eventually have to try it. My first thought, when I tried the sauce? Zoodles. It tasted like the slighty salty, mildly tangy sauce that you would get from a can of Zoodles. This definitely wasn’t a sandwich designed to appeal to refined palates – which I’m not saying that I have – but it also gave me a new use for canned pasta. I will have to double check the Zoodles ingredient list when I get home to see if they have managed to sneak in beer.
On my last full day in Porto, a Saturday, I went to the Bolhao Market to see what was on offer. This is technically an open-air market as there is no ceiling on the century old building, with stalls on the first floor and a few along part of the balcony above. There was a plan, several years ago, for the market to be torn down and replaced with yet another shopping mall but the people of Porto protested, stating that they had more than enough shopping malls. The debate raged for years and the plan was eventually shelved, but market supporters continue to live in fear.
There were a lot of empty stalls and abandoned booths, including one that had a faded sticker proudly proclaiming that they accepted the euro. I’m not surprised that the property caught the eye of a developer, especially since the building is under-utilized in its present state. I can’t say with certainty that the market will exist in 10 years, but its appearance and the feeling of decline and decay definitely fits in with its surroundings.
Porto also has several working trams so I shelled out €2.50 each way to take the tram towards the seaside. This price was higher than Lisbon (which was only €1.40) since the trams are marketed towards tourists and run through either the old city or between the old city and the shore, along the banks of the Douro River. I’m under the impression that you can use your transit pass, if you have one, but I’m not sure if that results in a reduced fare or not as there is a bus which follows the same route, presumably for the locals.
The end of the tram line contains a beautiful little park, a view of the mouth of Douro River and even some mini-golf. There was supposed to be a supermarket nearby where one could buy a picnic lunch, but the store was closed and I couldn’t find a sign showing its hours. I just wandered around the park, watched some people fishing and then headed back on the tram an hour or so later. I could have walked for a while to end up at the beach, but I wasn’t feeling overly inspired and the weather was still quite chilly.
I found Porto to be a charming city, and quite beautiful through its decay and dilapidation. It had more life than a city that also felt on the verge of ruin, like Venice, but I can’t help but wonder how much more vibrant the city would have been if people remained in the central core. Google has told me that over 100,000 people have left the centre of the city since the 1980s although the population in the suburbs and outskirts of the city seem to be growing. I suspect that restoring and maintaining an old house in a UNESCO World Heritage designated area could be an extremely costly proposition and one that few people would want to take on. The minimum wage in Portugal, by the way, is only about €490 per month.
I suspect that Porto will see quite a few changes over the next decade and I hope that the city changes for the better. Encouraging young people to stay in the core, for example, could help bring some vitality back to the historic centre and hopefully help with the restoration and preservation of its buildings. It may be “too little, too late” but it would be nice to see the trend reversed!