Era um vez no Porto

This guide to the Porto metro system for the colour-blind (which may only add to their perplexion) provoked a conversation about colour-blindness, and how colours don’t actually exist. Dogs can’t see red or green because they’re not actually there. The eye projects them onto whatever it sees, to help us digest and make sense of the world around us. Our brains crack open the pack of Crayola and diligently apply red to a rose, blue to a summer sky, Marseille to a suspect whiff in a dockside alleyway, Verona to a waiter who has little English but gets everyone through by playing the role of a bumbling footman from a comedia dell’arte, Amsterdam to the scent of someone’s fat joint in a backstreet bar, Brighton to a snooze curtailed by a cacophony of seagulls…

I arrived in Porto with the city a blank canvas to me. The few associations it carried were the eponymous drink we imbibed during the ‘young fogey’ phase at university, a football team that “punch above their weight” (©sportingcliches), and a very vague sense of the place as one of those Second Cities that break out from the shadow of an illustrious capital by defining themselves against that capital and being entrepenurial, forward-looking, better at football, and proud.
My mind quickly started to fill in this blank canvas, seeing Porto as a kaleidoscope of deja-vus, each sight a fragment from a places I’d visited, or felt like I had after too much time on Street View. It’s a bustling and licentious port city, a bit of rough that dolls itself up for the evening. But it’s not like a Hansa city. The superstitions of the Catholic church are present at every turn, facades delivering shrill stone baroque like southern Italy. Towards the river, the sticky Ribeira area is all vertiginously steep flights of steps. It feels like an industrial city trying to impersonate the Cinque Terre, and getting it in the most part wrong.
The dereliction and poverty was a surprise. Even in the very centre, much of the housing was shanty-town stuff. Buildings have added stories cobbled together from sheets of corrugated iron and planks, piled up high like a Jewish ghetto in an Italian centro storico. Not what one expects at the heart of a popular destination in Western Europe.
The guidebook sends us down Rua das Flores, back in the day the exclusive shopping street that housed the city’s jewellers and goldsmiths. There are traces of this, but large stretches of the street are boarded up.
They do seem to be doing the place up, albeit one building at a time, but when you consider how immaculately the likes of Tallinn or Assisi keep their old towns Porto is playing catch-up.
The best of the city tends to turn its back on its river, as Vienna and Glasgow do theirs. Perhaps the river was traditionally the site of industry and dirty work; one feels that only in the Easyjet age have they belatedly come to realise what an asset they have in the Douro.
I reread Tabucchi’s Sostiene Pereira on the trip, which reveals a Francophile strain to the Portuguese as its characters head to that beacon of liberty in the age of fascism. Away from the river, as in Lisbon many of the most opulent, if not the most charming, buildings are situated on a wide Avenida which, like Andrassy Ut in Pest, is a definite nod to Champs-Elysées (the contrasting images below, a few paces apart, show how this strain coexists with that of Mussophile Salazarism).
We think of Portugal as a peripheral country these days, and forget how vast its empire was (its territories are today split between 34 countries), and the crucial part it played in world history. Lisbon is very much the seat of empire, and reclines stately on its throne like an exiled monarch sipping vintage port on an Estoril terrace. In Porto, the history is there alright, but what is new gives one the mad hope that its best days might be ahead of it.
2005’s Casa da Musica is entirely modern & and entirely graceful with it. A concrete cathedral rests on high dunes of smooth stone, the use of light in its interior entirely uplifting; leagues ahead of the “bare concrete + primary colours” we are usually served up in new architecture. The Serralves Museum is said to be better still, sadly we missed the bus stop. You get in via the park entrance, the “museum” stop three stops later offers ingress to motorists only.
These showpieces are in the suburbs, out in the direction of Boavista. Here, everything is more groomed, spacious, and generally a bit better-heeled than the Ribeira.
Jonathan Meades berates the UK & the US for being the only places where “inner city” has negative connotations, blaming our addiction to sprawl and inability to share space in apartment blocks, but the inner city is a relative pauper here too. If you go further still, to the beaches of Foz at the mouth of the river and along the Atlantic coast, it becomes even more pronounced.
The waterfront flats are dreadful, but the streets behind it leafy, tranquil and almost Californian. A swanky restaurant whose wine list came on an iPad did us a very cheap lunch menu with champagne on the house, and this art deco garage is straight out of a Jacques Demy musical.
Back in town, the river at night is set up for mass tourism. Smiling waiters compete to charm you into their fish restaurants, the bars on the front are much of a muchness -the cool ones are all past the Tower of Clerics, near the university- and buskers, beggars, vendors of €1 tablecloths all have their patch marked out. But it doesn’t half look good.
The ’emerging’ cities on the cheap flights roster, which have for now been less ravaged by tourism, give a less slick experience. However, a traveller can hunger for the less slick after the McDrivethru experience of a Sistine Chapel. Non-Anglophone locals seem keen to help in Porto. One old man insisted on operating the Metro ticket machine for us. My mangled naobrigado was of no use as he tried to buy us the wrong number of wrong tickets for the wrong zones, my heart sank as he broke up our big note with his own notes and theatrically rubbed the coin edges before inserting them. As I awaited the outstretched palm and the bill for his service, he just walked off. At other times, the novelty of tourist hordes can cause tension.
Lello is a fairly small bookshop, and one of Porto’s most famous spots on account of its art nouveau interior. Bookshops have a torrid battle on their hands to keep their function as it is, and us daytrippers are unlikely to buy literature in Portuguese. Their compromise is to advertise that they permit photography between 9-10am. On the morning we visit, they are closed until 10am for repairs; farce ensues as the doors open and each corner of the shop is manned by staff, watching us like hawks and barking if anyone surreptitiously whips out a camera.
As for those baroque churches, we didn’t visit so many. The twin churches of Carmo & Carmelitas stick in the memory; their baroque is more over-the-top than a Bonnie Tyler video. After the sobriety of Gothic and restraint of the Renaissance, this treatment is like a successful band who decided to fuel their third album with prodigious amounts of cocaine.
Below may look like I’ve simply swiped a photo of a £250pw Newham shed-with-bed from Rightmove, but in fact this 1m-wide house was placed between the two churches, to stop the monks and nuns from having sex, and remained inhabited until the late ’80s (so says the guidebook; it’s a good yarn and everyone goes home happy).
In contrast to such glitter and gold, Porto’s main Cathedral -on one of the city’s main summits- is mercifully bare.
If a cathedral is the city advertising itself and telling us its story, perhaps the true cathedral is Sao Bento station. The exterior is more Parisiana, but the things to see are the interior azuleitos depicting Portgual’s history.
I’d been briefed on these white-and-blue tiles and expected dainty, diminutive things, like Delft cherubs. These tiles are more like graphic novels avant la lettre, and the mythical film-sets make a splendid backdrop to one’s arrival or departure.

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