Porto screams at you with its accidental, aged beauty. From that first climb up from Estação São Bento—the central underground station—you feel it: you feel a difference in the metabolism of this place; this city exists quite outside of time, or time as you know it.
“The most ingenious architect could not create the beauty that nature, when left to her own devices, is capable of moulding.”
The most ingenious architect could not create the beauty that nature, when left to her own devices, is capable of moulding. It is the untamed—in many parts deteriorating architecture—together with the older generation dedicating their days to old traditions, that infuses downtown Porto with nostalgia, this other metabolism.
As the Atlantic Ocean forever washes the coast, here in Porto you are taken back to a place you had once known in a book or a movie that speaks of long spontaneous, romantic days. Porto is everything but the monotonous uniformity that is often the foundation of modern cities. Here, you climb along alleyways and each apartment block is dressed in its own tiles. Tightly pressed against one another, the faces of the blocks form a tapestry of reds against blues against browns against yellows against dark-greens. You climb and descend and curve according to the alley upon which you have turned. You could walk forever as curiosity leads the way—with each house bringing new colours and patterns.
As you walk along cobblestones on the sunny side of the alley, above you, three floors up, an old woman watches over a balustrade of rusty metal coils. On the floor above her, long square white sheets, underpants, t-shirts and wrinkly jeans hang from a washing line. You walk on and you run into another old lady, older still, with long grey hair gathered up tightly in a bun. She’s wrapped in a weathered apron sweeping the door step. Surrounded by alley cats, she smiles, says “ola,” and you smile back. These cats do not follow you, but everywhere you go you see them; they belong to the city.
At the end of this street you arrive at the face of a Gothic church with cement pillars and angels and other ornaments made of curvy lavish shapes, and across the walls, tiles with blue sketches tell stories from the country’s past. You turn left onto steeply descending steps. Plants swallow the crumbling houses on either side, wedging themselves between cracks, nestled along gutters, sprouting from the orange roof tiles. As the steps end, you discover workshops and shops filled with stacks of dusty shoes waiting to be put back together by the hunched and patient cobblers. There are kiosks, offering only the most modest staples: oranges, bananas, carrots, detergent, tissues, canned sardines, canned corn.
“The old bars cannot be found with the help of fancy signs, but by the senior locals who perch on faded-red plastic chairs outside of them, sucking in cigars.”
In the oldest parts of downtown Porto, on the northern bank of the Douro River, you find local bars. The old bars cannot be found with the help of fancy signs, but by the senior locals who perch on faded-red plastic chairs outside of them, sucking in cigars. It is in these old bars where the secrets of traditional kitchens exist: recipes that are simple and delicious and have survived generations. Sitting at a table dressed in a loudly coloured plastic cloth, you feel as comfortable as you do in your grandparents’ kitchen; there are no hurried waiters or overwritten menus, but instead an older lady tells you the menu of the day in a hardy voice, and a man fills your glass with zesty white local wine. You sit and wait, spoiled by warm hospitality, grazing on bread. The lady comes over and places a pan full of boiled potatoes, the size of clenched fists, deep in a hearty sauce with parsley and thick square fillets of baked cod.
“There are spots of grey church towers that reach up to kiss the sky, silhouettes of dark crosses, long palm-trees towering over roofs, and whether you see them or not, there is the incessant confident chatter between large yellow-legged gulls.”
When you are entangled in alleyways you don’t realise that Porto is made up of layers much like the tiers of a cake. Each tier is full of houses and churches and shops and bars, all joined together by steep alleyways and streets and stairs. You stand and you look ahead and you see houses, and above and behind these houses, more houses peep out and behind and above those other houses. And all of these houses are made up of different colours, distinct sized roofs of various shades of red and orange, and varying amounts of rectangular windows across their faces. There are spots of grey church towers that reach up to kiss the sky, silhouettes of dark crosses, long palm-trees towering over roofs, and whether you see them or not, there is the incessant confident chatter between large yellow-legged gulls.
You walk past what looks like a cafe or shop front and peer behind white lace curtains: inside, people sit around a handful of wooden tables. You enter to find not only a cafe, but a cultural association. This is where people gather and indulge in pastimes such as crochet, Fado performances, ping pong or whatever else its members and interested strangers decide to do. You chat with the owners: two young girls who potter about the space all day making coffee and tea and tarts and muffins, and you learn that Porto is not completely hypnotised by nostalgia. There are many young and innovative citizens who, while remaining sensitive to old traditions, are adding new stories to the bones that make up this city. Making the most of Porto’s distinct architecture, many spaces merge the old and new: fresh, open, inviting spaces cleverly sculpted within the irreproducible brick of century-old buildings.
You spend the night along a grassy river bank with friends and you are so happy that you will not be leaving this place anytime soon. You sit and listen to the playful notes of the Portuguese language around you. It is dark, but the river reflects the surroundings lights and the moon, and seagulls screech from above. Tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, you will feel your way around the city by getting lost and then un-lost. And, if you dare to surrender to your imagination, as you let the maze of alleys and streets lead you, you will be taken back to that landscape of some sort of forgotten, old world. And even if just for a bit, you will be part of it.