I haven’t fallen so deeply in love with a place since the day I spent on Lake Como, wandering the empty town of Varenna. Even the rain, still not having let up since our arrival in Lisbon four days earlier, didn’t dampen my rampant amor for Portugual’s second city: Porto. It was crazy, ridiculous, a shot to the heart. The place for me.
We came into Porto speeding around its outer edge by train. From the window, through racing rain droplets, my first view of the city was a grand river and an even grander bridge, struggling to hold together two jungle-infested masses of construction. The city we were rolling into at an incredible speed seemed carved into haphazard shapes from corrugated iron, wet tile and deep grey concrete. It was sprinkled red and green and blue and yellow, but the rain, the endless wet spell, had merged the colours and shapes into a heady mass, almost too much to take in all at once. It was only when we had finished navigating a strangely intimidating and impersonal metro system to arrive at our rented room, did we begin to take in the city. And embrace the drenching we had received getting there.
Bonica and I had arrived just in time. We put our bags down on the day that the city had introduced a tourist tax, an extra couple of Euros on top of accommodation costs to counteract the damage caused by unfettered arrival of selfie sticks and English-language menus. Seems like a good idea, huh? I like it, at least. I like it all the more because we narrowly escaped the hit to our pockets. What a miser I’ve turned into, hey?
The gradual pushing out of locals from the city centre is beginning to occur in Porto, though it is already well under way in Lisbon. Sure, the damage isn’t quite the same, Porto still feeling like a charming little collection of towns connected by an impressive bridge instead of a Starbucks-Airspace-sanitary-for-your-enjoyment capital, but the tides of change are rolling into the riverbank. I just pray that the toll isn’t too great …
… Because the spirit of Porto is precious. There’s just something about the damp and rusting buildings, the overgrown riverside jungles and winding, hillside streets running to the river. The city lives and breathes, restricting its cold collection of tourist spots to a single, central area. The rest of the city feels bright and real, and the people within it even more so.
It’s said that Portugal’s north is generally more hospitable than its south, for whatever reason that might be (probably bias, let’s be honest). I can tell you from my extensive research, though, that this actually seems to hold up. From the moment we arrived, we were greeted with honest smiles and stories. Our host even laid out the city for us and gave us a tour through Porto’s contemporary history. Apparently, it is nothing like it once was. Where only a decade ago it would have been hard to find a place to get a beer in the evening, now it is a thriving city with streets full of galleries and cafes. Something the Portuguese are doing is working, and working well.
Later in our far-too-brief stay in Porto, we arrived at the Rua de Miguel Bombarda, something of a hot-spot for small, white-cube galleries and creative spaces. The street of Helvetica-fronted businesses probably would have felt intimidating, pretentious in any other city, but in Porto there is warmth even in white walls. At Ó! Galeria we got chatting about the job prospects (not great) and creative vibes (optimal) of Porto with the abiding co-owner. Without the expectation of purchase, he guided us through the area’s sites and sounds, answered our questions and smiled us away. Just down the road we entered a wild gallery by the name of Cruzes Canhoto, and there bared our souls to the teary-eyed and passionate Brazilian owner. It’s strange to feel such genuine connection to strangers, to be able to walk into a shop or gallery and discuss life, aspirations, fears. That’s Porto, for you!
And the galleries themselves are nothing to sniff at. Cruzes Canhoto, for example, displays a collection of almost naïve, tribal-inspired sculptures from artists on the boundaries. It is eclectic, alive with romantic, natural brutality. Ó! is a colourful, immediately enchanting place that seems like it could have been taken straight out of Melbourne.
The main contemporary art gallery of the city Museu Serralves, offers free entrance on Sunday morning. Of course, we took that up, enjoying the little excursion out to the outskirts of the city perhaps more than the works in the gallery themselves. I did end up filling a notepad with words relating to now ever present cameras and our relation to art through them. Seeing tourists blindly ignoring the “do not cross” lines in front of large artworks just to use them as a backdrop for their new profile picture made my blood rise. I had to be a good hipster and simply sit for a while, giving my attention to the work (with my phone firmly in my pocket) because I felt it needed a bit more attention, a bit more energy from eyes and affection.
It’s my theory that our early suspicions were right. Photos suck the life out of things. Only our loving attention and appreciation can refill them.
Never-the-less, I took a shit-tonne of photos.
The place in which I had to take the most photos, the place I had to save the most memories, was the Bolhão Market. We arrived to the open air market, to its colours, smells and grime, completely unexpectedly, and to find a world of honest, local commerce buzzing in the heart of a globalised word was heartwarming and fulfilling. We stayed for a while, soaking up the rare atmosphere and old-timey vibes, and to watch a family of cats sneaking around for food under the grand staircase.
The Market was one example of the realness that I have come to associate with Porto. It’s not dressed up, not sanitised, it just is, much like the jungle-lined neighbourhood of twisting alleyways and half-fallen shanty houses that exist near the Dom Luís I Bridge. Here, we stood transfixed on our second night, not even thinking about how our socks were soaked and umbrella buckling. Behind the shamble of house and green there was a sunset that painted the whole city a delicious gold. Seagulls floated like a feathered and squawking cloud around the treetops and rickety buildings. The whole scene was romantic, unbelievable, almost painterly. The photos (that I couldn’t resist taking) do not justice to the real experience. I can still smell that rain. I can still feel the wind on my cheeks.
And here is where I mention the sandwich. The francesinha is a truly ungodly, beautiful, sinful thing. Layers of meat, bread, melted cheese, egg and a beer, tomato and chilli sauce all combine to make, probably, the most unhealthy regional food ever. Though I have only tried the vegetarian options (with delectably tender tofu and eggplant), I can see why the francesinha has the reputation it does. If you ever do get to Porto, screw the sunsets, screw the cosy, colourful city centre. Find yourself a francesinha, stat.
One of the reasons Bonica and I were even in Portugal in the first place was to close a personal chapter. Like I had by revisiting Mannheim in 2017, Bonica had the chance to revisit her old university city: Braga, a cosy place just a short hop from Porto. Her university, I discovered, looked out over fields of grazing cattle and a small, green hill, and was just up the road from a world-class shopping mall. Quite different to my industrial riverbanks and tiny Netto across the street in Mannheim. Either way, to be able to return to the places that made us who we are… that’s something important. A rare privilege to be cherished. But it’s also equally valid to refuse the return. Sometimes its better to leave the past in the past.
Perhaps as a final hurrah for our trip, the clouds opened up on our day trip to Braga. Instead of drudging under pouring rain, we walked the thousand steps towards Bom Jesus do Monte under speckled green sunlight. We walked through a world of moss and mysticism, in which we had visions of fairies and magical gates. The rain had left a shimmer on the world, seemingly just for us. We explored the beautiful hillside temple at the slowest pace we could muster, enjoying every step and then relishing the view from the hill.
We left Porto before the sun had even been able to scrabble over the horizon on the final day, chased by the risk of missing our early, budget flight to Valencia. With the adrenaline of an early morning rush pumping through my veins and sending flashbacks of Mannheim-based adventures rushing through my mind, we arrived at Porto’s airport and began the hard goodbye. I said “see you”, for now, to seagulls, to a city with a me-shaped hole in it, to layers of green and brick, to explosive sunsets, to art-deco masterpieces, to amicable galleries and bright artsy spaces … I said goodbye to Porto, sad to know that I wouldn’t be moving in any time soon, but smiling to know that I had gotten to experience it before the inevitable tourism explosion completely wipes it clean.
Porto is a city with heart, small enough to be personable, large enough to draw in the world. It’s galleries, design shops, modernist monuments, honest taverns, azulejo churches and unruly gardens make it a must see, must cherish location. At least, for now, I’m going to keep dreaming about my little future flat, lit up all golden from inside, among the spires and hard lines of the rain-darkened city centre. Thanks for the dreams, Porto.