I visited Porto last September, my arrival coinciding with that of a rainfront which accompanied me for the duration. My accommodation, Sunny Balcony, Trindade, had an extensive, recessed balcony along the front wall giving me a good, sheltered panorama of the city in the rain from the fourth floor. Below my window was an overpass, taking the ring road below across a junction connecting to the city’s main street. It was busy, but cosy, there’s something soothing about the hiss of urban traffic in the rain. Visually too; the traffic forming into a sinuous illuminated snake. At ground level, the overpass provided shelter, and car parking. I passed under regularly between my accommodation and the restaurant across the road, and on to the city centre nearby.. The scene reminded me of an artwork I’d found many years ago in a calendar. The artwork, from the seventies perhaps, showed a similar underpass in an unnamed city, probably French or Belgian, the noirish nocturne suspended in a monochrome blast of chromium urban lighting. Porto was a calling for me to echo that painting.
In this acrylic I am using a different palette, with a more structured, geometric composition. I used a red ground, as the night is mild despite the rain, and the street lighting had a pinkish tinge. This is balanced against a cool grey for the city fabric with a dash of blue on the rainsoaked cobblestones. Of course, being me, it’s raining.
Why does it always rain on me?
Is it because I lied when I was seventeen?
Why does it always rain on me?
even when the sun is shining, I can’t avoid the lightning.
That song, by Scottish band,Travis, is taken from their 1999 album The Man Who. Lead singer, Fran Healy wrote it after a failed sun holiday in southern Israeli . Tell me about it. I have sometimes wondered if I could rent myself out to drought stricken regions as a rain god. Then again, there have been sunny days. Too many of them and you start missing the rain. So, let it fall, it washes the world and softens the sharpness of city life. And is often beautiful.
A major attraction in Porto is a visit to Vila Nova de Gaia, home of the Port Wine trade, established in the late 17th century. The wine was named, of course, for the city. Designated a wine region in 1756, it is the second oldest in the world, after Chianti. It’s a fortified wine, usually sweet and viscous, stronger than regular wine, being up to 20% alcohol. The most common Port is Ruby.
In 1678 Liverpool merchants first visited. War with France meant French wine was in short supply and Port filled the gap. British brand names such as Cockburns, Croft, Osborne and Sandeman proliferated. Brothers George and David Sandeman from Perth, in Scotland, founded their company in 1790. The distinctive logo features the Don, a somewhat sinister figure draped in a cape with a wide brimmed Iberian hat.
At Sandeman, where tours and a free exhibition hall are promised, the door is blocked by a liveried man, who, upon enquiry had two words: No Inglesi. Enquiring about the exhibition I get the same two words. No Inglesi! No Irish neither, and I didn’t stick around to ask about the dogs. Much as I love the personal touch, it might have been better to put up a sign. I took a stroll around the neighbourhood and came upon a nearby restaurant offering sampling trays. I thought I’d try this in the pleasant noon sunshine. Unfortunately, after a long rest on the terrace, service was not coming my way, and only the odd glimpse of waiters at a distant table hinted that it was there at all. Perhaps the life of the Port connoisseur is not for me.
The Gaia quayside leads me back beneath the Ponte Dom Luis I, and I take the bridge’s lower deck back to Ribiera. The Gaia side resounds to the all too frequent music of heavy construction and maintenance, the noise not much contained by plastic drapes. On the Porto side there is some lessening of the torture.
Immediately beside are the remains of Ponte Pensil, a suspension bridge built in 1843 but dismantled for the construction of the Dom Luis I. The supporting posts remain and the riverside plinth now functions as a bar. As clouds rolled in and the din softened with distance, I decided to try it out. The terrace is the perfect place to watch the constant river traffic, and well sheltered from the spectacular cloudburst that follows, thunder forming a neat counterpart to the screaming metal on the far bank. A funicular runs up to the high city. It’s rather a long wait as one of the two cars is damaged and we can only board every second trip. The journey takes us past ancient city walls ending not far from Se Cathedral to complete a conveniently circular trip.
On my last morning in Porto, It’s bucketing down outside, but the vertical rain leaves my balcony dry and I breakfast there with a Nespresso and wait for the deluge to pass. I take a walk to Boavista when the rain clears. The street is straight but more narrow and dingy than I had reckoned. About a kilometre later, it widens at a huge circular plaza. Bovista plaza is nailed to the map with a mighty palm tree. The central sculpture is the Monument to the Heroes of the Peninsular War where Portugese and British defeated Naploleon from 1808 to 1814.
The Casa da Musica is a polished asteroid of hard angles and soaring slants. It was designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and opened in 2005. Entering it via a sleek flight of steps has been compared to boarding an alien spacecraft. The feeling doesn’t evaporate on steeping inside. It is polished and sparse. I make my way up several flights of stairs, curving from view but with the promise of the roof garden and cafe which is said to have great views over the city. Unfortunately the steps lead eventually to a closed door. Oh well, it’s raining again so a rooftop garden might not have been the best idea.
Boavista is busy but lacking in oases. South of the Avenue is the Agramonte Cemetary. This dates to 1855 and is the last home of the city’s wealthy residents. Mausoleums line the avenues of this city of the dead, decorated with sculptures by Soares Dos Rios amongst others. The sun is out and some refreshment on an outdoor terrace is called for. I find a pokey bar and order from the waitress. Ten minutes later there’s no sign, so I have to go in. The waitress breaks off from her phone call to point to an elderly gentleman behind the bar. I explain to the ancient how to pull which drink for me and carry it out myself, wondering if I’ll get to finish it before the barman is himself carried off to nearby Agromonte.
The Rua de Julio Denis travels due south and leads to the Crystal Palace Gardens, a landscaped park with fine views over the city. The orginal Crysal Palace was built in 1865 for the International Exhibition. The oriinal iron and glass structure was replaced in 1950 by the modernist dome of the Rosa Mota Pavillion. This is named for Olympic marathon runner, and hosts concerts and sporting events.
Towards the city centre is the National Museum of Soares dos Rios. The neo-classical facade is distinguished by its red stucco upper storey. Formerly the Palace of the Carancas, the frowners, noting the disapproving atitude of the resident family Moraes e Castro. Soares dos Rios, the sculptor, was born in Gaia in 1847. He studied in Paris and Rome and returned to Porto to become the Professor of the Academy of Fine Arts, and committed suicide aged just 42. His most famous sculpture is The Outcast, which might be a window to his soul.
Having paid, I found that much of the exhibiton rooms were closed for renovation. The remainder was eerily vacant of artworks. Perhaps it’s meant to be an installation, signifying absence. There was an exhibition of Magellan’s explorations, featuring charts and maps that looked interesting but the text was only in Portugese.
The eerily vacant gardens to the rear allow me time as an outcast. Although shadowed by a security guard, he’s drawn away by two tourists trying to escape over the back wall. There is something of a cycling heritage, with an early velodrome cited here. Of all the galleries I’ve ever visited, this was the one with least art in it. Climate activists would be forced to eat their own soup. Perhaps it would have been better to close altogether, as this was a waste of time.
The Lello Bookshop on Rua das Carmelitas is famed amongst fans of Harry Potter, it’s magical interior. filtered through the imagination of JK Rowling. Lengthy queues had formed as fans paid homage to the Scottish author. Nearby, two churches, Igreja do Carmo, and the Carmelites church stand, almost, side by side. The Carmelites Church dates to the 17th century, and was originally a convent. Next door is the more exuberant Baroque facade of the Igreja do Carmo. Between them, Porto’s narrowest house forms a wedge a metre wide. The narrow building was to keep the convent nuns separate from the monks. As the clergy would caution us at the school dance on a saturday night, during the slow set: leave enough room for the Holy Ghost.
Clerigos church and tower, rising to 250 feet, is a major landmark of the city. Designed by Italian architect, Nicolau Nasoni, the church was built for the Brotherhood of the Clerics, and occupies a dominant island position where the street drops sharply towards the city centre. The tower can be climbed, if you’ve the breath for it, and the views from the top are said to be breathtaking.
The city centre is, sadly, off limits, and I pick my way back uphill through the labyrinth of alleyways.Somewhere off Rua Almada I find a bar with blue tables, the perfect colour to enjoy the sinking light of evening. The bar is one where you order and carry, which is an improvement on the prevailing level of service. Outside it’s raining so I wait within while the sound system plays Iggy Pop lsinging the Passenger. Ignatius wrote this with Ricky Gardiner for his second solo album Lust for Life in 1977. David Bowie is on piano and backing vocals.
I am the passenger, I stay under glass
I look through my window so bright
I see the stars come out tonight
Over the city’s ripped back sky
And everything looks good tonight
Singin’ la la la la la le lah
La la la la la le lah
La la la la la le la, le la la.
It’s time to say good bye. Any finish to a day in Porto is best with a nighttime wander about the Ribiera. The quayside takes on a magical quality with lights illustrating the dizzy combination of street stacked on street, tumbling down to the river, and above, bridges criss crossing the sky. It’s busy, of course, and there are few vacant seats at the riverside bars, but I find a place and the service, for a change, is swift and friendly. It’s a long uphill home, but on a night like tonight, I could grow wings. I’ll just take my time.
Safely back on terra firma, I begin my descent to the quayside via Se cathedral, proud on its promintory above the Duoro. Porto’s Cathedral, Se Do Porto, was begun in the 12th century, with many additions over the centuries. It is stern, but impressive, having the appearance of a fortress atop a hill. Two square towers, topped by cupolas, frame the crenallated entrance. The giant rose window above the porch is its most ornamental flourish.
In the 17th century several alterations in the baroque style added some finesse , including a new portal and with cupolas added to the towers. The Baroque loggia on the northern facade is by Nicolau Nasoni, an Italian architect who was a major figure in the architecture of Porto. He also contributed much to the interior of the cathedral in the decoration of the new Baroque apse. Nasoni designed the Episcopal Palace, adjacent to the Cathedral, in 1734, although he didn’t live to see its completion. Vast as it is up close, it looms even larger when viewed from the river or the far quays. He also designed the Clerigos church tower, soaring above the rooftops of Porto and was buried in the crypt there in 1773.
Facing Nasoni’s loggia, is a figure on horseback. The statue commemorates Vimara Pires, a warrior who led the liberation of the city from the Moors in 868. The main square in front of the cathedral offers fabulous views of the city, and the perfect place to hang out in the embrace of the cathedral. It has provided historic settings to. It was on this spot in 1142 the Bishop persuaded some passing Crusaders, English, German and Flemsh, to help free the city from the Moors, again.
Below the cathedral lies the oldest quarter of the city, a warren of cobbled alleyways. I follow the quaint, winding lanes, down and down and down.The area is reminiscent of a Greek island village, and I feel suddenly remote from the hectic modern city with even the music of pneumatic drills absent. At the base of this steep descent, the Ribeira quayside is lined with crowded bars. Rising almost vertically above are the coloured houses. The terrace umbrellas might usually function as parasols, but today their function is more in the Irish context. I find a vacant table at last at the very end of the quay in the shadow of the bridge.
It’s Champions League night, and the local heroes of Porto take on, of all people, FC Bruges. My last European adventure had taken me to that most beautiful Belgian city. That was also a European night three years ago when FC Bruges beat an Austrian side and I caught the late second half for a famous home victory. Jovial Belgians take up most available seats but this small bar is less magnetic for crowds. One man at the adjacent table makes up for it with a stream of consciousness commentary on all events in Flemish, and occasianally English. I try to pretend he’s a pneumatic drill. Every time it rains, the same joke caption booms: Come to Oporto for the sunshine! Sunny Oporto! And, once seated safely under my umbrella, it does rain a lot, and very heavily. A few inches from my shoulder a cascade of water forms a solid sheet, as Ribeira’s gutters jam. I pull up my hood and gather my anarok about me. My Flemish friend leaps unexpectadly to the aid of a fellow countryman in a wheelschair, helping him to a sheltered table. So, a nice man, I think.
I have booked the Six Bridges Cruise on the Duoro and have long ago decided that today’s not the day. But, downing my beer, the sun hoves into view, and a large window of blue with it. I make my way to the kiosk to redeem my online booking for an actual ticket. I fish the form out of my shoulder bag. Quite literally fish it, because the water has got in through the drawstrings and the sheet is a sodden mess. The young lad at the kiosk is unfazed, all I need is the number he says, and somehow deciphers the smudged characters. The boat arrives in ten minutes and I’m on.
The cruise does what it says on the tin. Taking us under the six bridges that span the river. Heading inland at first, then turning and making our way to the end of the estuary where Foz meets the Atlantic. The narrow boat sits low in the water and its timber benches give it a pleasantly antique feel. You can imagine, if you wish, that you are skating along on the traditional craft, the rabelo, used in the portwine trade. However you see yourself, the shifting views from the river will quickly grab your atention. The deck is not too crowded, as you would want to be mad to go on the river on a day like this. But it’s the madness of Wonderland, with magic in the air.
From the Ribeira quayside we head inland under the Dom Luis I Bridge and on to the Infante Dom Henrique Bridge,This carries motor traffic, and pedestrians, and is the most recent bridge. Completed in 2003, its shallow arch seems to float magically above the river with no visible means of support. A little further upriver is the Maria Pia Railway Bridge, similar in style to Dom Luis I but with a single deck. It was also built by Seyrig in 1877. Railway traffic ceased in 1991 but has been wisely retained as a city landmark. The plain white modernist Sao Joao now carries the railway. It was designed by Edgar Cardoso, a local engineer and professor. Ponte de Freixo is another concrete bridge. It has eight spans and was built in 1995. This is where we turn to head once more through the city which crowds the steep river banks, jostling with a friendly flotilla of tour boats and pleasure craft.
The Duoro widens as we approach the Atlantic and is spanned by the modern Ponte de Arrabida. also designed by Edgar Cardoso. This is a sleek modernist arch carrying a six lane highway. The elegant concrete arch forms the portal to Porto for the Atlantic traveller. We turn as the prow tips the bay, bathed in welcome sunshine, with the resort town of Foz appearing at the eastern edge of the city.
We disembark on the Gaia side, which makes a quiet contrast to the full voiced choire of Bruges supporters on the far bank. There’s a modern bar on the waterfront for lunch and a long drawn out pint, where I can absorb more of the river view of which no one could grow tired.
Next door is the cable car which I take to the top of the hill in high good spirits. Be a bird, or a superhero for a few minutes, drifting above the orange tiled roofs, floating further and further above the mighty river.
If life is a river and your heart is a boat
And just like a water baby, baby born to float
And if life is a wild wind that blows way on high
Then your heart is Amelia dying to fly
Heaven knows no frontiers
And I’ve seen heaven in your eyes
No Frontiers is a song by Jimmy McCarthy, most famously the title song from Mary Black’s 1989 album.
Oporto, or Porto, is Portugal’s second city, three hundred kilometres up the coast north of Lisbon. It is set on the estuary of the River Duoro, and is, as the name suggests, a port city and also, the city of Port Wine. I had booked my trip to Porto in 2020, but without perfect vision. As you know, we entered near two years of lockdown and all trips were off. I wrote a poem a year back called Europe After the Rain. The title is nicked from a Max Ernst painting which alludes to a distant dawn after the Nazis embraced the continent in war. My Europe After the Rain looked forward to a time when lockdown would cease and we could resume our lives and the sublime pleasures of life, of contact, social interaction and travel. I would travel to Europe, after the rain. And so I did. And then it rained. Man, it poured.
My Ryanair flight touches down an hour or so late. Not just evening is falling on the city, but torrential rain, making everything darker still. I wonder at the optimistic name of my apartment, Sunny Apartment, Trindade Balcony. Sou’westers and turf fires would seem more in order than balconies. My host, Jose, brightens things up with a welcome, including a bottle of red wine. The apartment is sunny in atmosphere, and indeed the balcony is sufficiently sheltered to allow me sit there over a glass of wine as veils of rain drape the city, I’m home at last. In Europe
It’s late, but I must dip my toe in the ocean, so to speak. The road outside is on two levels. The central thoroughfare passes overhead on stilts. I duck beneath, and grab a seat at a bright restaurant across the road. I order Franseschina, a selection of meat in a sandwich, toasted and drowned in melted cheese and, here’s the thing, gfloating in bowl of red soup. I’m examining this in anticipation and some suspicion, when the fries arive. I can’t actually finish the thing. Although I have eaten little on my travels, it is very filling. The waiter assures me he would have no problem with it, and he’s thinner than me.
My street is just ten minutes from the city centre. The principal street, Aliedos Avenue, is just a couple of blocks downhill. I breakfast nearby on scrambled egg and bacon with toast. It’s raining again so I put up the hood on my anorak and head downtown. Halfway down Aliados there’s a problem. The city fathers have decided to transform the urban paradise into hell. An excessive fortification of machinery and metal barriers is strung across the bottom half of the principal throroughfare and encompasses several streets off, including much of the area around Sao Bento Station. Negociating the city centre is well nigh impossible as walkways run into dead ends. What were they thinking of to close down the historic city centre?
Liberty Plaza is entirely obliterated and there is no egress to the western end of the city centre from here. It’s like a bomb site. There’s nothing I can do save soldier on. I pick my way through scaffolding and debris to the railway station. San Bento is central to Porto, both as a point of arrival, and departure, and as a visitor attraction in its own right. Outside, the station is an imposing public building of the Belle Epoque, within, the entrance hall is a glorious palace of illustrative art. The building was designed by Jose Marquez da Silva in 1904 in the Beaux Arts style on a plinth overlooking Almeida Garret Plaza. Grand though it is, step inside for a truly awesome spectacle. The ticket hall is a wrap around mural, illustrating the sweep of Portugal’s history and heritage. It was made by Jorge Colaco in the blue ceramic tiles known as azulejos. These are a distinctive feature of Portugese architecture, and those of Sao Bento represent the artform at its best. It took a dozen years for the entire project to be completed and Sao Bento was officially opened in 1916. The platform itself forms its own spectacle. The Batalha area forms a steep ridge immediately east of the platform, and here the trains plunge underground, or emerge magically from the bowels of the earth. In a city of giddy views, this view of a teetering hillside barrio floating above the angular lines of the railway station is outstanding, and the perfect introduction, or adeos, to the city of Oporto.
The first thing to do in Oporto is get to the bridge. The Dom Luis I Bridge is the abiding symbol of the city. Putting the station behind me, I keep to the high road where a busy pedestrian street on my right descends towars the Ribeira quayside. A little further on the ancient Cathedral perches on high, but the bridge is only a few yards further on, so I keep to my route. I am rewarded with sunshine, and suddenly the flower of Porto opens before me. The River Duoro is blue, and far, far below. I step from solid land and onto the swaying embrace of the metal bridge. I’m making a habit of this highwire for beginners. From Bristol to San Fran and now the coast of Portugal. A teetering walk, heel to heel and toe to toe, without the aid of a safety net, mad tourist with vertigo once more steps onto the wire above a bottomless chasm.
Dom Luis I Bridge was built in 1886 with a span of 170 metres. It connects two steep rocky crags that pinch the estuary of the Duoro. The city of Porto is on the north bank, Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank. It is built on two levels. The top level carries a tram service with pedestrian sidewalks, the bottom level is pedestrian. Gustave Eiffel first proposed a design with a single deck but this was rejected. A disciple of Eiffels, Theophile Seyrig, developed Eiffel’s proposal and this was accepted. The project was carried out by a Belgian construction company. Ironically, it is Eiffel for whom the roadway on the Porto side is named.
The bridge is shared with a lot of tourists and a frequent tram service. There is, of course, a dizzying array of photo opportunities. The rain has relented, allowing the sun to bathe the panorama in light. Sunny Oporto, slung across the highest slopes of paradise. On the far bank, the monastery of Serra do Pilar is perched above Vila Nove de Gaia. This was originally a 17th century monastery but has long been a military barracks. That dashing Dubliner, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, occupied the monastery in 1809 during the Peninsular War. From here he launched his blitzkrieg assault in the Battle of the Duoro where he routed French forces to secure Portugal. Shortly afterwards, Wellesley was elevated to the perrage as Viscount Wellington, and later Duke of Wellington after the defeat of Napoleon
There’s a cable car service down to the south bank quays, but today I’m going to retrace my steps and do the north bank, Ribeira. I returnwith more confidence, narrowly avoiding getting run over by a tram. Listen for the bells, the bells! There’s beauty and there’s danger, and a lot more to see in the sunshine and the rain of Oporto.