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.