There were hordes of people in Oporto. I mean hordes. Germans and Brits and French and Spanish and at least one Estonian, we know because she told us so in very good English; and I’m sure there were other nationalities I didn’t recognize. Now I know what the Roman Empire looked like when the barbarians overran it. Crowds and crowds of people wearing Bermuda shorts and helmets with horns sticking out, carrying battle axes in one hand and iPhones in the other to take pictures.
Lots of Americans were included, more than I imagined were ever in Portugal considering the number who asked me before we left the US where Portugal is. Either they found it on a map somehow or they all got on the wrong plane thinking they were going to Hawaii and were dumped here by mistake.
Porto is a tale of two cities. The one tourists visit is plastered against the cliffs overlooking the Douro River. Wherever you walk, you’re going straight up. Even when you walk back down you’re going up; don’t ask me how it happens, I don’t know, but it’s true. On one side of the river is Oporto, and on the other Vila Nova de Gaia which exists solely for the reason of selling port wine.
To get from one side to the other you walk across a bridge. To get to the bridge, pedestrians climb about 15 flights of rough, irregular stone steps dating back to the 12th century. From the top, you can see young men on the upper bridge spans hanging out (literally) and diving into the water. It’s sort of Portugal’s answer to the Acapulco cliff divers; but, in this case, I think they’re all searching for a way to get across the river besides climbing more steps.
The riverfront along Vila Nova de Gaia is lined with the cellars of every major vintner of Port wine in existence. There are names like Sandeman, Taylor, Cockburn, Graham’s and Croft’s, which I’ve seen on labels in the liquor store but never bought any because I didn’t know what the heck they were. Well, they all make Port wine and they’re all British companies
Back in the 17th century England (they called it England back then, none of that Great Britain or UK stuff) went to war with France, it never occurring to them they might have a problem importing French wine. They had to change to Portuguese wine instead, which in those days must have tasted somewhere between Gatorade and cleaning vinegar. To keep it from spoiling on the ship over they laced it with brandy which stopped the fermentation process and kept it sweet. They decided they like it that way and an accident of history was born.
So now you visit the town for tastings of port, which you can do in any number of ways from a tour of the cellar to an elaborate dinner and show featuring non-stop pouring. We chose the simplest way, sitting at a café and paying 25 euros for several glasses of different types of the stuff. It tasted pretty good, a lot better than the version they bottle in the US, and helped us face the prospect of climbing up to the bridge to go back across the river.
The Douro part of Oporto is a closely packed area built over several centuries of the city’s existence. Like most urban areas in Europe, the buildings have been gutted and renovated so many times it’s hard to tell where one rebuilding leaves off and the next one begins. Even the most modern hotels and office buildings are constructed within the confines of structures going back hundreds of years.
Looking at it from a distance — say, while sitting at a table in Vila Nova de Gaia drinking your third glass of port — the view is of a hodgepodge of buildings with traditional clay tile roofs leaning against each other all over the river bluffs. At several points along the way there are sections of the original medieval stone walls of the city. There’s a model of the old city in the Casa de Infante, a museum built over the ruins of an original Roman building and said to have more recently been the birthplace of Prince Henry the Navigator. For those whose European history is shaky, he’s the guy who invented Europe’s worldwide exploration to South America, India, Japan and Southeast Asia.
The model shows where the city walls were in the 12th century and then expanded in the fourteenth, as well as those enclosing the old Jewish ghetto. It’s impressive to then go out and visit scraps of walls that still exist from the Middle Ages.
The other city in Oporto is laid out on the flat land to the North of the river reaching westward to the sea. It’s a modern metropolis of wide boulevards and high rises which serves as Portugal’s industrial center. With its ultra-modern architecture and palm trees lining the avenues, this part of Oporto looks like a city in South America.
Oporto is defined by its six bridges spanning the Douro. The oldest is the railroad bridge from the eighteen eighties designed by students of Gustav Eiffel, he of the famous tower in Paris. That’s the one you have to climb up to walk across. Not to be outdone, a later one that looks quite similar was designed by Monsieur Eiffel himself. The newest is a modern suspension bridge that sits just inside the river mouth spilling into the Atlantic ocean. All told, Oporto’s bridges are the main transportation link between the Northern and Southern halves of the country.
A flotilla of tourist boats ply the river, the most popular one called the six-bridge tour because that’s how far it goes. If you’d rather commit a full day to a river tour, you can take one up the Douro into the heartland; for that matter, there are hotel boats for multi-day trips as well. The river is pretty much full of traffic all the time – boats of all dimensions, kayakers, seagulls, and even a misdirected German Shepherd guided to shore one day by the naval patrol. Yet, it remains too narrow to accommodate the giant container ships we see on the Tagus River in Lisbon and our own Sado in Setubal.
Oporto’s got its share of buildings to see, including the old stock exchange, the Palacio da Bolsa, which is best known for its ballroom. Barbara and I used to own a couple of Arthur Murray Dance studios. I wish someone had suggested to me then the idea of combining chacha lessons and stock trading. The commissions would have amounted to a lot more money than we made off dance classes.
There’s also the Crystal Palace, an arena the city fathers built as a hockey venue. The rationale behind that is probably lost to history. Perhaps it was because there were so many people returning from decades of exile in Canada, where they went to escape the fascist Salazar regime. Apparently though, the Portuguese-Canadians didn’t spend a lot of time learning to ice skate, because they never played any hockey at the Crystal Palace. In fact, when you mention it to them, they usually respond by saying, “Eh?” We enjoyed walking through the gardens past a festival of bookseller kiosks, but nobody was playing hockey.
There’s a concert hall designed to look like a building in Barcelona, and a street designed to look like one in Paris. Kind of suggests a lack of self-esteem on the part of the city planners.
Otherwise, there’s mostly a lot of churches, probably more churches here than there are cheese hats in Wisconsin. Every street corner’s got a church full of statues and walls covered in gold. All told, there’s probably enough gold to wipe out Portugal’s debt to the World Monetary Fund, which is saying something.
It’s all evidence of the Roman Catholic Church’s domination of Europe over the centuries; the churches are advertisements for its power and how it lorded over (pun intended) not only the people but even the kings and armies who ruled the individual nations. I assume all these churches were built by rulers who wanted to get on the pope’s good side, whether God was involved in the deal or not. It’s fun to imagine all the barons and baronets and dukelets and kinglets getting together in the Papal locker room to compare the size of their cathedrals.
Unlike in Southern Portugal with its fried cuttlefish and grilled sardines, we weren’t wild about the food. Oporto’s main claims to fame are francesinhas and stewed tripe. A francesinha is basically a croque monsieur, which in turn is basically a hopped up grilled cheese sandwich, and then they pour a spicy tomato sauce all over it. It’s not bad, but I wouldn’t cross the Atlantic to have one.
Tripe, which as any graduate student of animal husbandry knows is part of a cow’s stomach, became a delicacy here during one of the wars when the navy requisitioned all the city’s food supplies. The only thing left to eat was the parts of the slaughtered animals the military were too intelligent to take with them. Over time, people convinced themselves they liked the stuff, and the fiction has survived to the present day. There are plenty of people here with excellent taste whose eyes roll back in their heads when they talk about how delicious it is.
To our less sophisticated palates, tripe tastes – how can I put this delicately? – like a cow’s stall smells if you forget to clean it for a couple months. It reminds me of a story from my childhood about a kid who made soup out of the cat’s litterbox and fed it to his little sister. At the time, I thought the idea pretty funny; but I’m glad I never tried it, given my two sisters’ vast capacity for revenge.
I suppose tripe could be made palatable smoked or maybe pickled. Nevertheless, I’m not planning to touch it again unless the Portuguese navy invades our flat and empties out our refrigerator while at the same time closing all the grocery stores. Maybe not even then.
Oporto is certainly a beautiful city. When we told our Portuguese friends about visiting there, they reacted with something bordering on reverence — and with good reason. It encapsulates the history and culture not only of Portugal but of European civilization in general as well as any place on the continent.
It’s interesting, impressive, instructive. It’s neither as decadent as Sintra with its catalog of lavish palaces nor as oppressively touristy, even if it is full of foreigners. Still, we found it austere and a little formal. I kept having the feeling that if I touched the wrong thing a security guard would materialize to make me pay for it.
I guess Oporto’s a place you have to warm up to – or it to you. We’ll definitely try it again some time to further develop our acquaintance.
Maybe it’s just that, as we pass the first anniversary of our residence in Portugal, we still feel like outsiders. It’s not only about studying the language, eating the food, hearing the unique style of music known as fado. It’s about being part of the turbulent history and sharing the experience of growing up in this part of the world.
Actually, this is part of the reason we came here. I think it makes us more human. We come from a country of immigrants, yet for no particular reason immigrants have been hit with some animosity lately. But that everyone could have the opportunity to feel the way we do in Portugal. It might help us be more tolerant.