Here is a snap-shot view of a long weekend in Porto. I went with very little knowledge of the place and returned with a handful of impressions, that would almost certainly change if I lived there. Observations of a city that seems to be at the start of a transformation; what better opportunity for someone who enjoys time-travel!
The trip also included a day on some hire bikes, which definitely falls into the category of a ride less ordinary and is described in a separate blog, as well as some interesting cultural excursions, which are detailed towards the bottom of this blog.
Old granite tenements
My over-riding memory of Porto is of it’s buildings. The city is built from granite, which is grey from a distance but has a lot of pink in it on closer inspection. Granite being one of the hardest and most durable rocks on the planet, Porto is not about to crumble into it’s river, but it is having a damn good try. The oldest part of the city is around the cathedral and is a mass of multi-storey narrow terraced town houses, connected by a network of narrow steep passages, lived in by generations of the same family, that carry on building upwards. The area has been declared a World Heritage Site, so anybody considering stopping the decay needs to adhere to a whole slew of building regulations, which would amount to huge sums of money. It is difficult not to see a problem here, but an obvious solution didn’t spring to mind either.
For an excellent street-view shot click here.
Decadence and Decay
Apart from the granite, the other building material is tiles, in a multitude of colours and designs. Pretty much every house house is different from the next, which combined with it’s decay gives it a really bohemian feel. Every street seemed to have an abandoned tiled mansion, which if you come from London where people renovate and sell their garages for huge sums of money, is about as opposite as it gets.
Although it is possible to appreciate the beauty in something which is old and decaying, for example the differing colours and textures of rusting metal can be as aesthetically pleasing as polished chrome, even so at times I felt strangely confronted by what I saw. The area around the cathedral felt more like a living museum, with the inhabitants in some kind of cage. Would I want a load of strangers watching me hang my ‘smalls’ out every day? I think not. On the other hand tourism helps them financially and judging someone else’s happiness based on their material wealth is nonsense, so I’ll hush my overactive mind!
Port and the River Douro
Whilst I was acquiring a taste for it, I learnt that Porto’s most famous export, Port, only became famous after the British got a taste for it in the 1700’s, and also that it is a mixture of a distilled grape-based spirit and wine. The Port barges where used to ferry the barrels to the massive warehouses on the other side of the river to Porto, in an area called Vila Nova de Gaia. This area does not have the same building restrictions as its neighbour across the river, which is noticeable along the river-front. I’m saying nothing!
Centro Português de Fotografia
The Centro de Fotografia is housed in an old jail near the Clerigos Tower, which sits at the top of the hill above the oldest parts of the city. The inside of the building has been renovated to reveal granite stone walls, massive rooms and a bewildering set of stairways and passages linking different parts of the building. The visiting photographic exhibition was much less interesting than the building itself (and there was no English translation). We did spend a fair amount of time wondering whether we had missed the room we were meant to see, and had accidentally wondered into a bit of the building that was off limits! Apparently there is a fine collection of cameras on the top floor, but I don’t think we found the right set of stairs. My travelling companion was not amused.
Pictured left: The weather was ‘patchy’, but not as bad as the weather forecast. Juliet posing with her brolly next to a giant purple wasp nest, in the square in front of the photography museum.
Jardins do Palácio de Crista
Next day was my favourite, with liberal amounts of quirkiness, surprises, and all remarkably tourist-free; something that neither of us could fathom. It started at the ‘Jardins do Palacio Cristal’, a 19th century garden looking over the River Douro. The Crystal Palace had long gone and been replaced by a UFO shaped building used for exhibitions and sporting events. We skirted the building and attempted to find the Museu Romantico da Quinta da Macieirinha, which was suppose to be in its grounds. After much rummaging around, along over-gown terraces, up and down mossy steps, past secret fountains & along tree-lined avenues we eventually stumbled across it, only to discover that it was closed for renovation. We re-traced our steps back through the maze and entered the UFO building in order to find some toilets, and suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a Humanfest, a celebration of all things ‘alternative’. We were lured into the main arena by pulsating drum beats, surrounded by people wearing colourful trousers with low crotches, clutching their yoga mats, with promises of chakra alignment and finding Nirvana ……and all because we couldn’t find the toilets. What a destination!
Being a South Londoner, I was interested to read that Porto’s Crystal Palace was based on our very own Crystal Palace in London’s SE19, and was built to host the International Exhibition of Porto, but similar to it’s South London sister, the original glass structure no longer exists. It was replaced, not by a football stadium but a hockey stadium which hosted the 1954 world championships. There is a sense that something is missing probably because we always associate a garden with a house, but it is worth a visit for its general quirkiness, lack of signage and views of the river. Click here for a blog link that taught me a few things that I included in this description, and has some off the beaten track ideas.
Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves
Our intention to get a bus from the Crystal Palace to the Museum of Contemporary Art dried up after half an hour at the bus stop, and we decided on a cab, as it was a fair distance from the centre of town. The Museum wasn’t cheap but you had options! We chose the Serralves villa, which housed a visiting Miro exhibition, and entry to the gardens. To access the villa we happened to pass a giant trowel, but you’d expect nothing less from a contemporary art museum. We passed by the villa back garden which consisted of a series of very long parallel hedges, and into the 1930’s Art Deco villa and the exhibition. A lot of the paintings were of Women and Birds, but the trouble with art for people like myself (who lack context or art education) is that what enters my head upon seeing a painting is utter garbage which usually ends up making me laugh. The picture below looks to me like a lascivious cow-ant woman, who has been on the lash, and although the energy from her Solar Plexus is strong, it needs serious re-alignment (something I felt qualified to assess after my unexpected trip to the Humanfest!). As for the bird, just don’t get me started! Ho hum, there really is no hope for me!
After recovering my sensibilities we took a walk through the gardens, which were amazing. In contrast to the earlier garden experience, I felt like I was being led through a series of different landscapes by the architect, from the very formal, through a series of beautifully planted water gardens to a natural woodland, complete with the occasional weird and wonderful modern art installations scattered around …….and we had the place to ourselves. What a treat. Needless to say the southern exit to the gardens was closed, which meant a long haul back up the hill to the main gates, through an under-ground carpark. Maybe we were suffering from ‘sign blindness’?
Casa da Música
A quick late lunch at Casinha Boutique cafe and onto a concert at the Casa da Musica which is a very modern concert hall with an undulatory forecourt (made up of fenestral limestone for the Geo’s amongst you). The building itself is difficult to describe but the words multi-floored, white concrete, glass and polished chrome would be included. Tours of the building are only twice daily and a lot of the rooms are not open to the public, but they have a very varied and full programme of classical music, so we tried an up and coming Cellist playing Prokofiev and Brahms. It was only an hour long, started at 4 pm and was just what I needed after all that tramping around gardens. As with the rest of the day, it was uncrowded and tourist free! I am marginally more qualified to comment on music; The Prokofiev was tricky and well mastered but his connection with the music was not great, the slow movement of the Brahms was beautifully played and the encore (sort of tarantella gaining speed as it went a long, recognized it but hopeless with names) was fun! We did try to gain access to the main hall but it was locked. Perhaps we had done enough poking around where we shouldn’t for one day.