Why some people in Britain call it Oporto I am never certain. If you wanted to anglicise the name it should be, simply, Port. The port on the River Douro is Portugal’s second city. I fell in love with it immediately, it is situated well, with a magnificent skyline of large white and blue churches, tenement style houses clinging to hillsides. At the bottom is the deep Douro gorge which winds between the city and Villa Nova De Gaia (which happens to be third largest Portuguese city by population if not importance).
High above the cliffs on the Gaia side is the huge fortress which turns out to be a monastery, and two bridges spanned the river, reminding one of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It is not surprising, since they were both designed by the same man at about the same time. Near the centre of the city, the first bridge carries two roads over, at high and low level, both with trolley bus wire gantries delicately woven into the bridge design. A massive semi-circle of iron holds the bridge in place, and the views up and downstream from the top in particular were spectacular.
Upstream, about a mile away, was the second bridge. Less elegant but more precarious-looking, it carried the main railway line to Lisbon from Campanhã Station on the outskirts of the city. Trains tightroped on a single line across the gap. To the east again, the pillars of a new rail bridge were rising up, modernity in a city that had stopped fifty years before.
It was hardly mid morning when we pulled up at this massive school in Villa Nova de Gaia. Kids were out in the playground screaming away at each other in Portuguese. We hauled our luggage up to the seventh floor which gave us a view to the south and the green mixture of pine forest and farms beyond the jumble of outer suburbs. Two red and white radio masts dominated the horizon. It looked ghastly. Our accommodation was Spartan to say the least – two dorms for the lads – five in each. One central light, no wardrobe (I lived out of my suitcase for the whole time), and the kind of hollow feel that you get in so many underfunded schools. The showers at the end of the corridor were communal, cold, and dribbled through the night. My first hour ever abroad and I already hated it. But we were going to explore the city so we changed our clothes; got into shorts and went dancing down.
A whole bunch of gorgeous Portuguese teenage girls were hanging around outside the gates as the break still seemed to be going on. They took one look at us and laughed their head off. Ten pale English men in their outsize shorts and baggy T-shirts were no match for the sleek looking, tight denim clad, over manicured boys further down the road. Several of our group went straight back upstairs and changed back to jeans, vowing not to be seen out in public in their shorts. I intended to get brown, whatever the sacrifice to fashion.
Wandering around Porto, it seemed that when the industrial revolution petered out that Porto stagnated. Primarily an industrial city with a maritime past, it maintained its status as an important regional centre, but there appeared no novelty, no new drive which was moving the city towards the 21st Century. I was proved wrong later, and it goes to show that you should never judge a city by either your first impressions, nor even your second or third. You have to see it from a distance, get in amongst it and understand its parts, then step back again to assess the whole. Our problem was that we started our exploration from the wrong point and tried to use our geographic presumptions of UK cities in a Portuguese situation.
We started at the massive slab of granite that formed the waterfront of Porto’s old town. Although picturesque from a distance; a group of tightly fitting tenement style houses, once inside they were a medley of dwellings, restaurants, shops, businesses and dereliction.. The roads were, at best, setts, at worst, potholed gravel tracks. Again, my inexperience of visiting new places made it difficult to get a grasp on what this was. Liverpool, Durham, London; so many places in the UK had their problems, but this was a level of poverty I had not seen (it was tame to what I have experienced since). The sweet smell of sewers pervaded the air, the rubbish at every corner, the little children, the big dewy Mediterranean eyes shining out on their grubby faces. All the clichés of poverty here, and many of them ringing true.