Porto is a very beautiful city, but it appears to be crumbling away in front of our very eyes. What is going on?
Some cities, like Vienna, have so much to see that you wear yourself into the ground in an effort to see and experience everything it has to offer. Others, like Porto, don’t really have any major attractions to shout about because the city itself is the attraction. It is a joy to walk around the narrow streets covering the hills of Porto and from one moment to the next you are rewarded with amazing views across the city. Turn one corner and you might get a long view of the centre of the town with its glowing orange roof tiles, but moments later you find an alleyway which casually throws open a vista of the Douro river and even more glowing orange roof tiles.
Indeed, this beauty and deep history led to UNESCO inscribing the ‘Historic Centre of Oporto’ in 1996 as a site of:
“…outstanding universal value as the urban fabric and its many historic buildings bear remarkable testimony to the development over the past thousand years of a European city that looks outward to the west for its cultural and commercial links.”
Yet for all this beauty and international recognition you just have to spend a day in Porto to realise that something is not quite right about the city. It seems to be falling apart in from of your very eyes and no amount of heritage designation can stop that. I recognise the Porto depicted in this BBC article from November 2013. It describes Porto as:
“…fast becoming a kind of European Detroit or mini-Havana. Many say the place has always exuded an indefinable air of melancholy.”
With some reservations and caveats I have to agree with that. Firstly, where the hell is everyone? We arrived on a Friday afternoon and went straight out for lunch. Yes the Cafe Santiago was busy but the streets themselves were nigh-on deserted. As they overwhelmingly were for the rest of the weekend. After lunch and into the evening we rarely saw Porto’s actual inhabitants but we did see a lot of tourists. At times it feels like they heavily outnumber natives, so much so that as you wander around gawping at tiled façades and ornate wrought-iron balconies you feel almost as if you are in a theme park. You know, one of those reconstructions you see built at great expense in China but then left to rot soon after opening. Usually due to some outrageous corruption conviction. I remarked at one point that Porto looked like it had escaped from a Studio Ghibli film, albeit one that has had a shabbiness filter applied. I could well imagine the sorcerer Howl rushing through the alleys but whereas his city was a tumultuous and vibrant place to be Porto seems to have no real crowds and as a result is missing its heart a lot of the time.
This impression, albeit formed over a short long-weekend stay, and please correct me if I’m wrong, was rubber-stamped on our last evening in the city. A music and arts festival was taking place along a stretch of street scattered with bars and cafes. There were four stages hosting acts from 2pm until 1am, I think. We saw them setting up the stages in the morning and resolved to return that evening to soak up some Portuguese party atmosphere, but what we experienced when we revisited was far from a party atmosphere. There was a pleasant vibe embracing the street after dark with small groups of people mingling together, sipping Super Bock from plastic cups, Porto’s architecture prettily lit-up in the background.
But I must refer back to that BBC quote about the air of melancholy because that is what you could indeed feel at the exact point you are supposed to feel elated and invigorated. The bands we saw were an experimental jazz group playing slightly out of key and not sounding like it was meant to be that way, on one stage, and a single acclaimed bearded fellow in a hoodie playing pretty and beardy guitar music by his beardy self and tinkering with effects pedals so much that half the time he wasn’t even really touching the instrument, on another hirsute stage.
The music was nice enough but the crowd, such as it was, was sedate. Politely clapping each conclusion. In fact the crowd could not have numbered more than a couple of hundred people. The music was staggered so that the audience would move from stage to stage throughout the night but really that meant that a devoted few hundred would move goosey-gaggle style along the street, leaving waiters and bar owners outnumbering the remnants of the crowd. There were no side attractions or stalls either. A brief look at the audience suggested there weren’t many tourists here, and that actual Porto people had come out to play, but definitely too few for a weekend night! Maybe there was something even better going on elsewhere? We gave up with the festival when it became clear that it wasn’t very festive at all.
That was Saturday night. We walked through deserted streets all the way to the river. In the daytime this strip of waterfront is inundated with tourists and hawkers, break dancers, musicians, boat cruise touts. At 10pm on the last Saturday in March there were perhaps twenty small groups in the restaurants and they were packing away tables already. Scratching our heads we climbed the stairs under the bridge and headed home through winding alleys.
Which takes us back to the UNESCO point because these streets are sketchy as hell. They don’t have people lurking in threatening groups but they are unlit and shadowy, several front doors are kicked in, and many roofs have caved in too. Kristina hit the nail on the head when she said that it felt lonely and that even on well-lit streets around the Cathedral you could bash on a door and scream and shout, but nobody would hear anything.
The appalling neglect of such pretty buildings is hard to fathom until you remember just how hard Portugal was hit by the recession. The country very nearly went bankrupt. We, in the UK, didn’t hear so much about Portugal or even Ireland’s woes as we heard incessantly about Greece but here things were, and to some extent still are, just as acute and perilous. Porto is emblematic of the austerity measures inflicted upon its populace who now seem to struggle to maintain the fabric of their city. Porto seems deserted because I suspect it probably is. Compared to pre-recession days anyway. This website appears to show a 13.5% decrease in the population of Porto’s metropolitan area between 2002 and 2012. That’s 35,596 fewer people in what is really a fairly small city centre. That’s a lot.
The area under the Luís I bridge is decrepit and sad on both banks of the Douro, though it is still very clean, but if you pay attention when you walk around the rest of the Ribeira district you start to spot completely derelict buildings all over the place. Shops boarded up, windows smashed, even around the main square where the ‘Imperial McDonald’s’ sits and waves something you rarely see in Porto – the flag for globalisation. Pay two whole precious Euros to climb the lovely Torre dos Clerigos and you get to look out over Porto from a superb vantage point. You can easily see the Atlantic Ocean miles to the west but looking down on those famous roofs you soon see something resembling the aftermath of military shelling. Huge holes in roofs or even entire building innards crumbled away, only the frontage remaining.
Nevertheless there are plenty of glimmers of a great sense of humour, flashes of creative talent. Plus the honest friendliness of everyone we met could not have been more of a contrast to the grim snarls I experienced in Lisbon in 2003. Despite all her troubles Porto is a very friendly and welcoming place to visit. It is one of the prettiest places I have ever seen and I am so glad that I did choose to visit. Weirdly the crumbly parts do add a certain something to make Porto even more attractive, but that’s speaking only from a tourist’s perspective – I’m not so sure that actual residents appreciate that kind of decay when it’s literally next door.
Porto feels a lot like it has given everything and only has a brave face left. Maybe I’m completely wrong, maybe I’m missing something obvious? My heart goes out to all the people struggling to make ends meet, and I hope the wealth of the tourist hordes isn’t too compartmentalised into hostelries and port wine cellars. The world economy does appear to picking up so hopefully the drip-drip will reach the people who can’t even repair their roofs, or encourage absent owners to return to the city. Porto needs its people back and it definitely needs tourism because the more bars and restaurants that spill out on the Douro promenade, the more money will be spent, and the more that money might just do some good. Perhaps in the upturn UNESCO can provide some help to reinvigorate parts of the city that have basically flat-lined? Perhaps not. Until then, visit Porto and try to spend at least some of your cash in poky local shops bars and restaurants, and not just swanky wine tours. Because it’s the least you can do.
The trend that Porto is experiencing is incredibly damaging and might end up with a form of social cleansing as the unemployed and poor are forced to move away. I just really hope that robber barons don’t capitalise on the misfortune of so many tens of thousands of ordinary people, swooping in and turn the crumbling majesty of these tenements into bijou second homes for yet more absent owners. That would be a disaster that this city really doesn’t need and certainly doesn’t deserve.