The façades of Porto’s red-roofed buildings are gilded with blue-white ceramic tiles, azulejos: part decorative, part tradition, and part insulation. The city, flanked on either side by a fast-running tramline, is severed by the river Duoro. Over one side, a bridge reaches Jardim do Morro, a panoramic overlook. Underneath, the river stretches as far as the horizon, feeding into the Atlantic Ocean on the west and meandering through the Spanish boarder on the east.
In the oldest part of the city, the houses are run down, aged to a state of desolation and apparently untouched. Stretches of the city are decrepit, as though the buildings had been used in until they simply fell apart. The remnants were curiously left behind, a tribute to every block of wood that once sustained the residence or market or church, which from its current form, a visitor couldn’t possibly identify.
A long block of buildings face the water in the particular stretch by the river, which lies adjacent to the famous gothic church of Saint Francis, whose clocktower and stone courtyard overlook the western side of the city. We were south of central Porto, in a municipality called Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river. In learning how to navigate from the apartment, we found ourselves circling miles, discovering the path along the Ponte Luís I. It’s a city navigable on foot with a sufficient public transit system, once you learn how to buy tickets and which way is north.
On our first evening, we shared glasses of Port by the waterfront, explored the narrow sidewalks and street art, listened to musicians and watched dancing children. Despite its age, the city was full of life. Portuguese felt close to recognizable, knowing Spanish, but neither of us could seamlessly communicate. Even in English, the unique quality of the Portuguese accent was strikingly unrecognizable to us as that of a romance language. The next day we set out to try to understand the city as profoundly as we could on our budget.
An attraction that caught our attention, The Livraria Lello & Irmão, is said to be the inspiration for Hogwarts. With stained glass ceilings, an arched staircase and balcony, it hosts a vast collection of books as well as tourists who come to see the site that JK Rowling is known to have visited while in Porto. We paid a worthwhile entry fee and discovered an interior full of surprises…
Roaming through the streets, we came across more tiled façades, fountains, and even the Igreja do Carmo with its isolated wall of gorgeous azujuelos. And just as we began to tire from our walk, we heeded a friend’s advice to taste natas, Portuguese custard pastries. I did not know I had been missing this in my live until that very moment.
Later that night we entered the village, … and the nightclub Plano B, where we introduced ourselves to an overzealous bartender and a friendly rap artist visiting from Brooklyn who was performing downstairs. It was all neon and smoke and fine wine for two euros a glass. In the morning, we toured the underground burial chamber of the Sao Francisco Church, where bones had been removed from the coffins of prominent church figures and monarchy and were piled, eerily on the floor beneath us, which could be viewed through illuminated grates.
Another extraordinary find, Museu Serralves houses a grand collection of contemporary art, featuring some prominent work by Warhol and Miró. The art was abstract and provoking and we loved the following display of neon signs, self-labeled:
A not-so-short walk from Serralves is the expansive coastline. Of course by the time we arrived, and in the current weather it was too cold to swim or even enjoy the beach, but we walked over the sand and climbed past rocks to get a view of the Felgueiras lighthouse, which was blocked and warned of a dangerous “splash zone” in the crashing tide of the sea. We were sprayed, stepping out on the pier, even following the plenty of visitors and camera-wielding daredevils who had set up here, shielding their gear from the salt water of each splash to capture the momentous sunset and the grandeur of the tall structure against the infinite backdrop of sea on the horizon.
Our adventure ended when we realized with what facility we could be swept away by the incoming tide and so we navigated the bus system for our return. (Traveler tip: Google Maps functions on GPS without using data, so having a charged smartphone can be useful even without a functioning SIM card or cellphone plan in a new country).
After a refreshing meal, the trip ended with what I still call the most memorable taxi ride of my life. To explain it takes away the spontaneity of this absurd moment, but I’ll just mention that we entered the vehicle completely sober. The driver had on the radio which started playing “Like a Prayer,” to which the two of us began to sing along in the backseat. He had obviously never had such energetic and Anglophone passengers, and spiked the volume generously as he did the same with the velocity of the car, and before we knew it, the three of us were hurtling down the cobblestone streets of Porto, belting Madonna lyrics that neither of us really knew. We found it to be the perfect combination of experiencing history while fully accepting our own place in time.