After the dressage was over on Sunday, we got a ride to Porto, the second largest city in Portugal. Situated on the Douro River, Porto is the home of … Port. Wine that is. We had an early flight out a few days later, so we stayed at the airport hotel. It looked like a penitentiary from the outside, but on the inside it had big bathrooms with deep jetted tubs and a bar that was open late. It was close enough to the airport that we walked to the airport station to catch the train into town.
Mass transit is quick and clean in Porto, and we bought a multi-day pass so we could move around at will. We could read the destination signs, but as usual, we were perplexed by the Portuguese pronunciations, which to our American ears sound nothing like what they look like!
Porto is a city of luscious decay. It is one of the oldest European cities, having once been an outpost of the Roman Empire, and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is vibrant, there are people everywhere, the trains, buses, cafes and restaurants are packed, but there are also empty buildings with curtains fluttering out of vacant staring windows… . But that’s part of it’s multi-layered appeal.
Our first evening, we alighted from the Porto Metro at the Sao Bento station and immediately gasped at the the magnificent blue-and-white “azulejo” tiled walls, painted by Jorge Colaco, that depicted historic scenes. I’m told that there are 20,000 tiles in the main vetibule. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of them. At one point I realized that a police officer was watching me. I guess the word “Wow” translates into any language: proudly, he puffed up a bit, and I saw him smile a bit.
It was still oppressively hot. As the sun sank, we walked toward the Porto Cathedral, with its commanding views of the Douro River. We then found ourselves winding our way through the Ribiera, one of the oldest sections of the city. Carved into the steep hillside, the streets are precipitous, part staircase. Antique buildings rise on either side: in some places you can stand in the middle of the street and touch both sides. Because it was Sunday evening, families were mingling in the narrow lanes; chairs and tables had been brought outside, laundry was hanging to dry, the smell of Sunday dinners wafted in the air. There are a thousand years of layers here, Swabians, Romans, Moors, Visigoths, Normans, and we wondered for how many generations some of these families had inhabited these houses.
And then suddenly we emerged at the river side, amidst restaurants, hotels, a street market, antique river boats, and the chatter of happy diners. We found a table overlooking it all. When the cold front swept in from the ocean, we saw it before we felt it, an updraft that roiled the river and swept a maelstrom of seagulls before it. We grabbed our tourist maps and thought about dashing for cover. But there was no rain, just a collective sigh as the heat broke. We sat until the sky turned indigo, watching as the lights lit on the Ponte Dom Luis, which was built by Gustav Eiffel.
We spent the next two days touring: bus tour, boat tour, a winery tour (of course!), and lots of meandering on foot through the city. We rode the cable car and the funicular. We got familiar with the Metro routes. We saw churches tiled in azulejo; we saw churches with gilded interiors. We learned what Fado is, that mournful Portugese music about “saudade” or loss. We harkened to it at first, it was part of the flavor of Porto, and it seemed to be good music to drink port with. By day two, I wanted to change the station; by the time we left, I wanted to never, ever hear Fado again.