Sunday, 22 February 2015

Porto - the charm of a "crumbling" town

I must confess that my first impression of Porto was not that good: it was raining and cold, and for being eight in the evening the town looked pretty dead... and dilapidated. Moreover, the street where my hostel was located seemed to be abandoned, how could my cool hostel  - rated one of the best in the whole country - be there?
"Dilapidated" is an adjective that fits perfectly for Porto: the town centre is full of crumbling houses, but that's what makes Porto charming. As I learned during my stay there, the town is in such a state not because of poorness, but because wealthy people have chosen to move out of the historical town centre to more chic neighbourhoods, leaving centuries old townhouses in decay.  
Some of the decaying houses of Porto

Plenty of construction works in the historical centre means that something is being done to restore and use these beautiful old houses with colourful iron balconies and red-tiled roofs. Soon they won't be just dusty skeletons with broken glasses, but something more, hopefully a reminder of the history of the town. 

A windowsill in the centre of Porto

In the historical centre of Porto
The best place to experience the charm of Porto is Ribeira, the area along the river Douro with breathtaking views of the famous iron bridge Dom Luis I. I took a walk along the bridge to take pictures of the colourful houses, and then I explored a little bit of Vila Nova de Gaia, the town on the other side of the river, where the famous port wine is made. Even in the fog and with a cloudy sky, it was a very atmospheric walk in a part of the town where the time seems to have stopped.
Porto and the famous bridge Luis

View of Porto from the bridge Dom Luis I

Porto is full of churches whose outside walls are decorated in azulejos, these white-and-blue ceramic tiles that I learned to recognize during my travels through Portugal, Spain and Morocco. In Portugal they are such a distinctive architectural element that you can find them even in train stations - such as Sao Bento in Porto - or in tea houses.
Igreja do Carmo

Igreja de Santo Ildefonso

"Porto is an adventure in colours", writes José Saramago in his travelogue Journey to Portugal, and it is true: the colours of the houses in Porto left me speechless. Even the most humble houses have ceramic tiles, intricate and colourful iron railings, and perfectly-fitting windowpanes.

Colourful houses in Porto

A place that I didn't want to miss in Porto was Livraria Lello, one of the most famous bookshops in world. It is really beautiful inside, with an art deco staircase leading to a second floor, and a cosy café where you can sip a cup of coffee while reading something. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed, so I can show you only how it looks from the outside. To be honest, the shop attendants yelling at the customers not to take photos annoyed me a little: nobody wants to spend time looking at books in such a tense atmosphere.

Livraria Lello

The sun finally came out the last day I was in town. Porto looked liked like a completely different town now: without the gloomy skies, the colours of Porto came out in all their glory. I walked on my steps, retracing the spots that had a great potential for nice pictures: the iron bridge and the riverfront in both Ribeira and Vila Nova da Gaia, not to mention the esplanade near the cathedral.  Porto is the kind of town that does not have a lot of sights to visit, but that charms with its views, its colours and with the warmth of its people. It may feel gloomy at times, as if the town had seen better days and is now mostly left to itself, but I think that's what makes it special.

View of Porto with the sun

View of Porto

Backstreets of Porto

View of Porto from the Bridge Dom Luis I

View from Vila Nova da Gaia
Eating a francesinha by the riverside, and of course not being able to finish it, was another thing I was able to enjoy in the sunshine during my last day in Porto. This huge sandwich with many different kinds of meat, melted cheese, a beer sauce and French fries is typical of Porto: not exactly a light meal, but one that you can enjoy after a long morning through the streets of Porto, climbing staircases and going uphill only to go down again.

Not finishing my francesinha. Problems of being in Porto

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