Today I ran down to the Douro River and headed west. Whenever we arrive at a new place, I take a leisurely let’s-get-acquainted run, where the stakes are low. It’s okay to get mildly lost, even if it seems impossible to lose your way when you’re running along a river.
Across the Douro, in Gaia, big signs atop stone warehouses proclaimed many of the familiar English and Scottish names — Dow’s, Taylor’s, Offley, Sandeman, Warre…
A delegation of Englishmen arrived hundreds of years ago, looking for wine. War with France had choked off England’s traditional sources, and the rich were thirsty. The gentlemen sampled the local fortified wine, pronounced it excellent and, like Victor Kiam of Remington fame, they bought the company.
Actually they bought pretty much all the companies, and these gentlemen’s descendants still control much of the trade in port wine. They were later joined by Germans, and now many Portuguese are also in on the action.
Airbnb in Porto
We’re staying on Rua das Flores, a street packed with shops and tourists, which serves as one of several pedestrian funnels that feed mobs of tourists to the waterfront.
When our cab driver from the airport first pulled up to our Airbnb rental, he remarked that ten years ago he wouldn’t have risked coming to this street. He would have dropped us at the train station, two blocks away, and told us to walk.
Now it’s safe but, alas, crowded. Porto is in a rush to modernize and accommodate; to be the next Barcelona or Prague. Yellow construction cranes everywhere. Buildings in plastic shrouds. And bluetoothed tourists dutifully trooping behind their murmuring guides.
You hear that Porto is becoming another monument to Airbnb, made unaffordable for locals. The old coffeehouses and street life have vanished, they tell you.
Travel enough, and it’s a familiar lament. “If you’d only seen [Porto…Prague…Athens… Barcelona] before….”
In a few years time, we’ll be making the same wistful comments: “Ah, if you’d only seen Porto back in 2018. Before they brought in midget wrestling and the Baby Olympics.”
Stay on the backstreets
Built on the banks of the Douro, Porto’s cobbled streets are often so steep they simply give up and become stairs. They could just as easily qualify as walls. You clamber to the top, duck through a doorway and find yourself in a postage-stamp square, surrounded by thumb-size Renaults and Skodas clinging to the cobbles like cats. How on earth did they get up here?
These dirty backstreets and alleyways, well away from the river, are the best part of Porto. Colourful laundry hanging from windows. Ramshackle houses next to hipster bars. Old people smoking. Cats blinking in the sun. And the mingled aromas of piss and frying chourico sausage.
Palestrina in Porto
High above the city, we lingered over a dinner of grilled sardines and fried hake, accompanied by a half-litre of local wine. Swallows swooped and darted in the gathering dusk. The mãe who hustled racks of sardines into and out of the barbecue came upstairs, drying her hands on her apron. She went from table to table, asking if the fish was to everyone’s liking.
Afterward we drifted downhill, pleasantly lightheaded and grateful.
Outside the Igreja da Misericórda (Church of the Misericord), a few steps from where we’re staying, we saw a knot of people at the door. A concert was about to begin.
Moments later, we were in a pew near the front as the thirty members of the Lapa Polyphonic Choir filed in, men and woman, all in black. The first piece, by Palestrina, left us moist-eyed and limp.
I find myself focusing on a girl in the front row of the choir. A little cross-eyed and with teased hair. Her lips form a perfect O on the vowels. The concentration on her face is perfect, and I feel the music of thirty voices come pouring from her mouth.
My last post, from Strasbourg, was rather dark. But this small concert of sacred music that concluded our second night here reminded me of the stubborn glories of humanity.