Thursday 27 June 2013
Our first day in Porto was a challenge because I was both sick and sleep-deprived. Nevertheless, we were determined to explore this most interesting city, so I just traipsed around behind Susie pretending it was “walk like a zombie” day.
We headed off down Rua 31 de Janeiro where Susie and a shoe seller had an extended Mexican stand-off. Susan was determined to spend at least an hour there trying on every sandal in stock and then walking out empty-handed—as she had done so many times before in so many shoe shops across the north of Spain. But the saleswoman in this particular shop had a steely glint in her eye: this time it was going to be different. This time it was Shoe-Horns at High Noon.
Everyone else fled the shop to avoid getting caught in the cross-fire. (I was safe, since I already appeared to be completely dead.) Susie asked me several times in different ways whether the sandals looked good on her, but all I could say was “Brains … must … eat … brains.” When it came to the final showdown with the saleswoman, Susie actually bought a pair of dressy white sandals. As she was punching the pin number of her Mastercard into the EFTPOS machine, I saw the saleswoman surreptitiously blow some cordite off the top her shoehorn. And I swear I heard the jangly guitar track of an Ennio Morricone tune as we stepped out into the blazing sun and traipsed off down the hill towards the Rio Douro.
I had finally learned something about shopping and travel. Sometimes—rarely, but sometimes—you might actually buy something.
At the bottom of the hill we passed through a train station that was decorated with amazing tile work, and then we traipsed up the other side of the valley, pausing often to try and make sense of the baffling maps that we had been given. Porto has obviously expanded in an anarchic fashion over a fairly steep terrain, so it is not an easy place to navigate. But the tourist maps are diabolical. None of the street names seem to match up, and most of the detail is covered up by pictures of monuments we were not interested in visiting. We were looking for the Crystal Palace, which did not seem to feature on any of the maps.
As we felt sure that we were nearing the elusive palace, we stopped in a small, formal garden, largely because I wanted Susie to bury me there and be done with it. I was beginning to cough up stuff which was the colour of something I have only ever seen before in The Exorcist. While Susie was looking for a shovel, however, I spied a banner advertising a free exhibition of Portuguese photography. This saved me from immanent internment.
The exhibition was located in a former gaol, so the building was every bit as interesting as the exhibitions that it housed. We paid particular attention to an exhibition of winning entries in a photojournalism competition. Most of the images were concerned with the social effects of the European economic crisis, so this afforded us a glimpse of life that is usually hidden from the tourist’s eye.
After this fascinating and fortuitous diversion, we headed off into the garden of the crystal palace where we finally discovered that the Crystal Palace itself was long gone and all that remained was the eponymous garden. Our disappointment was short-lived, however, because the gardens were cool and shady and they afforded lovely views of the Rio Douro below. Evidently it was a favoured location for young couples to meet and explore each other’s pharyngeal anatomy.
When we eventually worked out how to leave the gardens, we headed down to the river and traced its northern bank heading west towards a restaurant we wanted to visit. We found ourselves walking through an intriguing neighbourhood of old riverside residences. Some were old and boarded up, but many were also clearly inhabited and well-looked after. Women hung out of the windows to peg out their washing and gossip with a neighbour. The architecture scoped out behind the terrace rows on the hillsides at variable angles. This gave the cityscape a geometric complexity that is both hard to describe and hard to capture in a photograph. This was a part of Porto that seemed to be suspended between decay and renewal. Could renewal preserve the intricate charm of this working-class, riverfront neighbourhood? Only time will tell.
We strolled past fishermen with enormous, pendulous bellies who cast lines into the Douro and exchanged banter in a language that for us lay just on the far side of comprehension. We noticed many young people sitting around, and wondered whether this was a sign of the high youth unemployment rate in Portugal.
When we finally reached the restaurant we were looking for, we found that it was closed, so we trudged our way back up Rua 31 de Janeiro to the tiled church that always told us we were close to home—the Igreja de Santo Ildefonso. We dropped into a café that was just around the corner from our apartment on the plaza and drank a few beers with the locals, most of whom were much younger and hipper than us. The plaza was evidently a “happening” spot for night life. It happened all over again that night, very noisily, right beneath our window. But we closed the shutters up again. Susie retreated into her iPod and I put my trusty earplugs in and made sure I was full of enough paracetamol to keep my temperature in the normal range for at least four hours.