Jose Saramago, in his diary of Travel in Portugal, defined the city of Porto as “a hard mystery made of dark streets”. Not to contradict a Nobel prize, but the Port that welcomed us a few months ago, at the beginning of the summer, is a sunny and peaceful city, easy enough to decode and very easy to love. The Douro River flows peacefully, tourists flock to the narrow streets of the Ribeira, the most typical neighborhood near the river, and the walls of the center are full of posters announcing concerts, festivals, events of all kinds.
Then we returned to Porto even in December, and then the threatening photographs evoked by Saramago, seemed much more credible and realistic. When it rains in Porto, the Atlantic rain spreads like a sea that rises, envelops everything, and lashes over the city non-stop, sometimes for days. In the steep streets flow streams of rainwater and the buildings become more gloomy and austere than they really are. It doesn’t matter if they date back to the 19th century, such as the Palacio da Bolsa or the 12th century, such as the Sé do Porto cathedral (an imposing Romanesque church-fortress overlooking the Ribeira district from above) and the Paço Episcopal (a former bishop’s residence, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site); It doesn’t matter if they were built in the late eighteenth century as The Church of the Clerics (in Baroque style, is surmounted by the Tower of the Clerics, one of the most recognizable monuments of the city) or that, as the Igreja de San Francisco, they found together the Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque styles. In short, the centuries-old pedigree of the palaces does not matter: when it rains Porto takes up all the imaginary linked to its status as an Atlantic city, “Port on the Ocean” and “do norte” destination. In those days even the azulejos of the wonderful entrance of the Old Station of Porto, Sāo Bento, take on a somewhat gloomy, threatening, disturbing tone, like coils of an obscure design and not like solar ceramic arzigogles that should make the traveller feel at home.
Between bacalao, soup and gourmet cuisine
Luckily, as we said, this is not always the case, but it is advisable to calculate that even in summer the climate in the area is mild, but with abrupt excursions: if during the day, with the sun beating you can turn quietly in summer, in the evening, to eat the francesinha (toasted sandwich of meat and ham covered with melted cheese with potatoes and egg in the eye of an ox) or fresh fish along the Douro, you need to wear a jacket and sweatshirt. Speaking of Douro and Ribeira, at lunch we found a family-run trattoria active since 1974, Casa Lopez, in one of the alleys parallel to Cais da Ribeira, the tourist road that overlooks the river. A little place where you can find all the magic roots of the daily life of the city. In this trattoria full of azulejos in Rua de Cima do Mouro, a bacalao and a soup cost less than five euros and when we went, we had at our side a policeman, three workers, and four patrons, fixed in that place as the furniture … try to intercept it yourself, it is not difficult to recognize it: it is the most shabby of the entire street, but the offer of the menu, if you appreciate the sincere cuisine and without frills, is really admirable. The perfect a la carte counterbalance of this noble hovel will be celebrated while dining at “DOP”, the restaurant of Rui Paula, one of the most famous chefs in the country. Expect to spend a considerable amount of money, but also two hours of tasting of truly amazing dishes, gourmet pairings and exceptional wines, including a handcrafted chocolate chupa-chups accompanied by a 1999 port.
Beyond the river and beyond the centre
If you want to visit some wine cellars and taste the famous port Sandeman, you just have to go to the other side of the Douro, taking advantage of a boat or a walk through the Luiz I Bridge (skillful, imposing, iron construction by the school of Eiffel) that connects the city with Vila Nova de Gaia, on the opposite bank.
To intercept museums and galleries, contemporary art enthusiasts must leave the city centre a little. First, head for the Serralves Museum, designed by the architect Álvaro Siza Vieira, and surrounded by an enchanting park that covers an area of 18 hectares, then head for Rua Miguel Bombarda, west of the center (a street full of art galleries, including the beautiful Papa-Livros that combines the sale of picture books for children to art exhibitions), finally “map” the Centro Comercial Bombarda (a pole with large exhibition spaces).
Nightlife landmarks and the Mercadinho dos Clerigos
In recent years, Porto, also thanks to the fact that it was chosen as a hub by low cost airlines, lives a sort of “Renaissance” linked to tourism and the development of the city in the sign of a sophisticated and elegant modernity, but some of its districts maintain the DNA of a scruff without redemption that is also part of its charm and twilight.
These contrasts diminish at night. Porto is a city with a lively nightlife and the calendar of events in the city centre is first and foremost marked by the programme of the Casa da Musica. It was built between 1999 and 2005 (the project was designed by architect Rem Koolhas) and soon became the central hub of the concert programme in northern Portugal. But there are also clubs that unleash a counter-programming, sometimes even more interesting than institutional places. First of all, Passos Manuel, in Rua Passos Manuel 137, a former cinema that still looks like a cinema but has been converted mainly into a concert hall. Then there is Mazem do Chà, in Rua Josè Falcao. Literally it means “Tea Warehouses”, but don’t be fooled, it has nothing to do with tea. It’s another one of those indefinable Portuguese clubs, a mix of pubs, clubs and clubs with live music…or a mix of the three. It is located in a very large building, on two floors and with three rooms. Finally the Plano B, in Rua Cândidos dos Reis, 30 which is much more than a club, rather an interdisciplinary place on two floors with a series of large rooms with exhibitions of visual arts and design, conferences, theater, dance, film festivals and workshops, cafeteria, as well as a multipurpose space to host concerts and DJ sets. Founded in December 2006 by the architects Bernardo Fonseca, Philip Teixeira and the musician artist Joao Carlos Teixeira, Plano B programs every year many concerts and dj sets (including those of Nuno Forte, a native dj, one of the stars of planetary house music) that have transformed the place into a real reference point for hipsters in the area and the tyrants of any nationality.
The staff at Plano B also oversees the organisation of the Mercadinho dos Clerigos, a vintage flea market and antiques opened in 2007 in Rua Cândido dos Reis and held once or twice a month. If someone doesn’t find “the old book they’ve been looking for for a long time” in the Mercadinho dos Clérigos (or if it doesn’t happen in Porto on the days it’s held), they can always turn for another attempt towards the city’s most famous bookshop: the Livraria Lello and Irmão, another Unesco heritage and architectural jewel, a real cultural institution and a tourist attraction (since the news that inspired some passages of the Harry Potter saga spread, you have to queue up to enter). The waiting time is worth it, however: and it is an intimate pleasure, personal, because inside are forbidden photos, selfie and chatter too loudly.