Why do we travel if we are not on holiday lying on a sunbed recovering from work? Is it about finding the inner landscape in the outer one? As we set off to Porto I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for. ‘Settling down’ has eluded me. I counted up recently how many times I had moved house and it was thirty-three. I am forty-nine next week, which means I have moved house every year and a half. And yet there I was, feeling excitement rising in my chest that I still may find a ‘forever disney home’. If I live to the age of my grandmother I am only half way through my life, so there is no pressure.
Doesn’t ‘porto’ mean ‘door’ in some languages…?
Was Porto the inner map? It was a little stressful finding somewhere to park the motorhome in the steep and winding streets of Via Nova de Gaia, the village to the south of the river where the port wine magic happens deep in caves. When we finally parked up overlooking the Douro on the way to the sea, I had a pink gin and Scott went off to get some air by the water’s edge.
We walked the few kilometres along the southern river bank, looking across to the city – colourful, intricate, climbing directly up the cliff-side. Even though I was looking across the river not at it, it seeped into my consciousness that I was out of focus. The Douro. Its all about the Douro. Deep, wide, dark currents, evident on the surface of muscular twists showing themselves, slyly. No boats in winter. Just steely gray. It was like realising you are being watched by a monster in the landscape. Is that an eye…?
We arrived opposite the Ribeira, the patchwork riverside cafes and tall houses. But in reality I was thundered down upon by the massive Gustave Eiffel double bridge spanning the river above and below. I could hardly believe this enormous structure existed. A pale gray exclamation to the river, who could handle it. It could handle anything. Any lesser bridge would have felt feeble in the face of this ancient sleeping water basilisk. I craned my neck to see the tiny figures crossing the bridge on the upper deck, dizzying, sixty metres up. I knew I would get vertigo on that bridge. The city clings to the rocky river canyon and inches its coloured way up to spread out on the top, to relax and breathe away at ease. You can get up there with a funicular, with a cable car, with a tram, with a thousand assorted steps.
Porto is dark where Lisbon is light. It is hidden and brooding. The heavy river has a magnetic hold on all it passes – like a sleepy dragon. Buildings and people are incidental here. Allowed to be there but not accommodated or noticed. The river will do its thing whatever. If ever a landscape owned a city it is Porto. It has adapted to fit the river, the cliffs. Dark aquamarine, grey granite, steep alleys and steps. Dark and bright – contrasts of shadows in sharp blocks of building faces, looking out.
We crossed the bridge and delved into the city. The streets were narrow and cobbled, twisting and shady. I shivered, then emerged into sunlit squares. Each sheer street we ascended, only brought us to another open space, another climb, more unexpected enormous churches and fountains. Revealing itself forever, slowly, reluctantly. Giving up its insides. I didn’t really get it. I emptied my mind but I couldn’t connect. We climbed and walked for hours. But when we looked at the map, we had not even explored one corner of the centre. It was deceptive. We stopped for lunch in a bright shaft of chilly sunlight. These sudden open spaces, like an exhalation of breath, are just what the river allows, nothing more. I could still sense it far below us, hugging the fringe of the city, supporting its convoluted urge to grow upwards and out.
In February, there was a mass of purposeful building works – bashing and ringing and dismantling. Clouds of dust and swinging timber. Was this the winter activity? Peeling, decaying, begrimed coloured fronts were being refurbished. So many derelict buildings, dusty broken windows, sagging stonework. Cracked art nouveau in swirled script from 1930, still selling paints, clocks and perfume. Stylish, old but not opulent, this was Italy without the bling. It felt as if the city was having a long awaited, much-deserved, noisy makeover. It was being revamped, saved from full decay, blushing in brass. The Douro doesn’t care; as it wends its lugubrious way to the sea, turquoise and shell pink stonework is polished. The tiled fronts will gleam from under their dust again. Porto meant business . It knew better times were ahead and was shaking its feathers.
Later we went into Livraria Lello, the impossible bookshop that is said to have inspired Flourish and Blott’s in Harry Potter. Scott told me that J.K. Rowling had lived in Porto when she was writing the first book. She was also an English teacher. It felt meaningful. I bought a collection of famous travel writing extracts and Scott bought Shakespeare’s sonnets. I realised that the familiar feeling at Coimbra was even more familiar here. Daisy grew up on Harry Potter, which meant I did too. Here was Diagon Alley, here was a narrow rickety lane leading into darkness and here was a fountain with the Griffindor beast leaping. Down by the river we had passed more scholars in flapping black cloaks. The woman in the bookshop told us that in Lisbon they drink coffee in cafes, but in secretive Porto they invite you into their homes. She looked at us darkly; she knew the difference.
Porto was disconcerting. In the evening, after drinking chilled port, we went into a late night wood carving and cork workshop. Miguel was working there. He was about sixty and smilingly gave us glasses of port and small canapes with jam and cheese. He told us he had spent his life travelling the world but had come home for a rest. He’d been in Lisbon for a few years but it was too busy. The people were transient, pressed. So he’d come back home to community. ‘Visit Lisbon,’ he counselled us as we left, ‘but live in Porto.’