Porto in unabashed disarray By...


January 20, 2002|By Special to the Sun


Porto in unabashed disarray

By Kirkley Greenwell


My mother spent years instructing me in the virtues of cleanliness. Untidy was unattractive, she said. Cluttered and disorganized was not beautiful. And I believed her -- until I spent last July living and working in Porto, on the northern coast of Portugal. My stay there showed me the beauty of disorder.

My brief stint as a teacher for a summer English course gave me time to explore Portugal's second-largest city, the regional capital of the hard-working, conservative north. As a tourist destination, Porto lives in the shadow of glamorous Lisbon, but what the city lacks in polish it makes up for in its everyday collage of mismatched color and social contrast.

I learned a lot during my morning commute. My walk to the bus stop taught me that Porto is a vertical place -- not in the style of a New York skyline, but rather in the sense of leg-punishing hills. Narrow streets walled in by towering, often decrepit houses may give Porto a dark feel, but the windows above and the sidewalks below buzz with life.

I caught a bus that descended to the banks of the Douro River. We passed the Se, Porto's dignified cathedral. Just outside its walls, a parade of market stalls offered piles of underwear and dried fish -- a picture of poverty in the shadow of grandeur. It was a classic Porto collage: Third-World-style reality coexisting with stately beauty. The city shows all of its faces at once, it seems.

The best part of my bus ride was when we crossed the lofty bridge connecting the city with the south-bank suburbs. From high above I could admire the crowd of orange rooftops, few of them equal in height or size, many covered in patches of aluminum foil or a tangle of vines.

Yellow- and red-painted walls competed with rusted scraps of corrugated iron, and windows flapped with sheets and clothes hung out to dry. Thousands of tiles everywhere gave the city an appearance that an irreverent friend likened to that of a vast bathroom. For me, a girl who grew up among cookie-cutter houses in suburban America, the chaos of the city was a delight.

Though it is enjoying the limelight as European Capital of Culture 2001, Porto has yet to be scrubbed and sterilized for the benefit of tourists. In fact, the friendly disorder has temporarily increased for the sake of renovation and subway construction.

I can happily report, however, that the tourist trail still leads past street vendors guarding piles of fresh corn bread, and black-clad women scrubbing their laundry in concrete tanks. Porto remains a city unashamed of its character, and I have confidence that no amount of renovation will change that.

Kirkley Greenwell lives in Baltimore.


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