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The Textures of Porto: What Makes a City Beautiful?

porto womanHave you ever struggled to see what someone else finds beautiful? “Look!” your partner says with a smile, “Isn’t that tree absolutely beautiful?!”

Staring at the emaciated lopsided trunk with 3 blooming red flowers, you smile, “Yeah hon, it’s sweet, but not sure I’d call that beautiful.”

“What do you mean? It’s stunning in this light? How could you not see it?”

It’s hard to “see” what someone else sees, isn’t it? I say this because Ryan and I had a very similar experience of Porto. If I’m to be honest, I wasn’t ecstatic to move to a city known for its gray wet skies and gale force winds. Having spent many vacations in Maine as a child, I was perfectly familiar with the the Atlantic climate and wasn’t prepared for its intensity after living on the Mediterranean for the better part of a decade. Add to this my concern that Porto is less than quarter in size to Barcelona, making the transition a dramatic one. No, I didn’t really want to move to Porto, despite the never ending praise it received. “You’ll love Porto, it’s such a beautiful city!”

Hmmm, really?

Currently celebrating week three, I’m just starting to experience its underbelly to get a fuller picture of its magnetism and attraction. Only now am I able to walk the narrow cobbled streets by the stunning Se Cathedral and unconsciously feel my jaw drop in awe at the vibrant color of each building, the small flowerpots teeming with spring daisies, the fat cats sprawled on cement steps basking in the evening light.

Only now can I say that this city is by far one of the most magical places I’ve ever lived, but not for the reasons you might imagine. Unlike the perfectly coiffed and manicured streets of Chicago, or the imposing and dramatic boardwalks of Madrid, Porto is a city of layers. Imagine a huge canvas of multidimensional textures of various colors and strokes, a masterpiece that never stops changing, moving, developing, destroying and recreating itself. Porto is the antithesis of sterile, it’s a never-ending collage.

The layers are composed of intricate tiles that vary in size, color and shape: small yellow daisies on white circular petals propped on a sea blue background, upside down green triangles, solid red brick tiles separated by gleaming white lines of cement. Each of these tiles are unique, suffering various breaks, nicks, cracks and scratches from centuries of exposure. Many walls lack a complete layer of porcelain squares and have been replaced by simple plaster and paint – mimicking the dominate color of the tile, left naked and exposed with cracking cement, or are brought to life with youthful expressions and debate through thick spray-painted lines of graffiti.

Porto 2Rather than see a cookie cutter effect of architectural sameness, here you’ll never find 2 azulejos that are exactly the same.

It was this realization that slowly turned my sour expression into joy. In many metropolitan cities, people pay big money to mimic the European “effect”. There is a distinct value placed on “looking” old. Yet here in Porto, each and every corner, door and window has a story, and it’s not fabricated or trendy. It’s simply Porto’s tale.

To think that an individual had to lay each tiny square stone in the sidewalk to create an elaborate black and white pattern, each porcelain tile across a building’s facade and each iron terrace to highlight handcrafted wooden french doors. It’s these small interwoven details that make up a city’s personality. It’s these tiny, and often unobserved, intricacies that form a stunning tapestry.

To understand what makes a city beautiful, I’ve come to realize that you need to look at the complete picture. Similar to judging an entire country on a handful of individuals, you cannot fully appreciate Porto without  including the glamorous Palacio da Bolsa; the graceful Dom Luis  metal bridge that spans the Douro River; the thick moss that creeps into every crevice and crack throughout the city; the warm embrace of locals who guide you to your next directions or the delicious homemade soups that evaporate any chill acquired by the cold winter rain. And of course, one cannot forget the simple moments of a glass of Tawny Port next to a roaring fire.

Porto is authentic, elegant and gritty, where the sterility of franchised shops and retail chains have yet to infiltrate the city center. It’s where consideration still exists among strangers and chivalry is displayed to women who need a seat or a hand getting down from the/ bus. (Photo by Messlr)

To be clear, modernity is coming and many streets in Porto are being snatched up for their commercial value, but even in this urban revolution, the charm and personality is still very much present.

Porto is beautiful.

Gabriella Opaz

  • garry

    It is a truly livly lovly city

    • gabriellaopaz

      Lovely for sure, but I would reserve lively for dry and sunny summer months :)

  • http://www.andrerib.com andrerib

    Beautiful post Gabriella. It’s a great feeling when we discover what makes a place so special. Specially when we are lucky enough to be living in it!

    • gabriellaopaz

      Thanks Andre! To be honest, very few places in the world, if any, don’t contain some level of magic. However, I do believe it’s our responsibility (or choice) to look for it :)

  • quevedo

    Do you really see it beautiful Gabriella? I’d expect it would take some more months for you to come with this statement. I’m happy to see it now.

    • gabriellaopaz

      I do see it Oscar! Unlike Barcelona, where I felt beauty dripped from every corner, Porto shows her brilliance in a much different way. It’s not face value, but rather in the people, the vibe and the personality of the city.

  • Bill

    Great perspective. Loved your thoughts on the “interwoven details”. Looking forward to a visit. Now I know when NOT to come. :)

    • gabriellaopaz

      Thank you Bill and you are always welcome here. Just aim for June or July :)