The World’s Great Towns, June 1997
By the Editors
Climate: Vintner’s delight: hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters
Number of McDonald’s: 8
Gestalt: Old World rehab-in-progress
When a city tries to leap from the nineteenth century straight into the twenty-first, its metaphors are sure to get mixed. So it is with Porto, Portugal. In its medieval downtown, where a maze of cobbly streets, palm-treed squares, and granite cathedrals rises steeply from the banks of the Rio Douro, you might see the morning’s laundry
billowing off an ancient balcony — right next to a satellite dish. And three gracefully aging iron-girder suspension bridges, one of them designed by Alexandre Eiffel in 1877, share duties with a postmod concrete span soon to carry high-speed trains from Lisbon. Best known for its wonderfully subtle port wine, Porto (also called Oporto, but only by outsiders) finds itself
now playing the odd role of 3,000-year-old comer, discovered anew by students, artsy types, and venture capitalists flush with European Community currency. (Americans are still a novelty.) Despite this influx, the city remains something of a backwater, as does the surrounding countryside, where the villages and vineyards are as hilly, green, and unchanged as Brigadoon.
What’s Out There
The swimmable, surfable beaches of the Costa Verde aren’t far from downtown, though locals avoid the closest ones — boats anchored along the Rio Douro port have not always observed hygienic niceties, shame on them. Within the city proper, running is a popular pursuit, thanks to hometown marathon hero Rosa Mota. A quick flight to the south is Algarve, Portugal’s answer to the
Riviera (cheaper, less Euro-chic, almost as much visible flesh). And nearby Peneda-GerŠs National Park, the country’s one and only, has been called “Europe’s last wilderness,” what with its mountainy terrain, wild ponies, and vast, roadless outback. Less strenuous might be the journey upriver along the Douro, where terraced rows of vines from the thousands of area vineyards
climb from the bank; you can drive there, ride a train, or float on a barco rabelo, a boat once used to bring barrels of wine to a very happy town.
This is northern Portugal, the good folks of Porto will readily remind you. Southern Portugal, home to Lisbon and the Algarve, is by Portians’ reckoning giddy, sunny, overindulged, and in most ways overrated. Porto, on the other hand, assumes a city-that-works milieu, but in a Mediterranean kind of way. People like their lunches long, their wine plentiful, their business hours
short, and their coffee dark-roasted and strong (the locals once owned Brazil, after all). Crime is rare — unless it involves soccer. Last March, 18 Brits had to be hospitalized after a Manchester UnitedûPorto match. (Porto lost, and not gracefully.) But such rowdiness is uncommon. More often energy is expended less violently, as at Porto’s festa of Sƒo Joƒo,
which starts with mass but ends with dancing in the streets, platefuls of grilled sardines, gallons of vinho verde, and townspeople cheerfully bopping one another on the head with leeks. (Don’t ask.)
You want character? The Ribeira, a onetime red-light district, and the Barredo, a former fishing center, are drowning in it; think New Orleans’s Vieux Carr‰ overlaid onto Boston, complete with apocalyptic parking hassles. Overhauled nineteenth-century townhouses rent here for as much as several thousand dollars and rarely are for sale. Rehabbers can do better, however: The
redoubtable citizens of Porto prefer new construction, so architectural gems sit peeling, ignored, and cheap, usually selling for less than $150,000. Steer clear of Porto’s ‘burbs — Industrial Sprawlsville.
Nine to Five
Porto’s infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with its outsize ambitions: A new subway, for instance, is sinking within tar-like scandals and cost overruns. Even so, the city is transforming itself quickly from the agricultural to the ultrahigh-tech. IBM, Microsoft, GM, and PepsiCo have all opened plants nearby in the past five years, and the government positively drools at the thought
of entrepreneurs bringing cash, cash, cash. Plus, there’s the port wine trade, which holds little interest for Porto’s young people — familiarity, you know. Cozy up to an elderly vineyard owner whose children have skipped to Lisbon and you could find yourself afloat in liquid assets for life.
Ai, que a partida estß divartida, mas tenho que distilar meu vinho. (“Gosh, the soccer match sounds like fun, but I have some decanting to do.”)
There are millions of Americans living overseas, breaking markets, training armies, running businesses, framing constitutions, uselessly hanging out. It’s all God’s work, of course, but in spite of their official expatriate veneer, most of them look like Americans and, worse, act like it. An official Code of Behavior for
United States Citizens Living Elsewhere is long overdue. Here, then, are a few preliminary statutes.
Decentralize your (Western) brain and try to read some of the history and literature of your chosen country. Africa had no experience of the Renaissance, for instance, except as a spike in the slave trade. Similarly, it will help you understand Berliners if you can at least recognize the Reichstag.
You’re Not in Dubuque Anymore
Live where you are, not where you have been. In conversation with natives or with other Americans, refrain from holding forth on your adopted town or country for the first six months: You don’t know anything about it yet. Specifically, avoid all comparisons to “home.” It’s boring, and besides, part of the reason you are where you
are is that most aspects of life — work, whiskey, the opposite sex, food, music, toilet paper, and mass transit — are very much not what you got back in the Hawkeye State.
Let Go the Polypro
All Americans abroad look like jerks, and not just in comparison with the French. As the waning Cold War has required a lower military profile internationally and as we have refined our outdoor gear to the very dagger-point of hotness, looking stupid has become our primary obligation overseas. As wave after wave of hopeful,
history-free, fleece-clad Americans recolonize the world, they seem only prepared to jog and/or snowboard. The advice? When packing for the big move, just say no to that singlet.
Forgive Me, Lama
One fruitful but ill-used route towards assimilation is to attend church, however that institution is defined. No, you do not have to be religious. Yes, you do have to be well mannered and a bit intrepid, socially speaking. Be it Orthodox Christmas in Kazakhstan, a gamelan performance in the Thai highlands, or the drinking of
blood and milk in a Masai boma, such events can provide you with the keys to deepen your sense of place. — Guy Martin
Illustration by Gary Baseman