The first thing to remember about Porto, Portugal, is that its main train station isn’t downtown. You have to hop a local to São Bento station. I didn’t, and had a nocturnal walk of about a half hour through blue-collar districts that occasionally made me feel edgy in the total dark. (Why is it that when you see a lot of policemen walking their night beats in a strange town you tend to expect the worst?)
The main station is served by a bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel, a bit of international engineering trivia locals are wont to puff with pride about. (And don’t call it Oporto; that’s a British gaffe as galling to indigenes as calling San Francisco Frisco—think Port wine to keep yourself in tune with their idiolect.)
Anyway, by the time I hit CENTRO I was too pooped to be picky. But I was also low on escudos, so at the first stop there was no room for me because they didn’t take Visa. Next stop was around the corner—at the Hotel São Joao, 8,000 escudos. No matter, it was Visa-ble, and I was ready for bed.
A nice one, on the fourth floor of a commercial block, with funky Art Nouveau sconces for the hall lights, delicious two-tone (brown and beige) floor marquetry, and a color TV that worked—though my Portuguese didn’t, for on the more interesting channel, a Pinteresque fable brilliantly acted made me wish I were up to their speed in the language.
Breakfast was superbly Continental; with the thickest, most well-grilled toast I have yet eaten anywhere on earth, and endless, strong black coffee. All of this on elegant plate and cutlery, with a maid obviously more used to serving counts than no-accounts like me.
An added attraction was a 25-year-old glass salesman from Tel Aviv, with opinions as bold as the Bulgarian antecedents of his parents—who fled to Israel after the communists took over in Sofia. He made the point several times that the Nazis had never messed with the Jews there. “Bush has balls” was his post-Gulf summation: I didn’t have the early morning heart to ask him if Bush really knew what to do with those cojones. And he was too opinionated for me to try to do a William Safire on him about Iraq-gate.
He did give me first-hand accounts on him and the SCUDs: “Tel Aviv is always such a sociable place, but after the first attacks it was a ghost town after dark—that was the weirdest part of it.” On Arabs: “They’re such children. They get off on fantasy so easily. Imagine Arafat changing his strong position for the quick dream of Hussein’s destroying Israel.” He was almost as good as the toast, this Bulgarian-bred Israeli.
São Joao (St. John the Evangelist) is the patron saint of the city. And on my visit I tried to check into “his” hotel. But it had long ago been fully booked, as Oportans come home en masse for an all-night spring revel. I was puzzled by the way everybody was bopping each other on the noggin with day-glo plastic mallets—until the woman at the Tourist Office explained that the ritual was originally a young lady’s laying claim to a lad she lusted after by laying him about the skull with a sheaf of onions!
Believe me, the plastification of that annual rite is one of the tackiest comedowns, visually, of any tradition I have ever encountered.
Out on the street—Avenida Republica, to be exact—I started to check out S. Bento station, where I should have arrived in the first place. It’s a grand 1910-era edifice, with humongous blue tile murals—an especially attractive one of Vasco da Gama taking Ceuta. And lovely later-era ones on the wall facing the street of a choo choo, clock hands, and a bell—a metaphor for the new time-controlled-railways-commuter’s sweetly harsh life. At the bottom of the Square is an equestrian statue of Dom Pedro IV, with homages being paid to soldiers in 19th Century revolutionary struggles.
I had noted a poster in the café next to my hotel advertising a major Portuguese photography show in the Galeria de Praca. But it didn’t open until 10. So I cruised up the Avenida looking for the Tourism Office. It wasn’t open until 9, so I explored the marvelously baroque Trinity Church and got thrown out of City Hall for going in the wrong entrance.
The Tourism Office lady was a multilingual marvel. She whipped out a map marked with all of Pritzker Prize architect Siza Viera’s big works in the city and showed me how to find his office—way, way up the Rua Alegria. Unless you’re a born mountain climber, or want to subsidize their taxi business, you’d better get one of their mass-trans deals, because the ups and downs and ins and outs of Porto can be not only tiring but misleading. I took a back street “short cut” behind the cathedral and ended up in a scruffy quarter above the river that was sheerly perpendicular—and as hard to get out of as to get into.
While waiting for the photo gallery to open up, I started sizing up a bus inspectors’ kiosk in front of it. It was attenuated Arte Nova, but the windows (which could be really savored from the inside) were stained jobbies of a stunning beauty. Later, I dragged the gallery director out into the street—not exactly kicking and screaming, but shall we say deeply skeptical—to share my newfound joy with her. “WOW,” was her astonished response. She’d not had the curiosity to duck her head in.
There’s a lesson in her “temporary” blindness that I intend to explore at a greater length at a later date (99% of us are afflicted with esthetic cataracts that deny us rightful, daily pleasures). Right now I want to thank her for opening my eyes to the greatest local photographer. She and her colleague also gave me the full particulars on the dazzling rehab of an old book store that is their current exhibition space. The “architect” is an engineer who “took a course in interior design in Italy” and also happens to be the co-owner’s son.
After my luminous visit to Siza Viera’s atelier, I sought out the ancient photographer’s former studio at 120 St. Catherine’s Street. At the Grand Hotel, where I was checking out their gorge-until-you-die luncheon buffet, they said I’d find his former shop next to the Majestic Café. Holy Toledo. Instead of his shop, I found the grandest, most glorious Beaux Arts / Arts Nouveau café in history. I sat right down, ordered a café solo (i.e., alone, or without milk), and a pastille de Belem, a lip-smackable custard treat, while I dawdled in regal splendor over my International Trib.
The real reason, of course, for an architecture buff to come to Porto is Siza. He scorns international acclaim, preferring to teach at his U. and finish his masterwork, the new Architectural Faculty, overlooking the Douro River on a splendid site. He gives honor back to the term Modernism, because this complex of buildings has no PoMo gewgaws on it—but ingenious sun-breaks.
Simplicity, even austerity, also characterizes the old classroom building adjacent to the new Faculty. It is not a sterile less-is-more geometry, but a least-is-most sort of sensitivity to materials and site. It was also a joy to schmooze with the students, who appreciate the generosity and genius of their hero. They know how lucky they are. He is insuring that the future of Porto (and Portuguese) architecture is in good hands.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, March 2, 1994
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