Where is Porto?
Porto might be Portugal’s second-largest city today, a modern metropolis home to 240, 000 people, but the heart of it still lies in the medieval old city, the Ribeira. The Ribeira district begins along the banks of the River Douro and spreads up into the hills behind. From the top of the Dom Luis Bridge you get a bird’s-eye view down onto its maze of streets and colourful buildings, and I couldn’t wait to get down there to explore.
On an unseasonably warm, sunny February day, the cafés and restaurants that line the waterfront were packed. We took a walk along to the main riverfront square, the Praça da Ribeira, which is surrounded by tall narrow buildings tiled in pastel shades of red, yellow and blue. The square is filled with café tables which overflow with tourists in the summer. But as you move away from the bustle here by just a few streets it’s like you’ve suddenly stepped back in time by a few centuries.
The Ribeira has been the commercial centre of Porto since Roman times, when a shipping port was set up here which gave the city its name. Over the next 2000 years it grew as a hub for shipments from across the world, and the mix of architecture that developed over the years means it’s now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. But today the Ribeira has a decaying grandeur, with the elegant buildings that cascade down towards the river falling into disrepair.
From the Praça da Ribeira we headed up steep stone stairs cut into the hillside. Pathways twist and turn through narrow alleyways and buildings towering above almost block out the light, so it doesn’t take long to get completely disorientated, but that’s the best way to see the Ribeira. Many of the buildings are deserted, left to crumble as younger residents leave Porto to live in the suburbs. It’s estimated a fifth of the old town’s buildings have been abandoned, but there are signs of life even in the most dilapidated-looking streets.
Washing lines stretch across the alleyways, wrought-iron balconies are filled to bursting with plant pots and there are satellite dishes perched on the tiled frontages. And then you come across hidden gems, like a tiny neighbourhood restaurant tucked away down a side street. Or a Baroque church with an beautifully tiled frontage. Or a viewpoint where the buildings drop away and you can see out over the terracotta-tiled rooftops across the city, down to the Duoro and on towards the sea.
You also come across construction sites, where parts of the Ribeira are being restored and redeveloped. The district’s layout and medieval buildings are being preserved so repairing the Ribeira is a slow and pricey process. But until then its a place to wander and lose yourself – until you suddenly find yourself at the top of the hill and you’re back among the people, the cars, buses and trams of twenty-first century Porto.