Dutch Diaries: A Tale of One City

by Thea Byrd / Beacon Correspondent • February 12, 2014

I only spent 36 hours in Porto, but during that time, I got to see two completely different sides of the same city. The second largest city after Lisbon in Portugal, Porto is known for its postcard-perfect views, late-night club scene, and port wine. The duality of the city in the day versus in the night made the task of seeing the city so much more daunting.

Being able to see Porto at three in the morning and three in the afternoon made it clear this was a place attempting to reconcile two eras and two cultures: by night, it was a thriving city, brightly lit and populated by tourists. 

During the day, Porto was nearly empty, so I had tourist spots like the cathedrals and bridges almost to myself. It was practically a ghost town, even on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and although the city was beautiful in the sunlight, the light of day made it clear that it was falling apart. Houses were in disrepair, mangy dogs growled from abandoned buildings, and some parts of the city seemed to be getting taken over by ivy and weeds. The history was breathtaking and almost shocking among the decaying modern structures.

Upon arriving in the city, I had no idea that I would see such a distinct contradiction. Walking among the historical sites, I never expected to stumble upon the nightlife scene. There were bars with fireplaces and live bands, speakeasies with comfy chairs and red velvet curtains, and clubs with strobe lights and DJs. Everywhere I turned, I heard a new language. Three blocks of historic Porto were filled with people from all over the world.

But the next day, this same block was totally vacant. With the sun came another magical city—the same one physically, but completely different in appearance. Instead of black night and glowing lamps in the rain, the sun bounced off the river, rippling in the breeze. The cheerful pink and yellow houses popped out from under their terracotta roofs, and Porto seemed much more welcoming.

Where there had once been crowds of young foreigners everywhere, locals walked their dogs, carried home groceries, and sat on park benches, enjoying the respite from the merciless rain among the towering churches and ancient ruins integrated into the city. The sidewalks too were beautiful in the sun, their blue and white tiles arranged in the shapes of flowers. Even if the houses were collapsing, I just had to look down to find the beauty and former wealth of this city in their artistic street tiles.

By the river, I partook in a Porto tradition while basking in the watery sunlight: drinking port wine, looking up into the blue sky that was interrupted by the steeples of ancient churches. From a distance, the city looked propitious; brightly-painted, charmingly wrapping around the hill, climaxing in the Porto Cathedral. Yet I had seen with my own eyes the disarray of the city up close, the graphitized bricks, the dilapidated houses, and skinny street cats wandering the historic sites.

Porto was a city of contradictions: by day, a stunning city full of bright colors and a few locals, while at night it became dark and mysterious. Historically dominating and prosperous, but now, like much of Europe, falling quite literally to pieces. Walking across the magnificent bridges, I felt like a queen, yet the people themselves seemed to be living like peasants. The mix of the barely-preserved old grandeur and the new squalor, blankets thrown across tiny balconies, and hollow houses lining entire blocks, was tragically beautiful. The people live their lives, reminded underfoot and overhead of the previous prestige of a city that is still so beautiful for me as a tourist, but falling apart from neglect.