Porto – More than just a harbour


von Maria Pussig

Porto – More than just a harbour


von Maria Pussig

Just a few years ago, Portugal seemed to be the insider’s tip among southern European destinations. Unless one was blessed with an adventurous, travel-loving nature, Europe’s south often ended up with pizza, pasta and gelato on the Adriatic coast for the average German-speaking consumer. The fact that this region of Europe also has its charms, and rightly so, should not be underestimated at this point. In recent years, however, it has become clear that the desire to travel and discover can pay off, as a glance at Portugal quickly confirms. Especially the urban centres, which often look back on a history that goes back to Roman antiquity or even further, are the centre of interest for visitors with their cultural offerings and innovative concepts. Reason enough to take a closer look at Porto, one of these cities.

Porto at a glance

Located in the north of the country, the city is a centre of the region in many respects: culturally and culinary, historically and politically, geographically and economically. It is not for nothing that Porto is affectionately called “Portugal’s secret capital” by its 238,000 inhabitants. These attributes are due not least to the city’s geographical location and history. Porto is strategically located directly on the Atlantic Ocean, on the north bank of the Douro River, which flows into the ocean there. The city owes its name to this fact, which translated into German means “port” and thus refers to Porto’s most important cultural and economic pillar. There is evidence of the commercial importance of the port city as early as the time of the Roman occupation, which finally reached its peak in the age of European expansion.

Even today, the metropolitan area of Porto is not only the most important economic conurbation in the north, but in the country as a whole, although today the port plays a rather secondary role and has been replaced by the textile and leather industries. At the same time, Porto proves that it is possible for a city to have a thriving economy as well as a rich cultural offer. Even more: to understand the former as part of the latter.

Kathedrale von Porto; © Anajim

Historical beginnings

In order to better understand Porto’s present and thus all current cultural processes, it is first of all advisable to look back at its history. As already mentioned, the city played a decisive role for the empire in Roman antiquity, but it is less known to the general public that the first settlements of the Castro culture were already established in the Iron Age in what is now the greater Portos area. This is indicated by archaeological finds that have been and continue to be discovered during excavations, but also by chance during construction work in the city. The fact that the legacy of the Castro culture is nevertheless important, despite its rather low profile, is particularly evident in the theorising surrounding the naming of the city of Porto. This could not be completely clarified, but is basically based on the first naming of the region by the Castro culture as “Cale”. Over the centuries, this developed into the Roman name “Portus Cale”, from which not only the current city name “Porto” is derived, but also the name of an entire country: “Portugal”.

This alone shows the extent to which Porto has played a true pioneering role in the history of the entire rest of the country, and would continue to do so, for example, when Alfonso I Henriques founded the Portuguese kingdom.

Cultural developments in the present

It is therefore not unusual for Porto to have elevated its own historical heritage to a fixed star of the local cultural scene. To realise this, all it often takes is a purposeful stroll through the city. If you know what to look for, Porto’s old town itself becomes one big open-air museum. It is particularly attractive to see how Roman city walls, Baroque churches and modern architecture, among other things, come together to form a powerful composition that pointedly expresses the often ambivalent yet harmonious character of this city. The city’s numerous museums, galleries, concert halls etc. also remain true to this motto, giving space to both young initiatives (such as the Sismógrafo art gallery) and time-honoured customs (e.g. at folk festivals in honour of San João), thus offering something for every taste. In its entirety, however, Porto’s wide range of cultural institutions can be seen as the icing on the cake of an urban design that, thanks to its own history, is a synthesis of the arts in itself. It is for this reason that the old town of Porto has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996 and was the European Capital of Culture in 2001.

People and power

Another contribution to the city’s lively cultural life is made by its international residents – a fact that is also historical in nature. As a seafaring nation and colonial power, Portugal began exploring and gradually conquering its first territories in Africa as early as the 15th century, followed over the centuries by colonies on almost every continent, with Brazil certainly being one of the largest of its kind. The last colony, the former Portuguese overseas province of Macau, was only returned to the People’s Republic of China in 1999.

Throughout the country’s colonial history, Porto has been an important constant as a port city: Ships sailed and arrived loaded with goods from all over the world, were traded and processed there. With them came the people who today contribute to the city’s intercultural mosaic.

Liberdade Square mit Statue “Pedro IV”, © Smirre

After an extensive tour of the city, it is therefore advisable not only to enjoy local specialities such as port wine and francesinha as refreshments, but also to stop off at one of the numerous Brazilian or Mozambican restaurants. These are a practical testimony to the fact that history and culture are by no means static phenomena, but processes of change that continue in the present.

Modern city with historical charms

Those who want to experience Porto in a real-life way can look forward to a city that looks back on a centuries-old cultural heritage, cultivates it and makes it accessible to the public. At the same time, it is also aware of the task of interpreting this heritage in the face of current events, taking a stand on it and thus giving space to new cultural creation. The levels and forms of expression that offer themselves to experience this character of the city are manifold and range from a simple walk with a visit to a café to a worldly discussion evening in the gallery. Because Porto is many things and has many things to offer – including, in case of doubt, pizza, pasta and gelato.

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