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Portrait Of Porto

September 28, 1997|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

PORTO, Portugal — Dusk was falling on a cobbled old street down by the River Douro. The spooky old cathedral was getting even spookier. Across the water, the port wine producers were closed up for the night. I looked up at a block of old tiled buildings and let my imagination wander only a little.

And suddenly, there in the buildings' place stood a line of 50-foot-tall, square-shouldered men in unmatched pajamas. Shades of blue, white, yellow and green. From each tall man's breast pocket poked the gray head of a tiny old lady or two, surveying the territory below and shouting updates to her counterparts up and down the line.

Then a horn sounded, or a scent wafted up from one of the waterfront restaurants, and the out-sized nightclothes melted back into reality: a row of wildly tiled buildings, roof lines forming perfect square shoulders, tile work forming pajama patterns, upstairs windows placed precisely where breast pockets would be.

Let me say quickly that I had tasted only a modest amount of Porto's most famous product. But I had been wandering all day through the streets of Portugal's second biggest city, the northern river-mouth settlement that is the birthplace of port wine, and if the local spirits don't play a few tricks on you here, the architecture may.

Instead of paint, most of central Porto's signature buildings are covered with painted and patterned tiles. Some tile works, known as azulejos, derive from 17th century techniques and are prized for their landscapes or scenes from Portuguese history. (In Lisbon, an entire museum is devoted to azulejos.) Other wall tiles are mass-produced patterns that deliver a bold effect, but carry no particular artistic distinction. No two adjacent tiled buildings seem to match, and tiling varies by generation of construction too.

Hence, in a certain light, in a certain frame of mind, in the close quarters of the city's oldest neighborhood, you get the men-in-pajamas effect. And in the Sa~o Bento train station downtown, at just about any hour, you're likely to find at least a few gawkers who have no train to catch at all: They've come to stand beneath the station's high ceilings and take in the grand tiled historical scenes.

Porto (some English-language atlases call it Oporto; its 325,000 residents and many others shorten that to Porto) is as hilly as San Francisco, has more iron balcony railings than New Orleans, more accumulated city grit than lower Manhattan. (Porto had a head start, its first cathedral having gone up in 1111.) Its civic emblem is the swooping, two-level Dom Luis I Bridge, which spans 564 feet across the Douro River, dates to 1886 and connects the crumbling yet lively Cais de Ribeira neighborhood with the more stately Vila Nova de Gaia district, home of the port houses.

Referring to that bridge and two others that cross the river nearby, French writer Paul Morand once mused that Porto had laid out its Eiffel towers horizontally. And in fact, the nearby (though less spectacular) Maria Pia Railway Bridge was designed by Eiffel himself in 1877.

In the surrounding countryside, within a three-hour drive, wait perhaps a dozen towns that date back to medieval times. When the passing of an hour needs marking in those towns, someone actually pulls a rope and rings the church bell, instead of playing a tape of bells ringing. In the central city, or in one of those town squares, it's easy to picture life in the 19th century, maybe even the 18th.

On the traffic-jammed broader boulevards of Porto, or among the undistinguished apartments and industrial parks that fringe the city, it's all too clear that we have arrived in the late 20th century, and that healthy chunks of Portugal's northern countryside, formerly quaint but impoverished, are being overtaken by middle-class suburbs and highway projects underwritten by European Union money.

Still, Porto's core remains thick with atmosphere. Having been left off of the leisure travel industry's A-list, it doesn't knock itself out for tourists. And for a certain kind of tourist, that's an attraction. Last spring, I spent a week in Porto and several neighboring towns, steering my rented car on a route that led north to Viana do Castelo, and east to Guimara~es and Amarante, with Barcelos and Braga along the way. The weather was wet and 60ish; fall is usually drier, with average highs about 65, and the grape harvest in vineyards along the Douro reaching full intensity in late September.

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