There’s no city like Porto. And precisely because I know there’s nowhere quite like it, I will always long to roam all others: European, African, Asian, American. Yet, it is always in the light of Porto that I fully feel the cities I explore; and in each of these cities I hear — in one language or another — that this traveling part of me will never fail to return.
It is up to the experts — historians, anthropologists, architects — to say how the city is or isn’t, and they do so perfectly well. I live the city by virtue of the episodes and states of mind that best reflect it in me. I notice I’m in Porto every time that — haunted by the sound of Lloyd Cole or The The playing on an old cassette — my car tires recklessly skid on the wet stone pavement down the steep passages that descend from Virtudes to Miragaia. I find myself at every turn from Praça do Império to Rua de Diu, where the sudden view of the ocean — murmuring on the horizon — is always surprising, regardless of how many times you see it. I have no doubt that I’m in Porto when I welcome the clamor of the honest voices in the downtown cafes.
I spent my first years in Miguel Bombarda Street, about a decade and a half before it became the heart of the Arts District. Back then, instead of exhibitions, the spectacle in the neighbours’ front yard was the live pig slaughter that, every other Sunday morning, reached my terrified ears. I grew up in Oliveira Monteiro — surrounded by the mighty huff and puff of the Cimbalino machines, the clack of billiard balls and wolf whistles thrown at pretty girls — in a yellow house at the back of which, behind a green hedge, the red train discreetly whistled towards Póvoa do Varzim. Then came Foz Velha, where the rumble of cars on the cobbled alleyways almost gets mistaken for the endless crash of the waves in the background. Here, the intimacy with both river and sea inevitably adds a further aesthetic and emotive dimension to the city.
Recently I couldn’t resist the allure of one of those typical old downtown houses: rooms so big they echoed, ceilings high as a Gothic cathedral, creaky wooden floor and a skylight with a direct view of the moon at the top of the steep staircase; in fact, everything you’re entitled to in Porto’s downtown. It was right on the Galeria Paris Street, which for most represents the heart of a recently reinvented Porto nightlife. I thus lived this past year and a half just above one of those few bars in Porto that, in spite of being tourist friendly enough, was able to retain its own character, unique ambience and music selection.
As the bars in the street far outnumber anything else, life in Galeria Paris can present unique sound challenges. Many may think I am either crazy or deaf to have wanted to live there, but I can assure you that it has its perks. During the day, the street plunges into unexpected peacefulness, allowing one to listen to the breeze that ruffles the Ginkgos’ leaves. Cosmopolitan and undisturbed, it subtracts itself from the bustling streets around it, surprisingly escaping the rush of buses, taxis and ambulances, who all seem to avoid it. At night, nevertheless, particularly towards the end of the week — which sometimes may start one or two days ahead of schedule — it transfigures, trading sleepy eyes for a sequined dress, and giving way to a peculiar sequence of highly differentiated soundscapes.
By 1AM the Galeria de Paris Street is overrun by the hustle and bustle of hundreds — sometimes thousands — of bodies that cover most of the pavement, a persistent buzz punctuated by the occasional fat bass of an electronic line or by the torrid energy of a Latin beat. Come 4AM the only audible sounds are the cries of a handful of half cut drunks, bouncing off the walls before crashing violently into the neighbours’ sleep. After the last glasses are broken, the SUMA vehicles arrive, blowing and sweeping and decontaminating, and bleeping as they reverse. Then, in unison, all the birds in the neighbourhood awake and, above all, the seagulls’ cries seem to claim sovereignty and ownership of the territory. At noon the Clerigos church bells ring in ecstasy, and downtown knows it can finally lay its head and crash.
Today, as I’m writing, I’m back to Foz Velha and to the familiar foaming of the Atlantic, which I will soon cross in order to spell the next episodes of this sound adventure, ambling through unknown cities, halfway between an Andante and Andantino. With me I take the squeaking of the trams on the rails next to the river, the unmistakable accents of the Bolhão marketplace and the bob of the docked boats in Cantareira: more than enough reasons for never failing to return.
HOW DOES PORTO SOUND LIKE?