PORTUGAL - PART II - The Hidden Face of Porto : The Islands
Well, instead of starting by visiting the most touristic spots… we actually did the opposite. Porto is not a Rich and Royal city. No Royal Palace, castles for the nobles. Porto is the city of the working class. The history of this place lingers through the poor people, strong citizens who hardly worked to gain something, sometimes to barely move on. People from Porto put their shit together and they don’t look back. So we plunged into Porto by starting meeting locals. And there are people who are unhappy on what is going on with all the aggressive tourism. We wanted an authentic point of view. So we had to go where nobody goes: the Islands.
You cannot approach the “Islands” of Porto by yourself. You can’t just invite yourself in, taking pictures, going inside people’s homes and speaking out loud with your foreign accent. To access this part of this city, we asked Ricardo Araujo to be our Guide. Ricardo is from Porto. He perfectly knows the city. And some of the islands are very well known to him. Most of the visit was through Bonfim, up to Riveira.
What is an “Island” ? you may ask… there is no such thing such “islands” in Porto City, right?
Well, it all depends on what you mean by “Island”. The government counts today more than 900 hundred registered islands in Porto.
An island is a portion of a private property of one landlord, who, between the end of the XIX and the industrialization of the XXth Century, transformed their parcel of gardens and farm land inside Porto to create a one entrance street, and proving small slots of houses (no more than 15m² per house!!!! it is a room) on one basement level.
All Islands that you see are mostly inhabited by people who where born there, who grew up and are still living there since AT LEAST 50, 60 years. It is a generation of Portuguese workers and retired folks who gain no more that 400€ per month to survive. No more. So yeah, of course there is no profit nowadays for the landlords to rent a 15m² house to a local who live there since forever and cannot afford to pay more than a hundred euros for the rent, who worked all his life to earn his place into an island slot when you have massive aggressive touristic businesses and foreign investors who want to buy all the islands close to the city center to make private streets and profitable hotel rooms inside.
That is actually what already happened in some Islands, where we could not get access because it is a private property now used to rent rooms. In other cases, Island were bought by the government so that people could remain there. Some facing the Douro are now property of their own inhabitants.
This face of the city, charming, authentic, will fade away in few years, with the change of generations, and the wish of few to push to have a more touristic city to sell even if it will hurt entire communities. It is impossible to go there, discover the islands, ackowledge the situation and then just go home and pretend that we saw nothing. Ricardo knows a lot of elders there, he translated their stories and we were deeply moved by the story of their life and what they have to face.
Meeting people from the islands made me realize how my generation is not able to survive with few things. Most of the people there are generations born in the ‘40 and ‘50 so they really survived harsh times and learned to stay positive, and fight, event if sometimes the conditions are impossible. I wish we had half of their bravery.
As far as I see things, the Islands are places that cannot be missed, they teach you a lot on the diversity, but at the same time it is a slippery slope because tourists are really not welcome so you need to go with a local and with a certain state of mind. If you go there, you need to understand that you have first to approach and exchange with the locals to fully understand they stories, their point of view. This is only possible if you, on the first place, are a responsive traveler, going to pay the locals and not chasing the best offers on aggressive touristic sites. It is a visit that you do if you are interested in getting the feeling and the real mood of a changing city, if you are interested to meet real people, other generations, and to look to another way to live. Only then, you can take your phone and make pictures… if you really think it make sense. in my case, I don’t. The pictures you see here have been taken in order to keep the memory alive.
This is one of the reasons why Porto has been a real “coup de foudre”. It is a city with guts, like Naples, or Palermo : you have to plunge inside and meet the locals otherwise you’ll loose something.