On our last night in Porto we had dinner at the well known Don Tonho seafood restaurant on the waterfront at the foot of the D Luis Bridge. The scene was set for a romantic evening as my Englishman and I excitedly recounted our adventures held hands and shared our dreams for a travelling future. The food was incredible and so fresh and the wine was Douro wine – of course – so tangy and delectable. Our view was of the beautiful Dom Luis 1 Bridge.
By far the best of the seven bridges that span the river that runs between Porto and Gaia is this one – Dom Luis1 Bridge. It’s an old iron bridge that was designed by Eiffel (you may have heard of a tower he also worked on..) and is still in use today. The upper level is used by the city’s efficient Metro service and the bottom level by pedestrian traffic and motor vehicles.
At night it is lit up like a Christmas tree and is very beautiful. Although we didn’t travel across the bridge at night I assume it is like travelling through the Milky Way of stars, with all the lights and reflections of lights in the water below.
It wasn’t until late in the evening when our meal was almost finished that I noticed even more lights – pretty blue lights on the opposite river bank over towards Gaia. I dismissed it and concentrated on sharing a laugh with my Englishman and the Australian couple at the table next door.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the blue light attached to a craft in the river. The Maritime police were out too. Unusual! Surely most of the speeding/customs offences happen during the day? Imperceptibly the lights dimmed, turned gaudy, circus scary and hostile.
I’d not seen any crime in Porto. We’d not been hassled by pickpockets and felt safe walking the streets at night with our tourist badges – camera and smartphone – on display. In other cities we’ve tried to hide the camera and just meld into the crowd, but in Porto it hadn’t been necessary.
In fact after dinner my Englishman and I went for a walk along the river so that he could take further close up pictures of the bridge. Whilst he fiddled with lenses and tripods and settings and focal points, I watched the commotion of the other side of the river. The blue lights had multiplied.
We walked further down river until we were right at the base of the bridge itself where a group of scallywag kids were playing chasey on the waterfront. Long limbed, tanned and carefree they teased my Englishman. Smiling and playing up for the camera. I silently ‘tut-tutted’ at the lateness of the hour. Where were their parents? It was at least 11 o’clock by now, and though warm it was dark and Porto is a city, a troubled city at that.
We’d heard first hand about how badly Portugal had been affected by the GFC. I’d spoken to a young man who was fully qualified as an Engineer but had to support his mother working the fruit stall at the market, because there was simply no work. I’d spoken to winery owners who were contemplating selling out of their 100 year old family run farms. And then there was the homeless man who cheerfully posed for a photo and the beggars outside the churches we’d visited. I doubted they were calling our bluff. I don’t think their Mercedes was parked just out of view around the corner.
My impression was simply, that things were tough here.
So much human pain here despite the beautiful weather and magnificent backdrop. Despite the friendly gregarious nature of the Portugeuese people and the wonderful times they’d shown us as visitors to their country.
Whilst my Englishman carefully photographed the scene, I came across a policeman standing guard and asked him what was wrong. Why the cordon?
In halting English, he pointed to the beautiful D. Luis Bridge, to the top level high above the traffic and the earthly sounds of music and laughter on the waterfront. He told me plainly.
“They jump,” he said.
“Old men, young men, kids..they all jump.”
And when they do, the Porto police boats forlornly motor to the watery scene and scoop their broken bodies from the water.
The policeman shrugged. There aren’t any answers. I was speechless. This was not a moment for broken English and halting Portuguese.
And what is there to say, anyway? I’d already been told that the only way things can get better for Porto and places like it is if the tourists come and spend their money and bring threefold-more people back. Responsible tourism would reinvigorate the local economy and help to ease the financial pressures on the people who live here.
It’s a message I’m happy to share, because Porto truly is beautiful. Porto is as elegant as Rome and pretty as Venice yet with not as many tourist traps. The architecture is inspired and the food…oh, the food is divine. But perhaps the best reason I have to encourage you to visit Porto, is simply the people.
They are lovely. Friendly, funny, warm, hospitable. And best of all, they’re not tourist menu versions, they are life-affirmingly real. You should go. You really should.