Oporto – Portugal Travel

I stood in the center of a daring bridge, spanning with one bold arch of nigh six hundred feet a winding, rocky gorge. Far, far below me ran a chocolate-colored river crowded with quaint craft, some with high-raised sheltered poops and crescent-peaked prows, some low and long astern with bows like gondolas and bright red lateen sails, upon which the fierce sun blazed sanguinely. On the right side thickly, and on the left more sparsely, climbing up the stony sides of the gorge, were piled hundreds of houses, pink, pale-blue, buff, and white, all with glowing, red-tiled roofs, and each set amid a riot of verdure which trailed and waved upon every nook and angle uncovered by buildings. Trellised vines clustered and flowers flaunted in tiny backyards and square-enclosed courts by the score, all on different levels, but all open to the down-gazing eyes of the spectator on the bridge high above them. Here and there a tall palm waved its plumes as in unquiet slumber, but everywhere else was the impression of ardent, throbbing, exuberant life, such as all organic creation feels under the spur of stinging sun-shine and the salt twang of the sea-breeze.

The river gorge winds and turns so tortuously that the view forward and backward is not extensive, but as far as the eye reaches on each side of the umber stream the hills of houses and far-spread terraced vineyards beyond rise precipitously, with just a quayside at foot on the banks of the stream, thronged now with folk who swarm, gather, sand separate like gaudy ants, and apparently no bigger, as seen from the coign of vantage on the bridge. To my left, as I stand looking toward the west, there crowns the summit of the ridge close by a vast white monastery against a green background; a monastery now, alas! like all others in this Catholic land, profanated and turned to purposes of war instead of peace, but, withal, there still rears its modest rood aloft upon the crest one poor little round chapel where the sainted image of Pilar of the Ridge stolidly receives the devotion to the faithful. To the right, the height is crowned by a vast, square, episcopal palace, and near it, over all, is the glittering golden cross that shines upon the city from the summit of the square cathedral towers. This is Oporto. The Port par excellence, which gives its name to Portugal, seen from the double-decked iron bridge of Doan Luis.

I know few more characteristic thoroughfares than the road by the river-side at Oporto, called the Ribeira, which is the center of maritime activity of the port. The path runs beneath what was the ancient river-wall, now pierced or burrowed out to form caverns of shops, where wine and food, cordage and clothing are sold to sailor men. Many of the open doors have vine trellises before them, in the shade of which quaintly garbed groups forgather, and a constant tide of men and women flows along the path, eddying into and out of the cavernous recesses in the ancient wall.

Along the shore of the busy Ribeira lie ships unloading; small craft they usually are, for the bar of the Douro is a terrible one, and the big ships now enter the harbor of Leixoes, a league away. In a constant stream the men and women pass across the planks from ship to shore, carrying the cargo upon their heads or shoulders in peculiar boat-shaped baskets, which are the inseparable companion of the Oporto workers.

Here is a smart schooner hailing from the Cornish port of Fowey, from which stockfish from Newfoundland is being landed on the heads of women flat, salt slabs as hard and dry as wood, but good, nutritious food for all that; and farther along, with their prows to the shore, rest a dozen unladened wine and fruit boats from up the Douro, and flat-bottomed passenger skiffs into which women and men with baskets and bundles, representing their week’s supplies purchased in Oporto, are crowding to be carried back to their homes in the rich vineyard villages miles up the river. One by one the quaint craft hoist their crimson sails, and struggle out from the tangle of the bank, until the breeze catches them, and in a shimmer of red gold from the setting sun they hustle through the brown tide until a projecting corner hides them from view. It is a scene never to be forgotten.

The center of the Ribeira is the Praea. called after it, where a sloping square facing the water opens out. The scene is picturesque in the extreme. The space is thronged by men, either sleeping in their baskets or carrying them filled with fish or merchandise upon their heads; a motley, water-side crowd, men of all nations, pass to and fro, or gossip under the vine trellis before the wine-shop overlooking the square, and as the observer casts his eyes upward he sees the gaily colored houses piled apparently on the top of one another, until at the top of all, as if overhead, is the glaring white palate of the bishop, and the glittering cathedral cross.