Porto might be Portugal’s second-largest city today, a modern metropolis home to 240,000 people, but the heart of it still lies in the medieval old city – the Ribeira. The Ribeira district begins along the banks of the River Douro and spreads up into the hills behind. Straddling the River Duoro, the arching ironwork of the Dom Luís I bridge dominates Porto’s waterfront. Porto’s known as the ‘city of bridges’ and this is one of six linking it to the Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite bank, where many port lodges are based.
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It’s a imposing sight, whether you’re looking at it or looking out from the top of its 45-metre-high arch. The Dom Luís Bridge was built by Téophile Seyrig, the business partner of France’s Gustav Eiffel, who’d already worked with him on the similar-looking Maria Pia Bridge in Porto, Eiffel’s last project before his Tower. It stretches over 170 metres between the river banks and was the longest arch bridge in the world when it opened in 1886. Today the lower level is used by cars and the upper one by the metro and pedestrians soaking up the views across Porto and Gaia. From the top of the bridge you get a bird’s-eye view down onto the Ribeira’s maze of streets and colourful buildings, and I couldn’t wait to get down there to explore.
On an unseasonably warm, sunny February day, the cafés and restaurants that line the waterfront were packed. We took a walk along to the main riverfront square, the Praça da Ribeira, which is surrounded by tall narrow buildings covered in tiles glazed in pastel shades of red, yellow and blue. The square is filled with café tables which overflow with tourists in the summer. But as you move away from the bustle of the square by just a few streets it’s like you’ve suddenly stepped a few centuries back in time.
The Ribeira has been the commercial centre of Porto ever since Roman times, when the shipping port which gives the city its name was set up here. Over the next 2000 years it grew as into a major hub for shipments from across the world, and the mix of architecture that developed over the years means it’s now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. But today the Ribeira has a feeling of decaying grandeur, with the elegant buildings that cascade down the hillside towards the river falling into disrepair.
From the Praça da Ribeira we headed up steep stone stairs cut into the hill. Pathways twist and turn through narrow alleyways and buildings towering above almost block out the light, so it doesn’t take long to get completely disorientated, but that’s the best way to see the Ribeira. Many of the buildings are deserted, left to crumble as younger residents leave Porto to live in the suburbs. It’s estimated a fifth of the old town’s buildings have been abandoned, but there are signs of life even in the most dilapidated-looking streets.
Washing lines stretch across the alleyways, wrought-iron balconies are filled to bursting with plant pots and there are satellite dishes perched on the tiled frontages. And then you come across hidden gems, like a tiny neighbourhood restaurant tucked away down a side street. Or a Baroque church with an beautifully tiled frontage. Or a viewpoint where the buildings drop away and you can see out over the terracotta-tiled rooftops across the city, down to the Duoro river and on towards the sea.
You also come across construction sites, where parts of the Ribeira are being restored and redeveloped. The district’s layout and medieval buildings are being preserved so repairing the Ribeira is a slow and pricey process. But until then its a place to wander and lose yourself – until you suddenly find yourself at the top of the hill and you’re back among the people, the cars, buses and trams of twenty-first century Porto.