Escape to Portugal: Exploring Porto without a Camera

On my last day in Porto, I decided it would be a no-camera day. My battery on both my DSLR and my phone had already dropped to two bars and I didn’t have a charger with me. With the bigger city of Lisbon coming up, I knew I should save up my shots. The weather didn’t look great anyway, and I had been told by a work colleague that the famous bookshop I intended to see only let visitors take photos early in the morning. Nevertheless it felt strange leaving the camera behind in my locker and I had a feeling I’d regret not having it with me.

I began the day by walking up the famous Rua St Catarina, home to the famous Majestic Café which I had been told by a few people was a must-see. I glanced in at the café with its elegant décor but wasn’t mesmerised enough to warrant going in. I’m not a tea or coffee drinker and am more interested in visiting markets where I can witness more of the local culture. Sure enough, I soon found Mercado do Bolhão where stalls inside a wrought-iron warehouse were laden with fruits, veggies, flowers, deli and various crafts. Rummaging through a box of magnets in search of a cheap memento, I was joined by the old lady behind the stall who would mutter away in Portuguese “1 Euro” before picking up ones she thought I might like. I wasn’t actually that impressed but she had charmed me enough with her motherly nature to make me buy one anyway.

Next it was onto the fruit and veg stall, where the lady said “C’est tout?” having assumed I was French. I went with it and wandered on to buy a chorizo pastry and the famous natas (custard tart) for a packed-lunch later on. On the way out I passed a man with dreads playing with puppets for money whilst his young son, also with dreads, sat in a basket staring at a book. Passing by them calmly walked a lady from the market with a box of fish propped on her head. In her raggy dress, she was such a contrast to the flashy tourists and boutiques seen on Rua St Catarina, but this was like a sight of traditional Portugal, and that was when I wished I had my camera with me.

Lovraria Lello was my only set plan for the day, having been told that it was a must-see. However when I reached the famous book shop on Rua das Carmelitas, I discovered that a voucher had to be bought for entry and the queue was pretty substantial. I decided to come back later and instead roamed down cobbled streets with stray cats dashing underneath cars. By now I had really fallen in love with the design of Portuguese houses, sometimes decorated with floral patterns, sometimes a blue-checked style, sometimes painted in the form of green tiles, or sometimes just painted one single pastel tone with a balcony underneath each window corresponding in colour. I was wandering down random little streets with no real idea where I was going, but I didn’t feel like a tourist. I realised this was because I didn’t have my camera with me. Its lack of presence seemed to give me a greater sense of familiarity with the area, making me feel like a local just going on a relaxing ramble, rather than a tourist following an itinerary with the objective of finding a specific new destination.

Walking alone along the riverside on a dainty narrow metal bridge to the left of the road, I had one of those sudden “Am I actually allowed to be here?” thoughts before connecting back to the road and walking up the Rua da Restauração towards the Jardins do Palácio de Cristal. The ancient tram churned past me up the steep street where golden leaves bunched up underneath the line of trees. With free entry to the grounds, this botanical garden is a nice oasis away from the bustling Ribeira district. Past the pretty pond where ducks and peacocks loiter is a lovely viewpoint of the river Douro. Cue another moment where I wished I had my camera.

Down some steps you’ll find various manicured lawns decorated with flowers, ponds and sculptures. On a bench in the quiet serenity I bit into a squashed plum and its juice dribbled down my shirt. But there weren’t many people around to witness, nor to give me odd looks as I sat staring into space feeling frustrated but not knowing why. The state of not feeling like a tourist had also given me a sense of aimlessness which made me feel almost bored. I realised just how much entertainment having a camera can bring, and how much I love creating photos even when there isn’t much around me to inspire something. I began to ask myself why people take photos in the first place. Is it to document an established piece of art (whether natural or manmade) or to create art?  As I write this I still haven’t forgotten the view of the river from the lookout, since I was forced to really embed it in my mind, knowing that I would receive no stimulus to the memory otherwise. I decided that for me a camera is valuable for making a scene out of something and putting my own touch on it, rather than taking the textbook ‘perfect’ holiday snap.

At 4pm and with the midges starting to attack, I finally left the gardens to give Lovraria Lello another shot. By now my feet were starting to complain from walking in flat-soled sandals. Thankfully the queue outside the shop was much smaller now. At the kiosk I asked for a visitor ticket in what I thought was satisfactory Portuguese, only for the boy to respond with a  blank look. I repeated in English but, having heard mutterings of French behind me, found myself saying “Oui” when he asked if I just wanted one. “I’m confused – are you French or English?” he asked. I felt like saying “Nej, svenska” and giving him my best Viking glare. My mood got worse when an obese English woman pushed past me in the queue with a pitiful attempt to speak clearly given that I may not have been a native speaker (at least I try with other languages, even if I just receive puzzled looks in return…)

In the queue I studied the guide pamphlet given to all ticket-buyers in order to scout out the location of the genres I was most interested in. However, it soon became clear that few people visit this shop to buy books. It turned out that the rules had changed since my work colleague came here – now cameras were permitted all day. But I wasn’t disappointed by this, because this change in regulations in fact made my experience a disappointing one. Squeezing past mobs of tourists, I noticed that the shop was much smaller than I had expected. The red spiral staircase and the ceiling above were pretty but not mind-blowing, and they could hardly be appreciated anyway because there were so many people queuing up to take photos. ‘Snap snap snap’ was all I heard. After having waited what felt like an eternity for a girl to finish her wide-eyed mouth-open ‘Oh my God!’ pose, I began climbing the stairs only to have to pause again for another poser.

On the upper floor I found myself in a mosh pit of tourists constantly banging into each other in their quest to get a perfect selfie. I was disappointed to learn that the regal-looking beams weren’t even made of real wood, but plaster. The languages section was pretty good but I don’t have a particular desire to master Portuguese so moved on towards the arts section where I found some memoirs of Jimi Hendrix, although I wasn’t inclined to spend 16Euros on them. When a Chinese man stood on my toe without saying sorry, I knew it was time to go. Another traffic jam down the staircase and I was rushing out of the door in relief. I had spent about eight minutes in the shop, four of them spent just trying to get up and down the stairs. It hadn’t even been worth the 3Euros to get in.

I can understand why the managers of Livraria Lello changed the rules so that cameras are permitted in the shop all day – they must have received unmanageable rushes of people in the early morning and subsequent complaints when people had to be turned away. But the swarm of paparazzi ruined the place for me, the saturation of tourists taking away its integrity as a bookshop. People came here to take a photo and then left. All they wanted was to say they had visited this famous place; they didn’t want to experience it. I felt even more glad that I hadn’t brought my camera with me; I didn’t want to be one of these people. Their intention may have been to capture and document art, but for me their overbearing presence erased the art.

By now the weather had cooled and I took a seat at one of the tables by the olive trees on Avenue dos Aliados. It began to drizzle faintly but I remained put, eating croissants and enjoying watching people go by. I felt no sense of rush, no need to see places and take photos of things. Eventually I decided to head back to the hostel via a supermarket to get breakfast for the next morning, as I would be catching my bus to Lisbon early. Pingo Doce was packed with shoppers and I appeared to be the only non-Portuguese around. Joining a queue with some baps and bananas, an old lady in front started jabbering away to me. I shrugged my shoulders apologetically and said “Sou inglês .” The lady continued to jabber away with me standing there awkwardly. Then a lady in the queue next to us joined in, nodding in front of me. I could feel others’ eyes begin to close on me as I stood lost in translation. What had I done wrong? It was only when the lady to my left physically put her hands on my waist and gently but firmly pushed me forwards that I realised the other had been telling me to go in front of her because I had fewer items. In the end the cashier got confused and went to process the lady’s items first afterall. As I went to stand behind her again, the old lady rolled her eyes at me as if to say “These staff are useless.”

Scary Russian lady was just leaving my dorm as I arrived back, but no-English Nicky Minaj-fan had moved out. I was joined by two tired German girls who were shocked when I said “Schlaf gut”, remarking how it was ‘komisch’ that English people learn other languages in school. If anything, today had proved there should be more value placed on learning languages in the British curriculum. At the same time however, it does seem to be the case that the stereotype of native English-speakers being lazy with other languages leads to pickiness by foreign-linguists when one does attempt their language. Any slight mistake in the accent seems to result in incomprehension, whereas with English people it tends to be that anything goes.

Tonight a trashy rock band was playing in the Festival das Francesinhas, covering the likes of Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. Midges partied hard to the music by attacking my legs. I tossed and turned trying not to scratch my skin to pieces, but it was too difficult. Feeling desperate, I descended my bunk and rummaged in my wash bag for toothpaste. I figured that it would have a cooling effect whilst also repelling the buggers, so I went to bed with my legs smothered in Colgate…and it worked!

Lying down finally in comfort and feeling like a genius, I thought back over the day and how refreshing it was, not only to be surrounded by a constant whiff of mint, but to have gone a day without a camera, being a local rather than a tourist. I had had a nice enough time in Porto but two days was enough and I was ready to leave, feeling I’d enjoy Lisbon more. I would miss the old ladies in local markets, but not the paparazzi in tourist hotspots.

*

Part Four: Loyalty and Loneliness in Lisbon

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One thought on “Escape to Portugal: Exploring Porto without a Camera

  1. Pingback: Escape to Portugal – A Train Trip to Pinhão | soleseeking

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