Blue and white tiles. Each, meaningless. But together, a grand image taking people off the street and inside the creation for a minute.
All through the streets of Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, these tiled mosaics bring life to the roads, the pathways, and the squares. But behind the colourful and active displays is a community of dereliction.
A bust has followed a boom. Porto was once an epicentre of trade and production – it was produce like fruit, nuts and olive oils that were popular in the Middle Ages. And then it was the eponymous Port wine. You can still visit the active cellars of the large companies like Taylors and see how the wine has been made for centuries. But, although it is a successful business and a pleasant place for a tour and a tasting, it does not an entire economy support.
As the national finances of Portugal have hit rocky times, business has become more centralised in Lisbon, and Porto has suffered. Slowly it has been abandoned. The latest census shows that in the past decade, the centre of the city has lost a third of its population.
The elegant and impressive Stock Exchange Palace in the centre of the city is a reminder of what once was. Built in the 19th century, it was where the merchants and the trade unions would come to do their business and sort out their disputes. But today, from the windows on the upper level, you can look out and see the husks of the abandoned buildings.
About one in every five buildings in central Porto is abandoned and derelict at the moment. That’s 20 per cent of the urban centre! They are beautiful structures, evidence of the care and respect that was once here, but now just toxic assets. It costs too much to restore, it is too much of a loss to sell, it’s not even economically sensible to just maintain. So the buildings just sit there and slowly succumb to the combination of time and neglect.
The effects on the city have been described as “ominous” by some of the residents, although it’s hard to gauge as a visitor. One local group called Arrebita, which is trying to bring renewal to the urban area says the mass abandonment is “impacting everything from its urban identity and safety to the management of infrastructures and living standards, especially of those already most deprived”.
Arrebita is working on a project to develop innovative ways to regenerate the structures in a way that helps the whole community and brings back the energy Porto once had. It is getting support from philanthropic organisations which will help fix up the buildings at no cost to the owners, but in a way that will be beneficial for the whole economy.
It will be a long effort, though, in the current climate. Thankfully, in the meantime, there are still plenty of reasons to visit. My time in Porto has been wonderful and I’ve enjoyed what it has had to offer – a friendly social scene, beautiful views along the river, and a glimpse into the heights of Portugal’s past.
It’s just a bit sad to see the reality of the present and the challenges which the city faces. Still, each of these abandoned buildings may lack meaning for now. They may be just a shell of potential. But together, the city has not lost its heart.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Porto and Northern Portugal Tourism Association but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.