Portugal is held together by bridges, one of which is considered an icon: Ponte Luis I, an old double-bridge between the city of Porto and its twin Gaia, and with a link to the future by playing a part in Porto’s new metro system.
Completed in 1886 and still going strong, Ponte Luis is the work of an exceptional talent, Teofilo Seyrig, a disciple of the Eiffel Tower’s creator. Such a long life suggests the bridge has built-in qualities unaffected by age. It certainly is a technical masterpiece, a beautiful construction on a scenic location. Every single grey-black detail seems to be shaped not only for practical purposes, but also for artistic appearance.
Ponte Luis abounds in a particular symbol, X, which suits a bridge that seems to have its own secrets. Made of iron, the X is perfect for supporting and holding heavy elements together, without losing its balance. There are hundreds and hundreds of them, those above forming an arch so strong that it carries the upper bridge and simultaneously holds the lower bridge in place. Brand new metro trains cruise freely on the top while trucks and cars circulate below.
Rio Douro, the dividing line, suggests it was a river of liquid gold. The gold comparison originates from the slopes of the Douro Valley where gold grows in the form of grapes, processed into world-leading brands of white, tawny and ruby port. Excursion boats can take you there, or at least on a Six Bridges Tour, a beauty contest with Ponte Luis as the inevitable winner. The flat-bottomed boats carrying barrels of port, rabelos, will take you nowhere. They just lie still, gathering strength for St John’s Day when they race against each other.
First-time visitors normally approach Ponte Luis via Cais da Ribeira, the northern bank, to enjoy the views while standing on the bridge span. Searching for a stairway or an elevator, all they find is a thin elegantly winding ladder inside the inaccessible towers on which the bridge rests at either end. A funicular could spare your legs, but it’s more fun to climb the steps of the nearest alley, looking up into the air to take in new angles of Ponte Luis.
Bairro da Ribeira is like a patchwork quilt spread on the hillside to dry in the sun. No wonder UNESCO found its pattern worthy of preservation: colorful facades, freshly painted or in decay, some narrow enough for two arms to embrace them; balconies with flowers or clean sheets fluttering in time with the breeze; a majestic Bishop’s Palace and church towers almost touching the white clouds on a pale-blue sky; offset by white canopies at the lower end; then the river in darker shades of blue.
Vila Nova de Gaia, the town opposite, combines tradition and modernity. No immediate hillside to match Ribeira, but a stylish riverside park and promenade, high-rise blocks in the background and a television mast atop Monte Gaia. More characteristic, though, are huge long warehouses with red-tiled roofs and recognizable company or brand names. Inside, the port is slowly maturing, proof that methods of the past do still create wealth, often finding its way into multinational pockets. On street level you get the mistaken impression that those who promote tastings represent family-run businesses.
According to maps handed out by the tourist offices in Porto and Gaia, the other shore is blank. They forget that the two sides are not competitors, but complementary by being each other’s greatest attraction. Asking explicitly for it, a complete map does hesitatingly appear. They could learn from the Association of Port Wine Companies who have opened an information kiosk, deliberately using Ribeira as a backdrop, also backing 36 identically sized signs along the water, each sporting a company logo, more than half of them with lodges in the port.
At the lodge of Quinta do Naval, a smart young man answers questions by mechanically repeating himself like a robot. There is nothing robotic about the young lady promoting Quinta da Romaneira. She invites people to a taste and a multilingual chat in her mini cafe, Dom Pipas, located at the bridge. Right outside, brave boys climb Ponte Luis to tease excited onlookers before throwing themselves into the river. To get back up, they ascend a vertical rock, at this point loudly arguing about Porto and Lisbon until the tallest of them cuts things short, "Porto is the capital of the North"!
Those crossing the lower bridge of Ponte Luis on foot need to be brave. The narrow sidewalks hardly allow people to pass each other, so when a thundering truck comes toward you, you might consider jumping into the water yourself. This means that preserving Ponte Luis has its price, but that is forgotten the minute you set foot on Cais da Ribeira. Looking back, the old-fashioned Ponte is again a timeless sculpture.
The spaciousness of the Cais prevents tourist domination. There is room enough for middle-aged women to sit on a wall singing and laughing their fatigue away. More professional are music bands moving from cafe to cafe. An elderly man tries his fishing luck with his wife behind him. Suddenly, everybody jumps, including the fish on the rod. A young lady tourist in black resolutely puts down the recorder she was playing on and rushes to assist.
Cais da Riberia is animated on hot summer nights. Even on chilly nights like now in September, hardcore fans endure, instead of moving uptown to warmer indoor places and leaving the only sparsely lit Ponte Luis alone. The shortest way to the modern town is via the upper bridge and straight forward. More spectacular is ascending through the steep alleys, get lost and perhaps end up at the Clerigos Tower, in daytime it offers a view of the entire Porto except a hidden Ponte Luis.
Modern Porto appears hectic and ordered. Everybody seems to have a career and business to look after. Grand buildings border the Avenida dos Aliados, where a spacious promenade and park connect the palatial City Hall at the upper end with the Liberdade Square at the lower. In the nearby Sao Bento train station, travelers are delayed due to thousands of azulejos, ceramic tiles, depicting the history of railway and Porto while pickpockets operate. Those exhausted from shopping in the busy Santa Catarina Street, can practice their good manners at the old-world Cafe Majestic.
It started to rain, a signal for middle-aged ladies with strong voices to swarm into the streets, "Guarda-Chuva! Super!" Their forearms are hung with umbrellas. The ladies are in a way typical of Porto, with their initiative and sense of business, the best example of which, though, is the riverside – an iconic bridge, a magic old town and nostalgic lodges were recognized as a true potential, further developed through a metro, World Heritage and modern thinking in the port industry. So Porto’s history will survive – carefully commercialized and with Ponte Luis I as its special star.