On summer Sundays and paper suits

It’s a summer Sunday in Porto. A logical move – going for a stroll along the oceanfront. Living in a city by the sea, one can hardly think of nicer way to spend a sunny weekend morning! So, here I am in the neighbourhood of Foz, where the river meets the ocean, and which, within the city, has a distinct cultural identity. Foz is among the most desirable locations to live in Porto, and those of us whose residences are elsewhere love coming here over and over again, for strolls, festivals, gastronomy or nightlife.

This Sunday, it seems all the city strollers decided to unite: the streets of Foz are turning into rivers of people! And it seems the strollers have taken over the roadway, too, as cars cannot pass.

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Hmmm, what might this be all about?

People line up in the shade along the sidewalk, and the music starts. I approach, too, with my camera ready to register this curious event I stumbled upon. And here they come: dozens of ladies and gentlemen, bishops and kings, children, maids, fishermen and their wives, in a parade that revives local traditions, ways of life, monuments, and reminds of prominent people that marked the history of Foz.

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As if we have gone back in time: they are all dressed in beautiful, elaborate, colourful, sometimes even theatrical clothes from the epochs long gone.

The parade doesn’t seem to be very disciplined: here and there, participants step out to wish a good day to a friend or to take a photo or two for their family albums. Quite a few approach to greet an elderly lady who has chosen a nice, shady spot right next to me. Being the participants just steps away, I realize: those wonderful dresses and suits, all the equipment and details, even their shoes, are all made of paper!

I find out that I am in the middle of the celebrations of St. Bartholomew, traditional of Foz, and that the paper suit parade happens to be their highlight. Some claim the tradition is over a 150 years old, others say that it goes just 50 years back, and that it became constant from the early 1990s. I won’t be investigating much into the dispute: maybe it is for the best not letting the truth get in the way of a very nice story!

The parade ends in the sea, but not all the participants dare to have a swim. Despite it is late summer, the ocean is unpleasantly chilly. The bravest ones dip in the ocean in their paper suits until they fall apart.

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This summer day in Porto remains so unique and memorable: the parade theme and the paper suits will be reinvented over and over in the years to come, yet in my mind there is nothing ephemeral about this Sunday.

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Between ephemeral and eternal: the stone caravel

Here we are in the Lisbon’s district of Belem, approaching the white tower, built exactly 500 years ago to defend the Tagus estuary. The concrete jungle and asphalt rivers of Lisbon coexist with the serene park and the breezy walkway along the Tagus (Tejo) shore, just a few dozen meters away.

The wide river promenade was once a setting for an important exhibition: “Portuguese World Fair” took place there in 1940, just at the time when the rest of Europe … well, had other things in mind.

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At the starting point, in front of the Belem tower, an unfocused gaze quickly centers at a stone caravel: this is the area from where Portuguese ships departed to explore the unknown continents, back in the epoch of discoveries and glory. The Monument to Discoveries was built on the occasion of the mentioned Fair: Henry the Navigator and many other famous Portuguese of those times are sculpted in stone, with heroic expressions and brave postures, reflecting also romanticization of the epoch and its admiration by the then regime.

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However, the structure we see now is not the original one: the monument designed by the architect Cotinelli Telmo in 1940 was not meant to last at all. Like most other exhibits for the Portuguese World Fair, it was conceived as an ephemeral structure of metal support and gypsum coating, to last one summer. And so it was, after a while, in 1943, the monument was demolished, though some politicians found it a very powerful symbol of the nation’s aspirations and wanted to keep it.

There is evidence that the architect himself was against its reconstruction (however, I couldn’t find more details on that issue). But, he didn’t live to see it reconstructed. In 1948, he died after an accident – while fishing, he was dragged by a wave that crashed him against a rock.

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All the others thought reconstructing the monument would be great, once the idea was revived in the late 1950s.

And so, in 1960 (on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death), it was rebuilt in concrete, dressed with stone, and given some extra functions: exhibition space, auditorium and a viewing terrace on top, to become one of the most visited sites in Lisbon of today. The square in front was decorated with a marble wind rose and a world map depicting Portuguese discoveries, a present from South Africa.

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In fact, the history of the monument is all about the political decisions, that made possible both creation of the first, ephemeral one, and building of the present structure, revived in stone. Outliving the poor architect and the Salazar’s regime too, the monument is today symbolizing pride of the glorious Portuguese 15th and 16th centuries. And more universally,  facing the unknown and making the world change.

Many Portuguese, not to mention foreign tourists, don’t know the above facts. I am happy to have found out this story in an exhibition on life and work of Cotinelli Telmo, that has just ended in the very monument’s exhibition space.

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Photo credits: 1st – from the 1960 brochure issued on the occasion of the monument opening.

Source: http://www.padraodosdescobrimentos.pt/wp-content/uploads/Doc1.pdf?6f4ee7

The rest of the photos – JS.