The cultural landscape of Porto

Lately, the Saturday afternoons I spend in Porto are booked: they are dedicated to new discoveries related to the city’s cultural landscape. The discoveries touch Porto’s natural environment, the man-made structures and features, and the character and values of its people.

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Yes, this article is about the new, third edition of Um Objeto e Seus Discursos, that goes on from the beginning of March all the way to December here in Porto. The idea is simple: meeting weekly at a different place, with a different group of interesting speakers, whose starting point for a talk is an object significant for the city and its history, be that history distant or quite recent.

Thanks to this initiative, I have already had an opportunity to visit some spaces normally inaccessible to public and learn lesser known facts and episodes about Porto. And after two years, there is still so much to uncover about its cultural landscape. The 2016 discoveries started with food: the history of “tripas à moda do Porto” was addressed, but it wasn’t all – the typical dish of Portans could be tasted as well!

And there is so much to look forward to! I am especially curious about visiting the Palacio da Bolsa, where Gustave Eiffel’s desk is kept, finding out if one of the bodies buried in the Clerigos church really belongs to Nicolau Nasoni (there is archaeological research ongoing), or discovering lesser known details of Porto’s urban history through a visit to over a century-old public toilets.

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Singeverga

Autumn weekends in Portugal can be unstable in terms of weather: this one was just like that, with wonderful, sunny Saturday and grey, rainy Sunday. Saturday just called for being outdoors all day: the plan was visiting seemingly ordinary places near Porto where tourists and foreigners don’t usually head – peeking into the “real Portugal”, Portugal beyond the two principal cities and the coast. The itinerary included: passing through Roriz (the one near Santo Tirso), where a very important romanesque church of St. Piter is situated, seeing the Singeverga Benedictine monastery nearby,  stopping at São Mamede de Negrelos, popping to Pombeiro de Ribavizela to visit its monastery church dedicated to St. Mary of Pombeiro, passing through the tiny Vizela and Tagilde, ending at the mount and sanctuary of St. Quiteria overlooking Felgueiras, before the well-deserved dinner.

These places are unfamiliar to a majority of Portuguese, not to mention foreigners, however, the strangest one, Singeverga, might ring the bell for many. Not because its monastery has a huge butterfly collection or the painting attributed to Tintoretto in its posession. It is rather beacuse Singeverga is where the famous Portuguese liquor of the same name is produced. Of course, nobody but a few monks know exactly how it is made.

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One would think the tradition goes centuries back – in reality, it is thanks to a friend of monastery, who happened also to be a chemical engineer, that the production was made possible – back in 1945. The 6000 yearly bottles, manually filled, are one of the main sources of income for the monastery, lead by the Benedictine principle of ora et labora.

I had an opportunity to taste some beautiful, warm caramel coloured Singeverga: very sweet and flavorful, containing, besides alcohol, a range of spices, caramel, black tea, and probably some secret ingredients. But don’t be tricked with the sweetness – it is also very, very strong!

Photo: http://www.garrafeiraspedro.pt

The Douro valley experiences

The Douro valley on a warm, golden autumn day is a great place to be. There are people who travel half the world to get to see it, and I am so privileged to live nearby! Last weekend, the time has come to pay a visit to the region, passing through Mesão Frio, Peso da Régua, Pinhão and Quinta do Seixo, where I spent most of the afternoon.

The Alto Douro region has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001 and it is one of the world’s oldest recognized and protected wine production regions. And its contemporary life is flourishing amazingly!

An average Portuguese is probably as much as a wine expert as a professional enologist in countries with less wine culture. Wine is a part of their everyday and a major pillar of the national economy. Never forgetting the traditional modes of wine production (which can be known from azulejo panels or learned about in museums), they however opted for the use of latest technologies in this industry nowadays. So there are robots, computerization and wine institutes with highest precision instruments involved to get the best of what nature has to offer.

Actually, Portuguese wine producers don’t hesitate to take the best of both worlds, and that can be seen in Quinta do Seixo: in 2007, the old structures there were recuperated and a modern winery constructed, upon a design by Cristiano Moreira & Associados. Cristiano Moreira (1931-2012) was a professor at the University of Porto, with significant experience in industrial facilities, and, in my opinion, refined approach towards the beautiful Douro landscapes, both cultural and natural.

Voilà, here I am at the Quinta do Seixo: at first glance, it seems to be an immense complex of vineyards, with a well-maintained old building, perfectly integrated into the landscape. During the tour, I discover lots of contemporary elements invisible from the outside. And later, with some a posteriori research, I realized the scope of construction works done!

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The quinta (the wine production estate) is situated near the village of Pinhão. The view to the wavy hills in all shades of green and earthy autumn colours is breathtaking. And there I come to the recuperated building itself. There is nothing in it that is not in harmony with the landscape. The technology is only visible from the inside: the robot-presses for the grapes instead of human labour and steel barrels for the wine to be preserved up to highest standards, the video-projectors everywhere and the latest-generation illumination. Maybe even a little too contemporary presentation, if you ask me!

Update: the interior design is a project of another architect, Paulo Lobo, who is responsible for many interesting contemporary interiors in Porto (thx Marta Costa!)

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But then, after the theoretical part, I get to taste the port wines, and that is an experience involving all senses. From the dark and elegant exposition and interpretation spaces, one gets to the bright, sunny tasting area, opening towards the landscape. Oh, how cleverly were the mirrors used to reflect the western sun and create shades and reflections! The division towards the outer space was nothing more but the thin glass surface that stretched throughout the entire length of the room. However, I was blessed with the best possible weather, so I spent most of my time outside at the terrace. The view stretched from Pinhão in the distance to the green terraced landscapes all around. The building and the terrace were just……nature rearranged: the layered stone façade with rich texture, the earthen esplanade with touches of grass and moss, and the shiny spotless glass surface reflecting once again the landscape.

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Silence is broken by glasses tinkling in a toast. And then, a sip of vintage ruby port crowns this magic experience.

Photos: all mine except the first one, which comes from http://www.afaconsult.com/portfolio/29911/92/adega-da-quinta-do-seixo.

Ramirez

I recently discovered that I now live not far from the oldest still operating fish can factory in the world – “Ramirez”. The company was established in 1853 and the factory has been working in Matosinhos since 1923. Unlike dozens of similar factories in Matosinhos itself and along the Portuguese Atlantic coast that have been closed and abandoned, “Ramirez” is still working successfully. Living industrial heritage, I dare say!

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They owe their vitality to the quality of products, of course, but also to the ever-present improvements and innovation. Many of us probably remember those tin openers and all the trouble that occurred when it was necessary to reach a canned ingredient for a dinner. I was sometimes giving up the initial meal plans because those tiny things got lost among the kitchen stuff or it was simply too difficult to deal with thick metal tins. It was exactly “Ramirez” that first introduced the new, easy-opening system for their cans, the one we take for granted today. According to the data published in their virtual museum, the year was 1970. It took some further years for the invention to be adopted and spread around the world.

They have a virtual museum at their website: http://www.ramirez.pt. This is also where the photo is from.

The Portuguese Life

What to bring home as a remembrance of a trip to Portugal? When it comes to souvenirs, a proper cultural tourist would, of course, aim at finding items of genuine Portuguese origin, typical and informative of local tradition and cultural identity. But where to look?

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In the heart of Porto, there is a very, very special shop, or more than that: A Vida Portuguesa (“The Portuguese Life”). Thanks to the effort of Catarina Portas (1969), a journalist and entrepreneur from Lisbon, A Vida Portuguesa offers to the public a carefully selected collection of objects of importance for understanding Portuguese spirit, thus playing, in a certain way, a role of a museum beyond museum walls. It is interesting to mention that Catarina Portas is a daughter of a well-known architect Nuno Portas (1934), who has had a significant role in promotion of Portuguese architecture abroad. A Vida Portuguesa even has a manifesto – their main goal is to “reveal the soul of the country”, based on enabling future for old Portuguese products. The first shop was opened in 2007 in Lisbon, and the one in Porto is of more recent date.

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A great thing that they do in A Vida Portuguesa is establishing partnerships with a number of factories from all around the country, to revive ancient and beloved brands that were once part of local everyday. Many of them come from Porto and its vicinity, ranging from the finest soaps produced by “Ach Brito”, hygiene and cleaning products by “Couto” or pencils by “Viarco”, to a vast array of local foods and wines.

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Not only is the collection found in this distinctive souvenir shop informative for tourists who wish to learn about the past and the contemporary Portugal  – it is also valuable for the Portuguese themselves, to refresh memories of “the good old times” or to return, at least for a moment, to beautiful, carefree worlds of their childhoods. An untranslatable term saudade immediately comes to mind as one of the well-known keywords to understanding this country: a nostalgic feeling of longing and endearing remembrance of something or someone being missed (may it be a person, object, experience or epoch), that might never come back.

Some might suspect this initiative is just a consequence of the global trend – idealization of the past and its values in the turbulent and globalizing epoch of ours. A market niche that has emerged inspired a commercial response in form of “selling nostalgia”. However, my impression is that past and nostalgia are still truly embedded in everyday life of the Portuguese. And that can be felt strongly throughout Porto. Not only the immense number of antiquity shops, velharias (vintage item shops) or alfarrabistas (antiquarian bookshops), but also all the many lively shop windows, nameplates and interiors of cafés that didn’t change a bit over past decades, convince me I am right.

The Portuguese Life Manifesto and the photos come from: www.avidaportuguesa.com

Galo Louco, Part 3: Platu (getting to know Portuguese designers)

“Platu” is not merely a beautiful object: it is directly linked to interpretation of the Mediterranean nutrition pattern, and thus to promotion of the intangible culture of the country. So, let’s tell the story!

Thanks to a recent transnational initiative, Portugal has just got its second inscription into the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity: in 2013, the Mediterranean diet was added, based on the joint proposal, also including Cyprus, Croatia, Spain, Greece, Morroco, Italy. In the inscription document, the Mediterranean diet was defined as a “set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions concerning crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly the sharing and consumption of food”. Every country that submitted and application has designated a representative municipality that best reflects contemporary presence of the Mediterranean nutrition tradition. For Portugal, the city of Tavira in Algarve has been selected (note to self: got to go there!)

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“Platu” (2008, with recent update), a work of the Portuguese designer Miguel Pinto Félix, is dedicated to one of the pillars of the Mediterranean diet – the olive oil. It is the plate meant for the refined experience of olive oil tasting. The form resembles an olive tree and bears to mind fluidity of the oil. It is “an olive tree designed for olive oil”, explains the designer. This example shows how much vitality contemporary design can gain through connections to tradition and local inheritance.

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Galo Louco, part 1

Every little step related to sustainability and green living counts, and a contribution can be made even during the journeys. One aspect of being a responsible traveler is choosing sustainable souvenirs. One of the great places  to get a sustainable souvenir in Porto is certainly the “Galo Louco”.

“Galo Louco” is a family-owned souvenir shop in the downtown Porto, with a refined choice of authentic Portuguese memorabilia and gourmet products. Even though the main idea of the range of products offered is to be of local origin and aesthetically pleasing, they are also implicitly based on the principles of sustainability.

The shop concept is based upon the ideas of uniqueness and authenticity. Being situated in the downtown Porto, the principle of uniqueness was essential to ensure competitiveness of the shop among many other souvenir shops in the vicinity. The owners also insist on the authenticity of the products – artifacts typical and informative of Portuguese tradition and cultural identity. All the products are thus of Portuguese origin, coming from the various regions of the country. Some of them are mass-produced, others are unique items, hand-made by craftsmen or designed and produced by local designers. Many items come from Porto and its vicinity.

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The owners have established cooperation and support to a number of local and regional artists, designers and craftsmen. One aspect of their collaboration is developing new artifacts based on the owners’ ideas.

The owners have already done the statistical analysis of the customer structure for the past three years, showing that only about 65% of the customers were foreigners, while the remaining 35% were Portuguese. Many locals consider “Galo Louco” not just as a souvenir shop (with the main target group being, of course, tourists), but also as their favourite gift shop.

Most of the items are of small dimensions and affordable.

I discovered the “Galo Louco” shop  by serendipity during previous (tourist) visits  to Porto. Mrs. Carmen, the owner, has kindly answered me a number of questions I had on the history of the place, its concept and the items they have, and thus provided me material for the little project I am developing with a colleague, who is also a foreigner in Porto.

So, the shop was established as a family-run business about 3 years ago, after Mrs. Carmen had to quit her job as a civil engineer. It currently employs two people. A curiosity: the name (that means “crazy rooster”) is a result of a mishearing – originally, the name “Galo Lȗso” (the Lusitanian rooster) was chosen.

How can souvenirs, the artifacts purchased and taken home by travelers for a remembrance of the journey experience, be assessed in terms of sustainability? This is a topic to be developed over the next posts!

Just a hint: I bought a sustainable souvenir there myself, a piece from the Raquel Castro’s collection “Alma Gemea” (“Soulmate”), composed of a ceramic+cork dish, of beautiful shape and pastel colour. And it was not just any cork, it comes from the recycled bottle corks!

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