Portugal: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne


How am I to give you an idea of the quaint picturesque old town of Oporto? It dates back to Roman times, when it was already a busy seaport, and it is now only second in importance to Lisbon itself.

It does not at first sight present such an imposing appearance as Lisbon, that dazzling white city throned on its seven hills and looking down in calm dignity on the bright blue waters of the Tagus. But whereas the southern capital is disappointing when you see it nearer, Oporto grows on you more and more, with its steep, dark alleys and old-fashioned balconied houses, its gardens and fountains, and busy, bustling wharfs. The heart and soul of Oporto are to be looked for by the riverside, the narrow green-watered Douro flowing swiftly along between high granite cliffs, to which cling the white and yellow houses with their many-tinted, red-tiled roofs.

The river is always crowded with shipping, from full-rigged ocean-going merchantmen to dugouts shaped from a single tree; broad-beamed boats, with graceful lateen sails, and narrow boats, with high peaks at bow and stern; large flat-bottomed wine-boats from the vineyards far up the river; rowing-boats, sailing-boats—in fact, boats of every size and shape and colour.

The quays swarm with people hard at work loading and unloading cargo. Women pass up and down along narrow planks from shore to ship with baskets full of coal balanced on their heads. Longshoremen and idlers look on, contentedly smoking. Groups of boys may be seen playing cards or throwing dice, and younger urchins, of similar tastes but fewer possessions, gambling excitedly with buttons. Here also are barefooted, brightly-dressed fishwives, and girls selling fruit, children at play, chestnut-sellers with their little charcoal stoves, rough brigand-like men rolling barrels of wine ashore, strings of pack-mules, and ox-carts waiting to be loaded, each with its pair of pretty browny-yellow oxen, under their high, elaborately carved yokes.

It all forms the most charming medley of movement and colour against a background of tumble-down overhanging houses with projecting gables and painted balconies. There are vine-trellises offering leafy shade, clothes hanging out to air, rows of fine old trees, and here and there glimpses of the ancient river-wall. In this wall are many deep recesses used as wine-shops, or as general stores, where the sailorman may satisfy his numerous requirements in the way of oilskins, ropes, blocks, and all the many articles smelling of tar, so dear to the seafarer's heart.

This is Oporto as seen from below, down by the water's edge; but the best view of the whole town is to be had much higher up, where the great bridge of Dom Luiz spans the narrow gorge. From this point of vantage you may look straight down on the river and on the busy wharfs far below; you may see the narrow, rough-paved streets that lead by flights of steps up the hillside, the many churches, the solid square towers of the cathedral on the hill, the old Moorish walls, and the odd little gardens—bright patches of colour in unexpected nooks and corners.

Beyond the bridge, on the south side of the river, stands the ancient convent of Nossa Senhora da Serra do Pilar, Wellington's headquarters in May, 1809, when he so successfully drove the French army under Marshal Soult out of Oporto.

Six weeks earlier, after a three days' siege, Soult had assaulted and taken the brave old city, which had gallantly, if foolishly, refused to surrender. Its fall was followed by hideous scenes of rapine and slaughter. The French gave no quarter, and the hunted people fled down to the river in thousands, hoping to escape by a bridge of boats that stretched across to the other bank. So great a crowd proved more than the bridge could bear. It sank under the weight, and over 18,000 men, women, and children were drowned, or butchered by the French soldiers.

It was, however, a short-lived triumph for the arms of France. Three weeks later Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future great Duke of Wellington, landed at Lisbon, and before he had been in the country ten days he was on his way north to retake Oporto.

On the morning of May 12, 1809, he was already on the south bank of the Douro, but without bridge or boat by which to pass over. So safe did Soult believe himself to be, with the steep cliffs and the swift-flowing river between himself and the English, that he never contemplated the possibility of a crossing, and Sir Arthur was able to carry out one of the most daring plans in the annals of war.

By the aid of the inhabitants two boats were at last secured, and twenty-five British soldiers rowed across in broad daylight, just above the town. Under cover of artillery fire three companies of the Buffs were next ferried over. They climbed by a track up Zoo or 300 feet of rock, seized an unfinished building, and held it with great bravery while more troops were hurried across. Gradually the tables were turned. The English became the attackers, the French slowly retreating, till after some two hours' fighting Soult and his army took to their heels, leaving bag and baggage, guns and ammunition behind them. Sir Arthur Wellesley is reported to have said on the evening of the 11th that the next day he would breakfast in Oporto. He did breakfast in Oporto and dined there too, on the food that had been prepared for the French general!

The markets of Oporto are very attractive. The chief one is the Mercado do Anjo, which lies just to the north of the fine church of the Clericos, whose lofty tower may be seen from most parts of the town. It is a picturesque spot, and presents a busy scene in the early mornings; but as I write it is another market-square that rises before my mind's eye. It was the first I saw after landing in Portugal. I could not drag myself away from it, and the fascination of it seems to hold me still.

There were low, shady trees in the middle of that little square, and white booths beneath them, covered with fruit and flowers, cakes and vegetables. The open-doored shops at the sides were windowless, and had piles of goods heaped on the pavements in front of them, and spreading out well into the road: shining pots and pans; gay coloured kerchiefs—red and yellow, blue and green; rolls of sombre woollen material and lighter-coloured cottons; and, most inviting of all, the many heaps of pottery. What may not be purchased here for a penny, or even for a half-penny? Jugs and jars, mugs and plates, basins, bowls and dishes, all of a dull cream-coloured ware, with simple brightly painted designs boldly splashed upon them. Next to them, and more tempting still, are the unglazed, red-brown earthenware vessels used all over Portugal for carrying water. Beautiful in shape and colour, they are of Moorish or Roman design; some with quaint twisted handles, others with long narrow necks, some few with spouts, and all so cheap that the smallest coin in your pocket will pay for two or three of them.