The Portuguese fervently believe in a Grand Plan. Deeply religious Catholics, these happy-go-lucky people love partying, and remain cheerful and kind for rich or for poor. They love jokes and pranks too: My innkeeper locked me out of my hotel and gestured “we’re closed” to me when I got back around midnight, but just for two minutes, as we enjoyed a good laugh.
I gawked at the Portuguese throughout my time in the country. Not only do they resemble my family in physical appearance, but their humanist principles – regardless of poverty – reflect the values that have been imparted to and practised around me since I was an infant.
Although I am of Portuguese ancestry, my friends identify me as Asian and smirked at the idea that I felt at home, away from home, among these big-hearted people. Minorities raised in other cultures will be able to relate. My clan left Portugal more than 500 years ago, but gradual migration east has done little to dilute the traits that define us as Portuguese.
Unfortunately, along with their many virtues, the Portuguese can be quite lazy, which has been vividly illustrated during the European Union’s current economic conundrum. What’s the heftiest price you’ve paid for oversleeping? For me, pressing ‘snooze’ and subsequently missing my flight by a few minutes meant having to wander Porto and Madrid alone without my travel companions, some of whom I haven’t seen since.
The Portuguese make it flagrantly visible in their own country – as well as in their numerous colonies and former colonies that they conquered through indescribable bloodshed – that the Grand Plan they believe in is that of the Christian God. Stranded alone in Porto with more than 12 hours till my overnight bus to Madrid, I set out to discover Porto’s eminent steeples, which include the Porto Cathedral, affectionately referred to as “Sé”, where Princess Philippa of Lancaster married King John I to initiate the alliance between England and Portugal, as well as Igreja dos Clérigos, whose touristy tower offers a bird’s eye view of the city.
“Churches” is interchangeable with “vacationing in Europe”. However, what sets Portugal’s churches apart is their macabre affinity for life-sized effigies of the fallen Christ – beneath the extravagantly gilded retable of every church (each ladened with gold amassed from the Portuguese’s violent campaigns), a bloodied and battered corpse of Christ often lies in a pronounced glass case.
The remains of parishioners used to be interned within the church itself too, so that they could be closer to the people’s prayers and the Corpus Christi. Arising health issues convinced the living that this was not the best idea. Since then, Portugal’s dead have been interned in compelling Romanticist cemeteries like the Prado do Repouso and the Cemiterio da Lapa, which are some of the city’s most recommended tourist attractions.
If you’re afraid of ghosts, don’t be – like I mentioned, the Portuguese are Catholic and very kind, whenever they aren’t out conquering.
My extra unintentional and unforgettable day in Porto gave me the opportunity to coerce Porto into showing me its true colours.
Although every shore where the Portuguese planted their flag bears the azulejo tiles and deep Mediterranean-favoured hues synonymous with Portuguese architecture, Porto itself has been experiencing a tumultuous overhaul over the past two decades.
After he took over as mayor of Porto in 2002, Rui Rio, whose eventful career is worth a Google, began swiftly and diligently covering up graffiti art across the city, in the name of more tourist-friendly aesthetics. This ruffled the feathers of supporters of this renegade art, to say the least, who took to the Internet to criticise him, and more comically, rewrite his description on Wikipedia. Most of all, Rio’s hard-line actions triggered graffiti artists to relentlessly and immediately re-embellish the walls that the authorities covered up.
While the church is traditionally the focal point of Portuguese communities’ lives, their new talking point in the 2000s was “will the next property they vandalise be my house?” And also, “will my property appreciate in value if, say, the Portuguese Banksy vandalises it?”
The Portuguese Banksy goes by the moniker Hazul Luzah. He, along with the likes of Chei Krew, Costah, Godmess and Lara Luis, made their names over the course of this civil revolt, and are all definitely worth a Google. When the powers that be tried to whitewash Porto, the dissidents took advantage of these clean slates quite literally.
When Rui Moreira took over as mayor in 2013 (football fans can attest to how much the Portuguese like the name Rui), he recognised the futility of wasting resources to fight these artists, and began commissioning them to paint designated walls instead. An artist can now be awarded a few hundred Euros if his or her proposed artwork is green lit.
This headstrong city that has stubbornly resisted urban redevelopment is now an enormous canvas of ever-changing art. Instead of a stagnant baroque tourist destination, Porto now makes a good case for tourists to come back and visit every now and then. The extra day that God/the universe had blessed me with let the Portuguese illustrate to me that upturned plans are opportunities for revival.