A river of goods, beliefs and a lot of affection

Words: Maria Martinho 

The third-longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, the Douro rises in Spain and flows into Portugal, crossing the north of the country. There are several theories about the origin of the name Douro. Some believe the shiny stones that were found in it were gold, hence Gold River, while others say its name comes from the word “duro” in reference to the hardness of its winding contours and the landscapes it crosses: the tall cliffs between Miranda do Douro and Barca d’Alva.

The city of Porto and this river have an umbilical and visceral relationship that is as strong today as it ever has been. Germano Silva is a 92-year-old journalist, writer and historian who learned to swim and fish in the Douro. “I used to fish for eels and rays, and I learned to swim with a rope tied around my waist on top of barrels with the aid of Duque da Ribeira, a famous boatman who recovered bodies from the river after floods. I remember swimming in the Douro every St John’s Night because it was believed the water of the river purified and protected us from disease throughout the year”.

This expert on the city’s history says that Porto began to emerge on the right bank of the river because, in the place where Praça Ribeira is located today, there was a spring with water that ships used to supply themselves, making it a compulsory stop. “The Douro was navigable to the interior, and Porto benefited greatly from this access route to cities such as Viana do Castelo, Guimarães and Cabeceira de Basto. The boats carried barrels of wine, fruit, cod, carqueja wood for heating the ovens, rice, sugar and olive oil, and brought fabrics and ironmongery from France and England”.

As the men crossed the river by boat or via the crossing connecting the cities of Conimbriga and Braga, the women began to gather in the Praça da Ribeira to sell fish, fruit and bread. They built stalls in which to store their goods and later started living in wooden houses with thatched roofs in that riverside area. “In the 12th century, a major fire destroyed many of these dwellings, and the king ordered that in the future the houses must be built of stone”.

The movement of people was great, trade intensified, the economy grew, and the city began to thrive. “Porto developed before Vila Nova de Gaia because boats arriving after long voyages always docked on the west-facing Porto side. The sun was considered to be a disinfectant, and on this side of the river they were protected from the winds from the north”. The need to unite the two riverside cities led to the emergence of a number of connections, first with ferries and then with bridges such as the Pênsil, then in order of construction, the Maria Pia, Luis I, Arrábida, São João, Freixo and Infante D. Henrique bridges.

With the construction of the port of Leixões at the end of the 19th century, trade practically abandoned the Ribeira, which lost its prominence to become an area populated by the lower classes, with ramshackle houses occupied by workers and fishermen. “Due to the lack of hygiene and basic services, this area also became a hotspot for diseases like tuberculosis”, Germano Silva states, adding that in the 1940s there was an urban redevelopment plan that proposed the destruction of the existing buildings and their replacement with now houses. However, the architect Fernando Távora was successful in his call for the area to be rehabilitated. It was thanks to the success of his alternative that Porto’s historic city centre was classified as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1996, making the Douro River even more special.

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