Bolhão centre babushka

Bolhão market in Porto: from unique Portuguese to a generic airport style?

Noon in Porto. Morning clouds evaporate and the sun appears above the hundred year old Bolhão market. I take a seat at a simple table between fresh flowers, the smell of bread and colourful Portuguese souvenirs.Time seems to have frozen here. It wouldn’t surprise me if vendors would sell oehoes & magic wands here. Despite the usual bustle of a city market there’s a kind of silence I am not used to anymore.

A big man quietly takes my order. Only five minutes later he serves me a full plate of rissóis de bacalhau with rice and salad. Fresh, honest and good food on a worn out plate. The man patiently waits until I finnish. I point at the leftovers and tell him that this is food for a well-built labourer. He roars with laughter and brings me a coffee that he doesn’t charge. “Presente,” he says. I pay five euro’s and leave a small tip. These kind of places are dying. It reveals a real sharp contrast with the ‘no-nonsense’ bistronomy trend & barista culture in their urban second-hand interiors1. I like to give tips but not when I have to go get my coffee myself trying to explain which coffee I want ( a normal one with coffee flavour duh). I grew up in different bars with these rules: coffee & beer should be at democratic prices. Good service is important because it’s unique ( and… Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil;-) )

Airport style

Unfortunately the market needs serious renovation in the years to come. The typical & unique barraca’s (granite vendor stands) will be demolished in the process. From the top, everything will have the same appearance but underneath everything will be open. Airport style. “Those barraca’s were designed for the vendors and are practical but the City Council who owns the market let them degenerate for decades, probably hoping the old vendors would give up and leave,” says architect Alexandre Castro Gamelas. He and his wife created a petition to save the architectural heritage². “But if you want to create an open supermarket instead, the barraca’s don’t fit in off course,” he says.
Hugo, a vendor of Bolhão explains that the City Council delays the renovation already twenty years. He is pleased that renovation finally starts but fears that standardisation will overshadow the sense of community. “ Vendors used to bring their own specific products from the places they grew up. There was no jealousy. Vendors sold each others products when someone was sick. But since the City Council communicated that the market was about to collapse people stayed away. We are obliged to open our barraca’s only between 7 am & 5pm when everybody else is working, which means we become more dependent on tourists. Diversity is fading away. At this point the barraca’s are mixed up but after renovation the vendors with the same products will be put together. This can create an ‘us against them’ atmosphere.”

Above: the plan of the City Council. Under: proposal by architects Alexandre Gamelas & Catarina Santos.

Generic city

“I don’t mind if trendy shops appear on the market. The problem is that the City council unnecessarily sacrifices the barraca’s. They are part of our unique Portuguese, architectural heritage.”

More and more cities prefer efficient marketing strategies above local identity while the private domain conquers the public domain. However, research shows that locals become more unhappy and move out in the long run because the sense of community disappears and rents & real estate becomes priceless. Not only the Bolhão market but a whole city becomes more dependent from tourists and their trolleys (thank you Ryanair & Airbnb). So why not get the tourists to know  the unique culture & community of a city like Porto?

I guess we will have to wait how the Bolhão market will evolve. With or without a Starbucks or a Mc Donalds? Renovation will take at least two years. Until then the elderly vendors will have to move to an underground market in a shopping mall close by. In the past years young people weren’t allowed to buy a permit to open a barraca. This might mean that the City Council once again hopes that the over aged vendors will give up.

” I don’t mind if trendy shops appear on the market. My problem is that the City council unnecessarily sacrifices the barraca’s. They are part of our unique Portuguese, architectural heritage. Unfortunately Portuguese aren’t easy to mobilise against such events,” says Alexandre Gamelas. “The same trend is happening in our streets: despite good inexpensive alternatives the typical Portuguese houses in the centre are being stripped and get plastic window frames with double-glazing. The wood elements such as windows and doors are being removed and our unique city starts to have a weaker architectural appearance. Unfortunately the people from Porto accept this simple reasoning: “ Before the building was dirty and now it’s clean.”

Always waiting

Rui Moreira won the hearts of the people and got elected as an independent mayor three years ago. He was driving around the city in a VW to listen to the people. A people’s person. The Bolhão market is one of the projects he personally follows up. In an interview with the Dutch NRC he calls himself “left on social matters but right when it comes to the role of the state.³” Almost three years later, people say he is a slick politician but that he is better than the mayors who preceded him. That he is isn’t who he pretends to be but that he is pretty good in marketing. That he wants to bring culture and young people to the city but that rents are increasing. That the old, empty buildings finally get renovated but that appearance is more important than quality.

Despite the growing call for transparency all over Europe, politicians hardly reveal their real goals. How will Porto look like in five years? When I try to talk with the old vendors they only shrug their burned out shoulders.

Same trend is to be seen in Ghent (where I grew up): how will the mobility plan look like? The city wants to ban cars but builts shopping malls in the old centre and attracts dubious low budget chains such as Primark & Mediamarkt. The mobility plan only starts behind their buildings… which keeps the Vrijdagsmarkt & St. Jacobs ( in the centre)a nightmare. In the vague policy statements3 the Council writes that Ghent wants to attract young entrepreneurs by 2020. But the young entrepreneurs who already have their office & firms in the centre have to pay now 2530 euro instead of 900 euro to park their car. Rents doubled in more than ten years time. The council also states that she wants to be a ‘creative city’. Just like Moreira, the Council wants to built a strong marketized city (‘Ghent, what a city!’) that can internationally compete.

Step out of the bubble

“Portugues have an immature political point of view. They approach politics like football which means they just vote to punish the opposition,” says Moreira. Like written before, Alexandre Gamelas agrees that Portuguese not necessarily think in the long run. They see tidiness of fast built flats and not the loss of a unique a powerful patrimony. Cities are changing fast and by the time people do get conscientious about the bigger picture, the public domain (parks & squares) will be overruled by the private domain (shopping malls, empty offices, foreign investment flats). Cities already start to look the same all over the world: like theme parks.

I believe citizens all over the world need to step out of their bubble. We are an easy target for slick politicians (who are in turn an easy target for globalised markets), gentrification, project managers, … After office hours in London complete districts look like ghost towns and dozens of football pitches were being sacrificed for the sake of the Olympic Games (Beckham had a hand in this, the hero:-)). Amsterdam & Barcelona are drowning in the vagaries of mass tourism. Porto still feels very Portuguese but a lot is changing. A Hard Rock Café opened its doors recently and rumours says Starbucks is on it’s way. Don’t get me wrong: I grant the Portuguese their hamburgers and American style coffee but why not put a school in the beautiful art deco building at the Praça da Liberdade instead of a Mc Donald’s?

Colourful stories

People always, always, always made their cities vibrant & dynamic. Gave it its natural dynamic.

Such a huge renovation as the one at Bolhão isn’t easy for any party. Architects balance between conservation & evolving, City Councils between profitability & liveability and citizens between private matters & a strong community. Initially a huge hotel would rise on the Bolhão market. A big plus for as well the policy-makers to resist this the pressure as the handful of activists who stood up to these plans. The market stays. Hopefully with a delicious hamburger shop from some locals or a Portuguese coffee house wether with wifi or not.
With international chains it’s the CFO who is in charge. A CFO doesn’t care about feelings nor people. Investments need to pay dividends as quickly as possible. Their food and products are cheaper but in the end we will pay the price for our ‘cheap’ choices. Stories without the real vitality. A handful of activists is not enough to create a strong community. Nevertheless, I believe It’s the people that always, always, always made their cities vibrant & dynamic. We are the resilient kind. The ones who love stories, who love the products they sell, who love to have a talk with their costumers.  Sitting in the barraca of Hugo, I listened to the stories of his grandmother who was only seven when she walked to the market every day to sell the flowers from her town. Just like Hugo’s mother who was nine when she decided that working outside on the market was more fun than studying. And just like Hugo himself who rearranged his barraca into a wine house where tourists & locals sit together to have glass of Port with sardines.4

  1. Damn good essay about why everything starts to look the same all over the world. 
  2. Sign the petition to conserve the barraca’s.
  3. Interview in NRC with Moreira (Dutch). 
  4. Wine House Bolhão 
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