One of my favorite things to do when I travel is learning about the quirky stories of a new place. Every city has its urban legends, every town has its historical events, and every village has its one super wacky incident. Most times, these stories aren’t in the guide books. They’re in the people you meet along the journey…
… or, sometimes, they’re in the super awesome tour guides that you book.
I mean, it’s great when traveling is this beautiful romantic affair – but that’s not always what happens friends!
So when I traveled to Porto in August, I took a free walking tour with Porto Walkers. I didn’t have any expectations for it, really – just an afternoon to kill and a part of the city to explore. We had already explored most of Porto’s main sights so we opted for Porto Walkers’ B tour. And it didn’t disappoint!
Besides discovering a part of the city I wouldn’t have otherwise paid much attention to, our tour guide let us in on some really cool stories from Porto. I walked away feeling like I really had connected with the city – its crazy past, its strong character. So let me introduce you to Porto’s quirkiest little tales:
The world’s narrowest house?
If you stand in the middle of Porto’s Praça dos Leões (right in front of the main university campus), you will be able to see Porto’s narrowest house and what some call the narrowest house in the world. It’s a pretty neat thing – and the story about how it came to be is just hilarious (you know, if you’re a geek like me).
Way back when (I’m so good with dates guys, I swear) there was this church. (The one on the left, in the photo.) It was a nice church. One day, this guy comes in to the church and tells the priest “Hey man, I wanna build a hospital next to the church to take care of all the poor people here. Could ya lend me some money for that?”. And Priest Guy, who obviously cared so deeply for poor people was all “Yo, of course dude. Here’s a bunch of money”. And construction of the hospital began.
One day, Hospital Guy had a bright idea. He was like, “You know what? This hospital isn’t really gonna make people remember my name. But I know what will… A CHURCH!”.
DUN DUN DUN.
The plot thickens.
Because, you see, Hospital Guy doesn’t tell the priest about his plans and starts to build Church 2.0 right next to The Original Church.
But Priest Guy isn’t dumb and catches on. At first, Hospital Guy is all “Oh no, this is just a little chapel so the loved ones have a place to pray for the sick”. And Priest Guy is like, “Hm, fine”.
Except Hospital Guy wasn’t just building a chapel and Priest Guy eventually catches on. He gets all mad was like, “Oh HELL NO. You’re building a church? Then I’m having the TALLEST church!”. And he adds on the cute bell tower on the left.
But then Hospital Guy just laughed and was all, “Um, don’t be ridic. I’m gonna have some cool statues on top”. And he adds the beautiful statues and gets the tallest church.
And right now, I know you’re wondering: Okay Inês, what does all of this have to do with the world’s narrowest house?
Well, you see, Priest Guy had one last card up his sleeve. He contacts the Vatican telling them about what’s going on hoping to get some backup from the old guys in robes. And they did back him up: apparently, there’s a Canon Law (that’s a law of the Catholic Church) that prohibits the construction of two churches side by side along the same wall.
SO, Priest Guy – it’s his last chance – walks up to Hospital Guy and shows him this letter from the Vatican. Priest Guy thinks he’s won, he thinks finally Hospital Guy will call it quits and his will be the shiniest church in all the land.
That is until Hospital Guy calmly points to a small space left between the two churches and says: “Man, I’m one step ahead of you. That narrow space between our churches? We’re going to build a house in there and it’s going to be my house.”
So there you have it, ladies and gentleman: the story behind the world’s (or at least Porto’s) narrowest house. Which, as you can imagine, was not inhabited for very long (it’s like 70cm/28 inches wide).
PS: Hospital Guy did build the hospital too. It’s on the back of the church, where you see those tiny windows on the right. But it was privatized and used by Hospital Guy to make more money (who knows, maybe he wanted to build another church).
The Unjust Statue of Lady Justice
This one isn’t as hilarious but it definitely makes you think!
Let’s think about the statues of Lady Justice you have seen throughout your lifetime.
What is always there?
The scales are what people remember most. Lady Justice is always holding the scales, a symbol for how Justice must weigh the factors of a case before reaching a verdict.
You might also notice that most (though certainly not all) Lady Justice statues also feature a blindfold. It’s not hard to deduce what this means too: that justice must be rendered “without passion or prejudice”.
Finally, though I had never noticed it myself, it seems that Lady Justice also always carries a sword in one hand. It’s a symbol of authority and, ultimately, of punishment where/if it’s due.
That’s not really what Porto’s Lady Justice statue looks like.
For those of you who don’t know, Portugal was a dictatorship for most of the 20th Century. We had all the classic dictatorship perks: secret police, limited social and political rights, a paranoid leader, and, of course, a very biased judicial system.
It was at that time that Porto’s Lady Justice statue was built. It is super tall. The first thing you notice as you look up (way up) is the massive sword right in front of the statue. It just screams “You’ve come here to die.” – delightful, isn’t it? Then, she’s got the scales for sure – but they’re pushed to the side, telling you “Who really cares about the facts anyway?”. And, as you can imagine at this point, no blindfold is there because Lady Justice knows exactly who she’s looking for.
While it’s quite a somber statue to look at, I think it’s still very interesting that it’s been kept in its original place, just outside of the Court of Appeal in Porto, this whole time. It’s a part of history that the city doesn’t want to forget – in the hopes that by remembering it, we won’t be doomed to repeat it.
A writer goes to prison and writes about it
This was undoubtedly one my favorite stories from Porto to learn about – and one that I frankly feel like I should have already known.
Every country has its classic writers – those whose works have withstood the test of time. Camilo Castelo Branco is one of those writers in Portugal whose Romantic (and refreshingly sarcastic) novels made him the first writer in Portuguese history to be able to live off of his literary works alone in the 19th century.
His – let’s call it “adventurous” – life was where he drew most of his inspiration from. And his time spent in Portugal’s most horrific prison in Porto was no different.
In fact, that’s where he wrote one of his most famous novels, Amor de Perdição (Doomed Love). Based on real life events, Amor de Perdição tells the story of two doomed lovers. But let’s rewind a bit – how did this novel come to be?
Back in the 19th century in Portugal, adultery was a crime punishable with a prison sentence. After being caught having an affair with a married woman, Camilo and the woman were both jailed in what was known as Portugal’s most dreadful prison in Porto. Camilo, as a celebrity at the time, was given the VIP room upstairs (which included maid services, proper meals and a comfortable room). The woman (I really don’t want to call her “mistress”) was thrown into the awfully crowded cells of the ground floor. With all this time on his hands (and such comfort in his little VIP room), Camilo dug into his family’s past and uncovered a tragic love story in his uncle’s lifetime (who, by the way, had also spent some time in jail – for murder). And that is how Amor de Perdição came to be.
Don’t you just wanna run to pick up your copy now?
PS: I did.
There were so many more stories, but these were undoubtedly my favorites. Thanks Porto Walkers for a fun afternoon! Do you have any fun stories you’ve uncovered in your travels?