Mon, Mar 24, 2014 - Page 15 News List

FEATURE: Porto tour highlights decrepit homes and shops

AFP, PORTO, Portugal

Architect Margarida Castro Felga, left, talks to US tourist Dean Watson during a tour in Porto, Portugal, on Feb. 28.

Photo: AFP

Forget the ornate cathedrals, the glitzy bars or gourmet restaurants. On what is billed as “The Worst Tours” of Portugal’s second city, Porto, the highlights are decrepit homes and crumbling shops.

Three out-of-work architects have concocted the tours to show visitors the impact of Portugal’s debilitating economic crisis on the city that was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996.

“Porto is not just a postcard or some streets where tourists do their shopping. My city is also all this,” said tour guide Margarida Castro Felga, 31, gesturing at the dilapidated facades in the city’s Fontainhas District.

Also on the itinerary are empty stores whose owners have long gone bankrupt and dozens of houses with boarded windows and doors, even at the upper end of the Porto’s main shopping thoroughfare Santa Catarina street.

In short, what they are offering is a walking tour of “the alleys, the abandoned buildings, the square, the mean streets, the old markets ... the stories behind them all, and great discussions on very partial points of view,” the guide said.

Disbelieving local youngsters watch the group led by Castro Felga pass by and stop outside the crumbling buildings.

“It’s sad to let such a beautiful city get run down,” said Dean Watson, who had signed up for the tour with his wife, Louise.

For the American-English couple in their 50s, the tour brings to life the economic malaise plaguing the eurozone nation, which only managed to shake off two-and-a-half years of recession in the second quarter of last year.

“This kind of visit helps us understand what’s happening in Europe today,” said Louise, who has lived in Germany — the EU’s biggest economy — with her husband for the past 30 years.

“People in Germany prefer not to think too much about it,” she said.

Faced with looming bankruptcy after decades of ballooning wages and state spending led to a massive build up of debt, Portugal was forced to seek an international bailout worth 78 billion euros (US$107.6 billion) in May 2011.

In exchange, it was forced to undertake sweeping job, pay and pension cuts which deepened a recession and spawned poverty and unemployment that stood at 15.3 percent during the last three months of last year.

“The city has been losing people for more than 10 years, but austerity policies have made things worse,” Castro Felga said, adding that she has stopped counting the number of friends who have left to work overseas.

Other morose titbits of life in Portugal dispensed during the visit: Not all workers are entitled to unemployment benefits and minimum wage is only 500 euros per month — as compared to a heftier 750 euros in Spain, which has also just emerged from a drawn-out recession, and about 1,300 euros in France, both fellow eurozone nations.

Official data show that 18.7 percent of apartments in the city were empty in 2011, while in capital Lisbon, non-occupancy rate is at 15.5 percent.

However, the guides of The Worst Tours reject any suggestion that they are flaunting Porto’s misery — a criticism directed by some at tour guides who specialize in slums, such as Brazil’s favelas.

For Helena Goncalves from the Porto tourism board, such tours only serve to hurt the city’s reputation at a time when it badly needs tourist dollars, and when the city is actually gaining popularity.

“The city is finally figuring on the international tourism map” thanks to the arrival of low-cost airlines, she said, adding that it is looking to the sector to ease its economic woes.

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