La Paz, the salty, well-worn soul of Porto

Walking in Porto you are either headed up or headed down. The Douro River cuts a channel here in its final tumble before emptying into the Atlantic. From the river; the clay roofs and stucco buildings look more like they’re clinging to the sides of a ravine than built on a riverbank. We started our day with coffee and pastries near our Airbnb in the heights of the Baixa neighborhood, but walking downhill is always easiest and in Porto all roads lead to the quai.

Like any well-visited city center, Porto’s Quai de la Ribeira has its share of tourist-focused repackaging. The flat-bottomed rabelo boats which used to carry barrels of port from the warehouses on the far riverbank to the bars along the quai now ferry tipsy tourists, bellies full, home from the tasting rooms. Barrels to bellies; same product,different vessel. The shops which once provisioned the outgoing tallships of the Age of Discovery now sell collections of Portuguese goods to take home. The cafes still specialize in the many ways to prepare salted, dried codfish. The Atlantic is filled with fish but Portugal is too warm for cod, which prefer the cold, oxygen-rich waters further north in Scandinavia. Portugal’s bemusing love affair with cod is a vestige of its seagoing past, when the flat, dried fish could be stacked like firewood in the holds of ships setting sail to distant lands.

As gravity tugged us toward the river we followed snaking streets that narrowed, then opened, then became passageways or staircases. We moved slowly with the three kids; the baby in his carrier feeling ill but still demanding to “walk walk walk”, the kind of clumsy one trying to slide the banisters and always falling to skinned knees, and the eldest asking from the furthest edge of each corner whether we can’t please hurry up! We walked past laundry, strung balcony to balcony and piles of crumbling brick, empty wine bottles, colored doorways and stray cats. The baby made friendly conversation with the old ladies as they sat, elbows in windowsills, keeping an eye on the street. Their sober gazes melt to gapped smiles and grandmotherly pincers searching for a cheek. They’d find their mark and prattle at Viggo in Portuguese and he would smile widely back and pretend to be shy.

As you move down the hill the colors of the homes become brighter, there are fewer vacant buildings or crumbling staircases and there is a sense that you are moving from the limbs towards the beating heart. At the bottom of a long set of stone stairs we reached the quai, flat and straight, set solid and tall from the river and giving the first indication that Porto might be having its moment. Up in the neighborhoods we passed few visitors like us. Even Casa Guedes with its famous Sande de Pernil pork sandwiches had been quiet. But down on the quai the collection of tourists, seeking good weather, low prices and a remarkable history and culture, has found its locus. Strolling and shopping at the little booths or dining in the cafes along the promenade, bunches of tourists with smiling faces and solid shoes.

At the northern end of the quai, around the corner and down a small, cobbled alley you find the men’s clothing store, La Paz. The shop is tucked into a dark little cavern which, in past centuries, housed a pharmacy tending ill sailors and fishermen before sending them back out on the water. The foyer is walled in floor to ceiling, leaded-glass cabinets, arcing in a graceful circle, shelves now filled with books and relics of marine life. Inside you’ll find two old friends, Jose and Andre. Young men with old souls, they’ve built their brand on a connection to the sea, to Portugal’s sober sensibility and to an appreciation for the strong, quiet, quality that makes things last. Classic chambrays and wool jackets hang on racks in front of wood-paneled walls, the space dark as the belly of a ship. The Douro River rushes past the frame of the single window.

La Paz attracts equally younger, outward-looking men and older gentlemen who find something familiar in the fabrics and cuts. Jose and Andre work with some of the best clothing makers in the country. La Paz has gracefully stepped off the fashion fast track and has made its own way forward. The clothes feel fresh and timeless and will last long enough to hand down to the kids when they’re ready for an education in quality and balance.

We met Jose the next day for breakfast at his family home. Over scrambled eggs and strong, black coffee we talked about how Porto is changing but how it remains, at least for Jose, the best place in the world. Looking through the floor to ceiling south-facing windows, framed in whitewashed walls and polished wood floors, we could see the Douro opening into the surge of the Atlantic. For Jose, Porto is the perfect place to raise his three children, to build his business and to stay close to the ocean. He surfs a few times a week before heading in to the shop on the quai. Like La Paz, the sea is in his soul.