Forget the blue-and-white tiled cathedrals and port wine houses that have made Portugal’s second city, Porto, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A new guided tour is taking visitors through the city’s back alleys and boarded-up businesses to show them the effects of austerity in southern Europe’s economic crisis.
The tourist information center in downtown Porto offers zoomed-in maps of the city’s historic quarter. But a few blocks away, a different type of tour takes you off that map.
“Ninety percent of visitors stay stuck in this very small, sterilized area they’ve outlined on the tourist map,” says Margarida “Gui” Castro Felga, 32. She’s one of three unemployed architects who two years ago founded what they call the Worst Tours, which shows tourists the worst of Porto. “Without our tour, you could spend three or four days in Porto without realizing that there are a lot of problems and the city is in trouble.”
NPR joined one of Castro’s recent tours. The first stop was a vegetable patch tucked away behind dilapidated rowhouses off the city’s Marques Square, where impoverished residents are using every last scrap of land to grow their own food.
“They’ve got spinach, some trees for fruit — all the cabbages you might imagine, broccoli,” says Castro, leading the tour through a narrow alleyway between houses, and out into a hidden urban garden.
“Unimaginable from the outside, isn’t it?” she says, as airliners zoom overhead, a reminder that we are still in the center of the city, with Porto’s international airport nearby.
Tiny food gardens have sprung up across Porto, even in what used to be middle-class neighborhoods, as residents struggle under austerity measures tied to the country’s European bailout, in May 2011.
Average household incomes have plunged 20 percent to 30 percent in Porto over the last five years because of tax hikes and wage and pension cuts. The minimum wage in Portugal is less than $625 dollars a month, or about $7,500 dollars a year, and the neighborhoods where the Worst Tours go live on considerably less. Homegrown vegetables become essential.
“Even in the steep slopes around the highway, there are cabbages growing everywhere,” Castro says. “That’s what’s called austerity.”
Portugal’s economy is finally growing again, and the country exited its bailout program last spring, though it still must repay some $86 billion dollars in loans. But austerity remains in place — exacerbating urban decay and poverty. Portugal was already western Europe’s poorest country, even before the economic crisis.
Over the past five years, more than 300,000 young people have left Portugal in search of work. That’s a lot for a country of only 10 million people.
“This area lost a lot of people to emigration — a lot — and most of the commerce is dead,” Castro explains, gesturing toward abandoned homes and businesses in the Cedofeita neighborhood. “So in this context, 20 shops a day closing in the region and six to seven only in the city center — it’s very visible.”
The tour passes broken windows and boarded up shops. Women are doing their laundry in public fountains. A sparkling new shopping mall, abandoned before its grand opening, is now used as an impromptu rehearsal space for local bands.
The Worst Tours attract a mix of foreign tourists and local residents curious to learn more about their own city. Castro and her colleagues are not licensed tour guides, and their tours are not promoted by Porto’s official tourist board. Their publicity comes mostly from social media and word of mouth.
“I think they don’t like us, but what can you say?” says Pedro Figueiredo, 39, another co-founder of the Worst Tours, referring to the chilly reception he received from Porto tourism officials. “There is space for the worst, and space for official tours — and I think there is space for people to think about the city. This is more like a discussion about the city.”
On this particular day, about 20 German college students have booked the tour.
“I just have never seen anything like that garden,” says 22-year-old Marian Burk, who is studying politics. “I knew a bit about the southern European countries — the [budget] cuts and everything. But you actually you see normal people in the streets here suffering. It’s a big difference from Germany.”
Figueiredo disputes the idea that the Worst Tours amount to poverty tourism — like favela tours in Brazil or township tours in South Africa.
“I don’t go there and say ‘Look at the poor people!’ I’d be very ashamed of it,” Figueiredo says. “I just talk about the spirit of the thing. Sometimes we must talk about ideas, not just objects.”