On a recent Saturday morning, we climbed Fernandes Tomás Street in Porto, following grid drawn on the ground to guide even those with the poorest sense of direction to the temporary location of the iconic Bolhão Market.
Originally built in 1839, the market is one of the most prominent structures in downtown Porto. The current neoclassical structure was completed in 1914 and has been in a state of disrepair for decades. After being classified by the government as a Monument of Public Interest in 2013 both for its architectural value and the important role it plays in Porto’s identity, the market was saved from the wrecking ball that has come for many other buildings in Portugal’s largest cities. Yet it was clear that the dilapidated market desperately needed to be restored, and works finally began in 2018.
While Bolhão’s century-old original structure is being restored, the vegetables, fruits, fish and flowers of the market have been brought to a decidedly less striking indoor location with no windows. The place is new, strange to many, but the usual faces are there. We know their names, their smiles. The only thing we’re uncertain about is the setting.
At the entrance, we catch sight of an older gentleman, who introduces himself as Fernando, helping a woman named Mrs. Rosa; she’s looking for the herbalist she used to frequent at the old Bolhão. Although he doesn’t work here, he knows the market well and offers to show her around, acquiescing when we ask to tag along. “I’ve been coming to Bolhão since I was five years old. Now that I’m retired, I’m here every day, standing next to my friend who is sharpening his knives,” he says by way of explanation.
“Come this way,” says Fernando, taking her (and us) on an impromptu guided tour. “Here are the preserves, on that side are the nuts, from then on the butchers.” “It looks really beautiful,” says Rosa, “I thought it was going to be a mess, as it was something to remedy, but it’s beautiful.”
Rosa tells us that she hasn’t been to Bolhão for at least a year, which is about how long the original location has been shuttered for renovation.
As we walk with Fernando and Rosa, a chorus of “good days” rings out from all directions. We pass through corridors of fruit, nibble on some chorizo, smell the flowers. “Excuse me, where’s the herbalist Augusto Coutinho?” Fernando asks. “It’s there on the left.” “Thank you, have a good day.”
After arriving at our destination, the herbalist exclaims, “Oh Mrs. Rosa, how are you?” The two hug as we wave goodbye.
Fernando has a few more errands to run – he’s on the hunt for some onions – so he sets off, with us in tow, to his usual place, Tininha’s Vegetables. We stop a few times to chat with vendors. “Is it going or what?” Fernando will often ask. “Going slowly” is a common response. Many foreigners are wandering with cameras at the ready. We arrived at the stand of Mrs. Celestina, “Tininha for friends, do not call me a mistress or I’ll stick this knife in you,” she jokingly threatens.
She has sold vegetables at Bolhão for 22 years, following in the footsteps of her mother, who worked at the market for over 60 years. “Old or new onions?” she asks. “Old like me,” answers Fernando, “half a dozen.” Tininha likes this temporary home – mostly. “The only problem is not seeing the daylight. And the air conditioning,” she says. “The conditions are fabulous, but we were used to the outdoors, even with the harsh winters and the rain falling on us.”
“I don’t have the money to pay,” admits Fernando, who already seems to know Tininha’s answer: “If you don’t have it now, you’ll owe it.” This is the way for friends. When they were still in the old building, Fernando used to deliver the rent payments for many sellers. In exchange, Tininha always gives him “the best onions, the best sprouts, the best beans,” all Portuguese products. “He knows it’s like that, and if [the produce] isn’t the best, I always apologize,” she says.
How does she handle the many foreign customers? “I understand a little bit of English and French,” says Tininha, “but we usually can make do with gestures and displaying coins.” And do they buy? “They give great value to fresh tomatoes, onions, parsley, coriander. I just ask that my regular customers keep coming.” And they do. One stops by while we’re there: “Good morning, can you get me a head of lettuce?” “This gives us health, girl,” says Tininha, “these conversations, to see these people every week.”
Tininha bids us goodbye with a flurry of good wishes, and Fernando takes us to Rosinha das Azeitonas next. “I’d like to buy half a kilo of my favorite olives,” he says to Rosa. “How are you? And how’s your wife?” Rosa has sold olives at Bolhão Market for almost 40 years. Self-described as “always in a good mood,” she says she likes the new space. “But Bolhão is Bolhão,” she adds. She also misses sunlight, “but we have work and that’s important.”
Here, as at Tininha’s stand, everyone asks after family and inquires about your health, although there are few complaints. Even if you don’t sell, talking always feeds your spirit. And although the pregão(“cry”) is prohibited at this temporary location – “You can not even yell at your colleagues!” exclaims Rosa – the life that coursed through Bolhão can still be found in every corner.
We leave Rosinha das Azeitonas and ask Fernando where to next. He wants to buy “homemade little cod cakes,” so we head towards Rosa’s son Moisés, whose stand is back in the fish market. When we arrive, he’s wrapping fish in the city’s newspaper to deliver it to his customers. Shrimp, fish and mussels are on display; on the tongue, there is always a word about football.
Someone asks for “sardines like the ones I bought last week. They tasted like the sea, as it should always be. Amazing!” And a hug between client and fishmonger. “What else, sweetheart?” Moisés asks while arranging fish with a dexterity earned by many years of hard work.
Fernando buys the codfish cakes, and on we go. Fernando knows all 82 vendors at the market, and makes sure that we meet Ernestina, the “Manteigaria do Bolhão” (“Creamery of Bolhão”). “Everyone here calls me grandmother,” the 85-year-old tells us; she radiates an enviable vigor and always has a joke ready. And Ernestina is not even the oldest vendor in the market. “It’s Cindinha Chickens,” she says, referring to Cindinha who, naturally, sells chicken.
Before we go home, Fernando wants to stop to buy fresh bread. We are welcomed by Alzira’s son-in-law (Alzira owns the stand but isn’t here today) with a contagious, “Good morning! How can I help?” We taste a few different types of bread before finding a winner.
Our guided tour of Bolhão Market ends at the same place where it started, at the entrance. There is the same image of Our Lady, who protected the vendors and welcomed customers in the old building. Here is where Fernando’s friend André, the knife sharpener, has set up shop.
He’s just over 30 years old and has already mastered the trade that was passed down from his father and his grandfather before that. “He sharpens everything here: knives, scissors, razors, pocketknives,” says Fernando. André continues working the wheel, and we say goodbye. Behind us, the commotion, the friendships, the smells that words cannot describe continue to swirl. “Good health, girl, all the best,” Fernando says as we part ways. All the best.