polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Ode to a Portuguese Beach Town

by Alex Schafran

We at Polis are as guilty as anyone of fetishizing the big city over the small town, the metropolis over the hinterland, the middle of everywhere over the middle of nowhere. I would argue that this orientation towards the core and its transformations is as old as contemplative urbanism itself — flaneurie has always seemed more gesellschaft than gemeinschaft, not to mention modern architecture, public transportation, economic growth, urban politics, street culture, and all the other urban trimmings that send us into a collective tizzy.


The more I study the urban question, the more I realize just how interconnected all human settlements are. While the typologies, hierarchies, and divisions we create may be useful for descriptive or explanatory purposes, they do nothing to define a field of interest or investigation. To paraphrase Henri Lefebvre, we are all urban these days; the small town and big city are inherently linked in this broader world of urban studies. Moreover, as I get older and truly crave the small town and the countryside, the quiet and the simple, I find myself really enjoying seeing small towns through the same set of interchanging lenses I honed in explorations of big cities.


You never know what you will see in small towns these days, especially those along the sea, which have long been destinations for the temporary. Tourism gets a bad name in progressive urban circles, often deservedly so, for misguided investment, environmental destruction, and creating social and economic tensions with the permanent and often poorer populations. Yet there is something inherently important in travel, and in its less romantic but equally critical and more populist cousin — vacation. This tension is part of what drives the interest of Fainstein and others who have studied tourism from an urban perspective — there are problems with tourism and the temporary, but if we all stayed in the same place all the time, the world would be a much lesser place.


You can sense these lines in Torreira, a quaint beach town south of Porto on the Portuguese Atlantic, where poor fishermen exist in uneasy détente with middle- and upper-middle-class beach-goers. Torreira reminds me of the Jersey Shore in many ways, and not just because the local municipality of Murtosa is famous for sending emigrants to Newark (and Venezuela and France) — emigrants whose summer return fills the beaches with the sounds of the Ironbound district, Caracas, and the banlieue. The quiet, sunburned streets, packed with multistory concrete rentals with the occasional "for rent" sign; the deeply middle-class main street running right up to the beach (a dead ringer for Beach 116th Street in the Rockaways) with affordable and fresh seafood and every trinket needed to keep the sun and wind in their proper doses.


There are second homes, but few are gaudy, and most get rented out by their owners to urbanites, people from the mountains, and even folks from the next town inland. There are some shanties remaining, although many have been replaced by social housing, and some of the seemingly timeless fish-hawking women remain, their burdens now carried in carts instead of on their heads. A new bike path snakes through town, conspicuous in its raised red asphalt.


But most of what Torreira — and the Jersey Shore — are about are exhausted middle-class folks grabbing some much-needed vacation: time with family and friends, time for just a bit too much beer, vinho verde and fresh fish, time for fiction and overpriced sunblock. Torreira would not be the same if everyone lived there all the time. There is something in its seasonal rhythms, its temporality, and in the micro-communities of friends and families reconstituted but once a year in July and August. Many of the families of Torreira have been coming there for generations, a global diaspora brought together every year in a place that is technically home to none of them.


The sun-bleached concrete and rough modernism of Torreira's architecture, which merges almost effortlessly with the smaller historical imprint of the town's center, gets even quieter in the dying light of hot beach days. Families saunter home from the sandy shores, and you can see the pending collapse in the pleasantly sun-kissed faces of beach-tired kids. Vacation is an increasingly unequal activity, as the world builds more Punta del Estes and less Mar del Platas; we see the Hamptons blinged across our televisions as Coney Island becomes a nostalgic relic. But in Torreira, where a gelato still costs a euro and the band plays slightly cheesy music in the plaza on Saturday night, we can remember in real time how critical it is to get out of the big city every once and a while and do nothing but spend time with people you love in a small town by the beach.


Credits: Photos by Alex Schafran.

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