Going to the seaside at Foz – The summer time and the appeal of the beach

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Porto Guides Porto Stories

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Livraria Lello

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Foz ,praia

The development of the beach as a popular leisure resort was the first manifestation of what is now the global tourist industry. Scarborough is considered to be the first summer resort. In 1720, this English town by the North Sea began to be sought after by the Yorkshire aristocracy which, in addition to the spa, begun to prefer seaside resorts for reasons of health and leisure.

A few years later, Brighton, South of London, became the seaside resort of reference. Much due to the patronage of King George IV and the train connection to London, going to the seaside became increasingly popular, and the first hotels opened their doors.

From the United Kingdom, this new trend extended to continental Europe. The warm waters of the Mediterranean, in particular, those of the so-called French Riviera, attracted the European ruling houses and the upper aristocracy. And, after them, the popular masses.

The beach of Porto

Beach in Foz do Douro in 1930
Photo: CMP, Historical Archive Municipal

The British community has had a strong presence in Porto for centuries, mainly due to the wine trade. At Porto, the closest beaches are those at Foz do Douro. But the history of Foz do Douro is much older. In 1145, the first Portuguese King, Afonso Henriques, made a donation of a chapel in São João da Foz which, in the following century, passed on to the Benedictine monastery of Santo Tirso. The “Couto da Foz”, as this parish was called, was limited by the municipality of Bouças (Matosinhos), to the North, and Port, to the East.

Before being a summer resort, Foz do Douro lived a golden period, thanks to the action of the first Renaissance patron in Portugal, Dom Miguel da Silva. A nobleman, Portuguese Ambassador in Rome, Bishop of Viseu and Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, by the first half of the 16th century, Dom Miguel intended to monumentalize the Foz do Douro as emblematic location and navigation support. Through the Italian architect Francesco de Cremona, he built the lighthouse of São Miguel-o-Anjo considered the oldest lighthouse in Europe with a well-preserved structure – as well as a large Renaissance church — considered the first manifestation of Renaissance architecture in Northern Portugal.

The Portuguese Restoration War (1640-1668), however, forced the sacrifice of this temple in favor of a fortress for the defense of the Douro River mouth – the present-day fortress of São João da Foz –, with the former nave of the church becoming the place-of-arms of the new barracks.
By 1834, all religious orders become extinct in Portugal. A short-lived Municipality of Foz do Douro is created, with a Town Hall in the square opposite to the chapel of Saint Anastasia. 18 months later, Foz do Douro is annexed by Porto.

The sea-bathing habit

Beach in Foz do Douro, 1960
Photo: CMP, Historical Archive Municipal

From the quiet village of fishermen and a parish tributary to the Monastery of Santo Tirso, São João da Foz gained increasing importance in the mid-19th century, when sea-bathing became fashionable.
From Porto downtown, one could get to Foz taking a carriage or riding a donkey. In 1870, the Baron of Trovisqueira got an official permit to «build, at his own expense, on the public road between Porto city and the village of Foz, a railroad for horse-drawn transportation for passengers and goods». Two years later, the “Americano” (as the horsecar was called in Portugal) begun connecting Infante (close to St. Francis Church, in Porto) to Foz, by the riverside, a ride taking merely 25 minutes. Two more years later, another connection to Foz begun operating connecting Praça de Carlos Alberto to Largo de Cadouços, via Boavista roundabout. In addition to the horsecar, a steam vehicle was used in this service.

The seaside attraction encouraged the creation of new access roads and the development of public transportation to the Western area of Porto municipality. Members of the British community in Porto together with some local wealthy families began building holiday homes at Foz, with the bathing season extending from August to October.

By November 21, 1862, Ramalho Ortigão wrote «Thanks God, the last beach-goers return to the town that longed for them. Girls come nurtured, showing good color and being remarkably pleased, which certainly denotes good health, but also has much less poetic interest than the melancholy whiteness they had when they left us». But some resisted, prolonging the pleasures of summer all the way through autumn.

Foz grows. In 1840 there were only two hotels, one cafe, and one club. 40 years later there were already two restaurants, three theaters, five cafes, seven hotels and 35 lifeguards responsible for “applying” the baths.

A typical day in the life of a bather

Molhe Beach, c.1930
Photo: CMP, Historical Archive Municipal

By reports of Ramalho Ortigão and Alberto Pimentel, we can have a close perception of how a typical day at the beach would be, by the end of the 19th century. The day was, almost ritually, made up of three periods: the bath, the walk, and the social contacts.

The beach-goer or bather woke up very early, at the crack of dawn. Together with his family, he would then go marching on to the beach. The bathing period begins. Using a bathing tent – usually made-up in white canvas – to change «tail dress for the ladies, sweaters, and pants for men». The experienced lifeguards, dived the bather into the cold waters of the Atlantic, once, twice or three times, depending on his will and courage. Alternatively, there was the “shock bath”: two lifeguards would carry the bather in a small seat, unexpectedly diving him in the sea, and quickly returning him to the beach. Those less daring would simply opt for the “bucket” that, full of cold sea water, was poured over his head. This done, the bathing episode was completed.

Only then would the breakfast be served: coffee with milk and bread with fresh butter on top. The rest of the morning was spent sunbathing, resting on blankets extended in the sand or sitting on small chairs. The whole family was gathered: grandparents, parents, children, uncles, cousins. They would all talk to each other, watch other swimmers or listen to the blind man playing, while gallant young men made goo-goo eyes to eligible maidens. And so, the morning was spent. They would, then, return home to lunch. In the afternoon, some would be occupied with housekeeping tasks while others were taking a nap.

Later in the afternoon, began the walking period, sometimes blended with social contacts. Some would gaze at fishermen fixing their nets, while others would stroll around the Passeio Alegre gardens (landscaped in 1888), or contemplating the sunset. Sometimes, using hired donkeys, an excursion to Leça could be undertaken or to a nearby pine forest for a picnic. Others, especially British citizens, would devote themselves to physical activities, namely practicing “foot-ball” or “lawn-tennis”. Other times, the afternoon was spent with meetings at the club or at a café, chatting, playing cards of billiards, or listening to a recital or someone playing piano.

After supper, there were the poetic, dancing or musical soirées. And gambling. The roulette was the great fever of the bathing season. Although banned, all cafes and clubs had mysterious entries for secret smoke-filled gaming rooms.

This was how days went by at Foz by the late 1800s, at a time when sea bathing was no longer just for health purposes but social factors were increasingly gaining importance.
Despite being part of Porto city, Foz do Douro still maintains a certain peculiar nature. Helder Pacheco, in 1984, wrote that Foz «despite being part of the city since 1836, it continues to be a place different, in customs and landscape, from what ‘portuenses’ consider as Porto. Foz natives, especially the older ones, always say ‘I’m going to Porto’ when going to the city center».

Manuel de Sousa

About the author:

Manuel de Sousa (1965) has a graduation in Historical Sciences, a post-graduation in Digital Marketing and a master’s degree in Tourism. Manuel has held managing positions — especially in Communication and Marketing — in several multinational companies and other big corporations. Combining his attraction for the local history with social media, Manuel created the page “Porto Desaparecido” (“Vanished Porto”) on Facebook, whose success granted him a Municipal Medal of Merit by Porto City Council. In January 2017, Manuel published “Porto d’Honra”, a book about the 15 most relevant milestones of Porto city history.