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Shopping for groceries isn’t always a life-enhancing moment. But Porto’s Mercado do Bolhão building, which celebrates its centenary this year, is a welcome alternative to a breathless dash around an over-lit supermarket.

Shoppers can stroll through the sun-filled, open-air space and chat with vendors who know every detail of the products they sell. Many stop for a glass of wine and grilled sardines for lunch at a shade-dappled table. Whether you need fruit and vegetables, meat, fresh fish, handmade pork sausages, olives, cheese, fresh flowers, live chickens, home-made bread or even a quick haircut, Porto’s Mercado do Bolhão has it all.

Situated in the centre of Porto, the market is a neoclassical architectural gem designed in 1914 by architect António Correia da Silva, an admirer of the French École des Beaux-Arts style. With its use of concrete and steel, it was avant-garde for its time and even today its sweeping stone staircases, pitched iron roofs and the domes that anchor its southern end have the grandeur of a bygone era.

There are other strikingly idiosyncratic details, too. There is the pair of sculptures by Bento Cândido da Silva peeking over the edge of the façade at the gate, the delicate ironwork of the gates and railings and the small shrine, complete with wax votives, just inside the main entrance.

Porto-based architect Joaquim Massena has had a long professional relationship with the market. In 1992 he won a competition to revamp Bolhão and spent the next four years working on the plans, basing himself in the market for two of those years. A change in local politics saw the development postponed indefinitely but Massena remains passionate about the space. “Bolhão is integral to the identity of the city. When you talk about Porto you always talk about Bolhão,” he says.

The market’s reputation for fresh food and the warmth of its vendors are what make it an institution throughout Portugal. André Amorim runs Porto-based Yours Guesthouse. He has been shopping at Bolhão since he was a boy. “In my opinion, Bolhão’s fruit and vegetables are the best in town. You can buy the freshest products with the most diversity and get a highly personalised service too,” he says. “The grocers know you and help you choose the best products.”

He points monocle in the direction of Salsicharia Luisa, a stall on the ground floor where you can buy homemade tripas enfarinhadas (tripe sausages), Portuguese black pudding, chorizo and cured hams. Luísa Silva runs the stall and has worked here for 45 years, sharing the task with her husband José Pinheiro for the past 32 years. Silva lists the ingredients in her tripas recipe (black pepper and fresh herbs among them) and explains how to cook it at home (frying is best), before offering a taste. The sausage is delicious: surprisingly simple with a pleasing texture.

Opposite the stall, fishmonger Sara Araújo has been awake since 03.00 having travelled to the wharves of nearby Matosinhos to pick up her day’s offers: sardines with silvery skins, pale pink squid and iridescent fish of various shapes and sizes. Just around the corner is Lucinda Leites’ chicken stall. At 79, Leites is one of the oldest stallholders and has sold her live chickens here since the early 1940s. She is one of the few who can remember the times when the market was the city’s main source of food.

“In 1945 we were selling as many as 1,000 chickens a day,” she says. “There was a slaughterhouse and a vet on the market back then so you could buy a chicken and have it freshly killed.” Today she sells around 10 of her homebred chickens a day as well as the geese, peacocks and doves, which she also breeds.

Up on the mezzanine, Ana Cardoso runs a vegetable stall. She’s been working here for 30 years and grows the tomatoes, beans and peppers she sells. Hers is the place to visit if you want to try to make Portugal’s traditional caldo verde (green soup): she shreds the hard-leaved cabbage for you and will shell her garden-grown broad beans for a small extra fee.

It’s this personal touch that appeals to Carlos Mesquita, 26, who is meeting friends at the market. “It is as famous for the people who work here as it is for the food – they are very warm.” he says. Shopping here delivers a feel-good factor, adds Massena. “There are always people to talk to and you make connections and build relationships. If you shop at Bolhão you are never lonely.”

But the past century has not always been plain sailing for the market. In the past 20 years in particular, the combination of political disagreement and the economic crisis have proven to be toxic. The space hasn’t been renovated since the 1980s and parts of the building are looking dilapidated and unloved.

One wing is closed and of the 440 vendors that traded there in 1996 just 70 remain today. After Massena’s mid-1990s plan to redevelop the space faltered, the city council dithered and prevaricated. In 2008 the former administration hatched a plan to close the market and build a series of luxury apartments on the site but outrage from Porto citizens – 50,000 signed a petition and there were demonstrations in the streets – stopped the development.

The mayor of Porto Rui Moreira announced plans this year to apply for European funding to regenerate Bolhão. “We want to reintroduce more restaurants to the mezzanine level and we’re going to renovate the stores on the market’s exterior,” he tells monocle. “We’re not planning any big structural changes but we will open a new link between the metro station and the market.” One aspect that Moreira won’t change is the existing stallholders. “A market is more than just the products it sells: it is about the way the traders talk, the way they think and the way they behave. A market needs music and noise and it is the traders at Bolhão that provide the music we want.”

Built to last

Age alone can’t justify a building’s continued existence but Mercado do Bolhão’s history, which spans about 160 years, does hint at Porto’s ongoing need for a central marketplace. Often it’s the brashest plans that find their way to the top of the pile on the desks of mayors and urban planners, threatening to wipe out essential services in the name of a shinier (if not always brighter) future.

When Dutch/Portuguese consortium Tramcrone was given the go-ahead to level the market to build luxury apartments and a supermarket on the site, it was the overwhelming public support for the market (and a realisation of its importance as an architectural gem) that kept it alive.

In 2013 it was classified a site of public interest and this year mayor Rui Moreira vouchsafed its continued preservation. If Mercado do Bolhão’s changing fortune proves anything it’s that a city’s priorities shift over time and hasty decision-making can cost the city something it might decide it needs tomorrow.

Quality of life in cities stems from intangible experiences, one-offs, chance encounters and the convergence of people and services that generates business, creates jobs and even brings people closer to the food they eat.

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