Arriving in Porto in January, I was impressed by the presence of green leaves on the branches of deciduous trees, and upon closer examination, evidence of tropical plants. One morning I took my coffee and pastry and I went exploring some of the city’s public green spaces. Known to locals as Jardim a Cordoaria, historically a place where artisans made rope, João Chagas Garden is located between the architectural beauty of Santo Antonio Hospital (by British architect John Carr, features the statue of justice) and the iconic Clerigos church.
João Chagas Garden was commissioned by the city in 1865, designed by German landscaper Emile David, who also developed the gardens at the Crystal Palace. The park was damaged by a cyclone in the early 1940’s, but is still home to some magnificent ancient trees that must have withstood that storm. Bunya pine and London plane are shoulder to shoulder with a giant sequoia that would be at home in the redwood forests of Washington state. Deformed, swollen trunks mark the London planes as survivors of traumatic sickness in their youths, decades ago.
If plant life, pastries and coffee is not your thing, the João Chagas Garden’s vibrant artworks may still be your cup of tea. In 2001, when Porto was named the capital of European culture, Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz installed the piece, “13 Laughing at Each Other.” This sculpture captures the uneasy essence of the paradox of a loud silence: the 13 figures frozen in the moment of uproar while the act of hilarity or ridicule remains forever obscured. A few years before he finished, “13 Laughing at Each Other,” Juan Muñoz said of his art:
“I sometimes feel that some of my work is about waiting, waiting for something to happen; on the one hand afraid in case it does happen, or even wishing that it had never occurred. It is like keeping a work in that state that we would call desire- keeping it at that level of desire, just holding it there that wish, that uncertainty, keeping the work still just here. Or like watching a door which one day a person might open.”
João Chagas Garden is also good for people-watching.