Published: February 17th 2010February 13th 2010
From snowy to sixty in 1.5 hours. Well, almost.
I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I booked a plane to Porto. A long weekend away from snow and bitter cold was my motivation, but it ended up being so much more.
It’s been too long since I’ve been lost, so I allowed myself plenty of time en route to Porto. Tours airport is on the outskirts of the city; somewhere I don’t frequent often. The lack of sun made it difficult to figure out my east and west, but after a mile of going the wrong way, I figured it out.
For being an international airport, the place is tiny. I certainly didn’t have to worry about them switching gates on me! And it doesn’t seem like too many foreigners pass through here, as demonstrated by the number of questions, pat down and manual search through my stuff.
Ryanair, how I love thee. You won’t let me pee on your plane for free, but I can sit where I like. Seat by the wing? Don’t mind if I do. That landing in Porto provides a model introduction to the city too: the
sun warming your face and a perfect image of the coast from the cabin window.
The very modern metro took me through neighborhoods and projects and green grass and blossomed gardens and farmers on tractors on the way to the city center. The city just glowed.
This is my first round of vagabonding since my days in Pau. Although I knew I wouldn’t be living out of a backpack this time around, I didn’t expect to stay in Tours for five months before more foreign soil lay under my feet.
This is also my first round of traveling solo. So much of what I remember from my travels are the experiences I had with my companions. But there’s a whole new set of challenges and rewards in individual exploration, physically and spiritually. Navigating (when necessary) becomes more difficult in a city constructed for a minotaur, so you’re guided by your gut instinct. On the other hand, there is absolute freedom to see and do just what you like. Dilige et quod vis fac.
My wanderer’s spirit carries me around like a leaf in the wind. And Porto blows many gusts, sitting on the coast. If my path
had been plotted, it would have been simply scribbles on the map.
I felt more like I was in Porto rather than Portugal. It was more than just their wood interiors of churches and their facades of buildings covered in brilliant blue and white tiles; this city was just very particular. It had the architectural prowess of Bordeaux, the warmth and sandy splendor of Cannes, and the antiqued grandeur and ruggedness of Rome. Make no mistake, this city will get you in shape. Uneven roads and endless hills put every stairmaster to shame. The familiar throb in my legs hurt so good. The only thing that didn’t tire on my body was my smile. I oooed and awwwed my way through the city, discovering its riches and the remnants of a past life hidden around every winding alley.
So much is crammed into these tiny streets with narrow sidewalks; I swear you could reach out of the window and touch the house of your neighbor across the street.
The cramped buildings amplify the caws of seagulls, turning them into galling cackles. No way in hell would I walk around this city with headphones on, though. Cars fly down
these roads with reckless abandon, with little regard for anything in front of them. You stick as close to the buildings as you can. But as I was posted up against the wall, admiring the local decor, some woman in the apartment above poured out her ash tray onto my head.
Some houses literally sit on the edge of a cliff… Lean too far out of your window, and end up in the Duoro river!
The city is very clean yet very dirty. There’s reserved parking for hybrid vehicles on one block and the next is covered in graffiti and garbage. Abandoned stores, apartments and schools are sprinkled throughout the city, many of them sandwiched between two buildings in use. I don’t quite understand.
There were plenty of homeless, but they seemed content with being homeless… Some made elaborate houses and sleeping arrangements. One bum in particular was sleeping in a bed that was built up two feet off the ground in the middle of a park. I never saw any signs or cups, and no one asked me for any money. There were plenty of looneys though, and I seemed to attract them. They’d just follow
me and speak to me in Portuguese, or chase birds away in front of me.
The language barrier made it a little difficult. I thought I’d have my bases covered with English, French and Italian, but alas, the key to Porto is well, Portuguese. But this is to be expected when you stray from tourist buses and monuments in a land where everything is foreign. But it’s the only way I travel. It feels more organic, even if I can only manage a few simple formalities and questions with the locals. The language itself is like the bastard child of romance languages… It sounds more Russian than Spanish or French to me! And there’s hardly any English in my hostel and next to none outside of it… but I like it like that.
Portugal is the rich man’s Poland. Their soldes really are soldes. Their prices (on food especially) are really reasonable, certainly much cheaper than those in France. At the supermarket that I went to four different times, the same three song set was always playing. They really like Madonna, Black Eyed Peas and Natasha Bedingfield here. I devoured my new favorite cookies (Filipinos, cocoa cookies covered
in white chocolate) and quite possibly, my new favorite chips, Prosciutto Ruffles (Chicken and thyme or Bolognese flavor might just be dethroned). I washed my nutritious meal down with a dozen types of juices (all 100%). I think I went through six liters in two and a half days. I skimped on real fruits and veggies because I couldn’t get the scales in the market to work. There were about fifty buttons to press and about zero directions. Much more complicated than the press and print scales in France. My one other hang up about moving to Portugal is the lack of Emmental cheese. It exists, but it’s a little expensive. Still much cheaper than the U.S. though! But big plus, like the rest of the city, the grocery stores don’t shut down on Sundays. They are obsessed with sausage here; even more than the French, as seen by Lays’ Chorizo flavored potato chips. As they once bet me, yes, in fact, I can eat just one. One is plenty, actually.
I couldn’t figure out why children were dressed up and running around the streets…It was Carnaval in Porto! Although this Carnaval was tame compared to the madness of
Carnavale Biarnes in Pau. This one was oriented around kids instead of drag queens. There were plenty of amusement rides and superheroes and balloons. And there were dozens of stores specifically for children’s costumes.
I traced some old city walls until I ran into the Santa Clara cathedral: unmarked, no remarkable facades, simply tucked away behind a police station. I had no idea that what I was walking into would blow me away, but it turned out to be just the hors d’oeuvres before the plat principal, the Igreja de São Francisco, a 12th century gothic church with a stunning 18th century baroque interior constructed by Portugal’s most prolific woodcarvers. The exterior is pleasant but not fantastic, while its interior is one of the most exquisite displays of craftsmanship and detail that have graced my eyes. This sits right behind Sainte Chapelle
in Paris as my favorite place to see in the world. Creativity wasn’t compromised when exploring art in the third dimension; the altarpiece of Jesus’ genealogical tree sprouting from his hip is proof of this. Sitting there alone in the cold of the cathedral for an hour, I wished that my friends and my family filled
the pews so they could see what I saw, but more importantly, feel what I felt. It’s one of those once in a lifetime moments that keep happening to me.
, and try and wrap your eyes (and your mind) around this.
There’s a basketball court right outside the cathedral too, if you feel like hooping it up.
I had passed by the same restaurant a few times during my trek, but finally went in to treat myself to a Valentine’s day Francesinha (“Little Frenchie” in Portuguese). Apparently in the 1960’s it was a Portuguese man’s attempt at a croque-monsieur. It’s like a meat-lover’s French toast, for dinner. Instead of maple syrup you have a savory yet spicy and sweet tomato and beer special sauce poured over bread, four or five different kinds of meat? Of course chorizo, another sausage, roast beef, ham and I don’t know what else. It’s a friggin’ bouquet of meat. Egg on top. Cheese smothered all over. It’s what America is all about. SO GOOD. I swear I will open a Francesinha restaurant upon my return to the states.
The restaurant manager spoke to me in broken (more like
shattered) English and talked my ear off. He offered me a delicious three course meal for only 6€, but I wouldn’t settle for anything other than a Francesinha. From what I could make out, he “loves America.” But unlike the Italians in Prague
, I believe him. He grew up in Brazil but has lived in Boston, Las Vegas, and San Francisco, and hopes to move back to New York next year. He was a manager at Dominos, and had three cars, but had to give one to his ex-wife. He raised his hand and slid his thumb around his middle and index finger. Money? Well, I guess we’re all expatriates for a plethora of reasons.
I took an old tramcar out to the beach to watch the sunset. I swear the thing was from the 1930’s. It was rickety and loud but it got me there. I felt this was the most Portuguese of all the places I’d been. These people were ostensibly locals: the old men nursed their beers and argued over football scores, or so I imagined. The old women walked in threes. They walked so slowly though, I never figured out where they were going.
So there I was, at the edge of the world, as they once thought. I shared it with thirty of my closest fisherman friends, their poles littered everywhere on the dock. I took in as much sun as I could before I caught the last tram back to town.
I spent the evening with four girls from my hostel (English, Brazilian, Dutch and American) taking part in an accelerated Master’s program in Animal Biology at a university in the Netherlands. We went to the authentically Portuguese “Happy Pizza” and had an okay meal of, well, pizza. And I guess I have to leave France to hear French music on the radio. That and the obligatory eurotrash techno. And a little Lil Wayne. Nice group of girls though. One even plays soccer professionally in the Netherlands. The following night we came back with one of the caretakers of the hostel, although I thought he ran the whole place. He was a drifter from New Zealand in his late forties. Twice my age and still more adventurous than I am. He’s been all over the world, but I didn’t expect him to be so ignorant! The way he talked and criticized
other cultures, I found it hard to believe he’d been all the places he said he’d been. He was crashing at his “auntie’s” house for about a year before he got here, found a job posting at this hostel, worked here for a month and he’s already quitting in a week. He’s going to buy a car and sleep in it and drive around the rest of southern Europe. Hmm.
Mornings in Porto are very very quiet. Even on the main roads and plazas. While the rest of the stores on Rua Catarina (Porto’s commercial street) are still locked up on Sunday mornings at nine thirty in the morning, a giant four-level shopping center is open and full of shoppers. I peeked in just to see what it was all about. And it was just like every other mall I’ve been to.
I stayed for a little bit of mass at Sé’s Cathedral, one of Porto’s most imposing attractions. At 900 years old, it really is a marvel, filled with an infinite stillness and peace.
I checked out the Livraria Lello too, the coolest bookstore in the world. Built in 1906, it was filled with
stained glass, pressed copper and carved wood with a stairway inspired by Paris’ Galeries Lafayette.
I later stumbled onto this outdoor petshop market? Birds were caged with gerbils, and skunks were caged with ferrets? What is this place? It was sad, as the animals looked cold and miserable, huddled together to keep warm.
The cats like me here though. And I almost like them. The hostel cat posted up on my bed, and wailed as I was checking out to return home.
To put everything in perspective and to come full circle, I finished my sojourn at the symbol of Porto, the Torre dos Clérigos (Clerics Tower), a baroque church finished in 1750. After a 225 step climb, the top of the tower provides a Notre Dame-esque view of the city and all of the places I had wandered off to. That powerful wind nearly plucked me out of the tower, but it was a suitable finish for a wonderful trip.
For such a renowned metro system, their police are worthless. They didn’t know why the metro decided to stop sending trains to the airport and even after an hour, they encouraged me to continue waiting
for the next train that never came. Nor did they know where to find a taxi. Fortunately I ran into some frenchies and we tracked down a taxi to take us to the airport to make it just in time for the flight back to Tours.
So they say that Lisbon is prettier? Then it just jumped to the top of the list of places to go.
There are more photos below