If you can believe it, my original plan was to skip Porto entirely and head straight for Santiago de Compostela. Since I spent my allotted two weeks in Portugal, I felt I needed to leave the country if was to remain “on schedule.” Many of you may find it perplexing that I keep a schedule considering I have an entire year to travel, but thanks to the Schengen Agreement, I’m limited to only three months in Europe. However, after hearing such great things about Porto, I figured the hell with my plans! The city is literally on the way to Santiago, so there wasn’t any excuse for me to skip out! Since every single bus I looked at from Lisbon passed through Porto at some point, I decided at the last minute to make a quick layover in Porto - and I don’t regret it one bit.
Again, this is why traveling without an itinerary is the only way to go.
Porto - or "o Porto" as it is called locally - is a superbly beautiful city situated atop a hill just North of the Douro River. It only takes a few days to see the sights and walk the town, but I could easily spend weeks just soaking in the atmosphere of this amazing city. While most of the historic city center is well preserved, there is a small minority of buildings so neglected their walls are crumbling and the once beautiful terra-cotta colored roofs are all caved in. It is sad to see these modern day ruins sprinkled throughout an otherwise bustling city, and the stark contrast makes you wander how such a thing is possible.
From the other side of the Douro River in Gaia, you can see the entire city of Porto in all its glory. Off in the distance, the Clérigos Tower juts out like oddly misplaced Baroque skyscraper years ahead of its time and the massive Porto Cathedral towers above the numerous, multi-colored houses. Like in Lisbon, the numerous buildings in Porto look as if they were all constructed one top of one another. From my perspective atop the Ponte Louis I bridge, the giant mass of buildings coupled with the multitude of people coursing through the city streets gives the impression of a giant ant colony - albeit far prettier.
Fun fact: the city of Porto ends at the Douro River, once you cross it you’re technically in Gaia.
I was lucky enough to arrive in Porto on the day of the Portugal vs. Germany World Cup match. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for! I finally had the chance to see a World Cup game where the country I’m in was playing. I quickly grabbed some dinner and went in search of a “public viewing" to watch the game. Not to be confused with a funeral like in the US, a public viewing in Europe is where a city showcases a popular sporting event on a giant screen in the main square. These events are always full of loud, cheering locals supporting their team and never fail to offer a interesting experience - especially for highly anticipated World Cup matches like this.
I searched around town for over thirty minutes trying to find a public viewing but to no avail. Since I just arrived a few hours before, I had no idea where to go. Defeated and heartbroken, I gave up on my quest and opted for the nearest cafe where I saw people staring at the nearest TV like zombies. While I’m not one for sporting events, it never fails to amaze me just how much power these games have on people around the world. I entered the cafe, grabbed a beer, and eagerly took my seat among the entranced crowd. All I wanted that afternoon was to see some rampant, profanity-filled yelling, a table or two flipped over by an angry spectator, and if I was lucky, maybe someone would get hauled away by the police before the game was over.
I’m really a man of simple needs…
…with no realistic expectations whatsoever.
I didn’t settle in until the start of the second half and when I looked up to see the score it was 3-0 in favor of Germany. It was a ass-kicking if I ever did see one. I quickly realized people in the cafe were only watching the game out of loyalty to their team and hoping for a miracle. Sadly their prayers fell on deaf ears, because a few minutes into the second half, Germany scored again. There was hardly any talking after goal number four and the overall atmosphere was one of solemn, melancholy reflection that you would find at an actual funeral.
I guess you could say I found the “public viewing” I was looking for.
…although if you ask me, it was more like an execution.
I returned to my hostel exhausted from my day of travel and disappointed by the football match. To my surprise, there wasn't a single new backpack in my room - I had an entire 8-bed dorm room all to myself! I was rather happy to have a night off after all of the excitement in Lisbon, but the highlight of the evening was my conversation with Angela - the girl I made reference to in my first traveling post.
Since there are pictures on Facebook, there's no sense hiding names.
Turns out posting these entries months behind schedule works to my advantage in this case.
Since I left the US, Angela and I discussed meeting in Greece later in the year to spend time traveling together, but recently we've been thinking of meeting up earlier in Dublin. After after batting the idea around for a few weeks and figuring out the logistics, it looks like the trip is actually going to happen! She's going to book a flight! Words cannot fully communicate my excitement! For many people, the idea of traveling with a person they just met would evoke a feeling of terror, but I'm not the slightest bit nervous - I can tell you now, it's going work out wonderfully.
Now I find myself just waiting for August to get here.
The following day I had one goal on my mind - port wine. I didn’t care where I got it, or where I went, but as they say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” I felt no trip to Porto would be complete without some sort of tasting. Even if it boiled down to me downing an entire bottle by myself in my empty 8-bed dorm room, this was happening. After speaking with the front desk at the hostel and some quick googling, I had my heading - the Taylor Fladgate Distillery across the Douro River in Gaia.
The tour was of particular interest to me since I had absolutely no idea how port wine was made. Thanks to years watching Frasier, the only thing I knew about port - and sherry for that matter - was that it was a “fortified wine,” but to be honest, I never knew what that actually meant.
Answer: Fortified wine is a wine to which a distilled spirit, usually brandy, is added.
I was fascinated to learn about the manufacturing process behind port wine as well as the company's absurd attention to detail with their grapes. As we passed through the warehouse, hundreds of barrels of port were neatly stacked all around me as far as the eye could see. The entire time I kept having flashbacks to Hangar 51 from the Indiana Jones movies where the Ark of the Covenant was hidden. All throughout the space, a distinct, pungent odor permeated the air. It was an incredibly sweet yet oddly acidic smell that I had never encountered before. Considering the circumstances - and my keen powers of observation - I deduced it was the smell of port wine.
Way to go Sherlock.
After the tour we were each given a sample of Taylor’s tawny and ten-year tawny port wines. While the rest of the group sat in the air-conditioned lobby, I made my way outside to a beautiful, semi-private lawn that was adjacent to the garden. The yard was separated from the garden by perfectly manicured eleven-foot hedge, but there was a small, secluded passageway completely indiscernible to those sitting in the lobby - I only discovered it by accident while wandering around the garden before the tour.
I took my seat on one of the intricate, wrought iron chairs under a large awning, savored the wonderful port wine, and gazed at the spectacular scenery. I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky, and even though the sun was out in full force, the cool breeze that filled the air made for a wonderfully comfortable atmosphere. The grass all around me was immaculately well kept and off in the distance I could see the numerous sandy-red roofs that made up the Gaia skyline.
For well over an hour I sat completely alone with my thoughts and my port wine. I couldn’t stop smiling at the dumb luck I stumbled into. The only company I had the entire time was a little white chicken that periodically emerged from the bushes behind me looking for food and digging holes in the soil with its feet. I can only imagine how much people would pay for this same serene experience. When I finally decided it was time to go, it took me an additional 20 minutes to come to terms with leaving this tranquil haven. I feel I keep repeating myself, but it’s completely unexpected moments like this that make traveling so unbelievably exciting for me.
Between this and my private beach in Lagos, I’m getting the VIP treatment.
I spent the remainder of the day wandering around town and eventually returned to the hostel with the intention of writing, but as expected, a fellow traveler thwarted my plans. I managed to write three sub-par sentences about Lagos before Robert walked into the room, smiled, and said hello. I replied in kind, and instantly we both knew the other was from the US. Of all places, the man was from Dallas! As surprised as I was to find another Texan wandering through Portugal, I later discovered the guy working the front desk was from San Antonio!
Small friggin' world.
Robert arrived the day before me after a long and arduous trek from Spain through the mountainous region East of Porto. His goal was to cycle all the way to Istanbul, but after dealing with the remarkably difficult terrain in Portugal, he was debating the feasibility of his lofty plans. While his determination was admirable, I too questioned whether or not he would be able to make it all the way to Turkey in the three months before his visa expired.
Especially considering he was going the wrong direction.
We began exchanging stories and I was mesmerized with the variety of places Robert had traveled to. Turned out a relative of his used to work for an airline and thanks to the family discount, Robert was able to travel all over the world for next to nothing. While he was around my age, Robert was an old-school photographer at heart who still enjoyed the delicate art of film photography. As he regaled me of each tale, he showed me pictures that he scanned and uploaded to Flickr (definitely worth a look). We spent much of the evening discussing everything from photography techniques to macro-environmental issues, and by the end of the night I hadn’t even made a dent in my next blog post - save for those three pitiful sentences - but I enjoyed the night all the same.
My last day in Porto was sadly sacrificed to the blogging gods. I spent the vast majority of the day writing, organizing, and uploading pictures. By the time I finished writing, I only had a few hours of daylight left. Robert was kind enough to let me work in silence during the day so I was happy to spend the evening exploring the town with him. We walked all around the city center and eventually meandered to Gaia before grabbing some food and calling it a night. It doesn’t matter where I am in the world, as long as I get to spend part of my day walking and talking with good company, it’s a success in my book.
While my time in Porto was extremely short, I definitely enjoyed it and would highly recommend it if you should ever find yourself nearby. It is an easily walkable city full of wondrous monuments and spectacular views along the Douro River. I didn’t have nearly enough time to savor this great city and I can already tell the time constraint with my Schengen Visa is going to cause headaches later on down the road. While there is no way to see everything I want to in just three months, I will be forever thankful for the few days I got to spend in Porto.
Next up: Santiago de Compostela!