Tuesday, March 18 – Wednesday, March 19, 2014: I arrived in Porto in the late afternoon in need of a shower, hungry, and incredibly homesick. Being with my hiking companions took my mind off the fact that I missed home. Now that I was alone again, the quietude they brought to my overactive brain dissipated, and my thoughts went into overdrive.
Seeing how I could easily fix two out of three of my problems, I settled into my hostel, had a shower (in the nicest hostel bathroom I’d ever been in), then went for a walk to familiarize myself with Porto and to find some dinner. I brought a map with me but at some point I put it away. My only goal was to reach the waterfront, so I let the sound of the seagulls guide me.
A few years ago I made a lofty, internal bet with myself: I challenged myself to try to visit as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as I could possibly manage. UNESCO has a list of properties (appropriately called “The List“, like it’s the only one that matters), outlining over one thousand locations worldwide that hold some sort of cultural or natural importance. The historic centre of Porto is on that list.
It turns out I picked a pretty badass city to randomly visit. Established by the Romans (who named it Portus, meaning “port”, due to its location on the Douro River), Porto’s history spans 2,000 years. The buildings lining the waterfront rise like colourful Lego blocks, stacked side by side and of varying heights. The streets leading down to the river are all cobblestone, winding between shops, restaurants and apartments. Some streets are so steep they seem like they’re at a forty-five degree angle, then within seconds they plateau and you’re greeted with a sidewalk café.
Porto is gorgeous. I may have been lonely and submerged (possibly drowning) in my thoughts, but at least I was surrounded by beautiful scenery and characters.
I didn’t do much that first day. My feet were restless after my Camino ended, so I appeased them by walking and meandering. I came across a few references to my maternal grandfather’s surname (Fernandes), which made me feel like I belonged. I had a beer by the river, did some souvenir shopping (I went crazy, buying Rooster of Barcelos key chains, fridge magnets and corkscrews for my family and friends), and brainstormed some ideas for my second day in the city.
The only thing I decided to do was take a river cruise to see the many bridges spanning the Douro that give Porto its nickname — the City of Bridges. Other than that, I was just going to relax, walk, and maybe try some of this port wine that everyone was telling me to drink.
Satisfied with my aimless, self-guided tour, I started retracing my steps back to the hostel. Along the way I was offered hashish, which I politely declined (Kids, say “no” to drugs), then I picked up a sandwich for dinner and spent the evening in the hostel lounge watching back-to-back episodes of Modern Family with other guests. It hadn’t been the most eventful, “touristy” day, but it was one for the books for me: I had a new country to add to my list of places visited; I was in Portugal, the birthplace of my mother’s family; and I was doing this all on my own, something which would have never happened two years before. I was feeling smug and proud.
I slept gloriously that night. I was still in a dorm with bunk beds, but the mattresses were thick with clean, crisp, white sheets and perfect pillows. Actually, I lied — I slept gloriously for about three hours, then I was victim to random awakenings for the next three hours.
I was sharing a room with two dudes who worked at the hostel bar, so they understandably came in quite late (one of whom was possibly very drunk). There were also two German girls staying with us, who apparently don’t have any manners and think that turning the room light on in a dorm at two in the fucking morning is acceptable behaviour. One of the girls, whose bunk was perpendicular to mine, then decided that 2am is a good time to read a fashion magazine, so she proceeded to turn on her bed lamp and flip through those glossy pages for the next half an hour. That bed lamp shone directly in my face. I nearly cut a bitch.
Instead, I very loudly kissed my teeth (my angry Guyanese was coming out), rolled over, made an obvious attempt to adjust my bed sheets, then I put my headphones in and covered my head. I think she got the hint because within a few minutes I found myself in the dark again. I fell back asleep feeling incredibly old.
After a week and a half of early risings on the Camino, I wanted to let myself sleep in the next morning. My body thought otherwise, however, and I found myself up and at ’em by 9am. Not knowing what else to do, I freshened up, grabbed some coffee from the hostel kitchen, then slowly made my way back to the river.
A few things happened on that walk that made my day even more memorable. At one point I found myself in the middle of a movie set, filled with actors dressed in 1960s attire and classic, European sports sedans. It was awesome. Then, feeling like it was still too early for a river cruise, I killed some time browsing through the shops, one of which had a shopkeeper who asked me if I was Portuguese. I was floored.
Naturally, I’m blonde-haired and blue-eyed, however I’ve had nearly every hair colour in the rainbow. I find that depending on my hue, I get different guesses about my nationality, most of which are absurd. If I’m blonde, I get the typical (and more correct) British, Scottish, Irish, or Canadian guesses. If my hair is dark, I’m automatically European — Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Italian, German. But Portuguese? Never before in my life had I been asked if I was Portuguese, let alone by someone hailing from Portugal. I nearly hugged the man. I told him that my mother’s side was originally from Madeira, and it was like an immediate kinship was formed. I loved it. I then bought some tea towels from him that had the Rooster of Barcelos on them.
The river cruise cost me somewhere between 10-12€ and lasted about an hour. During this time you’re taken east along the Rio Douro, heading farther inland and passing a few of the bridges along the way — the Ponte Luís I, Ponte Maria Pia and the relatively new Ponte de São João. You know that Eiffel fella who designed the world-famous tower of the same name in Paris? Well he also designed Ponte Maria Pia. You can see similarities in the design, particularly in his use of wrought iron.
One we reached the Ponte de São João, we turned around and headed back west, closer to the mouth of the Douro where it opens up into the Atlantic Ocean. We passed a few museums and buildings of note along the way, but one that stood out for me was the Igreja Matriz de Massarelos. From what I understood, its construction began in the late 1700s and it was dedicated to the protection of sailors (or whose patron saint was the protector of sailors — sorry, I was distracted by the annoying couple sitting in front of me who decided to use the boat as their bedroom and proceeded to make out the entire tour). Either way, it looked pretty impressive. I especially loved the colour of the blue mosaic on its rear wall.
Once our time as river-faring tourists was over, I decided to embrace my Portuguese roots and seek out some cod cakes and port wine. I sat on an open-air patio beside the river, enjoyed my lunch and people-watched. The weather was perfect so I sat there for some time, sipping on my wine.
I hate to admit it, but by the end of the day I was ready to go home. I now know I was only feeling this way because being alone made me miserable (because I was left to my own devices and forced to confront my problems back home), but being in that mindset really affected my overall enjoyment of my little side trip. I may have added Portugal to my list of places visited, but in no way did I do the country justice with my two-day stint of a trip. I will go back in the near future, that I’m sure of.
That night I reorganized my backpack and prepared my things for my return trip to Santiago. I had briefly spoken with Richard via WhatsApp during the week, so I knew he made it to Finisterre and had stayed longer than he expected, but I still had hope that he’d make it back to Santiago in time for my birthday. I also knew I had Dany to keep me company as she would already be on the bus tomorrow, coming in from Fatima.
The next day was the eve of my 30th birthday and as I got cuddly under the sheets, thankful that the German girls had left, I sent a little prayer out to thank whomever for allowing me the chance to see Portugal. I vowed to return when the time was right, and I fell asleep excited to get back to my home base of Santiago de Compostela.