11 September 2016

Oporto, você roubou meu coração

« Exister, c'est oser se jeter dans le monde. »  Simone de Beavoir

To exist is to dare to throw yourself into the world.

Near Porto, by plane
Mid-August, it was time to break away from my comfortable life in La Roche-sur-Yon and throw myself into some new adventures.  After quick train and shuttle trips to the Nantes airport, I was on an evening flight en route to Porto (Oporto in Portuguese), Portugal.  I was already enchanted by the country as we landed near the Atlantic at sunset, toggling between views of the ocean and inland valleys as we circled Porto.

Unfortunately, travel doesn't always go as planned; if you're me, it seems it never goes as planned.  Just before leaving for Portugal, I had come down with a throat infection which was misdiagnosed in France; my second stop in Porto after my hostel was the San António hospital, and I was lucky to get there at all.  My hostel was very nice but small, and the owner spoke no English or French; somehow we communicated through Google translate on my phone (Portuguese lesson #1: doctor = médico) and wild hand gestures, and he called me a taxi to the hospital in the early hours of the morning.  Thankfully, even at urgent care, there was a doctor on duty who spoke perfect English.  I felt very lucky to have English as my first language in that moment.

Pont Luís I
Even with antibiotics, my first three days in Porto were rather miserable, but I did manage to see quite a bit.  I walked up and down the Douro river several times, taking in the views of Porto, notably Pont Luís I, a double-decker bridge constructed by a partner of Gustave Eiffel, Théophile Seyrig.  The bridge connects Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia, which is known for its port wine cellars.

Porto feels like a very "lived-in" city where not everything is arranged perfectly for tourists (though in August, the place is crawling with them).  I don't know why, but I was charmed by all of the laundry hanging outside on porches, terraces, and balconies all over town.

It was also rather hot besides being sick, so I had to stop often to ask for:

água, por favor: water, please

A couple of other useful phrases:

olà: hello

sim: yes

Fala inglês?:  Do you speak English?
Não?  Fala francês?:  No?  Do you speak French?

obrigado/a: thank you
(Men say "obrigado" and women say "obrigada".)

I looped through the cathedral and center of town before attempting one of Portugal's specialties for dinner:   the Francesinha.  No one warned me that it was a dish to be shared between maybe two or probably three people.  It's an extreme variation on the French croque madame, a huge sandwich including ham and sausage and maybe other meat on bread, completely covered by cheese and egg and served with fries.  It was delicious; however, it took me about two hours (with several breaks) to get down about two-thirds of the dish.  (The literal translation is completely misleading: in French, "petite française", or "little French woman", in English.)  So, go and order it, but split it between friends!

Main concert hall, complete with a
non-functioning Mexican organ
One side chamber, decorated in optical illusion style
The following morning, my project turned out to be a tour of the Casa da Música, Porto's main concert hall.  It's a modern monstrosity designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, completed in 2005 (though it was supposed to be finished in 2001 when Porto was the European Culture Capital).  It's located in a city square; the main building itself is an asymmetrical block that is supposed to represent a meteor landing on earth, creating a crater.  The inside is made up of quite a bit of aluminum, and the concert hall itself is, again, not necessarily visually attractive, but impressively thought-out and versatile in terms of acoustics.  The main hall is surrounded by six smaller multi-purpose chambers, which can be modified for small concerts or VIP cocktail hours, for example.  One chamber even serves as a childcare while concerts are in progress so that parents can attend without needing a babysitter at home.

I paired my Casa da Música tour ticket with a ticket to the Museu Serralves, a modern art museum a little ways out of the center of town accessible by bus.  The museum itself housed three temporary exhibits, two of which made no sense whatsoever to me.  I'm not sure I understood the third, either, but I really liked it:  AC /DC Joy Division House by British artist Liam Gillick.  It was a piano programmed to play a simple melody; I found it relaxing.  Afterward, I spent some time walking through the museum's gardens, which are not particularly floral, but the tree cover was a nice break from the hot weather.

Back in the center of Porto, I was obligated to make the touristy Harry Potter fan stop to Livraria Lello, arguably "the most beautiful bookshop in the world".  The tiny place has become so popular that you have to buy a ticket across the street for 3€, then wait in the line that wraps around the block.  Why is it so popular?  Apparently, J.K. Rowling was inspired by the place while writing Harry Potter and teaching English in Portugal, and when you walk in, you can see why.  The staircase between the ground and first floors screams Hogwarts.  If you manage to shove through the crowds and find a book you want to buy, your ticket price goes toward the book...but I don't know how you'd be able to peruse books inside.  I was afraid of getting accidentally pushed over the balcony with the sheer number of uncoordinated selfie-stick-wielding people trying to take pictures on the staircase.  Maybe Lello is a place to return on the tourist off-season.

View from the bus
On my third full day, as I was still miserably wondering if the antibiotics would ever kick in, I decided to splurge on what turned out to be my favorite day of the whole trip.  If you ever visit Porto, I would recommend a day-long cruise on the Douro river; offers start at 60€ for about a 10-hour day and you can book in any tourist shop.  It's a great lazy day to put between in-town days full of museums, sights, and walking.  I chose the downstream cruise, which involved meeting a tour guide at the train station around 8am and taking a bus inland through beautiful valleys up to Régua, a small town on the Douro.

Carrapatelo lock and dam
Three busloads of us boarded a cruise ship and found places to lounge on deck, where cheerful Portuguese music was piped in.  I found a spot where I could hang my feet over the side of the boat and let myself be mesmerized by the scenery.  Besides the gorgeous river valley, I'll never forget how happy and calm everyone was onboard.  In the morning, we got to pass through the Carrapatelo lock and dam, the highest of fifteen on the Douro (five of which are in Portugal) at 115 feet.  The best part by far was watching everyone else tripping over themselves to take photos and videos of the whole experience: from the viewpoint of the boat, a lock and dam just looks like an an ugly cement chamber...  It's impossible to capture the magnitude from that perspective.  But, oh, did everyone try.

Below deck, a delicious three-course lunch was served, and then it was back up top for a final few hours of scenery and another smaller lock and dam.  The temperature and breeze on the water felt wonderful after a few hot days in Porto, and even after seven hours on the boat, I was reluctant to get off when we returned to Porto around 6pm.  By that time, whether it was the antibiotics or the healing river, I was finally starting to feel better.

For my last full day in Porto, I decided to do a day trip to a coastal town called Aveiro, which was recommended to me by friends.  It is nicknamed the "Venice of Portugal", mostly because of the canals running through the town and the boat tours that run frequently.  While I enjoyed visiting, I felt I had exhausted it after about five hours and was glad that I had an open train ticket to return to Porto at any time.  Had my swimsuit not been packed up in a suitcase in an attic in Lille, I may have stayed longer and included an afternoon at the beach.

I did start with a boat cruise to get a sense of the layout of the town.  The tour guides speak several languages and toggle between them throughout the tour, which is quite relaxed.  I was the only non-Portuguese speaker on my boat; my guide began in English, but switched to French once he learned I could speak it.  That has happened to me several times in Portugal; while nearly everyone in customer service speaks some English, Portuguese speakers can often convey a lot more in French since its roots are closer to Portuguese than to English.

Museau Arte Nova
After lunch in an English tea shop, I went to the Museu Arte Nova, or Art Nouveau museum.  It had one exhibit inside at the time, and honestly, the outside facade is the most impressive part of the building.  But there is a café in the back courtyard, and the ticket is also good for the Museu da Cidade just a couple of doors down.  This museum is a quick twenty-minute cultural overview of the history of Aveiro as a fishing port and commune.

After wandering the winding streets for another hour, I felt it was time to head back to Porto for my last evening.

When (not if) I come back to Portugal, I'd like to tour a port wine cave in Vila Nova de Gaia to learn more about the fabrication and aging process, but on my last afternoon I just had time for a tasting at Casa Kopke, which is the oldest port wine house there.  Port is a typical dessert wine, but can also be paired with a main course; at Kopke, they give you plenty of chocolate to go with your tasting.  Believe it or not, certain ports go better with white, milk, or dark chocolate.  I tasted a tawny port, an LBV (late bottled vintage, which tastes similar to a red wine), and a less-common white port.  I couldn't pick a favorite between the three; I'd never tasted an LBV or white before, and each was unique.

For my last dinner in Porto, I went to a small restaurant on a hilly street near the river for cod, a fish commonly served in Portugal that may be prepared in thousands of ways.  This time, the fish was topped with a tomato sauce, onions, peppers, and herbs...and surrounded by way too many potato chips.  But the fish itself was excellent.  After dinner, the street music on the waterfront is not to be missed.

It was my sunset walks back and forth across the Pont Luís I and the Douro that made me fall in love with Porto.  The view is incredible; the city glows in the evening light; the people are happy and friendly; the river is calm; the street music is optimistic.  In the end, it ranks up with Budapest on my list of cities to revisit.