City of Port
If you learn nothing else from this post, you will remember that Porto, also called Oporto (“O” being the Portuguese “the”) in both English and “Portuguese” (explanation of quotes below), is the second-largest city in Portugal and the origin of Port wine.
I knew the latter even before we took a tour of an award-winning port wine maker clustered on the river with dozens of its peers. I learned, from our Botswana-born guide, that the makers prefer French and American oak for their barrels, that port is made by interrupting the fermentation process with a heavy infusion of grape alcohol, and that the ruby and tawny ports I often see are the two middle rungs of port wine, with vintage being the newest and least expensive, and reserves, running from 20 to over 40 years old, being the oldest and most expensive.
We sat down at a sawed-off barrel with a Dutch couple and began tasting. I don’t think I’d ever had white port wine before; they offered a dry one and a sweet one, both very good. I tried a 20-year-old reserve, and bought a sweet medium-red tawny.
Who will give me an excuse to open it? Please complete your application in the Comments section of the blog. Especially interesting applications may be emailed in confidence.
The drive from Galicia took about three-and-a-quarter hours, and was a continuation of the beautiful, green, hilly country we’d seen in Spain, but it looked better maintained. It was hazy all day, for the entire distance we covered.
I’m sure Porto has culture, and in the distance I’m pretty sure I saw churches and palaces and whatnot, but my interest was focused like a laser beam on (1) doing nothing and (2) finding civilian clothes. For a month I have worn two shirts, two socks, two pairs of underwear – I was like the Noah’s Ark of hiking gear. I discovered in Porto that I had an inner metrosexual, and he wanted to come out.
We pretty much accomplished all these goals on the Via Catarina, a long, narrow, pedestrian shopping street, and during a few visits to the Majestic Café, a carved-wood-and-mirror Nouveau Art creation in which I could imagine Hemingway, its contemporary when it opened in 1923, sitting down to write. They are so proud of being able to cook a proper spaghetti Bolognese – which is to say about half as good as Mom’s – that they will take from you about $17 for a bowl the size of an appetizer dish. But they will speak English to you, like many Portuguese seem to do – they even seem to prefer it to Spanish.
Portugal lives in the shadow of Spain, its much larger, more populous, less poor country, and so to carve out their own distinct identity, the Portuguese have sort of agreed they will speak Spanish with a Russian accent. This they call “Portuguese”.
Things get really confusing when you hear a Russian immigrant speak “Portuguese”, or when you ask a Portuguese if he or she would prefer that you speak English or Spanish. “English,” they always say. This is because saying “Spanish” would simply reveal their secret: they are already speaking Spanish, just with a heavy Slavic accent.
The notion of customer service was stronger in Porto than on the Camino. Our first interaction was with the proprietor of a café-bar who (it would not be too much to say) hurdled over the counter to come and translate his menu for us. Everywhere we went, people were very friendly and accommodating.
Kudos especially to the woman who harvested an entire wall of its
sweaters, and even brutally amputated a mannequin, in an attempt to get me to buy a sweater; the friendly young man at Zara who worked his mic like Madonna and who professed not to believe that I had never, as I told him, been as cool as he was, and therefore could not wear some of the items he was suggesting to me; and the salesman at Massimo Dutti, which I have decided is superior to Zara for men over 35, for lightening my wallet more than all the others combined.
I took care to hold on to my receipts, though. Taxes on clothes make up a whopping 23% of the listed price, but the foreigner can get back 19% at the airport. This helps a lot when you’re contemplating a 220-Euro winter coat at Massimo Dutti. Curiously, there is a minimum purchase of about 60 Euros, as if the authorities (in Portugal and elsewhere, actually) don’t want to administrative overhead of dealing with small receipts. But this creates a disincentive to buy single articles from smaller, mom-and-pop merchants, and likely benefits mostly the department stores and expensive retailers.
Many of the churches in Porto look as if they were built from the French Country section of Pottery Barn, being faced with a combination of somewhat grimy stonework that frames large, eye-catching expanses of blue-and-white Delph tiles depicting Biblical stories.
We took a double-decker bus around town. Mom on the bus ride along the ocean reminded me of a little girl, which is another way of saying that she’s able to be open and present to things as if she’s never seen them before. Ohhh! Look at that! It’s crashing! Do you hear it! I’ve got to catch that! It was amazing. I felt so stick-in-the-mud. We got off the tour bus on the avenue of port wine makers. “When will the bus return here?” I asked. “One hour,” the woman said firmly.
Fifty minutes later it paused briefly at the bus stop, a block away from us, and left without us.
For dinner that night I decided to try bacalao, or cod, which I’d had once in Spain, but which is considered a national dish in Portugal. Probably I should have waited until we were in a finer restaurant. Though I ordered it “grilled,” there was so much oil on my plate I could have run my BMW on it. I literally spooned it like soup. The fish itself, as prepared, was nothing to write a blog home about.
In Lisbon yesterday we began with a series of small disasters. The tourist office called about five hotels but all were booked. No problem: I’d look them up on the Internet. Then I discovered that after about 30 straight days of remembering to pack all of my electronics gear every day, I’d left behind my MacBook Air’s power cord. I’d used the battery on the bus, and it was almost dead. My Vodafone USB stick has been done for since Saturday.
We dealt with these setbacks by having lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe. Carrie was in heaven. Mom loved her salad. The mac and cheese was pretty good. Afterward, we marched into a Starbucks that’s surely located in one of the most beautiful buildings for any Starbucks, and I madly tried to book a hotel on any of Priceline, Travelocity, or Venere. My power reached 2% and I booked a place called Caza Latina. We jumped in a cab and drove uptown to the address.
There was no sign. “This is a hotel?” I asked the driver. He shrugged, pointing out that he’d just brought us to the desired address. Obvious locals sat around at some tables at the joint next door. They told me, I thought, that it was a hotel. I then saw the “Latina” plate next to the buzzer marked #1. I buzzed. And buzzed. No one. I buzzed one marked “Porto” and this brought forth an angry charging dog dressed as an old Portuguese woman. By this time I was cursing with her. I established that she was not with the hotel, and though she was not done with her rant, I said goodbye to her and walked up the stairs. No sign. Nothing indicating a hotel or any commercial establishment. No open doors. Nobody.
On the sidewalk we considered our options. Finally we hailed another cab to take us to an Internet café whose address (like an Apple reseller’s) I’d looked up while in Starbucks. A miscommunication delivered us to the Apple reseller instead. He had no more power cords. But he was very generous: he said I could charge up and use the wi-fi. He also pointed out the coffee. Wow.
On Prieline, I found a two-star hotel near the Apolonia metro station. The rooms had single beds of the sort you’d see in the army, if you were in the army in one of Portugal’s former African colonies. A sign warned against “eating or drinking in the room”, but the presence of an unwalled sink and bidet added, “but do feel free, out in the open, to wash your ass”. The manager was extremely helpful in calling the hotel in Porto and having them ship my power cord.
Then we headed out for the ocean, two blocks away, but we were stymied because the ocean, it seemed, had been fenced off. For miles and miles. Never seen anything like it. So we went to an Indian restaurant, opened the place up (at 6:30), and had a fantastic meal. We were the only patrons, and it wasn’t just that restaurant: block after block, restaurant tables were empty.
I asked Mom and Carrie what felt different or what they missed now that the Camino was over. “I miss Julio!” Carrie said. Mom said, “I miss Julio’s encouragement, and I miss Marie Anne’s laughter. I also miss walking a little every day.”
I will write more later about our dawning realization that we have left what screenwriters call the Special World. We bring, I suppose, the precious elixir from our journey back to the Ordinary World. But we also know that the other reality is now imminent.