Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Porto, Portugal

Posted on 10/5/03

After much consideration, I decided to take the nearly 10 hour bus ride from Lagos to Porto during the day, rather than my usual overnight preference Up until this point, I had been traveling at night on any bus or train ride that was eight hours or longer. In these instances, not only did I save the dough on paying for a hostel for one night, but being dropped off in a strange city in the at the crack of dawn is much more preferable to being dropped off in a strange city at 11:00 at night. Finding a hostel in the early morning hours is a much better bet. Not only do you have the added advantage of having sunlight to help you navigate the new city, but you also have the option of stopping in the tourist information office if you get hopelessly stuck. There is very little help available at 11:00 at night, so if the hostel search went sour I’d be screwed. However, after several horrific night bus trips in a row, I decided that I was sick of sleeping for two or three hours on the bus, then staggering bleary-eyed to the nearest hostel and napping half the day away to recover from the trip. Plus, I wanted to actually see some of the Portugal countryside. My plan was to board the day bus fairly early, so I would get into Porto at 7:00PM which was a reasonable hour to arrive and find my way to the hostel. Plus, I had the people at the hostel in Lagos make a reservation for me in Porto, so the challenge of finding an affordable hostel with an open bed was a moot point.

It rained like hell for the entire drive. The hardest and in fact only substantial rain I had seen since that two day drenching back in Salzburg in July (I had a pretty good run there, didn’t I?). It was still raining brutally when I was dropped off at the ugliest bus station in Europe that night. I had an address for the hostel, but as usual no map. Somehow a middle aged couple from California on their first visit to Europe latched onto me. They had a guidebook, but other than that, they were woefully unprepared for anything travel-related. The husband was lurching around trying to communicate with people in painfully bad phrase-book Portuguese. The wife was clearly terrified and just wanted to get to a nice American hotel where people spoke English and she could get a hamburger. They let me peek at their guidebook map which provided the spirit crushing revelation that my hostel was on the other side of town, practically in the suburbs. The couple followed me around the bus station and then out into the city. They had reservations at a nearby hotel and decided that they were going to walk there, relying on directions gleaned from people that the husband accosted in his dreadful Portuguese at every intersection. In lieu of the rain and the great distance to my hostel, I decided to forego the headache of figuring out the bus system and grabbed a taxi. I waved goodbye to the bumbling couple as I leapt into the first available cab and was at the hostel in short order.

The Porto hostel, like all of the other Portuguese hostels was clean, with only four people to a room and had a generous breakfast spread. The only problem was the aforementioned location. It was far outside of the city, making a quick stop for a bathroom break, a water refill or a nap impossible without a one Euro, 20 minute bus ride. Ultimately, the only real inconvenience was that one had to plan their days a little more carefully and dutifully, then pack and carry all conceivable provisions, which was not a simple matter with the weather conditions. The weather in Porto was a maddening mix of extremes. Every morning it was cold, windy and rainy, but then the sun would mercifully come out sometime in the afternoon, warming up the city and drying everything up. Although I enthusiastically welcomed the sun, my jeans which were wet from the waist down by that point became hot, soggy and uncomfortable and my shoes were hopelessly soaked, evoking that heebie geebie sensation of being lined with saturated sponges.

As promised, Porto was indeed cool and scenic. Once again, the Portuguese had decided to build the city on the side of the steepest hill for 20 miles in any direction. Porto’s “hill” was more like a cliff in some places. There were no streets snaking up and down on that part of the city. Just steep, long stairways, lined with tiny homes about the width of a Hummer.

Being forced to take the bus at least twice a day, I was once again forced to face the daunting, challenge of interacting with surly bus drivers. To my surprise, the Porto bus drivers were very pleasant, friendly and helpful. Unfortunately that sentiment was completely over-shadowed by their reckless and inept driving skills. I have only seen more dangerously incompetent bus drivers on inter-city buses in Morocco. These guys flew through the city, on narrow streets, taking tight, blind corners at top speed barely missing stray dogs and people who were darting in and out of traffic with more carefree abandon than New Yorkers. Bus passengers that were lucky enough to get a seat nevertheless had to hold on for dear life or risk being thrown into the lap of the old lady sitting across the isle. If you were standing, you had to carefully cling to whatever handholds you could reach and surf the bus through it’s jarring turns and sudden starts and stops. Then of course every minute or so the driver would lean on the horn for about 20 seconds to inform someone that they had done him a grievous wrong. While the tourists were bug-eyed and alarmed throughout the ride, the locals just chuckled and shook their heads in an “oh well” manner every time they were nearly thrown through a window or tossed into each other. To them, this kind of violence was just an unavoidable fact of public transportation.

This mural was on the inside of the train station.  Wow! Pigeons had totally taken over this park for some reason.  Scary.

Something that I had noticed, but hadn’t quite clamped onto until Porto was the state of the Portuguese oral hygiene, in that they don’t seem to have any. Either that or their dental system hasn’t developed beyond the pre-Roman era. The over-ridding stereotype in the western world is that the British are burdened with the worst national dental care in the free world. And indeed, a crooked, deformed smile is not an uncommon sight in the U.K., but at least the British still have their teeth. In Portugal, when a dental problem arises, the one and only course of action seems to be to yank out the offending teeth and send the patient home with a newly acquired, built-in mouth whistle. The number of people walking the streets in Portugal sporting one or more unfortunately placed tooth gaps was astonishing. I decided that it was best not to delve into the issue with the locals. After the stunning number of people that I had seen who had been victimized by this dental tactic, I speculated that it might be a sensitive subject. The champion for the worst smile in Porto was a young pregnant woman that I saw on the bus with no teeth! When you see something like that, you gotta wonder what the guy that impregnated her looked like… I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that he probably wasn’t winning any beauty pageants.

I was in Porto during the first week of university classes when tradition dictates that the older kids haze the living crap out of the freshman. This was going on every day all over the city. In fact, I started to wonder when exactly these kids actually went to class. The older kids wore some kind of traditional all-black get-up that included a thick wool suit and cape, so all they needed were the funny hats and they could have had an instant Zorro convention. The freshmen were marked by wearing white vest-shirts, funny, paper dishwasher hats and giant pacifiers hanging around their necks. The Zorro’s marched the freshmen around the city and made them do stupid things like roll on the ground and cry like babies or sing songs while on the city bus (while trying not to be thrown through the front windshield at every stoplight). It was nothing like the horrible hazing you hear about in the states where kids are forced to eat goose shit and end up with a broken arm at the end of the week. It was all in good fun and it was even more good fun for those of us who were sitting around watching the spectacle.

After spending 15 minutes taking pictures of hazing rituals, while simultaneously questioning and flirting with a couple young natives that were knowledgeable about the subject, I was forcefully handed a brochure for the Graham’s Port winery. As luck would have it, the winery was just a few blocks away, up a winding, dangerously narrow road full of blind curves, no sidewalk and an endless parade of trucks flying past, blaring their horns to warn the oncoming trucks that they were about to have an accident. According to their propaganda, Graham’s had been in the port business for over 150 years and they were the most decorated port makers in the world. The port brewing process was interesting, but I was more interested in the prerequisites for the guys who’s job it is to go around from winery to winery to taste and grade the port. On the surface, to me this appeared to be the greatest job in the universe. Of course they had to go through lengthy, intense schooling and training, but there were a few other requirements. The tasters could not ever smoke. No problem there. In my opinion the only habits that are worse than smoking are tobacco chewing and leaving the john after taking a dump without washing your hands. But then I found out that these guys can’t drink any booze, period. The only alcohol that is allowed to touch their tongues is port. Ouch! Cross that off my New-Career-Option-if-I-Don’t-Make-it-in-Writing list.

I thoroughly enjoyed the visit to the winery until the very end. I knew something was up when they told me that the factory tour, informational video and tasting were free of charge. It turns out that you have to face the music at the end as you are enjoying the tasting. Each glass of port is accompanied by the price list and a punishing hard-sell for taking home a few bottles of the Graham’s not-so-cheap port and a copy of the Port Fact Book. My tour guide took a special interest in me during the tasting and invested a lot of time in making sure that I tried several types of port and understood the differences between each type. After each glass, she solicited me for comments on how much I liked each type of port. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I have never been a huge fan of port. When I agreed to take the tour, I thought it was going to include regular table wine as well, but I was mistaken. After giving non-committal reviews on four types of port, my guide was pulled away for some other Portuguese/English translation duties and I used that opportunity to make my escape. I had not eaten since breakfast and after ingesting four small, yet potent, glasses of port, my footing wasn’t as sure as I prefer it to be when I am making an escape, but I managed to get out of the building and eventually off the grounds of the winery without being forced to buy a 20 Euro bottle of yucky port.

To be honest, by this point I was itching to get back into Spain. My repeated failures at communicating with the Portuguese was getting on my nerves and I still hadn’t found that tasty expensive meal that I started looking for back in Lisbon. Porto was nice, but the tourist focus there was on churches (20 churches to be exact) and as I stated previously, I had hit my limit for churches and cathedrals back in Madrid and I needed to cleanse the palette for Italy where I was told cathedrals to end all cathedrals were waiting for me.

After three days of being drowned in the rain like a sewer rat every morning, I arranged to take the not-so-direct night train 100 kilometers south and then back north and east to San Sebastian, Spain

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