So far, things were going less-than-perfectly in Portugal.
The 10+ hour bus ride to Porto from Madrid got the job done, but that was the best I could say about it—especially compared to my previous bus and train rides through Spain, which were delightfully uncrowded and rife with views of idyllic, sun-washed farmland, quaint villages, and rolling hills of olive trees.
This bus was packed. It was cold and drafty, brimming with unamused children, and was sans toilet. The countryside views were dampened by grey skies and pelting rain. Also, the bus driver and I were not on fantastic terms; my—apparently—incorrect bus ticket almost caused him to turn me away to begin with. Then I attempted to load my bag into the storage area—apparently incorrectly—and was barked at in Portuguese (assisted by a small crowd who tried Spanish, German and French before landing on English, which got my attention). To secure a final bad impression, I tried to retrieve my bag totally incorrectly at the end and was ordered with a firm “No!” and curt hand swishes to step away from the bus (in the pouring rain) and just let him do it.
I don’t believe he and I will be pen pals.
A taxi ride through the deluge delivered me to the wrong address, so I trudged to the right one beneath the weight of my soggy bags, and through periodic tidal waves from cars passing through a river which, on dry days, was presumably a street.
I arrived at The Residential Brasil feeling and looking like a drowned rat, and a rather grumpy one. The sunny smile of the proprietor greeted me—she was, to my self-pitying relief, the sweetest woman I’d met in a long while. Wide and grandmotherly-looking, she wore a flower-patterned apron over an old polyester dress. A gap between her yellowing front teeth peeked with each grin as she spoke at a speed too rapid for my brain’s Portuguese-to-Spanish-to-English translation filter to grasp.
Finally she paused long enough to scan my dripping person, and her gears visibly switched into nurture mode. Immediately she took my elbow and tsk-tsking with a mild frown, gently hurried me up the stairs to my room to change into dry clothes so I could check in properly, in comfort.
Later she would halt me before heading back into the rain, scrounge in the back for a minute, and return to press an umbrella into my hands. When I returned from the food market, she stopped me again, motioning questioningly did I have a plate or utensils to prepare my food with? When I shook my head no, she took my elbow again, pushing me into her kitchen and loading me up with cutlery and a plate, then sent me on my way with a satisfied nod and arm pat.
I spent several nights at The Residential Brasil.
Though I felt a little guilty for not rushing out to explore the city come Hell or high water (it would have been both), I was grateful for the rain. It allowed me to stay inside for a bit and relax, read and get some overdue projects and other computer stuff done for the first time in weeks.
My stay was not without its hiccups. The bathroom sink in my room produced only a trickle of water, and the toilet seemed to flush only when I felt like doing so. I soon realized why there were two waste baskets (one with a lid), and two plungers, and a mop and bucket residing permanently in the corner of the bathroom. An enormous hairy spider had taken up residence in bathroom as well, and thankfully, we managed to stay out of each other’s way.
All in all, I liked the place, and was slightly bummed to have to relocate into the more exciting and central downtown area for the next two nights.
The drizzle showed no signs of slowing the day my friend Caroline breezed into Porto from Ireland, despite weather reports optimistically hinting at bluer skies.
Decisive and charismatic, Caroline is the epitome of a fun-loving Irishwoman. We’d met in 2009 when she moved into the room in a San Francisco three-bedroom apartment that I was vacating for my current studio apartment. It wasn’t a storybook friends-at-first-sight, but it didn’t take long for us to become close pals, and partners in spottily-recollected nights on the town.
I’d be seeing her again later on my trip for her Dublin wedding in August—but for now, she was joining me for four days of adventure in Porto and Lisbon.
First stop: Wine Country
Port wine reigns supreme in the world of Portuguese alcoholic beverages.
Port is a fortified wine (it’s blended with brandy) produced only in the Douro Valley in the north—not surprisingly, it’s named after oceanside Porto, where in the 1700s, it was first loaded onto ships and dispersed around the world.
Urik, the slim, handsome Portuguese guide for our Douro Valley day tour, loaded Caroline and I into a van bright and early, along with four other Portuguese tourists, and an Australian retired school teacher named Sue.
The farther we got from big-little-city Porto, the greener the scenery became. We listened contentedly as Urik preached the gospel of the wine, which is perhaps his country’s greatest pride, while enjoying stunning views just outside the windows.
Morning mist serpentined lazily in and out of stands of pines as we headed upwards, tracing curving roadways through the Serra do Marão mountains.
Eventually fir forests gave way to expansive vistas of the Douro Valley; an endless succession of dips and rises, each scene seemingly more photogenic than the last. As a pleasant surprise, gray skies broke for periods into the weather reports’ promised blues.
Before hitting the winery, Urik took us to a Medieval village called Amarante. We all filed out of the van and were treated to a mini history tour of the town, which boasts a massive bridge linking the tiny charming town with an adjacent Cathedral.
The legends of the Cathedral of Saint Goncalo are especially steeped in saints; a variety of saints remain popular (in addition to Goncalo). You can purchase a figure of whichever saint is most needed at the moment in the gift shop.
Next, we stopped in the town of Lemego for lunch and a tour of the beautiful towering hillside complex of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios Sanctuary—an incredibly ornate spectacle that surely did the Early Baroque period proud.
After filling up on a beltline-stretching four-course lunch of classic Portuguese fare including potatoes, rice, fish—and one of my favorites, goat!—we were finally off to the winery: Quinta do Tedo.
Nestled into undulating vine-lined hills above the confluence of the Douro and Tedo Rivers, this 18th century winery is among the most famous in the valley.
We and a few other visitors were divided into Spanish/Portuguese speakers, and English speakers, and treated to the grand tour. First we visited the cave where barrels of fermenting juice is stored, slowly transforming into delicious Port.
Then, it was time to taste.
Inside the rustic wood-embellished tasting room, we sampled four types of Port; two reds, a white and a rose, each offering it’s own variation of fruity-floral sweetness. My favorite was the rose, though I am not usually a huge fan of super syrupy Ports (which this one was).
By the end of the day, we were all stuffed, happily wine-filled, and feeling sleepy. And we weren’t the only ones around who were in need of a nap.
But before we could pack into the van and initiate Snoozepalooza, Urik had one more surprise for us all. We stopped at the side of the road for what just might be some of the most jaw-droppingly, too-perfect-to-be-real scenes I’ve witnessed so far on my trip. From our perch, we could see clearly the Douro River weaving its way through miles of vineyards, a mammoth shimmering serpent, eventually disappearing into the hills.
During the ride back to Porto, I sleepily opened my eyes long enough to see that dark clouds were closing in again, ready to revoke my temporary sunshine pass. This time, however, I didn’t care. Let the rain fall. At least the sky had offered a reprieve long enough for me to burn into my memory the astounding motley landscapes of Portugal’s Wine Country, and burn onto my tongue the taste of its prized product—sweet, sweet Port wine.
Even sweeter, I got to share this unforgettable experience with one of my favorite people.
Next stop: Morocco!