14 August 2011

Porto: Where Old, Rusty Things Look Nice

...At least that's what it said in an online review I read before leaving. I wasn't sure what to expect from Porto. I mean, I'm pretty willing to see anything if I can get there on a cheap ticket, but Portugal's never been on the top ten list--and now I can only say that my top ten list has been pathetic! (Caitlin suggested I revise it into a "Thirty Places to See by Thirty" list, and I may do just that.) Porto, home of port wine, is the most enchanting place, full of things that are broken, peeling, decrepit, and absolutely beautiful.

The abundance of azulejos (blue painted tile) in Porto made me just die of delight. They are everywhere: cathedrals, train stations, in fancy restaurants and around abandoned doorways. Nary a wall is lacking for detail. And every little souvenir shop has racks of bookmarks with pictures of the azulejos on them. Caitlin gets an honorary medal for this trip, because she heard each of these phrases at least eighteen times and still responded with a smile: "It's so charming!" "These are so beautiful!" and "Bookmarks. Oh, bookmarks." I sighed over those bookmarks the way women normally sigh over babies. In Europe, I feel nudges of beauty in every crack. Surely beauty is everywhere, but in cobblestone streets and plazas, it makes itself known so readily--like the little girl in a tutu who can't help saying, "Mom. Mom. Mom! Look at me. Are you looking? Look at me!"

A few trip highlights:

On the first day, we visited Lello, the world's third most beautiful bookstore (who determines these things, I don't know, but apparently it was beat out by bookshops in Holland and Argentina). I could only spy one employee, a poor man who split time between ringing up purchases and barking, "No photos! No photos!" It made me kinda sad; I would probably be cranky, too, if I spent my workday herding tourists rather than making sales, but it seems like there should be policies against it. (Against dual cashiering-grunting positions, I mean. Not against crankiness itself. There should be a security guard who deals with the tourists, and the man at the till should get to secretly camp out on the upper level of the store at night, maybe unroll a sleeping bag and read Swiss Family Robinson.)

We climbed the Clerigos Tower, 225 steps high.

We stopped by the famous indoor market, which the guidebook promised us was full of fruit, flowers, trinkets, and emotions. I didn't spy much emotion at all, at least not until we located the supersketchy restrooms, hidden away under a staircase full of pigeon feathers.

And then it was on to the Luis I iron bridge, designed by Gustave Eiffel himself (it was one of his projects before the Eiffel Tower). A bunch of teenage boys were diving from the pedestrian level into the river, and as we passed, one of them reached his arm through the railings and snagged Caitlin's plastic shopping bag. She turned to look at him; he just kept tugging until he'd ripped a hole in it, then smiled devilishly up at us. For a split second, I thought all her belongings might tumble out into the river (Noooo! Precious bookmarks!), but we made it to the other side with all possessions intact--and burst out laughing. Because...really. That was not mentioned in the guidebook.

When we were flying out of Madrid, I realized how dry it looked from above: brown and sandy, just a few thin rivers snaking through. My soul has been craving greenery, water, nature, and when we saw the Rio Douro, all that anticipation just leaked out of my muscles, leaving spaces for happiness instead. We plopped down on a patch of lush grass and sat forever, just sat and listened to water moving.

And so, with the call of the wild ringing in our ears, we kept walking alongside the river, figuring that we might as well go all the way to the ocean. It was just around the riverbend.

Side note: it is just around the riverbend, but the riverbend is deceptively long. Five-ish miles and a few hours later: the Atlantic.

Caitlin and I have taken many a rotic walk together (that's "romantic" without the man), and this was no exception. All along the beach were darling eateries lit up with cute lanterns and candles and things that signified we couldn't afford them. It was getting late. We were starving. We were nearly ready to turn around and hop a bus back to the city center when we passed one last lit-up dining joint. "Probably can't afford this one, either," one of us commented. Then we realized it was Pizza Hut. And it was the best Pizza Hut I've ever eaten.

On the second day, we walked atop the iron bridge. No bag rippers here!

We had water poured on us from a few stories above. (Cooking or bathing water, we're pretty sure. It smelled clean. Clean-ish.)

We made it to the Atlantic again (this time, doing half the distance by trolley). The sea wind was so angry and kept trying to steal our clothes!

And that, friends, was Porto. It was nice to get away. And, as always, it was nice to come back home. Check off one box on the Thirty by Thirty! I like you, Portugal.

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