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Porto on the Duoro

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I arrived in Porto a couple hours after sunset.  The warm sea breeze and smell of kebab shops settled me into the second most important Portuguese city very quickly.  As I enjoyed the sights and smells of Porto I began to get my bearings.  Unsurprisingly, I had gone the wrong way at the first roundabout.  I soon found the long road that would bring me all the way to the neighborhood where I had a room waiting for me.

As I walked the road got wider.  It opened up into outdoor cafes, restaurants, and bars.  I passed a cathedral and a park.  I took note of them so that I could take a visit after I unloaded my packs.  Then I continued down the road.  It took a sharp turn to the left and pointed me out over The Duoro River, which end here in Porto after travelling across the Iberian Peninsula.  This is what it looks like at night a short distance from the ocean…

Now I was in the neighborhood of the Tattva Design Hotel and wondering how I could miss a hotel on a tiny residential street.  After a quick search I found the hotel without a sign.  It was identical to all the surrounding flats on the outside but when I walked in I knew this was probably not what the apartments in this neighborhood looked like.

The two girls at the front desk were busily trying to check people in and answer questions.  When it was my turn they explained that the hotel had only opened the week before so there was still a lot of chaos whilst they tried to figure out how to run this hotel.  The hotel’s short existence also helped explain why they were pretty much giving away rooms at prices I had never seen anywhere before.

The first floor had a fish lounge with aquariums, computers, and other rectangular boxes for people to spend their time looking at.  The second floor had a kitchen for self service food, as well as a private restaurant/bar for the guests.  The roof above the hotel had been transformed into an outdoor tiki lounge, fitted with a high brush-fence and torches.  Each floor had its own theme of either fire, wind, water, or earth.  It was an interesting place but the thought of Porto in the twilight piqued my interest more than any caged fish or roof without a view.

Around midnight I headed towards the city center.  I had not eaten yet so I looked for one of those kebab shops that had wafted its way over to me on my way from the bus stop.  There was not a kebab shop open so I looked around for a bar with a kitchen.  After hearing the same story (kitchen closed at midnight) a few times I moved on to another option.  After spending ten minutes walking around a parking garage that I believed was an entrance to a shopping mall (due to the similarity of a Portuguese word and a deceptively unrelated English word)  I was told that there were no supermarkets open in Porto tonight.

It seemed that I was probably not going to find anything to eat so I moved on to more important things, like adventure.  I had just under twenty four hours to spend in this city so I had to make every second count.  I went back to the park I had noted earlier.  I saw cathedrals built into the surrounding apartments.  I followed the roads that run alongside the river at different heights.  By the end of the night I had seen all six of the famed Porto bridges.  Here are a few of my favorite pics from that night…

As the night grew to be morning I knew it was time for some sleep.  I had a lot to see the next day and not much time to see it so I went back to hotel, walked past the aquarium, and made my way up to my pillow.  Well, this is how I spent the shorter of my two partial days in Porto.  The next day proved to be filled with even more sights, sounds, smells, and finally tastes than the first.  Until then…

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From Spain to Portugal, Then Spain, Then Portugal Again (And Tomorrow Spain Again)

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This morning I woke up earlier than I had in weeks. I tried to get back to sleep but the fluttering in my stomach and the thoughts racing through my head would not allow another minute of sleep. Today was the day I left Ferreira de Panton. I was headed for Portugal and beyond. So far I have been in Portugal for less than eight adventure-filled hours.

After a few sips of a tea that I forgot to drink and triple checking my bags I was out the door. My more than kind hosts, John and Mick, offered to help me by bringing me all the way to Portugal. As it turned out, they would bring to Portugal, then Spain, then Portugal again.

We stopped at the petrol station on the way out of town and kicked off the trip with a pleasant (albeit broken) conversation with Julio the jolly clerk. After explaining our plans for today and beyond he wished me a “buen viaje” and told me “it was very nice to of meet you.” And just like that the car was full of smiles and we were on the now familiar road to Ourense. After we passed Ourense the smell of smoke began to fill the car. The forest across the river had been lit ablaze and the smoke was falling heavy in the air as far as I could see. The mountains of Galicia had been charred a half dozen times since I arrived two weeks ago. This one seemed closer than the rest and by the end of the day I would find myself nearly in the center of a rager (but more on that later).

The smoke faded as we left Spain and entered Portugal. My first stop in this country was the city of Valence. And my first stop in Valence was the Intermache supermarket. More important was the bakery/cafe in the front of the Intermache. Mick and John had raved about the custard tarts in Portugal one evening as we ate dessert and until this morning I had forgotten about them. After scarfing one down I am sure I will not forget again. The beautiful baked pastries were filled with a sweet custard that, for a brief moment, made me consider pulling out every last cent in my pocket and buying the whole tray. After our tarts and coffee we headed for the real market.

The weekly market in Valenca was the reason we tried to arrange the trip to Portugal on a Wednesday. Every Wednesday the streets of Valenca are filled with cars and the massive open square is filled with tents selling all manner of goods. Clothes, cooking wares, fruits, vegetables, purses, livestock, and seedlings were all on sale. One thing that is not for sale in Valenca is the flexible, wide-brimmed, red hat that I have been searching for since I arrived in Santiago almost three weeks ago. However, I have high hopes that Barcelona will have shops filled with such headgear.

From the market we headed up to the Fortaleza. The Fortaleza is a massive walled compound with restaurants, churches, and practically hatless shops. We stopped at one of the outdoor restaurants to get out of the sun and grab a drink before heading back to Spain for a picnic lunch. As we entered the parking lot of the Fortaleza a man signaled us in. Then he came to collect money for the parking spot. John and Mick told me to ignore him and I remembered another story they had told over dinner one day. All day long various people try to collect fees for parking in this parking lot and they often succeed. The trouble is that this is a free parking lot and these fee collectors are just trying to scam out of town tourists.

After our drink on the patio I ran up the stairs, over the path, and on top of the wall that surround the perimeter of the hill. From this vantage point I could see the mountains and the river that flows through them. By this time it was getting late and in order to catch the two thirty bus we would have to get going to the picnic spot on the other side of the Minho River. We passed the old customs house and were back in the town of Tui, Spain.

We brought the cooler with our sandwiches to the lookout point above the unused public park and pool. From here we saw distant villages of Portugal on the other side of the river. After enjoying my favorite sandwich, chorizo and cheese, we went for a stroll to the cathedral. Now it was getting late and we had to get back to the train station so I could get my ticket and get ready for the ride to Porto.

When we arrived at the train station the ticket office was closed. We asked a gentleman who was sitting at a bench in the cool, thick walled station and he told us that the office opened again at two.

We spent the twenty minutes at nearby outdoor cafe. Then we went back to the station. I told the man that I needed a ticket to Porto at two thirty and the moment the words left my mouth he began shaking his head. For once, I was hoping that he meant he did not understand me. This, however, was not the case. Then he pointed out a small notice that was hanging on a flyer board. It seems that there is a strike going on in Portugal until the end of the month. Due to the strike my train would not be running until next month. I bought a ticket for the 6 o’clock train and wondered what I would do for the extra four hours. My time in Porto is now even more limited so I thought it best to do the most I could with my time in Valenca. As it turns out it was just enough time to have a little adventure before catching the train I am currently riding.

I asked John and Mick to drop me off at the main roundabout so that I could get back to the Fortaleza. They were more than happy to bring me up next to the fort. They parked and helped me get my bags out. I tried to stall them for a few minutes just because I would really miss them and I wanted to try to remember them as best as I could. After making sure that we had enough information to keep in contact in the future (and possibly make a second visit next summer) we said a cheerful goodbye. They drove off with a honk and a wave. I walked away smiling and thinking about the time we had shared. It’s strange how in only a couple weeks I began to feel like they were old friends that I had known for years.

I decided to use my bonus time in Valenca to explore the entire Fortaleza. This meant taking plenty of breaks to sit on the outer edges of the high stone walls and watch the river flow. This also meant finding my way into the beautifully ornamented churches that are betrayed by their simple facades.

After a couple hours I was quite sure I had seen the fortified hilltop so I decided to find a shady spot to eat the sandwich that Mick had insisted I must take because they would not eat it. Like I said these were some more than kind hosts.

I looked for a spot with a view but the view that filled my eyes was not what I had hoped to see. From over the hill I saw smoke billowing up into the air. It was spreading fast and within minutes the sky over Valenca was hazy with a sickly glow. I ran to the top of the hill to see where it was coming from. The origin was just across the expressway and I knew that there was nothing I could do to help at this point. I went down to the expressway and watched as the flames began to burst above the treeline. Then I saw cars, bikes, and pedestrians heading towards the flame on a nearby road. I followed them but before long everyone stopped and turned around. I stood in front of a field watching goats play and butt heads, unaware that they were a half kilometer away from an early demise. I tried to get their attention and after about twenty minutes most of them were standing at my end of the field, which I hoped would give them enough of a head start if the flames did reach their pasture. For a time the smoke grew darker and swirled furiously. Then the black smoke faded to gray, and then white. I had to leave and though the smoke refused to cease completely I was satisfied that the bombeiros were going to soon have the flames under control. By the time I left Valenca, the smoke looked like a thin morning fog.

Note: As I am writing this my train is being surrounded my smoke. I am high in the mountains now and from here I can see two other fires smoking in the distance. The two year drought and rash of arson attacks seem to be destroying the beautiful landscape of northern Spain and Portugal.

So, back to the story- I stopped on top of the Foraleza to eat my sandwich and enjoy the view of the city. I looked at my clock and jumped up to get on to the train station. I was running late and as I got to the main roundabout I tried to remember which way the station was. I guessed and after about fifteen minutes I decided that I had guessed wrong. I saw a man standing outside a petrol station. I asked him if he spoke English and he said he spoke almost none. I asked him if he spoke Spanish and he said he spoke some. I asked where the train station was and he explained that it was very close. He gave me directions and I headed back where I had come from. I spotted the train station and looked at my clock. I had just enough time to run into the store to grab a new toothbrush and toothpaste. I had forgotten mine at Mick and John’s and the thought of not brushing my teeth until I could find a shop tomorrow made me a little disgusted.

I left the shop and bolted for the station. I got there and gathered my bags, which the man at the ticket office held for me due to the inconvenience caused by the canceled train. In Spanish, I asked the man working on the platform which train was going to Porto. My accent must have given me away because he answered in English. I gave him a “thank you very much” and he chuckled a little. I expected that. I always say it like Elvis and people in non-English peaking countries always seem to think it is quite funny sounding.

I caught the train and am now speeding through Portugal, hoping that my room in Porto has not been given away now that I have missed my check-in. It was a day of adventure and good company. I only hope that I can say this about the next week. I am sure I will have adventure but solo traveling can make the kind of camaraderie I have experienced over the last couple weeks something I know not to take for granted. I have some good friends that I hope to see over the next few weeks in Barcelona and Sweden so I think I will have no trouble finding excellent company. Well, I arrive in Porto shortly so there is much to do. Until next time…

P.S.  I have pictures and videos that I will add to this post but I just arrived at my “hostel.”  In reality it is a luxury type hotel that just opened so they are basically giving away rooms for 7 Euros per night to get their name out there.  Also, this city looks amazing at night so I need to get out and enjoy it.  Anyway, more to come.