After finishing The Great Gatsby on the plane to Portugal, I made significant progress on 1984 on the three hour train ride from Lisbon. A young Portuguese couple snogged obnoxiously across from me – I wonder what Big Brother would think about that…
I arrived back in Porto at noon, where Connie and her dad picked me up from the train station. I’m pretty sure we hugged for a solid five minutes; the three months since we’d seen each other had been too long. It’s pretty amazing how quickly we picked everything back up, mouths constantly chatting a stream of gossip and updates in the car on the way to her house.
Connie’s mom was in Brussels during the week, so their housekeeper cooked our meals while she was away. Every meal was served with warm soup, hearty traditional Portuguese food, fruit and dessert. We only had to eat out once, and it was to try a traditional sandwich called a Francesinha. My favorites included a dried and salted codfish called bacalhau that the Portuguese prepare in many different ways (ours was in a delicious casserole with gravy served over a smashed potato), a sweet mango mousse and a baked milking (or baby) pig served with rice and some kind of soft, roasted nuts. Eating with Connie and her family was one of those situations where I was constantly being encouraged to “have some more” – and that I did. I may or may not have had to let out my belt a little bit after each meal.
We spent my time in Porto sleeping in, eating late, long lunches, exploring the city and catching up after a long time away. There’s something very special about our friendship, two people from totally different cultures and continents who have never had friends from the other’s respective country before. As different as our lives had been before our chance friendship, we both have a zest for life and love for each other.
Aside from getting a good tour of the city – seeing where Connie shopped, where she went out and where she went to relax – we did see a lot of the tourist spots, many of which Connie had not been to herself. I’ve actually had a similar experience taking friends around Little Rock and Chicago; it’s quite fun to be a tourist in your own city. We toured the Palácio da Bolsa (their historical stock exchange building), trekked up the Clérigos Tower for a view of the entire city, saw the amazing stairs of the Livraria Lello bookstore (click here for some Google photos – visitors were not allowed to take photos inside), visited the Serralves modern art museum and gardens, peeked inside the Sandeman Port wine caves, visited Foz (the posh area of Porto where the Douro river meets the Atlantic Ocean) and got the best view in all of Porto (which is actually in the city of Gaia that lies across the river, accessible by any of Porto’s famous six bridges). We even went out with her sister and her boyfriend in the lively, young bar district.
Because of the money I saved on food, I was able to buy a lot of presents and souvenirs for myself. This included a few bottles of the famous Port wine for my family and friends (and one just for me). There are many competing wine houses in Porto and Gaia that get their grapes and wine from the Douro valley to the east of Porto. Connie’s farm has a vineyard that makes other kinds of wine, and on my next visit I may get to help with the wine making (yes – that means stomping on the grapes with my feet!). Connie’s family told me they would take me to the valley next time, as it is supposed to be absolutely breathtaking.
Connie’s mom is a politician and both of her parents are economists, which allowed me to learn a little bit about the economic crisis in Portugal and Europe. I think it’s important as an American to realize that economic problems are not just in our country but throughout the world. It’s a tough problem with no foreseeable solution that will likely be left in the hands of my generation. We had long talks at dinner about the history and current events of Portugal, something I was lucky to hear as a tourist. It is a rare opportunity to actually get to talk about these things with people that have an inside perspective.
Connie and her family kept telling me how sorry they were for the weather – it rained lightly for a lot of the trip and was often cloudy. I did not mind at all; it put me in a pleasant, pensive mood and allowed a lot of self-and-world-reflection (as often happens to me in my travels). At one point, however, the sun peaked out through the clouds, gleaming on the rooftops of Porto.
“See what we mean about Porto in the sun?” said Connie’s mom.
I did. There was magic coming from the orangey glow of the roof tiles and the bridges (one designed by Eiffel himself) casting shadows on the river – but not for a moment did I felt cheated of Porto’s beauty, not even on the rainiest, greyest day. Whether rain or shine, economic crisis or wealth, Porto will always be beautiful.