Porto

Wednesday, June 4

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I’d considered going from Galicia to Portugal, but I hadn’t done any research, booked any trains or buses, or made any reservations.

But when I woke up the next morning in Finisterre, I decided I would take the bus to Porto.

I packed and went to a café near the bus station to wait for the 9:30 bus to Santiago. Café con leche and a napolitana, per usual. Sitting by the bus stop, I met a German man who told me that if I took the earlier bus to Baio on the route to A Coruña and switched there to a bus bound for Santiago, I could reach Santiago in time to make the bus to Porto. I took his advice.

Once I boarded, I was happy to see Fabrizzio there. He was bound for A Coruña though, so this would be goodbye.

A drunk man also boarded the bus, apologized to the driver for having no money, and proceeded to spend the next half an hour regaling the driver with his life story of interpersonal difficulties and drug addiction, speaking as loudly, drunkenly, and repetitively as possible. On the way out he nearly tripped down the stairs.

We arrived at the bus station in Santiago quickly. It had taken me three days on foot, two of them very difficult days, to cover that same distance. I went upstairs to buy my ticket for the bus to Porto which was scheduled to leave in an hour. Winging it!

The bus to Porto was filled with former pilgrims, including a couple of the guys I’d met on the cliffs the night before. And as we boarded I also said goodbye to Chris, who arrived on the direct bus from Finisterre as I was in line to board mine. He was headed to Granada.

Four hours later I was in Porto, saying goodbye to the guys. An American girl came up to us as we talked and asked if any of us were staying in Porto, and if she could join up to get to the city center and find a hostel. Her name was Jamie.

She and I walked towards the historical center. Sort of. First we walked in the wrong direction for about 15 minutes. Then we walked back, found what seemed to be an area near the center, and asked locals for directions to tourist information points.

Unfortunately, the locals all speak Portuguese and I don’t. Fortunately I’d been traveling with two Brazilians for some time, so I was at least a little bit more accustomed to the sounds and words of Portuguese than I would’ve been otherwise. Of all the languages I’ve tried to get comfortable with, I find Portuguese the most difficult because of the pronunciation. It’s such a smooth language, with sounds that are so different from Spanish even though the written words are often similar.

In time we found the information center and got tips on nearby hostels. The first that we tried was full, so we went to Pilot, a hostel not far from the main street and palace. I was able to get a bed there for one night but not two, because the next night was already fully booked.

The reception area and lounge had a very nightlife vibe. The girls at the desk dressed stylishly as bartenders at a club would. It was a far cry from a pilgrim albergue. The others in the hostel were typically very young — many of them French Canadians enjoying a vacation, or a gap year between college and university. A few other Canadians, not the French variety, were beginning a tour through Portugal that would take about two weeks. Also there was a German couple just enjoying a few relaxing days away from the stress of studying.

After showering I was starving, so I asked one of the receptionists, Flavia, what she would eat if if she were going out for food. She pointed me to two places. Munchies, where I could get a good burger, or Piolho, where I could try a traditional meal from Porto called a Francesinha, which means “Little French Girl” and must be some sort of joke. It’s a large sandwich filled with meats and cheese, and encased in egg and some type of sauce. A heart attack on a plate, but very tasty.

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Afterwards I wandered the city, talking briefly with the two Germans when I saw them in a nearby park. They mentioned that they really enjoy talking to native English speakers, which is something I’ve noticed about Germans in general as I’ve traveled. The Dutch, too. It’s very different from many other cultures where, even if a person has learned a passable amount of English, he or she usually prefers not to speak it if it can be avoided.

I made my way down to the river and walked along it towards a huge bridge. There were restaurants, shops, and music. The late afternoon sun bathed the buildings and the bridge in a warm glow. Couples walked together hand in hand, or sat at the tables overlooking the river as you would along Venice’s Grand Canal. I found myself wishing somebody had been there to share the experience with me. I’ll have to go back with someone, someday.

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In one of the larger squares along the river there was a huge screen with a soccer game being projected on it, and the square was packed full of people sitting at tables to watch, being served by the nearby bars and restaurants. As I walked away from the square and through the city streets I hear cheering in the distance, and then again much closer. Just a block farther I was stopped in my tracks by locals lighting fireworks in the street, huddled in a mass outside a nearby bar and chanting “Porto! Porto! Porto!” They saw my camera and yelled to me to take a photo of the group.

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I returned to the hostel and sat a bit with some of the others, getting to know them. In time they left for the nightly pub crawl. My feet were too sore for that sort of thing, especially after wandering the city. So I stayed and chatted with one of the girls, Daniela, until very late.

In the morning I packed my things and walked down one block to another hostel nearby, Invictus, and checked in there. The guy at the counter was very friendly and insisted on being called Joe. I unfortunately only had a 50 euro bill to pay with, so after jokingly saying “I hate you so much man,” he offered to buy me a coffee at the café next door where he could exchange the 50 for smaller notes. We chatted a bit and he gave me some tips on the city.

I couldn’t move my things into the room yet, because check-in wasn’t until 3. So I left my bag in the lobby area and walked to the Casa da Musica as my sister had suggested. Unfortunately without buying a tour there wasn’t a lot to see, and the only English tour was later, at 4pm. So I left and walked to the nearby bus station to buy my ticket to Madrid for the next day.

As I left Casa da Musica, a little girl walked up to me quickly without saying a word. She tapped me lightly on my arm, and held a clipboard with a piece of paper on it up towards my face. Even without a common language between us it was clear enough that she was deaf, and collecting money to support an organization that helps her. I reached into my wallet and gave her the first bill I found. She mouthed “obrigado” while making the same sign that also means “Thank you” in American Sign Language, and tapped my arm again before walking away.

Returning to the center after buying my bus ticket, I stopped for lunch at a grill Joe had recommended. I asked the waiter for his suggestion and he brought me a steak with egg on top, rice, french fries, a sausage, and something similar to a small corn dog. All delicious.

Then I stopped in at a mall to buy some non-pilgrim pants and cheap shoes from H&M.

I went back to the hostel and found that Joe was gone, replaced by a girl name Gisele. I checked in with her and then relaxed for a bit. I intended to write, but instead we found ourselves talking for quite a while about this and that. Porto, the States, the Camino, Cuba and the embargo, recognizing different accents in a foreign language — whatever came to mind.

After a bit I left for Serralves, a sort of mini-Coachella that happens once a year in a park a good distance from the center that bears the same name. I said goodbye to Gisele, though we thought maybe we’d meet later at a jam session in a nearby bar, if she could make it despite an early morning meeting with her landlord.

I went to the main square and waited in front of McDonalds with a group of people for the free bus to Serralves. When it arrived it turned out to be a bus built for sightseeing tours. Open-air seating.

After a month moving only under the power of my own feet, speeding through the streets in an open-air bus with the wind whipping my face was like some sort of roller coaster adrenaline rush. This must be a small taste of how the Amish feel on Rumspringa.

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Serralves was interesting but a little underwhelming. I’d expected there to be something happening around every corner. Stages here, stages there, art exhibits, always something going on. But instead I found it was mostly a lot of people waiting here or there for something to begin. I watched a guitarist and drummer play for a bit, and wandered far and wide through the park. But I think it’s the sort of thing you have to do with friends, so you have someone to pass the time with when you’re waiting for the next set.

I left. Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be a simple bus ride back like the one there. Gisele had suggested I walk to the beach, in the opposite direction from the center, and take the beach and river path all the way back. But I knew my feet weren’t up to that, not after the difficult day of Fisterra. As a compromise with myself I branched off from Rua Boa Vista towards the river, which resulted in having to navigate some convoluted streets in some less than welcoming neighborhoods. But eventually I found my way to the river and walked along it back to the center.

Joe had told me that a restaurant called Santiago cooks the best Francesinha there is. So I again found myself on a camino towards Santiago. But unfortunately it was closed; Sunday night after all. Tired and hungry, I ate at McDonald’s, which was practically a palace. Marble floors and Corinthian columns and spiral stairs. We don’t need no golden arches.

Stopping briefly in the hostel, I carried on to the bar where the jam session would be. It was meant to go on at 11, so of course it didn’t. 11:30 arrived, no music. Midnight, no music. I found myself drifting to sleep, so I paid my bill and went back to the hostel.

The next morning I left for Madrid by bus.

-Daniel

Edit:
If you find yourself in Porto and would like to visit the hostels I stayed at, here are links to their websites. Good places, good people. And no, they aren’t paying me for this endorsement. 🙂
Pilot: http://pilothostel.com/pilothostel.html
Invictus: http://www.oportoinvictushostel.com/

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