**Rules for traveling alone in Europe: #1—Do not try and fly by the seat of your pants. While this might seem fashionable and/or dangerously attractive, it leads to nothing but tears, frustration, and a big waste of money. #2—Talk to anyone and everyone because they usually have a story to tell that is worth hearing and they might even turn into your next best friend if you give them the chance. #3—Don’t walk to close too little dogs on long leashes.
I have just returned from the magical land of Port wine, cobblestoned streets winding up the cliff-side of the Douro River, one of the largest botanical gardens in Europe, quaint cafetarias and miles of boardwalk built so close to the ocean, the waves splash you as you walk past. I am talking of course about Portugal, and more specifically the city of Porto, the best kept secret in Europe. Although I cannot speak for the rest of Portugal, since I was only able to visit Porto and Braga (refer to #1 in Rules for traveling alone in Europe), in all my backpacking adventures through Europe I have never experienced such hospitality. The Portuguese are some of the friendliest people I have met and given that and the authentic beauty of Porto, the city that has it all, I might have to call it my favorite city in Europe (thus far).
After ten months of living in Senegal, the end of the terrible hot season was the perfect place to get away. Although I looked forward to returning to the first world, I wasn’t sure exactly what my reaction would be. It turns out, I had nothing to worry about. When my flight landed in Madrid I went a little crazy at the airport, immediately buying a big ham and cheese sandwich and a latte as well as perusing the gift shops and clothing stores in the airport. I kept thinking to myself—look only, don’t buy because I wasn’t even on my actual vacation yet. I was in the AIRPORT for heavens sake. My first mistake was walking into Mango, one of my favorite European fashion stores. I did walk out with a new summer dress, but I needed something to wear around Porto right?
After my initial binge in the Madrid airport, I settled quite easily back into the life I am accustomed to of hot showers, cafes, customer service, and personal space. In Porto, I grabbed the metro and headed to the hostel I had booked into just outside the center of the city. Even though I was so tired because the flight had been overnight and I hadn’t slept, I hit the streets of Porto with nothing more than my green backpack and a giant grin on my face. The Myostic Hostel turned out to be perfect. Although it was quieter than I might have liked, the Brazilian woman who worked the front desk quickly became like a host mother to me, telling me all the best places to go in Porto and even translating in Portuguese over the phone when I needed further explanation for something. Ana and Fernando, a wonderful Portuguese couple who owned the hostel also were very kind to me and offered to buy my plane ticket to Madrid when the Ryanair website wouldn’t work (see Rule #1 of traveling alone in Europe).
Porto, the invincible city, is a thriving conglomeration of magical European architecture and infrastructure, a peaceful aura that only comes from a place nestled on the crook of the Douro River and the Atlantic coastline, and the bustling liveliness characteristic of the mercantile city it is and once was. For me, Porto had everything one might want in a city. The buildings and houses are magnificent and built into the cliffside as it rises up from the Douro River. Although the streets are hard to walk, it was hard for me to stop walking them because every hill let to another castle, another cathedral, another café tucked among the vertical styled houses typical of European architecture, but still uniquely Portuguese with the famous ceramic tiles decorating each exterior façade. I spent hours on the Riberia, the historic center of the city right on the river, thinking, talking to the friendly tourists and locals, perusing the stands of local craftsmen, and of course, drinking the delicious Superbock beer.
The first day, I got to learn to city by walking until I thought my feet were going to fall off. This is always what I do when I get to a new city. There’s no better way to learn a place then to walk around, even when you have a terrible sense of direction like me. This was also the moment I got bit in the ankle by a spoiled fluffy broot with a pink collar around its neck (See Rule #3 of Traveling Alone in Europe).The best part of a city like Porto, is that it pays to get lost. I found myself wandering up stairs that seemed to lead no where only to find myself in a public garden space with a beautiful view of the city and river below. One time I walked into a church that looked promising only to find myself in an art exposition of Portuguese, Danish, and German painters who showed me around and explained the story behind each of their paintings.
I did everything from take the extremely touristic boat tour on the river to riding the gondola with the port wine tour at the end, to taking advantage of the international free museum days on the 18th and 19th to walking from one end of the beach to the other. One night, I met a very nice couple from Barcelona in the hostel and we decided to see the nightlife of Porto and see a couple of Brazilian guys performing Fado, a genre of music typical to Portugal and Portuguese speaking countries. It was difficult though, because after all day of walking around seeing new things I could barely keep my eyes open. Portuguese, even more than other European countries I have been in, start the party late. They seem to eat dinner at around 11 or 12 and then go out to bars around 2 and end around 5 or 6 in the morning. Although I guess I never did the typical Portuguese night out on the town, I got a taste of it at least.
Even while I loved the city of Porto, I would have to say that the best part about my vacation was meeting new and interesting people in the strangest of ways. I don’t know if it has been my time in Senegal that has made me more open and perhaps more approachable, or if I just got lucky, but the people I met in Porto made me believe in humanity. From the Portuguese bar worker who served me my first cold draft beer in 10 months and chatted with me the whole time to the shop owner who gave me a tiny bottle of free port after I found out that he worked in forestry before taking over the family business to the travelers and wanderers of this world eager to meet each other and add a little bit of happiness to each others life—that was the true miracle of my adventure in Portugal (See #2 in Rules when Traveling alone in Europe).
I want to end my account of my Porto adventure with the best and most unexpected part of my trip, which will probably be the most memorable for me. I love this part of the story even more, because it came at a time in the week when I was finished with Porto and discouraged that Ryanair kept rejecting my attempts to buy tickets to Spain for one reason or another. It was a lesson that showed me even when things aren’t going your way, you can’t just become defeated and mope around in the hostel for the rest of the trip. There is always an adventure to be had, another amazing person to meet, another street you hadn’t quite discovered. So after feeling sorry for myself that everything was going wrong (everyone had left the hostel, my English friends who were supposed to meet me in Porto had not met me there because of unforeseen events, and I was trapped in a city I no longer wanted to be in) I decided to take Ana up on her offer of booking me a free walking tour. I like walking tours. They are a good way to discover the city and also learn some of the history behind the buildings and monuments. That is where I met Ines. She was a 25 year old architecture student finishing up her masters thesis, born and raised in Porto. She was the tour guide and we were joined by another couple from Bulgaria. It was just the four of us as we set off on our tour of Porto. Ines and I hit it off right away and when the tour was over I asked her if she wanted to grab dinner somewhere. She apologized, saying she was supposed to meet her friend in Braga, a city about 40 minutes outside Porto, for a weekend in her friend’s country house. I was disappointed that we couldn’t spend more time together.
“Why don’t you come with us?” she suddenly asked. I was shocked that she has just invited me so soon after meeting me, but I immediately accepted.
“Yeah, if its okay with your friend, I would love too.”
So it was agreed upon that I would meet her at the train station in an hour. That meant I had to jump on the bus, get on the metro, race to my room in the hostel and grab my bag, get back on the metro and make it onto the train on time to get to Braga. I made it to the train station with 4 minutes to spare and no Ines in sight. Making a split second decision, I jumped on the train assuming she would be on there just as the doors shut. No Ines. Maybe she would be in another compartment on the train. Forty minutes later I got off the train in Braga and continued my search for Ines. When I still didn’t see her I walked out of the train station, resigned to the fact that I would just look around Braga and then take the next train back to Porto. Enter Mariana. A woman came up to me and asked, “Are you Whitney?”
I was so relieved, I gave her a big hug. “You must be Ines’s friend!” I asked her how she had recognized me and Ines said that I was a tall, blonde girl who was pretty obviously American. Mariana explained that Ines had missed the train by 4 minutes and was on the next train that would arrive in 30 minutes. Finally something for me had worked out!
We picked up Ines and headed out to the countryside in Mariana’s car. By the time we got there it was dark and so I didn’t really get to see where we were, only that the house was beautiful. Mariana’s father had built it because he was also an architect. The three of us drank wine and talked about everything from Portuguese politics to African economy to life in general until around 3:30 in the morning. When I woke up the next day, I went out onto the balcony and couldn’t believe my eyes! I was looking onto a mountainous terrain with little cottages and a winding road. Everywhere, there were pastures full of sheep and cattle and vineyards and olive groves speckled the landscape. To the right of the balcony was a wooded area, and next to the house in a small clearing,
Mariana’s Dad had built a pool made with natural rocks and next to it a trellis with white roses dripping from the roof. I couldn’t believe my luck. We spend two wonderful days here, relaxing and eating traditional Portuguese dinners. And now I have two new friends. It feels like I knew them longer than 2 days.
After the 2 days was over, it was time to return to Porto and fly back to Senegal. Now here I am back in Kolda, getting a couple of things done before I go back to village tomorrow. I am so glad I had the chance to go to Portugal and remember that I will be able to go back to the first world again. As hard as Senegal seems sometime, for me, it is not forever. After 10 months, when things are getting routine here and sometimes it is hard to remember to find the magic, it was good to remember that I living in one of the most unique environments I might ever have the chance to experience. Coming back, I got a perspective about where I am and what I am doing here and it felt good. Senegal is beautiful. And although I will miss my Portguese pastries and latte’s every morning, there are enough mangoes and avocados here in Kolda to make me realize that life’s not so bad.
It is now the start of the rainy season here in Senegal and although it is still extremely hot, the first rains have definitely cooled things off and given a hint of green to the crispy landscape. I look forward to my first African monsoon. The village is going to be extremely busy planting crops and trees.
I’ll try and keep you updated as rainy season progresses!
Until next time,