10.14.2010 - 10.20.2010
After a few days in Portugal, I have completely become enamored with how distinct this country is compared to the rest of Europe. This country feels much more South America than Europe. Perhaps a lot of this comes from the fact that Portugal has been in the depths of terrible economic troubles for the past 10 years and, as a few locals told us, the problem is often overlooked by the EU. We could see the poverty immediately as we drove into Porto, where crumbling and vacant apartment buildings sit next to run down slums with drying clothes on lines outside showing the only signs of life. There are a lot more homeless people here, and the Brazilian tradition of people standing on the street, “helping” you park for a small tip. We pulled into Porto with the normal difficult task of navigating the ridiculously narrow and unusually steep cobblestone streets that seem to even confuse our GPS about which way they go. We have been trying to save a bit more money, and we decided that now would be the first time to stay in a dorm since we were in New Zealand, and did it for one whole night! I drove the car outside of town to park it for free, and save the $45 per day to park it in a lot, which is more than we were paying for our accommodation. As I drove out towards the free parking area, I chuckled as I saw the billboards promoting the presidential candidates, one named Manuel and one named Joao. Flavia had earlier told me that Brazilians have the impression that there are only two male names in Portugal, Joao and Manuel.
Porto was a nice change from Spain. The city is rugged and gritty and the old town shows the potential and past beauty of amazing days in the Port trade and the scars of its decline and the onset of poverty. We wandered along the Douro River in the evening stopping at a Port producer Vasconcellos for a quick taste as we waited until we were hungry for dinner. I’ve never been too fond of Port, I think it’s too sweet and has too much alcohol to find a lot of distinct flavors. That being said I haven’t tasted too many, so it was nice to get a nice introduction to Port and we tasted a few white ports, a ruby, and then a reserve Tawny. I started to appreciate the aging process and its results as we tasted young and old Ports, and I can now say that after travelling through Port I did gain an appreciation for what I was tasting and do plan on having a few bottles of Port tucked away once we get home. We ate a terrible dinner along the river, food that was too heavy, salty, and fatty. I had the specialty, Francesinha, which was four or five types of mystery meat, breaded and fried, served with a soggy piece of bread on top and soaked in cheesy gravy. It was so heavy, that halfway through, I just had to quit and move to the other side of the table. The two locals next to us started talking to us, and even though only one of them controlled most of the conversation for the next few hours, we had a great time learning a bit about the true Porto, the economic situation, and the general feel of life in the North of Portugal. At a few minutes after 10, we were treated to an amazing pyrotechnics show, as Portugal, Spain, and Italy set out in a fireworks competition, each with their own show lasting 20 minutes. These were by far the best fireworks I have ever seen, far above anything I’ve experienced and each country had one set of fireworks that we so powerful that they rattled the ears and blew my hair back when they were detonated.
The next day we toured the old city. This maze of narrow streets really gives the feel of walking streets that have changed little in the last 100 years. We went to the market, which was the shabbiest we’ve seen since Cambodia, and bought a few things for dinner, then saw and snapped a few photos of the typical sites. I really like the feel of Porto, this city that hopefully is turning the corner as many students come here and hopefully will stay and try to help this once beautiful city to become reinvigorated. We cooked a nice dinner that night, hoping that each arriving group of people would not be put in the two extra bunks in our 4 bed room. Sitting around the hostel later we met two Swiss guys who ended up being in our room, Flavia and the three dudes… lucky her! They were great though, Dominic and Sony, who were especially conscious of their noise and very friendly as they were finishing a two week surf holiday. We also met an Australian couple, also on a round the world trip, and it was fun to tell stories and to chat with them, I gave them as much information as I could about South America as they were headed there soon. Unfortunately I’ve sold all my copies of my book that I have left, and now that I’m done with them, I’ve found a bunch of eager readers to sell them! We woke up early the next day and headed up along the Douro to the Douro valley where the wine region is. We stopped immediately at the first winery that we found along the river and were met by a little old man named Joao who was very kind and poured a few tastes of their family produced Port. We did learn our lesson from past regions and called to make some reservations, but only one place returned our call and we drove upriver towards the eastern part of the region. Although the wine may not be the best here, this region is the most beautiful and dramatic wine region I have ever seen. The now orange and red grape vines are built on to terraces that are dug by hand into the mountain. They do this so that the precious bit of top soil doesn’t float away when the rains hit and also so that the land is a bit more workable. The huge steps that are only one or two vines wide line the area along both sides of the river and the grapes are produced in the family tradition that seems to have spread from many generations. The people here look like life hasn’t changed much since they were kids, and a noticeable aging population makes up the tiny towns in the hills here.
Back at the hostel later that evening we were a bit tired from the long day of driving. It’s difficult to drive those narrow mountain roads, one time taking a 6 mile stone road curving down through the vineyards towards the river, not really knowing where we were, the whole time, our GPS was trying to tell us to turn around. Flavia decided to call it a night, but I decided to head out with the two Swiss guys to have a few drinks in the surrounding neighborhood. The streets were packed, everyone out enjoying the warm fall night. I really enjoyed seeing the crowd that was eager and openly drinking, but as usual, there were no fights, no “tough guys”, and just a general great vibe running through the packed streets.
We left Porto the next day for Lisbon, a few hours south. We booked at a great hostel, in a private room, and settled in, then brought the car down to the waterfront where there is free parking. We walked back along the pedestrian streets then headed up to the castle high upon the hill. Although we are a bit castled out, and even a bit more old town fatigued, we enjoyed this castle, mostly for the beautiful view from every turret. This is a city of beautiful and ornate plazas, well maintained old buildings, and a classy pedestrian area. There is money here, or maybe a lot of debt, but this city has a much more regal feel than Porto. We took our car the next day to the town of Sintra located in the hills outside of the city where the royalty had their summer houses in this lush and hilly oasis just a few kilometers out of the hectic chaos of the city. This area was nice, but we felt a bit inundated by the crowd of Japanese and Russian tourists, who seem to be everywhere, and all talking at once. We found one mansion outside of town that had no coaches parked outside, so we decided to park there and walk through the gardens, before taking a quick drive to the westernmost point in Europe then drove home along the coast. We parked the car in the same spot then walked back to the hostel.
The following afternoon we took the train to Belem, Portugal’s natural port that saw many explorers set off on their way to claim territory for the crown. We saw the monuments and were a bit annoyed by the heat and crowds and did as expedited as an excursion as possible. On the train ride home we passed the car, which was parked past two fences and a few railroad tracks. As we passed I surveyed it, because when we went by the first time on the way to Belem, I thought for a minute that I noticed something a bit off with the front window, although in a speeding train it was hard to really take notice. This time I saw and I was pretty certain that the passenger window had been smashed. Flavia was late for her haircut so I got off the train and walked to the car, hoping that I’d seen incorrectly, hoping that Ivory was ok. Nope, she wasn’t, and I had seen correct. Even though we took everything out of the front of the car, some asshole still decided to smash the window, and unfortunately he got into the trunk to the car and managed to steal a bag of clothes and gifts, and a few bottles of wine and Port. I was pissed, and not really knowing what to do, I drove a bit and past a few transit police who told me where the nearest police station was. I called our car program and they told me to get a police report to I went to the station. There, three guys named Manuel and two Joao’s were outside smoking and they joked with me about my Brazilian accent before then tried to give me directions to the tourist police, where I could fill out a report. I didn’t have a map or a GPS so I really had no idea how to get where they were telling me to go, and finally one Joao and a Manuel jumped into a police car and escorted me to the police station, where we filed a report, and Flavia came up to meet me, and we parked the car in a secure lot, and headed back to the hostel where a nice cold beer felt great. The girls at the hostel were so upset about what happened, but I figured that we were lucky that this had only happened now and the stupid thieves really didn’t get much.
We went to the Renault dealer the next morning where a guy named Joao was a bit unreceptive as we showed up, and we spent four hours with them and on the phone with our insurance before everything was in place and we knew that the repair would be done. We extended our stay one night and then headed out to find the cords for the Iphone and GPS for the car. In the end, we made it almost 9 months before anything bad happened to us, but I’m just glad that this is almost over. We’ll pick up the car and get out of here tomorrow, everything was paid for, and I think this is just a lesson learned. At least this happened in a country where we could communicate, and I am very thankful for George at the EuropeLease program headquarters who spoke perfect English and Portuguese and got the job taken care of for us, with as little of a headache as possible, we even get a free carwash!