I’ve been in Portugal for four days and I’m still overwhelmed by its simple charm. It’s not at all like the other places I’ve visited, and when I bike on the cobblestone streets under endless canopies of drying laundry and sweet cigar smoke, I feel a million miles from the life I used to lead in Canada.
There was little doubt after crossing the border that Portugal is not as wealthy a country as France or Spain. The roads have more cracks and the faces more lines. Crumbling walls betray the age of villages along the northern coast, and everywhere farmers sit at makeshift stands, selling their wares by the highway’s edge.
But it’s beautiful. The architecture is stunning and the intricacy of the churches, even in the tiniest community, is like nothing I have seen before. Combine that with elegant mountain forests and silvery ocean waves, and I don’t hesitate for a moment in saying that Portugal is in a world all its own.
From the border I cycled to Viana do Castelo, where I camped behind a fallen stone wall not far from the highway. I awoke still feeling shaky from my stomach flu and I found the day’s cycling to be extremely difficult even though the terrain was not. By dark, in the pouring rain and soaked to the bone, I arrived in Porto to meet a friend for a cup of coffee and (I hoped) a dry place to sleep for the night.
The trouble with dates like this is that arranging a place to meet is often troublesome, particularly at night, in a strange city and without a mobile. After marshaling together enough change for a payphone, I called my friend and explained that I was at the train station downtown. We agreed to meet there in 30 minutes. No problem.
Well, one small problem. Being tired and, let’s face it, a bit of a hayseed, I failed to see the difference between a train and the underground metro. I saw passengers, I saw tracks, I thought train. But after an hour of waiting, it dawned on me that the gigantic “M” plastered on the terminal wall might just stand for metro. Red faced, I called my friend again and we agreed to meet instead at a nearby cafe, which I managed to find after asking random people for directions.
The pity was that my friend had dinner plans for later that evening, so we could only visit for a few minutes. Still, she kindly walked me to a hostel, and though I tried to refuse, she insisted on paying for a night’s stay. As she left I walked to the balcony, to the orange lights and narrow streets of Porto, and wondered “How did I get here?” for the hundredth time on this trip. Sometimes it all seems so surreal and I’m constantly amazed that I always seem to land on my feet.
That night I gave my clothes their first proper wash since central France, and when the dryer stopped tumbling at 1 o’clock in the morning, I fell into bed thankful for the rare treat of a roof over my head. I slept like the dead, not stirring until the next morning when I skipped downstairs for breakfast, feeling better than I had for nearly a week.
The next night, last night, saw all the travelers from the hostel hop from bar to bar together. There were three Brazilians, two Germans, a French, an Italian, an Aussie and me, the lone Canadian. I was blown away by the street life after dark – thousands of people gathered in the streets for no other reason than to meet friends, sample food-stand delicacies and to pass the bottle of drink and laughter.
Among the throng I met the hostel hostess who was working the reception desk on the night of my arrival. She asked me to tag along with she and her friend, who invited me to stay at his place about four minutes after I introduced myself. That’s the plan for tonight, and even if it all goes sideways, I won’t complain one bit.