September 20, 2002

Olá from Portugal! Yes, Iīve moved on to a country where I find it even harder to communicate than Spain. I know very little Portuguese, just what Iīve gotten from my guide books. Bom dia. Obrigado. Quanto custa? (How much is it?) That sort of thing. Iīve figured out that if it ends with an īoī then you pronounce it īooī. If it ends with an īsī chances are you pronounce it īshī. Thatīs about as far as Iīve gotten. I point a lot and a lot of people know English or even Spanish as a last resort. Iīve been getting by with my current landlady by using pidgeon Spanish.

Letīs see...I left off in Santiago. I spend one more day there, a Monday. Itīs a valid point to notice the day of the week, because my plan for the day involved museums--the contemporary art museum, the museum of peregrinos, etc... Apparently itīs pretty common for museums to be closed on Mondays. They all were. Meanwhile, Iīd done quite a bit of trekking and getting lost to get to them.

All was not lost, though. On my way to the closed contemporary art museum I discovered a large mercado, where they were selling vegetables, fish, and meat. I wandered around, but ultimately didnīt buy anything. Iīd come across a similar market in San Sebastián where they had lots of fabulous fish and octopus and things. I got depressed that I didnīt have a stove to cook them. Itīs odd that in San Francisco of all places I canīt find beautiful cheap seafood like that. I can find the nice fish, but cheap is another story. And thereīs not nearly so much.

I also, while trekking, saw a demonstration of wine workers. Iīm not sure what they were exactly, grape pickers or processors or growers or what, but I got vinho which means wine so they were winey in some way. It was a union and I felt strangely compelled to support them, join them, spread the word. My union at work has been fighting for over a year for payraises. I guess it hit a nerve.

My way back from the closed museums was much easier as I didnīt get lost, and it was a pretty straight shot. Soon I was back at the cathedral, wandering and looking and shopping. I did go to the museum in the cathedral, which was thankfully open. Some interesting things, some gold treasures, a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe that had been given to them by Mexico, bits and pieces of things.

That night, whilst at an internet cafe, it started to rain. It had rained every day Iīd been in Santiago, at least a little bit. It never amounted to anything. Of course that night, when I was just about as far from my Pensión as I had been the whole visit there, it was a downpour. I heard it from inside the cafe, pounding on the windows. Sadly, that was just before I was ready to leave.

Iīve lost my habit of always carrying a jacket with me everywhere, something that is ingrained in me in San Francisco where the weather is nothing if not unpredictable. So I was left with no jacket, no paragua (umbrella), and a longish sprint home.

It was a lovely storm, though. Thunder and lightning, the whole business. I watched it eventually from my room, eating a picnic of sandwich and pastry on my bed, looking out at the lightning over the cathedral. Not a bad night, really, once I got dry.

I left the next day for Oporto. I thought it was a very short train ride, only 3 hours or so, thinking that Portugal was an hour ahead of Spain. It turned out to be an hour behind Spain, something I got confused, and the train trip was about 5 hours. But it was nice, seeing the land, seeing the river in Vigo and the suspension bridge, the cornfields in Spain, the vines in Portugal, the green hills everywhere. All the train stations in Portugal and dotted or covered with azulejos, painted tiles. Itīs very beautiful. Even the train stations are attractive.

I arrived at Oporto in the middle of the afternoon. I called a hostal and got a room right away. The only trick was, yes, once again, it was pouring rain. I seem to be getting a lot of that. And my hostal, as it turned out, was entirely uphill. So, rain jacket on, backpack weighing me down, wind blowing my hood off periodically, I trudged uphill on slippery wet stones to my hostal. All the streets and sidewalks in Portugal--as far as Iīve gone at this point--have been made of generally little square stones or alternatively larger rounded stones. There seems to be no cement here. It makes for very attractive, quaint, interesting streets--often with pictures formed into them; but it makes for slippery when wet and uneven, foot punishing, streets. My feet hurt more since I arrived in Portugal than in all the previous days in Spain.

I arrived at my hostal, soaking wet and hot and tired, and was given a room on the top floor. 4th Floor. Which in European terms means 5th Floor as thereīs a ground level before the 1st Floor. So more trudging, up the stairs, until I found my room. It was a great little room. It reminded me of a writerīs garrett, somewhere where I could write the great Portuguese novel. And I watched the rain over the roofs of the city until it cleared up. Which it luckily did after about an hour.

I wandered back down the hill to the Ribeira district, down by the river, passing some lovely igrejas (churches) along the way. Ok, so Iīve picked up a very few other Portuguese words. One of them was covered in azulejos and very beautiful. I went inside the next day and the altar had living growing ferns in it, scattered throughout. I think it may be the loveliest altar Iīve seen, much prefered over the elaborate gold.

I went down to the river and strolled along taking pictures of the sunset and the Port lodges across the river. I finally decided on a restaurant for dinner and went in. I had a very traditional dinner. I had caldo verde which is literally green soup--itīs potatoes and cabbage or kale. In this case, I think it was kale in little shreds. It was very good. Then I had grilled sardines. I wasnīt sure what to expect; my knowledge of sardines to that point was pretty much the things out of a can that my sister used to be grossed out when my mother ate. They were much larger than the canned, maybe 6 inches long, and there were four of them with potatoes and grilled onions. They were fresh and nicelly grilled and I liked them very much. It probably helped that I also had a nice 1/2 bottle of wine with them, but really they were good. I had a roasted apple for dessert, which was essentially like applesauce with a case--the apple skin.

I wobbled back home, somewhat tipsy, up the hill all the way. I got home safely and passed out later watching The Weakest Link in Portuguese on TV.

Iīve been enjoying Portuguese TV. There has been a TV in every room Iīve had so far. They have Big Brother in Portuguese, The Weakest Link, a morning show called Bom Dia, japanese cartoons dubbed in Portuguese, and some pretty good movies that are subtitled. Last night it was Elizabeth. I donīt understand more than the occasional word in the Portuguese shows, and yet I find them strangely compelling. Well, not Big Brother. But the others. I watched a show the other morning while packing up my backpack that was about a father who suddenly had to take care of his three daughters, them going to the grocery store, them hiring a nanny/housekeeper, dealing with the girlsīproblems. It was amazing how much of the show I understood without knowing one word. It was such a standard formula, I think, that I could follow along. I hope that it will help me, by osmosis, learn a little Portuguese. Probably not, but itīs worth a shot. And I like the commercials.

So the following day I did the touristy things. I went to the tower at the top of an igreja (I donīt have my journal with me to get the correct names, so youīll have to bear with me), which was 200 steps and had a great view of the city. I went to the Igreja de São Francisco and wandered in the museum inside and the chapel. I went to the little azulejo church and saw the ferns.

Then it was off to the Port lodges. The Port lodges are across the river from Oporto and thatīs where the port wine is held and bottled and blended. You can take tours and do tastings. I carefully fortified myself with a very bready sandwich and the Portuguese version of french fries (which are delicious, very thin and greasy).

I tasted first at Quinto do Noval, free tasting but no tour. Fine with me. I tasted an LB, which is a late bottled vintage, 6 yrs old, which was ok, very red but not a lot of flavor. Then I tasted a 10 yr old tawny, a light amber color, which was very sweet and tasty. MMM. Then it was off to the next stop.

I went to Sandeman next, which is like the celebrity or powerhouse port lodge there. There are Sandeman signs up all over the city. There was a tour which cost 3 euros but included a tasting, so I went for it. Our tour guide wore the black cape and wide-brimmed black hat of Sandemanīs symbol (the cape is traditionally Portuguese and the hat is traditionally Spanish from the area where Sandeman also makes sherry). It was interesting, there was a little slideshow, we saw the casks and such. The port was ok. We tried a white and a ruby. Neither was spectacular. On to the next one.

At this point, I was starting to feel the wine. Keep in mind that port is usually about 20% alcohol. So, slightly tipsy, I decided I was going to go to Taylor, which was significantly uphill fromt he rest. So up I went, minding the uneven stones and careering cars coming at me. The Portuguese, from what Iīve seen so far, drive a little insanely. Theyīre very fast, pay little or no attention to crosswalks, and honk their horns at the slightest provocation. According to Letīs Go, they have the highest per capita car accident rate in all of Europe.

I made it up to Taylor, face bright red, sweating buckets, and wandered into the very elegant tasting room. I was the embodiment of fish out of water. I walked over to the windows looking out on a little yard, waiting for the sweating to go away and my face to return to a normal color. I heard crowing. In the yard in front of me were a peacock and two peahens, several chickens, and a rooster. It was a little odd, to say the least. I mean, the peacock/hens have a certain elegance to them. The chickens...not so much. I felt a little better.>br>

I asked to taste and got a white port. The man told me a tour would be starting shortly so I drank up. The guide took us through Taylor, which apparently still has people stomping the grapes with their feet, unlike the other places which now use machinery. The guide spoke with a British accent, but said "um" a lot, which led me to believe he was actually Portuguese. The Americans say um when speaking their own language, but I rarely hear the English say it. It seems like the Portuguese and Spanish use it quite a bit when speaking English.

After the tour I tried an LBV and a 10 yr old tawny. Quinto do Noval still had the best port Iīd tasted in their tawny. Off to the next place.

I wobbled back down the street, now slippery from rain which fell while I was touring and tasting, and I walked very slowly and carefully down the stones. I arrived at my next stop, Ferreira, a little the worse for wear. I found myself walking the lines between the stones to see how tipsy I was. I actually seemed ok. I tried not to knock anything over, including myself.

Ferreira was brought to success by a tiny little Portuguese woman in the 1800s, at time when women didnīt really do such things. She was under 4 feet tall. I donīt know why I was so struck by this fact, maybe it was the wine. Anyway, we toured, looked at casks, etc. If you have any questions about port, I now know quite a bit. Then we tasted. I tasted a medium dry white, a dry white, a 4 yr old tawny, and a 6 yr old tawny. In case anyone out there is keeping count, thatīs a grand total of 11 glasses of port at 4 different lodges, in about 4 hours. I was pretty well gone at this point.

The others on my tour were an older couple from New York City--he probably late 50īs or 60, she in her 40īs. They asked me about wine tasting in Napa, which got the conversation going during the tasting. The other couple were in their early 30īs, a lawyer (her) and he worked at a publishing company. They were Dutch. They had both quit their jobs 3 1/2 months ago and were sailing across the Atlantic. They had been around Scotland, to England, presumably Spain, and now in Portugal. They were heading to the Carribbean then to Bermuda. Then they would head back. It was going to take them 15 months on a 32 foot sailboat. Suddenly my month on trains didnīt seem nearly so exciting.

So, after saying good-byes, I tottled off back to Quinto do Noval. I was well past sober at this point, but I had made up my mind that I would buy a bottle. Iīd sort of planned on buying some port when in Oporto at some point. And that tawny was it. I went back and tried it again (glass #12) and bought a bottle. Now I just have to get it home in my backpack.

I got myself, somehow, across the bridge without falling in, and back to the Ribeira district. I decided I couldnīt make it home without food, but it was a bit early. So I sat at a bar and had a luckily very weak sangria, and wrote in my journal. Once enough time had past--the Portuguese start dinner around 8--I wobbled down to a restaurant and had some food. I had a sopa de legumes, which turned out to be caldo verde again, which was fine. This one had big cabbage leaves in it. I also had grilled calamares, which were very tasty, and a salad on the side with very fresh ripe tomatoes. The produce in Portugal is very fresh and good, just like the fish. I had water with dinner.

I was just sober enough to get myself home after dinner and thatīs what I did. I watched some Weakest Link, wrote some, read some, and passed out eventually, I think still feeling a buzz. But my alcoholic days were done; in the morning I would leave for Aveiro.

Aveiro was a dump. Sorry to be so blunt, but there you go. It was only about an hour or so from Oporto. I went there because Letīs Go made it sound quite nice, with a canal and boats reminiscent of gondolas and Venice. There was a canal and boats, and that was about it. I took a very nice ride in one of the canal boats, about an hour, wandering through the marshy waters. It was a tourist ride, but there werenīt touristy sights to see. We saw little houses. A couple of ruins. And we went by the shipyards. It was all very cool and authentic. But once that was done...

There was a nice little church with lots of azulejos. There was a decent museum with a very beautiful tomb of Santa Joana with angels holding it up. And there was a fairly anonymous church which inside smelled like honey. But otherwise, the whole town was run down, and not in a charming way. The only other thing to do was a very modern and out of place mall.

Iīll admit it. I was cranky. It was raining. I was angry that I lost a whole day and night to Aveiro. I spent the evening in the mall. I wandered and looked at stores. I ate french fries at McDonalds. I went to see a movie--Caminho do Perdicão (Road to Perdition)--in English with subtitles. It was actually pretty good. And I had dinner at Pizza Hut. Then I went home and watched Elizabeth and ER on the TV. Aveiro was blocked out for the night--my evening was American.

This morning I came to Coimbra. Iīm feeling much better now. Itīs pronounced Kweem-bra. I walked all over it today, exploring the churches, the university, crossing the bridge, looking at stores. I feel proud because a street that was described as back-breakingly steep was relatively easy for me--it seemed much less difficult than the walk up from the river to my hostal in Oporto. My room is very nice, with a TV and for the first time, my own bathroom. Itīs the little things that excite me these days. My own bathroom, a slightly cheaper room rate due to being the second half of September, a really good praline ice cream cone, some nice fresh cold water, a cheap postcard, a siamese cat in a storefront...

Iīm going to head off now and see if I can find some interesting seafood. Itīs past time for dinner to start and Iīve been here a long time, as usual. Thereīs some nice jazz coming from next door, maybe Iīll check that out. Iīve got a series of small towns coming up now, but Iīll try to post again as soon as possible. Adeus!

Posted by Alyssa at September 20, 2002 12:49 PM
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