Next stop was Porto, a beautiful city on the edge of the Rio Douro. We took a bus up the coast from Lisbon to Porto, arriving in the city in the early afternoon. The hostel was located on a one-way cobblestone street near the center of the city. Following a tip from my friend Luisa in Brazil last year we went to explore the city and watch the sunset from Vila Nova de Gaia just across the river.
There was a small street fair next to the trolley stop.
We wandered past the cathedrals and city parks to Livraria Lello, a beautiful new-gothic style bookstore which supposedly influenced JK Rowling for her Harry Potter books.( Traveling through Europe is like a Harry Potter Tour, I can’t tell you how many cafes, bookstores, and other places were supposedly ‘JK Rowling’s Favorite—-‘ or the place she wrote Harry Potter. Everyone wants their claim to Harry Potter Fame. I did buy the book O Alquimista for my friend, Manon, whom we would be visiting next in France.
We passed many Cathedrals and crossed the bridge into Vila Nova de Gaia, the Port wine district. We walked down the winding roads to the water to watch the sunset over the ‘barcos rabelos’- the shallow boats designed to carry the port wine down the river rapids. We drank Port wine and ate ice cream by the water as we looked over the beautiful city. Porto is much smaller and seems more laid back than Lisbon.
Several of our roommates were in Porto to start the Camino de Santiago– a collection of pilgrimage routes through Northern Spain and Portugal which all lead to Santiago de Compostela. There are a thousand ways to make the journey, each traveler we met was doing it in their own way. A Norwegian lady at dinner was walking the Camino for her 4th time, each time with a different route. The New Zealanders we met who were at least 65 had just completed a month-long route of 800km. The 3 young travelers from the UK and US in our room had just come for a 10-day trek from Porto. The symbol of the Camino is a shell, symbolizing that all the roads lead to the final destination. You can recognize a traveler by the shell on their backpack. There are hostels and churches to stay in along the route so all you carry are your clothes and supplies you need.
I would love to return to Spain or Portugal to walk the Camino Someday.
The next morning we caught a train to Braga-the 3rd largest city in Portugal. We took a train, a very very slow train which dropped us off near the historic center. We visited Se, the oldest Cathedral in Portugal (1070). Inside, there were wax legs and other body parts left in the Church. I thought it was very interesting because the only other place I had seen this was in Salvador, Brazil at their Church of São Bomfim (People make wax casts of their body parts if they are healed) We also ate in the famous coffee shop A Brasileira.
We also visited the Escadaria do Bom Jesus, a pilgrimage site on top of a hill a few miles outside the city. There are thousands of steps to climb to get to the top. At each turn in the staircase there was a small chapel with a scene of the Crucifixion (Once again there was a Veronica in the story. I grew up in a Methodist Church and I am very familiar with the Crucifixion story, but the only place I’ve seen a Veronica in the story is on mountain prayer walks in Bolivia and now Portugal. From what I can gather, Veronica had a cloth that Jesus used to wipe his face). Pilgrims sometimes climb the mountain of steps on their knees. From the top there was an incredible view of the surrounding countryside.
As we were cooking dinner that night back at the hostel I met a Brazilian lady who was from Florianopolis and she lived only a few blocks from the home I lived in next to the university last year. I must have talked with her for almost an hour in Portuguese. She and her husband were biking across the country.
In the morning we joined a free walking tour. These tours are in almost every major European city, and they run primarily on tips. They are usually led by comedians or aspiring actors and they are full of interesting facts and historical anecdotes.
We passed the statue of John the 4th-or John the 1st in Brazil. We learned about the history of the Iberian Peninsula- the original 5 kingdoms, 4 Spanish and 1 Moorish. Portugal was the first Kingdom to become Independent. Porto was part of the original independent kingdom in 1139.
Portugal is actually the oldest country in Europe, it’s borders have barely changed since the end of the 13th century.
An important form of art in Portugal is the Azulejos. These glazed ceramic tiles are used throughout the country, from the sides of buildings, to the beautiful historic pieces in the Porto train station, São Bento. Jorge Colaço, famous azulejo artist, spent 11 years making the 20,000 tiles that cover the walls in murals of Portuguese history. An interesting part of the artwork is the ‘Moorish mistake’ that he included. There are a few tiles intentionally mispainted and misplaced in the middle of one of the paintings. This is from the Moorish influence, that only God is perfect.
The most interesting part of the tour for me was the recent history. Portugal became a democracy in 1974 after almost 50 years of a dictatorship. They are still trying to regain their culture, art and identity after decades of a dictatorship which closed cultural events and activities.
I love markets in other countries so we stopped at the Mercado do Bolhao to wander through the stalls and eat a pastel de nata. I also tried some dried hibiscus.
You can’t go to Porto without taking a Port Wine tour, so, thanks to the recommendation of an incredibly wise and talented Brazilian engineering student, we went to the Calem Wine Cellar where I increased my knowledge of port wine a hundred fold. There is white wine, ruby wine, and tawny wine which is a mixture of different wines from various years that averages out to the age on the bottle. There was a museum where we got to learn about the process, then a short walk through the winery ending in a wine-tasting of the white and red wines. Port wine is special because it only comes from the Douro River valley. It is usually used as a dessert wine. A vintage port is from a special harvest. When the weather creates a really unique flavor of grapes, a vintage year might be declared and the wine will have an original taste and may be saved for decades. Port wine has approximately 20% alcohol, so it is served in smaller classes than regular wine.
I took the afternoon to read in the city park, something I started to do frequently on my trip. It’s a great time to have some time to myself and reflect. I was reading O Alquimista- The Alquemist- in Portuguese by Paulo Coelho.
The author is Brazilian, and I purchased the book last fall in Brazil after a classmate in my Brazilian Literature class suggested it. The Alquemist is a book about a Spanish shepherd who has a dream that he will find treasure if he goes to the Pyramids. He has never left the region of Andaluzia but he sells his sheep and sets out on his journey. The book is about following your destiny. It talks about how everyone is born with a personal dream, but most people never follow their dream and as they grow older, the dream never goes away-it is just hidden. The protagonist follows his dream and learns to understand the soul of the world. It is a simple book. In Brazil, some scholars don’t recognize Paulo Coelho’s work as literature because the language is so basic. But sometimes profound things can be said very simply ( and since Portuguese is my 3rd language, it is the perfect level for me). I think because I was also on a journey, the story spoke to me and I understood parts I wouldn’t have understood otherwise. I was in the right mindset to read the book.
“Quando você quer alguma coisa, todo o Universo conspira para que você realize seu desejo.”
“When you want something, all the Universe conspires to help you to realize your dream.”
I think that has been very true in my life. When you really want something, work hard for it and follow your passion, life has a way of working out.
Our hostel offered a home-cooked meal of salad, arroz de pato- duck rice, special cheeses, port wine, and dessert.
I met several interesting people at dinner, several Americans, a Norwegian woman about to start her 4th Camino de Santiago, an Australian traveling for 10 months, and an older lady from France.
Our conversations ranged from politics to the future of the environment and the planet. From Sartre to Bourneit, and the optimism or pessimism that affects our world views.
On this trip I’ve had a lot of time to think, to self evaluate, and take a step away from my life and realize who I am and what’s important. It’s always nice to have a chance to reevaluate and recenter.
I am an optimistic person, I believe in the good in other people and the future of our society. I studied engineering because I wanted to be able to do something. I wanted to be able to show up to a place with a skill to make a difference. And 4 years later, engineering has truly shaped my world view. I never lost my optimism, and now everything is one large problem to solve. The guy sitting next to me at dinner was saying that the world will end, we will outlive our resources, destroy ourselves, and there was nothing we could do.
I hate that way of thinking. The French lady across the table told a story about a forest on fire, and all the animals ran away out of the forest, only a little bird flew away and returned, flew away and returned, each time carrying a small beak full of water to throw on the fire. When the animals asked what he was doing he said ‘I’m doing my part’
I refuse to give up and accept the way of thinking that we are all doomed. Humans are innovative, at every point in the past when people have said we will run out of fuel, or there is nothing left to discover, we have always innovated, always grown, always overcome. And as an engineer, I’ve learned some of the skills to solve at least a portion of the problems we face. I refuse to sit back and watch hopelessly.
I believe there are solutions, and I believe we will find them and work towards a future. Fresh water is running out. But we are developing solutions and I believe we always will. I’ll be a part of the water solving problem, and I think it is the responsibility of other people to learn valuable skills to solve other problems. Whatever career path I start to follow when I graduate next year, I’m going to make sure it is something I care about. There are too many people in this world who don’t care. who don’t vote, who don’t read the news, who don’t care about things that don’t affect them. I care, I’ve cared for as long as I can remember, and I’m more convinced than ever to do my part.
In Nathan Byrd’s home in London he had a quote on the wall:
“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”
-David W. Orr
Some people as they travel more and more become disillusioned with the world, they become jaded. The more I travel the more realistic I become in my way of thinking, of interacting with people and of solving problems, but the more people I meet, the more I am convinced of the kindness that exists, of the beauty of different cultures and opinions.
I care about women’s rights, about the environment, about globalization and technological advancement. I care about equality, about welcoming foreigners and accepting people from other cultures and background, and even in a time where it appears that some of those things are no longer the priority of my country, I know that the future of our world depends on all of them.
This lady was much older and wiser. She’s lived through much more and if she is optimistic, I know there is a reason to hope and continue thinking this way.
The best street art I saw in Portugal….