Europe 2015: Cycling From Coimbra To Porto, Portugal
The impressive cityscape I take in across the river might be because Coimbra is Portugal's #3 urban area, after Lisboa and Porto, but more likely it's because Coimbra's a university town that's grown far beyond its principal renown. Toward said university is immediately where I head, in any event, now entering into the cobblestoned old part of town that does so take my breath away. That's meant quite literally, unfortunately, as I've got a steep-as-hell hill to climb which almost immediately reduces me to walking my bike up what is a very long one-way street in the wrong direction. Then again, this reality very well might be saving me a cardiac arrest, come to think of it, although it's only dubiously reducing the odds of my getting clipped by cars flying down this narrow street (and harkening me back to Lisbon's old city center hijinks of similar circumstances).
Chaperoning my bike on foot, meanwhile, allows me to be further impressed with the copious ancient architecture found here, shortly to include a sizable Roman aqueduct in good nick. This I take in when the road finally levels out, and I'm soon back on my wheeled horse to spin in a few confused circles near a plaza and park before realizing that I've ridden by my hostel (NS Hostel) a few times already. Oops. This of course only leads to the inevitable stairs found in an old town walk-up, but here (for once) my bike is fortunately spared the task of compounded any misery for me. It's stored off of the street in what is either a root cellar or a forgotten hovel from medieval times. I dunno, furthermore don't care, and am only ready for a beer. Such a mission is thankfully easily accomplished.
Said libations probably help me to quickly get to know the folks at the reception desk, which I do, and in no time I'm badgering them with questions about where to eat and drink - the important stuff - as they shrug their shoulders in pondering the questions. Nevertheless they're quite happy to promote some local places they like, just as likely happy to for once not have to otherwise give the usual shpiel about Coimbra's appealing architecture and history. That must always be how it gets to be, I imagine, when you live in such a beautiful spot and get inured to its charms.
I nonetheless obtain crucial information, particularly that of where to eat a chanfana (only on Sundays at Casa Costa): Immediately I'm making way through some confused to directions to eventually find myself gobbling on a hunk of goat meat that's been marinated nigh-on-forever in wine sauce with even more red wine to accompany it. This is a success all around as far as I'm concerned, if a wobbly one upon my exit, even as my co-diners in the restaurant seem surprised that a non-local has found this spot hidden behind the penitentiary - which is exactly why I pepper locals far and wide with such inquiries. (On the score of a proper charreria, a casserole of chickpeas, I'll have less luck. Most of the suggestions of "what" to eat/do in Coimbra - not where - have meanwhile come from my friend Jose, the same friend from my Leticia-Amazon-sojourn missed in Lisboa who's coincidentally originally from Coimbra.)
Other than this supremely successful outing, however, I set to my usual task of walkabouts. These are achieved in rambling up and down hills and staircases galore, trying to discover what the what is in Coimbra's appealing lay of land. There are views to be had in many a spot, almost always a given in a town set upon a hill, and there are those random street musicians I always seek to be found in the commercial area below. Always of interest, too, is the intriguing political grafiti I ultimately only locate in the backstreets where the students live near campus.
As for a (slightly) more active excitement, there's some kinda cap-n-gown thing I stumble onto going on at the oldest of the campus buildings. Yeah, it's rather pretentious, to be honest, but the ceremony comes complete with a baroque choir (or whatever it should be called) that I can't help but be impressed with as far ambiance goes. Perhaps that's what inspires me to poke around, for once heading inside to check out these ancient university buildings to the extent I can. The halls are indeed exquisite in some ways, but mostly I dig the views they afford to survey all of the city below.
Continuing my walks, I learn that there are some interesting buildings across the river, too, places to briefly stick my head into or at least lean toward, but I don't actually find myself wanting to enter this area's collection of plentiful churches and museums. I'll generally maintain my jadedness in preferring to experience the mere feel of such places, how they sit in their environments, etc., all the better to be properly appreciated from across a street - handily at a cafe with coffee and pastry in hand instead. Yep, that thar's booootiful, I tell myself between sips and munches. What can I say? If you've seen one gilded altar, pulpit, or classic religious painting, you really *have* seen them all.
In the Jardin Botanico, an extensive space rolling down the hill and located adjacent to the university, I waltz through mazes and greenery (sans music) only to bump into the French walking man from Peniche again. He's still not walking his route, still killing time to wait for his boots to arrive. But he's much more talkative and approachable now, for some reason, perhaps beaten down a bit in the waiting. Or maybe it's because he's not having to share a dorm room with me, I dunno. Coincidentally, of the few nights I spend in Coimbra, I again only have one roommate high up in the immaculate garret I'm to occupy, and it's again for only night - and again another walker, this one from the Netherlands. He's only in town for one night of intense-Coimbra-fying, eager to keep on trucking afoot up toward Fatima and Santiago beyond via the Camino. Ah, yes, that Cami-i-i-i-i-i-i-ino... there it is again, that classic route idea in Northern Spain... everyone's talkin' about it... but I'm supposed to be heading to Slovakia, right? Right. Bah!
So back to the issues at hand, which at times mainly seem to be focused on finishing this brick of a book by Tom Wolfe I'm reading, A Man In Full. It's pretty good reading, to be certain - he's always an engaging author - but I'm moreso eager to finish it to keep moving down the weight of my rig. Lessee... I've already left behind my old school stove in Peniche to never be recovered, I'm currently and steadily eating my way through the nuts and such from back home that I really could just as easily be buying anywhere here along the way... and then there's that stack of fifteen books I started with. They had all been just sitting in my cupboard at home, patiently awaiting their reads... and they would have all been fine to just leave there until my return. But here they are, and read them I will, even as each hill I climb reinforces this concept of getting my ship into trim. Read, read, read - and I actually mentally calculate somewhat their weight by word and page, focusing on those with more spacious print and elaborate binding first. For as much as I read, it's quite a wonder that I don't necessarily LEARN.
Speaking of trimming, about the most notable experience I have in Coimbra is a late night spent gabbing with the two folks running the reception. On my last night, two old friends from Algarve doing some work in town have gotten pretty drunk, and a knife is proudly pulled by one of them a number of times to prove some point or other. Apparently it'll all make more sense if someone's stabbed or sliced. Hmm. His companion - from Georgia, so his Russian-ish accent fits right in here with this Russian-sounding Portuguese language - tries to calm him down over a couple hours, but it's the reception's own leading lady who ultimately lays down the law in such an amusing way that he properly heels. She smiles over to me and says "Portuguese cross-fit power!" No doubt, and I can't imagine a similar scene playing out in the U.S. without cops being involved and gunshots being fired in a scene filled with false bravado.
Perhaps cross-fit training is precisely the right train of the thought for exercise in this city, though, or so I'm thinking to myself the next day. Cycling about this town certainly isn't the way to go here, that much I know, and this has been amply confirmed as I've seen virtually no bikes for my entire three days in town. The locals I've mentioned cycling to have only laughed at the concept: "Here, in Coimbra? No way! Too hard!" - which explains why *I* only find myself back on my bike again when leaving town. Yep, it's back to bouncing over cobblestones, praying nothing is jostled off in the process, as I round my way down the hill from the hostel. I pass by the old market area to near the river again, shortly bearing to the right under the facades of the commercial area to again head toward points north and out of the lovely grasp of Old Coimbra.
Exiting the congested urban area relatively quickly, I first encounter a short roly-poly area - where I again encounter cycle tourists almost straight away. This time it's an older American - who quite frankly questions what the hell he's gotten into - traveling with his German friend - who repeatedly insists that all will be fine. Both are certainly playing their nationalities out with aplomb. Certainly the flat they're fixing will surely be shortly taken care of just fine, but I get the feeling that this man from Atlanta was far more expecting to hang out in exotic restaurants to quaff port than to ride away hours and hours of each day. Surely, I think to myself, shouldn't you have *thought* about what it means to do things under the auspices of a German male? That it has to be the harder way, or no way at all? Yeah, yeah, such a judgement isn't fair on an individual level, blah, blah, blah - but I've seen enough of this to trust in the stereotype until proven differently. I by that I mean on a documented, case-by-case basis, and one that involves extensive stamps and witnesses - which, now that I think of it, only a German could really love. Sue me. I did live there once. (And I liked it, too - just not that pedantic side of it.)
After this goofy encounter, I find myself back in flatter areas, sometimes with a decent amount of traffic. This goes per the norm, only ever surprising when I hit stretches where I'm traveling alongside folks walking The Camino - as cars motor by at high speeds just an arm's length away. These poor saps on foot are sweating bullets under a relenting sun on this day, but I far more pity their having to walk alongside this highway to hell (or thereabouts, when the sun shines like this). Sure, maybe this *was* the original road to Santiago (and "maybe" is the all-too-correct word often enough, what with the increasing commercialization of The Camino to create new mini-Caminos of dubious historical claim on a seemingly weekly basis), but surely a safer and more picturesque route could be had through the fields nearby? I and these walkers both are hopeful that their ubiquitous day-glow green vests will do the trick, meanwhile, somehow lessening the likelihood of their getting clobbered by some speeding car - likely one, I should note, driven by someone rolling cigarettes and texting. Just saying...
All the while, rolling through this no-man's zone, I'm searching for a proper place to get another recommended meal for the area. That'd be a leitão, likely the same pork dish (stuffed pig) enjoyed once while at a friend's cabin in the hills outside of Córdoba, Argentina. Nevertheless I'm here eager to try the local version, and this is ground zero for it: Mealhada. Unfortunately, the noon hour apparently isn't when such pigging out (sorry!) happens, so I can only lick my chapped lips as I pass by restaurant after restaurant, each with a large sign sporting a smiling cartoon pig. Naturally, I'm soon again forced off the main route in the process, somewhere near Sandalhos, so I necessarily continue my unsuccessful quest on through Oliveira and then Palha&ctilde;os - where I give up.
By now I'm in need of a water and grub break in a bad way, so I park my rig to unwrap some food in the middle of what can only be described as the loneliest of park-islands. It's located right in the middle of the road of this village town, dividing the lanes temporarily, and this park comes complete with a fountain that's probably been dead for years. But I do receive a saving grace for effort, when I'm approached by a longtime waylaid Spaniard who lives here. He ambles over, soon more than thrilled to be speaking his native tongue for the first time in what I'm told is a good long while. No, he doesn't know where I can get a proper leitão, either, at this godforsaken hour, but he does provide some route information for better heading to Aveiro as we otherwise chat a good while about Venezuela. Ultimately I learn that *that* country is the roundabout source of his getting marooned here in this tiny town. This is a long story we successfully make our way through as I somehow keep shoving things in my piehole while making a note to myself to eat more salt. This dehydration stuff is getting serious, and my only downing ever more water isn't quite doing the trick.
Eventually I leave this man to his village wreck (y'see, it's like a shipwreck, but... I give up) as off I head unto Aveiro, Portugal's "Venice". Or that's what its online tour guide page says, anyway, on account of its canals and the quaint wood boats that ply them. This I find shortly after entering the burg and it's fair enough, too, since the old town area sports some truly beautiful buildings and an admirable ambience that explains the heightened - though not overwhelming - tourist presence in the area. I eat a few of the local noted foods, like ovos moles (meh), more happily next sampling from the ever-present stable of bacalão (YAY!) I find in a couple cafes. Those are accompanied by any number of coffees, then walking along the canals and alleyways to snap photos... until I bump into one of the odder cycle tourists I'll ever meet, one J(e)-rome from F-rance.
Now *here's* someone who quite literally has a clown-like presence, immediately and immeasurably aided by the rubber horn on his massively-if-shabbily rigged bike that he grabs to sound upon our meeting. I quickly learn that he tends to grab the thing at random, giving a loud honk for an exclamation point whenever he gets excited - and he gets excited a lot, it need be said: In no time, I feel like I'm on a TV game show from the 70s or something. Over the course of his exuberant ramblings, meanwhile, I learn that he's something of an installation artist - when he doesn't otherwise explode in laughs at odd moments to relate his current tale of adventure. Still, all comprehension isn't lost, so I basically make out that he's (a) coming from Paris, (b) en route toward Lisbon, (c) might continue to Africa (d) and perhaps the moon or beyond isn't out of the question. Well, it sounds like a plan, I'm thinking, or a beautiful lack thereof. And isn't like I'm one to judge, either, seeing as I often do about the same, plan-wise. Or so are the ruminations made as he continues his odd medley of a tale told under the odd sound he makes of a Harley, a trumpet, or... I can't even fathom what *that* sound is.
What I mostly am, however, is merely glad to have some company to drink some beers with, even if the obtaining of such necessitates my riding alongside or behind this unique individual to slightly endanger my life. Or such feels the case, especially when he he fitfully stops and starts to ask questions from passersby, or jumps curbs without warning. He has a rather unique concept of rights-of-way and rules-of-the-road that I don't quite follow, literally or figuratively, instead chiefly wondering how long it'll be before a car clocks him - or why it hasn't already happened. In spite of such hijinks, we eventually find ourselves eliminating beers one after the other in the core waterfront park. Here we enjoy a view of the nicest buildings and the canals, eventually wandering amongst the boats to enjoy the lascivious cartoons each of them sports and which we hadn't quite previously noticed. They're not pornographic, exactly, but they don't leave much to the imagination, either, offering a nice "wink, wink" and thumbed-nose to the tourism industry via their combination of cheeseball humor and political incorrectness.
As it gets toward dusk, I realize that I have to show up at my upcoming host's house soon (in what'll turn out to be my only use of the online cycle-touring version of couchsurfing.com called warmshowers.org), so I saddle up as Jerome joins me for the short jog down to Ilhavo, a suburb or commuter town near Aveiro. There we part ways on the main road, with Jerome last informing me that he's going to make for some sand dunes up ahead on his way to Figuieira da Foz. Wishing him success and "Bon voyage", I make a mental note to later look up his webpage before taking to riding around the neighborhood and trying to find the house I'm looking for. Granted, the host *did* say it might be confusing - and right he is - but fortunately he eventually tracks me down, coming out of his house to snag me as I yet again roll aimlessly by it to head on down the street while beginning to consider my alternate options.
It's a good thing that I didn't give up too easily - or, rather, that he didn't - as I'm next treated to quite a nice evening. I get to know Jose, then later his wife Clarita as well, as I learn that these two have done a good chunk of cycle-touring in this region of Portugal. They offer a number of route suggestions as we converse in something of a mix of Portuguese (from Clarita), Spanish (from me), and English (from Jose). This works, especially as I don't speak Portuguese (although I do understand some) and Clarita doesn't speak English, and it works especially well as the bottles of wine are uncorked and drained. This is (necessarily?) followed by some hard liquor (of the aguardiente booze family, I believe), although I'll never remember its name for obvious reasons. All the while, too, we feast on salmon, accompanied by a variety of salads and vegetable plates, as I altogether receive a fantastic - if solitary - impression of how good warmshowers.org can be. Our conversation ranges from Aveiro's selling out to tourism, Portuguese and American politics, and the marvels of cycle touring mixes it up in between. Finally, when our good cheer is tapering off late into the night, I get to revel in the greatest aspect of all: my own, modern, pristine room! For a night, anyway, but score one big one for warmshowers.org! Or, rather, score one for me. What a treat!
Come morning, my new friends are off to work and I'm off to Porto. Jose's given me directions via a calmer approach to the grand city, apparently using a ferry to runn north on a barrier sandstrip that's practically an island. This is a route which I'm happy to give a go in lieu of the main one - which by now Mattias has told me via Facebook isn't anything short of awful with its heavy and high-speed traffic. So I bumble and trundle around some back roads, only eventually locating the spit of land where this mystery ferry supposedly employs a timely schedule. I have to ask some other cyclists a few times how the hell I'm exactly to make my way through this industrial area to the south of Ilhavo, but ultimately it's an old man on a moped speaking French who sets me straight. He even gives me an escort right to the dock. Now I'm not sure if this counts as a stylish way to travel, chugging behind a motorized scooter, but I'll take it. Moreover, the good news is that, even with all my detours unto the ugly rear ends of Portuguese shipping, I'm on time according to the ferry schedule - yay!
Unfortunately, the *bad* news is that the crew of the ferry I'm hoping to catch shortly relates to me that they won't take my bicycle. And that'll remain the case, even as I beg for an opportunity to bribe them, offering suggestions on how EASily I could fit aboard this ferry which is a mere passenger yacht. No dice, I'm repeatedly told - RULES! - but then again, I'm not thrown in the drink, either, so... so I end up killing a few hours waiting for the next, significantly larger ferry. I'm thus left to my wits to somehow hide from a blazing sky which knows not a cloud, soon reduced to skulking about in a lonely glassed "waiting room" enclosure that only serves to magnify the sun even more when I don't manage to shift my seat to stay in the shadow of the poles holding said glass plates. I nevertheless manage to play the trumpet for a good while, read, and otherwise use up all of my water as I can only muse on how there sometimes come those days which somehow just don't go as planned.
But the promised acceptably-sized ferry that allows bikes does come a couple hours later, at right about the same time as a German couple rolls up on bikes to greet it. Hmm. Insider trading? Perhaps better reading comprehension. In any event, they're on two steely steeds that look like they've been rigged from a photo shoot in a cycle-touring promotional magazine. All their equipment is perfectly cinched, plus they're even properly sharing their gear so as to be able to travel more lightly. Sniffing at my shambling mess, they're immediately making guesses aloud (more or less in my direction) as to how much my tanker must weigh - sigh, this is far from a first - and soon they're querying me directly, as so many cycle-tourers tend to do with leading questions suggesting shame. Since I don't tend to give much of a crap what others want to carry, and obviously am not worried enough about my own situation, I answer as I always do - "No clue!". I do, nevertheless, point out that I have a trumpet (and thus am superior to them in every way, I silently mutter under my breath).
In the meantime a Spaniard on a fancy BMW motorcycle essentially completes our group for the short ferry ride over. He's only interested in the fact that we're doing our trips sans motor, before long confessing that he assumes I'm an Argentine what with my Spanish - to make the rest of this jockeying for cycling superiority a moot point, as far as I'm concerned. "He thinks I'm an Argentine!", I almost blush to myself, guilty of language pride of if not of gear.
The ferry shortly touches down in the tiny town of São Jacinto across the way to end our ferry interlude, thus requiring my butchering of German and French that's *also* been going on (to communicate with the older couple) to come to an abrupt end. We bid each other adieu and good luck as I quickly find a place to refill my depleted water bottles, now of set mind to pedal with some purpose. I've already lost a chunk of the day I didn't expect to. Fortunately, the road is extremely flat, for the moment the winds are somehow modest (or at least not in my face), and I've got a seaside view virtually the entire way. So I'm more than a little happy as I next zip along, often gazing at the iconic fishing boats of Aveiro bringing in their catch (when not being repaired onshore).
For the first stretch of this route, I'm always alongside a lagoon to my right, only losing said view at the top of the lagoon. That's when I hit the tourist burg of Ovar, with the visible (if quite mild) tourism bringing the bright idea that it might be the right time to take a very belated lunch break. Harboring thoughts toward preparing myself properly for a good push onward to Porto, I take to meandering some of the vacant streets to look for just that right seafood restaurant. I'm of a mood to really splurge for once, perhaps nominally of a mind to celebrate my good fortune of the previous night - with Porto coming on the day's horizon as a further reward. Luckily, to this end a local cyclist similarly ambling about takes me under his wing. His response to my wondering where to go takes the form of escorting me to his favorite restaurant. Located across the street from this pond called the Atlantic, he tells me it's not the top of the top places, no, but it's very good and it's where he always goes. That's just what anyone would like to hear, of course, and I frankly note that it looks a lot fancier than almost any place I would typically go to.
Soon sitting down for a good rest and repast, I ready my book for the long session I anticipate... to instead befriend a Portuguese couple who keep looking over at me, this filthy cyclist. It's shortly obvious that they want to connect and almost right away we do just that, with the man shortly taking to the habit of continually emphasizing his conversational points by tapping his forehead with his palm for emphasis. We try to somehow make do using Portuguese and French; it works. They're quite a pair to behold in contrasts, I meanwhile notice, what with the woman dressed quite elegantly and well-mannered... as her man sports the most crooked and stained teeth I've seen in a good while. Moreover, in no time - when they start into their lavish dessert plates, which they immediately begin sliding me over samples of - hubby goes from merely unbuttoning his shirt to taking it off, presumably getting ever more comfortable. I'll say! - as in, he's soon down to the sweaty "wife-beater" he's wearing underneath... as I begin to wonder if I'm still in the slightly hoity-toity place I entered. But no one around seems to be batting an eye. So... okay, then. I'm not sure this is quite a "When in Rome..." thing, but when more wine has already been drunk than expected, who cares? Nevertheless, I *am* getting the impression that this might be a long afternoon coming on the bike... but if it is, it'll be coming on the right first foot. That's because, my friends having conveniently left just a little while before I make ready to do so myself, I find out that they've paid my bill for dourado grelhado fish (and all of its numerous sideplates) and my bellyful of wine. Nice!, I'm thinking, and, just as my new friends had just been repeating to me over and over in our conversation, I find myself joining the chorus: "Bravo!"
Well, now I've done it, I'm next thinking, anticipating that I'll probably be soon breaking my cardinal rule about riding in the dark (i.e., DON'T!) as a result of this tardy and tardying lunch. But it's not dark currently, nor will it be for some hours to go, so maybe I'll make it to Porto in time just yet. Certainly I can't complain for lack of sustenance, that's a fact, so I decide on putting my legs into action. The route here, unfortunately, now gets a bit confusing, and that's even with Jose's instructions to guide me. With numerous cyclovias and my relative ease of dead reckoning helped by the lay of the land, however, I plunge forward relentlessly (or so I like to intrepidly think) to move up the coast.
True, my minitablet and its GPS here come in more than handy to quickly correct any false leads, but having the Atlantic essentially just to my left (somewhere out there! - I usually can't see but feel it instead) renders any wrong leads nearly impossible to sustain beyond a short false lead. I'm soon following train tracks, too, through Espinho and beyond, as here, too, the ciclovia comes and goes with the usual lack of warning. At times I'm cutting through neighborhoods of luxury and urban decay both, in what I assume to be something of an extended holiday town - with some kind of manufacturing area of sorts. The final surge to victory starts when I clear Espinho's north side, now taking a continued seaside run all the way until Porto. As dusk descends, I round some final coastal headlands, eventually and recognizably just across the river Douro from Porto as I take in the fabled city's first bridges: Made it!
I now follow the River Douro inland for a short while, passing by some of these bridges on a now-prodigiously-large ciclovia. There's certainly no shortage of grand views of this even-grander city, allowing for quite an entry and show, I must say. Granted, I'm now also rolling past gobs of folks, many doing their evening stroll or ride, as I soon come up to the port tasting rooms for which the city is famous. The boats in the river I see here are for show, it's obvious - I'll soon learn that they're the remnants of the fleet that used to be the only transport for all of that delicious port, all moving downriver from the production fields up the Douro - but I'm nevertheless of ecstatic spirit to behold them. And that's especially true when knowing that another break from the bike is at hand.
Crossing the river into town only diminishes this reverie somewhat, like at right about the moment when I realize that most of the ways to get up and into the town just in front of me are achieved only via staircases. Long, vertical ones, none of them likely all that pleasant for schlepping a bike with the ballast of a supertanker. Hmm. A few questions to cyclists rolling by, however, serve to give me a roundabout route, and I figure that one of them should sufficiently get me to the hostel (Oporto Sky) I've reserved. It's located in a spot above the port area and near some plaza, I know, so off I again go, now climbing and climbing some more. Welcome to Porto, indeed.
The good news is that my legs are fully up for this type of ascent by now, seasoned for the route by now through a trial of fire such as it's been. The bad news takes the form of a rapidly descending darkness, with the headlights of cars making for a rather unnerving entry to the city. Eventually I locate my hostel, though, and soon I've trudged (again) my stuff up a handful of stairs to park my bike and my baggage in a room alongside that of Mattias. My cycle buddy of not that long ago is happy to see me, likewise inclined to make beers disappear, so that's what we do. Yeah, first showering might have been a better idea - and I'm still pretty filthy in the a.m. hours that eventually greet us - but when it comes to riding, the beers outweigh the hygiene.
As for Mattias, he's just happy, period, mainly since he's finally decided to call it an end to the road here in Porto. He's found a cheap flight back to Vienna, one that'll take him, his bike, and all of his gear for only another 50 Euros of surcharge, so that's effectively ended any remnant resistance harbored about not entering Vienna the way he left it: on his bike. I all too well know that that's how these things can so easily go, especially after you've enjoyed a sufficient feeling of accomplishment and have found a comfortable spot. That's not yet the case for me, no, not ready by a long shot to call it quits on my cycle tour, but I get it.
Meanwhile, I'm happy to check out what Porto has to offer beyond mere port - although I'm happy to give that plenty a go, too. Sure, my impressions of the stuff prior to this trip were that it's too sweet to have more than a random sip with dessert, but that's been steadily changing in its favor since Lisbon. Here in Porto, I'll in short order find myself completely sold on its charms. Time and place, oh how that makes a difference! Well, it helps, too, that there's seemingly only port of quality to ever be had (a fact that's later affirmed, no port swill existing as does wine plonk), and here it's to be had at good prices.
Somehow what unshockingly happens next is my staying nearly a week in Porto, this long-anticipated pitstop turning into a properly dropped anchor. In part, however, that's because it is here that I learn about my visa situation in full: I finally look up what this Schengen Zone thing is, and how it applies to me in particular. The upshot is that the 3-month visa I hold means that I have exactly three months (90 days) out of six over which I can be in Schengen Zone countries. After six months, however, I can almost automatically get another 3-month visa - which'll be taken out of another six months. Or in other words, for whatever days beyond 90 that I spend in the Schengen Zone, I better be somewhere else.
Crap! Well, looks like there'll be no stepping outside the zone for a day and coming back in for a fresh visa like in Latin America. Damn! Nope, none of that. Worse, the very convenient non-EU country of Switzerland, conveniently right in the middle of it all this, is actually in the Schengen Zone. As is Norway and Liechtenstein. Stinkin' crap! The good news, though, is that some EU countries are NOT in the Schengen Zone: Ireland, the UK, Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Croatia. Well, that's that, I resign to myself, only now finally confirming what had been certainly at least a nagging suspicion before - that I wasn't going to be able to cycle all the way from Lisbon to Eastern Slovakia in one grand shot. The idea I previously held, of flying out to Istambul or wherever for maybe a week or so to get a visa reset, has similarly gone out the window as well. I've got to find 1.5 months worth of days to spend outside of the Schengen Zone. So... there's that to figure out.
But first, Porto! And this is a pretty good place to sort things out in one's head. Maybe that's what the two guys from South Asia or thereabouts in my dormitory room are thinking as well, I ruminate more than once, especially seeing as they never seem to leave their beds and are constantly focused on their smartphones. Or maybe they're just boring. More interesting is the German woman, a violinist named Priska, who plays in the baroque orchestra here in town, commuting for a few weeks at a time to Porto (she still lives in Germany) when there's an upcoming concert. As an unexpected treat - likely resulting from chats over wine - she comps Mattias and I some tickets to a show in this architectural gem that is Porto's new concert hall (the Casa da Música, coincidentally designed by the same guy who did the landmark Seattle Library, Rem Koolhaas).
This is a fine gift we can both appreciate (Mattias is from Vienna, after all, a center of classical music), although in attending it's the bird chirps of a few featured wooden flutes that I particularly like over any sustained and recognizable melody. Well, that and the German madman with flyaway hair at the harpsichord who's their director. The guy really could use a castle and a Frankenstein or Dracula, I'm kinda thinkin'. I later pepper Priska with questions about the instruments, learning in the process that they are all maintained - down to the gut strings for her violin - as if the musicians were living in baroque times (minus driving to music store or wherever for replacements). This faithfulness to tradition means retuning them between almost every song, however, and that if anything is a poignant reminder that I'm in Europe and not the U.S. - where few would put up with such a detail, probably from both the performing and listening ends.
At the hostel, meanwhile, there arrives a group of Dutch students who'll be doing some kind of eco project out in the boonies (where I coincidentally will soon be headed). Mattias and I join them for drinks late on one night to check out Porto's nightlife, soon finding that apparently a lot of said nocturnal scene is concentrated in one particular zona rosa (red/pink zone) of bars. Funny, I've walked by this street numerous times during the day while having no clue as to its nighttime use! Then again, I AM mostly a diurnal person, so it makes sense that I'll miss the source of these wee-night ragers. Yeah, I'm much more about merely meandering about, snapping the odd picture of a tower, tramcar, facade, railing or grill for no good reason other than that they catch my eye - or that of the poor travelogue reader who's actually read this far.
As for grafiti, one of my favorite eye-catchers, here there's not so much. I've come to guess that it's just not a big thing in Portugal, or I sure have not been noticing it - although I do definitely look. On a more traditional vibe, however, there's this ornate bookstore I bumble into with Mattias. He's aware of its fame even if I'm not, informing me that it's the inspiration for a well-known building in the Harry Potter series. It indeed has an incredibly appealing interior to marvel at, but I can't help but simultaneously wonder how much more the staff can possibly put up with of us interlopers wandering inside taking pictures. So I guiltily return outside rather quickly post-gawk, returning to the more respectable same-ol same-ol where I actually spend money. That, of course, mostly comes in the form of downing coffee after coffee before - at least starting in the afternoon - switching to port after port. There are many sides to an economy; I've got mine.
Soon Mattias is with this program of port-imbibing as well, soon convinced of the necessity in helping me sample quite a few. This we chiefly accomplish by skipping the blah-blah-blah and expense of tastings to instead buy quarter-, half- or sampler bottles of the stuff. "Stay with the English names", we've been told, although we've further been apprised that they're all fully Portuguese-owned enterprises these days. so that's what we do. (It indeed was the English merchants who got the process - or at least the promotion - started, however, legend having it that they fortified the local wines for shipping back to England to avoid spoilage - although I also hear that that's not really true, just that they really liked the local stuff.) In any event it's a resounding yes to Sandeman, Tolley's, Graham, Martha's and even Calem. The port house of Cruz? Hmm. I won't even try it. More importantly, it's this survey which best proves that there is no bad Portuguese port, just good and better, and by now I'm a full convert. In fact, I soon will be collecting all too many of these little lead weights of glass and liquid to haul on my bicycle. There'll be no "oops" there, no, but I'll soon be sweating the admission that it's not the most efficient plan on wheels.
So it goes in Porto, then, or so it does when I'm not chitchatting the cute Polish woman working the reception back at the hostel - or picking her gregarious boss's brain about all things local to try. I probe her consistently for the next good cafe or odd thing to try, always ready to be back on the mean streets to walk ever more with some purpose, self-indulgent as it might be. Of course, I *do* have mini-missions, such as buying a hard case for my minitablet (I'm always in fear of dropping this fragile thing when taking it out of my back pouch while riding), but I really just like excuses for going up and down and up and down repeatedly in different central corners of this big city. (In fact, it's ALL up and down, what with the main tourist zone down by the river, the hostel up the hill, and only hillsides to be found every which way.)
It's down by the river, by the way, where the galleries, restaurants, and tasting rooms particularly proliferate. There, all are set handsomely against a backdrop of colorful architecture when not looming over the historic boats left sitting in the river which each serve to advertise a port house. Of buskers, I unfortunately don't see many of note, or don't outside of a clarinetist in the pedestrian zone of Santa Catalina and a trumpeter blasting away like clockwork down by the train station. The latter's actually pretty good, but a comment from a waiter at a nearby cafe informs me that he's worn out his welcome (perhaps years ago). Apparently he should try adding a bit more to his classical-only repertoire, or so I'm informed. The criticism is fair enough, too, especially since it's not like he's exactly a soft or subtle player. As for the fetching troupe of Brazilian girls I spy more than once, scantily clad to nominally stage some "impromptu street theater", it seems not much more than an excuse for their large boobs to practically fall out of their bras. I can't see the entertainment value in their artistry per se, but they sure do draw a crowd in the few places where I see them set up shop over the week. Between they're acting (in)ability and their, uh, physical boosterism, perhaps they'll soon be starring in porn. So maybe the trumpet player shouldn't get too jealous just yet.
As for cuisine, I'm told that the local speciality here is francesinha just like back in Coimbra and Figuiera, but I decide to spare my heart further such damage. Instead, I find myself poking my head into the little shops that over the years have disappeared in many a metropolis - but haven't here. These are places such as the ones for model-making, collecting stamps, servicing old film cameras, performing magic, and more. How cool to see hobbyist shops actually surviving somehow, somewhere! I venture in a few of them before returning to my norm of traipsing about. Then at some point there's even need of a rest from that, so it's back to the hostel to catch up on latest of the Polish girl's saga of her Cape Verde boyfriend dilemma (he's a black-skinned man, something that doesn't go down so well in Poland; plus she's just found out she's pregnant). Or maybe I'll see what's going on with the Dutch eco-student crew, each of whom seems to remind me of someone I knew from the past in taking on a respective stereotype of spaz, nerd, stoner, jock, etc. This is why hostels never get old.
As seems to be my wont of these travel years, meanwhile, I continue with my eschewing (for the most part) of any of the many museums in town. Don't need no port museum when I done gots the bottle in m'hand!, I reason. Indeed, it's only the photography museum that actually has enough appeal to draw me in, and fortunately it provides quite the show - particularly because it inhabits a notorious former prison of stone. Beyond the excellent exhibit, then, I get to learn that this was very much not a good place to be during Portugal's dictatorship (which took place roughly during the same years as Franco's regime next door - 30s into the 70s - but was less brutal in its day-to-day reality).
But otherwise I generally pass on museum offerings, finding it easier/better to wander the streets to admire a random church with extensive azulejos tiling from without - or the interior of the train station from within. Such trompings-about through small alleys and the like, it need be said, serve to *also* constantly remind me of Porto's currently dire need for a good rain to wash away some of the verdant smells of garbage, piss, and vomit I sometimes encounter. Perhaps not for nothing do the Portuguese themselves think of Porto as a filthy city - although it's at least as equally beloved as well.
Then again, on this theme, should I not perhaps take a break from the city? A wee sojourn, while still maintaining my sans velo status? Okay, why not? Thus it is that nearby Guimarés is the lucky choice for a grand day out. (I assume the local citizenry will be overjoyed to hear.) Guimaré only comes my way, however, after I of course catch the train first - which turns out not to be as trivial as thought. Okay, it is, but it frustratingly turns out that there's a ticket line for today's trains and another one for those in the coming days, which can be problematic. That's because it doesn't matter if your train is leaving - as mine is - you *must* be in the right line! Which I'm not, I learn after an extended wait to approach the counter, so I cool my heels by going to listen to that trumpet player outside who's playing Ave Maria at decibel 100+ for the umpteenth time. Then again, when my train leaves with me on board an hour later, all's right with the world once more. How can't it be as we careen through the lush green hilly countryside of the Portuguese North?
Guimarés's claim to fame is that it's where Portugal is said to have begun in some legal and historical sense. In case the visitor should doubt that, "Aqui Nasceu Portugal" it says in big letters on the side of a prominent building on the main square to make the point - which somehow meshes well with Portugal being named after Porto, by the way. (Quick history lesson: Said kingdom also used to contain Spanish Galicia then, but not the lands where Portugal's current capital and former seat of empire - Lisbon - is. That came later, just like losing Galicia to the Spaniards.) Okay, fine, these are good details to consider while peering and peeking about the older district of town, but... where can I get a haircut? Ah... there! Attending to this by now very belated detail means parting only with a paltry 5 Euros or so, but, for the effort, a more aerodynamic TripTrumpet retakes the streets, all the more ready to do the usual rounds of coffee, wine, with hopes of women and song.
Although instead of the above I mostly receive a succession of just some more old buildings - the usual blend of ancient castle-monastery-church-etc with their divine virgins, tortured urchins, and phallic symbols galore - the nevertheless generally appealing detail of all of them leaves me sufficiently content with the visuals. Harder to ignore, unfortunately, are the two American hipsters who've arrived on the train with me, now taking to their longboard skateboards as each tries to outcool the other (in addition, more importantly I'm sure, to the local populace). They glide and swoop by, randomly whooping among the edifices, looking like they've just stepped out of some kinda alterna-band photoshoot, these posers. (I'll here only admit to chuckling just a wee bit when one of them positively bites it, a minor faceplant accomplished while otherwise nonchalantly trying to play off a failed move of some dubious sort.) On the other hand, I'm almost just as taken aback to notice the ubiquity of the U.S. brand among the many students I see here on class field trips. Almost every word or brand on their shirts is in English or of American provenance. I suppose they all want longboards now. Sigh.
Probably the highlight of my grand day out is the meal I ingest in one of the oldest courtyards, quite the frame to house any possible picture: I order up what I know to be the famous stew of the area, a combo of beans, meats, sausage, and tripes - which is apparently heavy on the tripes. Still, the taste is quite good, if nonetheless by sheer volume of tripes - and their dubious texture - I find myself resorting to mixture tactics not seen since I was a child (when I used copious floods of applesauce to chomp down green beans that I insisted I was allergic to). Here, however, there're just too many of these tripe suckers - plus I have no applesauce - so I finally give up the fight to focus on the wine instead. And that, plus some gobs of metal grillwork and stone statuary to come as I walk about, will likely be Guimares forevermore to me. I'm not sure if my eyeballs or my belly burps the more.
That, too, will be it for Porto. Yes, it's been a grand stay of about six days, but I'm ready to roll again. That's especially true now that I've got a newly-hatched plan, that of following the River Douro into its land of port wines, and the thinking is that I'll do so until I run out of territory in Spain. Yep, it's Salamanca that I'm thinking will make for an appropriate end to my riding for now, a particularly convenient destination as I've just learned that a train will take me (and my bike!) from there to Madrid to enable other plans. And the timing isn't completely coincidentally, either, as I leave on the eve of the day that Mattias readies to take his plane back to Vienna, shuttling to and checking his gear into the airport ahead of time. He'll camp the night before his flight, near a train stop just outside of the airport, hedging his bets in the most Anglo-Saxon of ways (of over-preparation) in getting his bike disassembled and properly packed for the flight. For me, though, it's time to ride again, and it's also time to say goodbye to the coast - and soon to Portugal (for now).
Extra Coimbra To Porto Pictures
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