Stumbling into Oporto


Caught up in the free generosity of the couch surfers, I arranged to stay with another one in Porto – Juan, who happened to mention a little too late that he actually didn’t have enough room but I could share his mattress (because that’s a normal thing to offer to a stranger). But I am too tired to care and can’t be bothered with finding another place right now. Juan meets me at the bus station. His English is horrendous and the only phrase he seems to have down is “more or less” which he says every other word, about everything. He is an Erasmus (student) from Spain studying here and living in an old abandoned type mansion reminiscent of an old boarding school that hasn’t been touched in centuries, with 30 other twenty-something-year-old Erasmus. None of which seem to be doing any studying at all; they have not learned Portuguese, or anything for that matter. 

Luckily for me, and most unfortunately for her, a German couch surfer named Simone has arrived a few hours before me and has already won Juan’s affections and mattress, so I get smuggled into an old unoccupied room. There is a piece of foam on the floor for a bed, anarchy graffiti on the dresser and the walls look like they’ve been slaughtered with a machine gun. The place is filthy. I find some blankets in an old wardrobe that are probably infested with God knows what but I sleep with them anyway. I will most likely be contracting some Portuguese disease here, but again, I am too tired to care. It is an experience if nothing else.


When I wake up from my nap to leave the room, I turn the handle and the doorknob falls off. I’m trapped in the room. I look out the window and think about climbing out but I’m on the third floor. Someone has strung together three children's babydolls by their shoelaces and slung them up over the phone line in the courtyard, so they just hang there like abandoned terrifying chucky dolls right outside my window. I decide to either remain trapped in my room or wait for Juan and Simone, who thankfully decide to come see what I’m doing an hour later.

Juan, this kid, literally offers us food in the Erasmus kitchen which looks like a 1917 war camp mess hall and is completely covered with dirty pots and pans and open food that looks like it hasn’t been touched or cleaned in decades. I am starving but settle for a few spoonfuls of Nutella, the only unopened, seemingly untouched thing available. He takes us to a local bar and I am surprised at how well the Portuguese speak English. I am reminded over and over again that Portugal is indeed a country and they are nothing like and in no way affiliated with Spain (they have an adamant resentment towards the Spanish.) Their impeccable language diversity, they say, comes from growing up with televisions that do not translate any shows or movies into Portuguese, but instead provide you with subtitles. All of them seem to be in Vetinarian school and they are positively overjoyed when I tell them that we do, in fact, learn in American schools that Christopher Columbus was Portuguese and not Spanish. 

I leave early because I am exhausted and once back in my room, which now has no lock or door handle, I push a bookshelf against the door in attempts to keep me “safely” in this dilapidated place, and sleep until 2 pm. I am awoken by the sound of the bookshelf moving across the floor (my nightmare) as Juan pushes his way in to wake me up. Waking up now is always a disorienting experience, trying to remember where I am. A Spanish panda on a tent floor one night and a smuggled fugitive in an abandoned mansion on a Portugal floor the next.

I shower in a bathroom that leaves you feeling dirtier than when you walked in and rummage through my back pack to try to find clean clothes. I am out of underwear and all my white shirts are brown. My clothes smell and my efforts are way past my hair so it stays in a curly disarray of frizz. I now feel more comfortable being hideous than I ever have in my life. The uglier the better to ward off the Spanish men, who are by far the most relentless and exhausting I have ever come across.

Speaking of relentless, Juan is now pouting after being repeatedly declined by Simone all night long, so she and I make our way out in Porto alone to explore the city. Every street is so steep here! Nothing is flat; you are either panting while crawling straight up hill or trying not to topple over sprinting straight down. If you get stuck on a downward slope when you meant to be going up, good luck to you. This happens to us several times trying to find a way to get over the bridge to the other side of the river. We can see the bridge from almost every turn but we end up going too far up and then way too far down to the bottom of the river until we finally find it.


Porto is absolutely breath taking from atop this bridge, miles and miles above the sea. It is, indefinitely, the most beautiful place I have come across thus far. The river sparkles like a thousand tiny diamonds and each of the city’s buildings in brightly colored luminosity are visible on either side of the hilly landscape. People scatter below on each side of the river at outdoor cafes, or lounging along the riverside. Across the bridge, Gallo, is covered in Port Houses, some being the oldest in the world.

After walking in and then back out of Port Houses where bottles went for 592 euros, Simone and I settle at a small table at Quinta do Noval on the side of the river. Quinta do Noval is one of the oldest historical Port vineyards and they are very proud of their majestic terroir. The wall beside us reads: "The consistency of style of the Vintage Ports of Quinta do Noval through the decades is one of the particularities of Quinta do Noval in the world of Port. Consistency quite simply because our Vintage Ports come from one single vineyard, a specific and magical place. When you come to know Quinta do Noval, its old and its young Vintages, you will be able to recognize its future Vintages.” I found that quite interesting ... being able to recognize future vintages. 

We tasted through at least 7 mini bottles of Noval's ports: Fine White, Lagrima, Ruby, Tawny, Tawny Reserve. Of course, limited by our funds to the lower end of the menu offered. Each was so different and exquisitely unique. The man pouring them for us told me that Ruby was the younger sibling of Tawny with more fruit flavors and excitement but hardly as delicately wise or refined as the older Tawny. The Fine White was surprisingly delicious and became our favorite. I had never had a white port but it was full of citrus and honey flavors, perfect for the heat of the day.

Simone tells me all about German culture, and Brazilian, and Spanish - all places that she has lived. She speaks four languages and is a language teacher in Germany, which makes her a slave of the country. Technically, she cannot even jay-walk without getting in trouble because she is meant to be a model citizen, bought and paid for her examplary behavior. It's so fascinating to hear about how other people live and I've learned almost as much about cultures and places I have yet to visit than Spain itself. 

We go for a very long, very expensive dinner back on our side of the river that night and then meet Juan to drink the bottle of Quinta do Noval Fine White Port we had bought by the water. You can see all of the Port houses across the river in the darkness. Their names are the only signs lit up and scattered sporatically amongst the rocky hill. 

That night I don't sleep at all. More sober than the night prior, I toss and turn with torturous thoughts of what kind and how many people have used these stained pillows before (which have no pillowcases) and what this piece of foam might be infested with. I feel things crawling on me all night although I am sure they aren't really. The next morning, we go for coffee and then I book it to the train station. Time for Lisbon!