Thursday, March 8, 2012

Around the World: Porto

March 8, 1992

Arrived on the coast of Portugal in a place called Porto just after 11:30 last night.  I met a travel mate and fellow Canadian on the train.  After a futile search for tourist information in the closed train station, Stacey and I chose to walk down the main street in search of an understanding pensione who might trust us enough to pay him in the morning.  It didn't occur to either of us that a business in Portugal might not accept Spanish pesetas.

Instead, we found the police station.  This seemed like a better option, to ask local law enforcement for directions rather than wander aimlessly through the streets of a strange city.  Outside the station is a female officer casually smoking a cigarette with an Uzi slung over her shoulder.  She is chatting with a guy dressed in regular clothes.  She doesn't speak English and neither Stacey nor I speak Portuguese so I manage to communicate with her in broken French.  Before she goes back into the station, she tells us to wait for her colleague to come off duty.

I suggest to Pedro, the guy who had been speaking to the officer, that I'm not really that picky about accommodations right now, preferring anything over a park bench at the train station.  Perhaps there is an empty jail cell we could bunk in for the night?  He laughs at my suggestion.  "No, no, you no like that.  You wait.  Few minutes."

The off duty officer appears and our predicament is explained.  The officer speaks English and knows a cheap pensione not too far away.  When we arrive, I ask if there is a room available.  There is, for 1800 escudo, payable in advance.  I tell the owner that we just arrived and will pay him in the morning.  This is unacceptable.  Tomorrow is a bank holiday.

The off duty officer steps forward and shows his badge, speaking in a calm, but official tone.  When their conversation finishes, the officer turns to me and explains that the owner insists on having his money up front.  He is concerned that we will leave tomorrow without paying.  I show the pensione owner a traveler's cheque and tell him that he can hold it until we can find local currency.  This is also not acceptable.

The officer reaches for his wallet, but before he pulls it out of his pocket, I tell him that if the pensione won't take the word of a cop, then I don't want to stay here anyway.  "Do you know of another place?"

"Yes," he says, looking straight at the pensione owner, "a much nicer place than this hole."

The next place we arrive at is a no nonsense transaction.  The officer bangs on the door with authority.  When the inn keeper answers, he immediately identifies himself as police.  His tone is stern, authoritative, and non negotiable.  When they finish speaking, the inn keeper invites Stacey and I in and shows us to our room.  I thank the inn keeper, and notice the officer is indicating out of the inn keeper's sight that I shouldn't say too much.  The inn keeper gives me a curious look and hands the room key to the officer on his way out.

"Okay, you have a room," says the officer, handing Stacey the room key, "Now, we get something to eat!"   

Stacey and I look at each other, searching for cues to see how the other feels about going out with people we've only known for an hour or so.  "Don't worry.  Look," he says, letting us inspect his badge, "I am police.  It is my job to protect you."

The four of us pile into his tiny hatch back and speed through the quiet streets of Porto.  Carlos, the officer and Pedro are discussing where to eat when a policeman steps out into the road, indicating for Carlos to pull over.  Carlos, laughs and zips around the officer without any attempt to slow down.  "It's okay," says Carlos, seeing my shocked expression in the rear view mirror,  "I'm not stopping for that idiot!"

We stop at a night club for a hot dog and then to a gas station for a six pack.  Carlos drives us to Ponte D. Luis to drink the beer while he and Pedro point out some of the city sights.  He returns Stacey and I, safe and fed, to the pensione just after 4 a.m., asking if we would like to join them again tomorrow evening.

Ponte D. Luis
Photo by Ana Coelho

After a very comfortable sleep and a late rise, Stacey and I search Porto for a place to change some money.  I decide to try my luck at a posh hotel.  The man at the front desk is adamant that he cannot help me.  With the bank holiday, he can't risk not having what the hotel guests may require.  I notice there is a restaurant just off the lobby and ask him if he would accept a traveler's cheque if we ordered food.  He said he could give us local currency as change.

The waiters are well dressed and catering to our every desire.  A cart containing a choice of soup is wheeled to our table.  I choose french onion soup, which is ladled from the table side cauldron into my bowl.  Stacey chooses cream of carrot soup.  We order a bottle of white wine that is kept cool in a bucket of ice next to the table.  For the main course, Stacey orders pasta and I choose prime rib.

Stacey's order is delivered by one waiter, who sets a shallow bowl of linguine noodles in front of her, followed by another waiter pushing a cart containing a small pot of tomato sauce.  He asks what would she like in her sauce and makes several suggestions that he prepares in a heated skillet on the cart. He adds her choices to the sauce pours it over her noodles.

Please sir, can I have some more?

My order is presented by one waiter who places a large plate before me, half covered with sauteed vegetables.  Another waiter wheels a cart containing a large piece of prime rib.  He asks me how thick I want it sliced and tells me to let him know when he should stop carving.  I let him carve off half a dozen thin slices that he neatly adds to my plate.  Stacey couldn't finish all of her noodles.  I devoured my meal, savouring that post Christmas turkey bloated feeling.  We sip our wine, fearing the astronomical bill that is due to arrive any moment.

Total cost of this meal, with tip: 3200 PTE (Portuguese Escudo).  About $20.  I pay with a $50US traveler's cheque, the change being just enough to cover the cost of the pensione for the two nights we've stayed.  When the banks open tomorrow, Stacey will give me the equivalent of $25US in escudo.

Staircase leading to the river.  In the distance you can see
the wall of one of Porto's cathedrals

Needing to walk off the very full feeling from our indulgence at lunch, we find our way to the stunning architecture of the old city. The old city, the Ribeira, is a collection of colourful row houses and shops that are etched into the steep hillside lining the river.  

Ribeira (riverside) waterfront homes
Photo by .ricardo

Pedro and Carlos meet Stacey and I at the pensione and treat us to a guided tour of Porto.

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"At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us."
~Albert Schweitzer