Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Driving Excitement in Porto, and Other Tales

Portuguese people are the nicest people in the world. We have had some wonderful conversations with people who come up to us on the street, and start talking to us, telling us where to go and what to see, and telling us how much they appreciate that we are in Portugal. Understand, of course, that we're decked out in cameras and travel guides, and heavily armed with maps. It's been a pleasant and wonderful surprise.

I say all that to preface what I'm about to say - these same people will get on your tail and drive right up your keester if you are behind the wheel of an automobile. Yesterday, on our drive up from Óbidos, drivers would get 10 feet on my rear end, and ride me for miles, and I was traveling at 75 miles an hour, and they weren't. Portugal has several road systems, one that's akin to our Interstates, and another that's a major secondary road, then we're talking about paved but unmarked, and finally cow trails up a hillside. Portuguese drivers drive the same speed on all of the different roads. Honest.

Well, not quite. We stopped enroute yesterday at Conimbriga, which is an old Roman town and archaeological site. It's quite an extensive excavation, and we walked around the city, then visited the museum, and then had lunch. We were on some secondary roads getting to Conimbriga, and the going was very slow, but after getting on the Autoestrada, we sailed into Porto. BUT IT TOOK US ONE HOUR TO FIND OUR HOTEL AND ANOTHER HOUR TO PARK!!!! Porto has too many cars, and way too few parking places. Plus, the streets are about half the width of American streets and people are driving twice as fast on the main drags. Needless to say, I had no clue about where I was going, but all the drivers behind me knew EXACTLY where they were going. I got fingered and the evil eye. More than once.

Our hotel, aptly named Hotel Malaposta, is on Rua Côceicão, or something like that. It's a one block street in the Cedafeita neighborhood. The hotel is also European quaint, with a sheen of modernity and hipness, overlaid the ancient roots of Porto, if you get my drift. However, the shower works, and the beds are firm. I have no complaints, and the partyers on the same floor did not keep us awake last night.

Today, we took a walking tour of Porto, and had a great time. We walked through the Ribeira neighborhood, which borders the Douro River. We are about a kilometer from where our tourbook has its walk begin. It said the walk would take approximately three hours. For the record, we easily completed it in eight hours. But in those eight hours, we walked through three churches, took pictures of the fabulous tiles in the railway stations, had a port wine tasting at the Wine Institute, and saw the birthplace of Henry the Navigator. We also walked along the Douro, and walked across one of the river bridges.

People were so kind. One woman was driving her car, beckoned us over and gave us directions. Then she parked her car, came looking for us, and gave us a detailed overview of what to see in the neighborhood. I can't imagine that happening in Washington, DC. The church of the Franciscan order is a must see. It's a truly over-the-top example of Baroque/Rococo decoration, and incredibly beautiful. Although after about a hundred sad virgins and bleeding Jesuses, it's a little depressing. Saint Sebastian is depicted everywhere. For some reason, he's a favorite saint, and he's always just about as badly mangled as Jesus. Those arrows of outrageous fortune, indeed!

At the Customs House, which is Henry the Navigator's birthplace, one of the docents took us aside, and we must have talked with him for at least a half hour. He told us about the discovery of a Roman house under the Custom House, and also about the archive that is now housed there. We talked, too, about the different perspectives that Americans and Europeans have about history. It was a very interesting conversation.

We walked along the river promenade, crossed the bridge, then came back for some ice cream, which is great for promenading. On our walk back (UPHILL) through the neighborhoods, we stopped by a pasteleria for some sweets and some coffee. Then back to our hotel, and I'm writing you all about it.

Love, Grace and JB