I LOVE Porto, Portugal. Everything about the city is fantastic. It’s on the ocean with a river running through the city, so it’s like a port city on steroids. The whole city is built on a hill (ha! The english/history nerd in me loves that it’s a city on a hill), so you have to hike to get anywhere, which is a fun challenge. Once you get where you’re going you’re rewarded with incredible views. The mix of buildings is incredible: old and ruined dumps are sitting right next to new and gleaming beauties. Add all these things up, and you’ve got an incredible, charming, welcoming, vibrant city. It doesn’t hurt that everyone I encountered was very nice, open, and seemed to love smiling and laughing more than anything else in the world. It’s a refreshing break from Spain: don’t get me wrong, I love Spain. But after living for so many months in a culture that I enjoy, but where I don’t totally fit, being in a relaxed city- if only for a weekend- was a blessing.
I’ve done quite a bit of traveling, both this year and in years past, but I’ve never really travelled solo. Sure I’ve been to Chicago by myself, but that was to get a visa and I flew there and back in 1 (long and grueling) day. I’ve been to Boston to visit people before and spent most of my time alone while they were in class, but I still had someone to talk to, bounce ideas off of, and the comfort of knowing I wasn’t completely alone in a new city. So, I have always wanted to take a trip and really be by myself. That’s what I did in Porto. I had a few days to kill during Semana Santa (Holy Week, aka Spain’s Spring Break) before the always-awesome Ali Mac came to visit, so I decided to hop on a plane and fly to the beautiful coastal city I’ve heard about. I was incredibly excited to be able to do whatever it was my little heart desired: alone, I would be able to go where I wanted to go, eat what I wanted to eat, see what I wanted to see, and do it whenever, wherever, and for however long I damn well pleased. It was such an energizing thought to say to myself, “Self, you have complete control!” …It was exhilarating until I got to my hostel. Then, I just got nervous. I wouldn’t have anyone to help me if I got lost, I would be eating alone, I wouldn’t have someone to plan with, and I was in complete control (with no one to blame but myself if things went terribly, horribly wrong)! It was quite daunting.
Traveling alone = Taking pictures of yourself
After I spent about a half hour in my fantastic hostel, studying the maps over and over and over again, I finally realized that I was nervous and forestalling the inevitable of stepping out into the great unknown (where I did not speak the language… another scary aspect). Once this dawned on me, I folded up the map, made sure my camera was in my purse, sucked it up, and headed out to see the city.
And what a city it was. I had walked maybe 2 feet before I got to the beautiful market building that sits right next to a museum and a monument dedicated to el Infanto. After skipping through the monument’s park and getting judgmental looks from all the seagulls, I ran smack dab into the first stop on the historic trolley route. I paid a euro and hopped on the adorable trolley and I was off! The trolley took all of us passengers and tourists all the way out to about 5 minutes from the ocean.
The adorable, historic trolley
I hopped off the trolley at its last stop (it is a great mode of transportation that all the locals use to get from point A to point B… literally, it only goes in one long straight line, but what a wonderful straight line it is), and ended up wandering through parks and along the mouth of the river and ended up at the pier on the ocean. I stayed on the pier for quite a while, then wandered back inland to play in the surf. I was so happy to be there and by myself that I was giggling and singing to myself the entire time. I’m sure I looked like a blissful lunatic. I loved experiencing that adventure of falling in love- but with a city. It was as if my heart was saying, “Oh, I’ve been looking for you and I didn’t even know it. Here you are! Hello!” I was absolutely elated.
Even when you’re head over heels in love, a girl’s gotta eat. I took the adorable trolley back to the riverfront near my hostel to go to one of the little cafes sprinkled all over the place. I had a ham & cheese sandwich and a Heineken and people-watched and soaked in all the happiness the city was offering me. After all the sun, the love and a beer, it was time for a nap. I couldn’t figure out why I was so tired… and then I realized I’d officially been awake for about 30 hours (leaving León by bus at 2:30 am the night before completely threw off my sleep schedule). I took a glorious nap with the windows open, listening to the seagulls singing their mating songs. Once I woke up, I was hungry again. I went back to the riverfront to find a restaurant, but got distracted by more sightseeing for another hour. I walked across the Dom Luise I bridge (built by one of Gustave Eiffel’s students) and meandered along the waterfront on the other, less touristy side of the river. Finally, hunger won out and I went back to the fancy riverfront restaurants. I ended up at a restaurant called Alzira, where the menu looked good, the prices weren’t sky-high, and the waiters were cute.
I ordered olives, a glass of Porto Port wine (what the city is famous for), and a “Ribeira Salad”- mised greens with carrots, tomatoes and olives, but also with almonds, hazelnuts, strawberries, apples, mango, pineapple, and a glorious raspberry vinaigrette. It sounds weird, but it was one of the most delightful meals I’ve ever had. I really enjoyed eating silently by myself and watching the world go by. I chatted a bit with my gorgeous waiter, but was really just focused on enjoying my time by myself. It was incredibly satisfying.
After my 2.5 hour dinner alone (I told you, I was really enjoying myself), night had fallen. I headed back to my hostel and met 2 wonderful girls in my dorm. Judy was a married woman from Seoul, South Korea, who was taking some time to travel by herself before she and her husband started their family. Erin was a fellow American, hailing from Utah, who had spent the last few months living with a family in Madrid while she taught their kids English. We all chatted for quite a bit before I showered and went to bed, happy as a clam. The next morning, I lounged in bed for a while- it was so nice to sleep and wake up at a leisurely pace. Most of the time when I travel, I feel the need to go-go-go, see everything there is to see, learn everything there is to learn, and eat everything there is to eat. That’s just how I enjoy traveling. For whatever reason though, this time, the days felt so long and relaxed that I didn’t feel the need to go-go-go. It was a refreshing change of pace. I still did everything I wanted to do (and actually more), but somehow it felt different. Erin-from-Utah and I ended up wandering around the city and spent all day together. It was so neat to find someone who I otherwise never would have met, and to become fast friends. We spent 14+ hours together and never ran out of wonderful things to talk about, and never stopped having a blast.
Through the course of our day, Erin and I saw the famous Bento Train Station that has tile murals all over its walls, the Porto Cathedral that overlooks the city and also has tile murals all over its outer walls, 3 very different & very beautiful parks, and many other breathtaking sights. We took the funicular up the hill by the Dom Luise I and walked across the top of the bridge to get glorious views of the city and the river. We ate lunch at a tiny bakery that made some of the best gelato I’ve ever tasted (my flavor of choice was banana and chocolate chip… mmmm) and we later had sandwiches and cokes at a cafe on the beach overlooking a rocky area full of seagulls and surfers. We walked all over the city (for hours on end) seeing everything there was to see. We had planned on going to a Fado (the traditional music of Portugal) concert in the evening, but were too happy sitting at the beach to be bothered to move.
After a full day of glorious sights and conversation, we ended up back at the restaurant where I had gone the night before. The handsome waiter from the night before was there and the three of us chatted for quite a while. He asked me to go out for drinks with him once he got off his shift at the restaurant, but since this was a weekend about being on my own and enjoying my time to myself, I thanked him but declined. Besides, I had already fallen in love with Porto and didn’t want to cheat on my new city, even if it was with one of its own citizens. Erin and I meandered back to the hostel, chatting all the while and continuing our day full of wonderful fun.
It’s hard to say, but at this point, just being a few weeks removed, my weekend in Porto might have been my favorite trip to date. It was so different than anything I’ve ever experienced. I was on my own and alone, but I didn’t feel lonely. I met new people, I fell in love with an incredible city, and I had a few days of glorious introspection. Don’t get me wrong, I love traveling with friends, and I love that some of my favorite people have visited or will visit to travel with me. But this was something special. What impact this random weekend trip will have on the rest of my life, I can only guess, but I know I will always always always remember the weekend as one of the happiest of my life. I think everyone deserves to feel as I happy as I did in Porto, and I hope everyone has the chance to do something as wonderful.