Europe’s Top Cities- #2

              Never had I needed to love somewhere more than when I went to Porto. Last summer’s road trip was a disaster from the first day we arrived and broke down, all the way through to the last day, when after four weeks of the van being sat in a mechanics I drove it back to the ferry port in Santander and went home. Between the first day and the last, Fanny had broken down three times and spent 28 out of 30 days in a mechanics, the van we had borrowed broke down three times during that, and I became fed up of road trips, van life and repair shops. An hour into restarting my trip from the Algarve with a new starter motor on the replacement van, the engine blew up and I was again stuck on the hard shoulder. All I wanted was to give up, go home and sell my van and for nine hours on an overnight bus I sulked at my misfortune. And then I arrived in Porto. At a time when I was the lowest I had been on the road, I needed to love travelling again, and never had I loved somewhere so much. Well, I guess I have once more as this is only #2 on the list.

Tired from the overnight bus and drained from the stress and disappointment of the previous day I set out to explore Porto. Having meant to attempt that task three weeks prior, it was nice to finally get out onto the old busy streets and take in the crowded narrow lanes and the bulking grand squares. Not knowing where to go or what to see I set out on an enjoyably aimless and carefree stroll, following my nose to whatever inviting landmark I made out in the distance. Setting out along the pedestrian Avenue Rua de Santa Caterina I took in the colourful buildings and bustling cafes until the activity swelled down and my sights were diverted down a quieter side road. Just as I began to wonder where the next interesting site would be I popped out into the Praca de Liberdad which is the town’s main square, overlooked by the impressive town hall and flanked by other grand establishments which now house the big banks all the way down to the monument of Pedro IV. From here the colossal Clerigos church and tower presented itself as the next destination and whilst walking through the crowds of other impressed tourists the midday bells rang out. The tuneful chimes continued to play whilst I sat in the opposing park where I rested to check the score of the third Ashes test.

Carrying on down some medieval feeling streets, I continued my Porto self-guided tour. Attracted by some ornate house decorations I followed them down another quaint alley and popped out at a picturesque lookout staring over the Douro and the orange roofs around it. Big churches towered over the old roofs and ant-like people scurried around on the river’s banks. More charming streets dragged me back in, terraced balconies and big wooden doors were brought to life by old ladies hanging out their washing. The cobbled roads only wide enough for a car kept going until an even thinner and colourful street pulled me off to the side, over which colourful ropes were strung up across the road where locals enjoyed a Sunday drink. The thin passage of light filling in from the end revealed the towers of the church of St Lawrence and I sat on the steps taking it all in as Bairstow and Stokes built up their partnership at Headingly in the cricket.

I found my way to the Bishop’s Palace which stands at the top of a hill next to the grand Cathedral of Porto , with the town hall still visible in the distance. I took a seat on the Pelourinho de Porto and eavesdropped on a walking tour guide explaining the turbulent history of 20th century of Portugal.

From there I headed to famous iron bridge and crossed the steep banks of the Douro. Most cities are based on a major river but none are as picturesque as the cliff edged and colourful-townned Douro which runs through the middle of Porto. On the other side of the top walkway I was spurred into a park where an old DJ played some dodgy tunes as I carried on down to the bank. I listened to buskers entertain on each side of the river before settling in at the North Riberia. The flurry of market stalls evolved into fancy cafes and restaurants where outside on the bank a saxophonist played a tune. I paused on the ledge for a rest and soaked in the Sunday afternoon bustle amongst the colourful terraced promenade. Porto doesn’t have the feel of a main city and has the vibes of a leisurely seaside town. The thin streets avoid traffic and pedestrian zones lined by old charming buildings feel cosy and safe whilst the entertainers galvanise the touristy feel. The museum off to the side of the Ribiera contains some boring facts about the Roman settlement beside a glorious 4th-century mosaic, before leading into a more interesting exhibit on the empire of Portugal stretching from China to Brazil. The walking was tiring, especially after the night on a bus and so I returned to the hostel to cook some lunch and settle in to watch the cricket in which Archer, Woakes and Broad had fallen cheaply leaving Ben Stokes an impossible task with Jack Leach. As I perched on the roof terrace, the test at Headingly grew tenser and I looked insane as I gasped or celebrated at each delivery.

To celebrate the historical win I sauntered back down to the Riberia with a bottle of port. The evening spectacles of the busy sidewalk were as abundant as they were marvellous. Acrobats hanging from trees moved to the tunes of buskers. A group of breakdancers broke danced to a clapping crowd. Sipping on my local cheap rose port which tasted like laundry detergent I sat happily watching the world go by for a whole rest cycle of the gymnastic troupe. In the distance the electrifying lines of lighting split open an overcast sky and according to a strange myth the 11 seconds it took the following boom to sound out marked the distance.

Still on the warm dry dockside I nursed my fluid as the dance party continued. The next flash of light took a shorter time for the shuddering racket to follow, signalling the storm growing closer. During a fascinating choreography to the cha-cha slide a speckle of rain fell on a crowd hoping it was a passing trickle, but soon enough, prompted by another bone tickling roar, the heavens opened and the dancers ran to cover behind the fleeing crowd. I couldn’t help but wait a moment longer. I’ve always loved rain and happily remained seated watching the scampering crowds. Then I thought ‘fuck I’m wet’ and darted for cover. The walk back through the narrow protected streets was taken with a smile as I slowly absorbed the water filtering off the roofs before making it back to the hostel rather drenched.

An undertaking of reading saw me shred through another Bryson book before noticing the sky had cleared, leaving a pink effervescence strewn along the horizon and I darted out from my room to catch the end of the sunset.  With the remains of my port I crossed the bridge to watch the skyline embark down the colour chart until it went black. Flashes of light still flickered out from the distant clouds. Looking out, I couldn’t help but think about the turmoil of the previous four weeks. This trip promised so much and I couldn’t help but feel sad about what had happened. The sense of enjoyment from being lost in the world had been replaced by a sense of dejection. The stress and disappointment had taken its toll and when the fun bit of the year which had taken so much hard work to build up to turns out to be a disaster I couldn’t help but feel lost. But, with the  awesomeness of a thundering sky, Porto had reinvigorated me and in that day of getting utterly lost, I found my love for travelling again and remembered how lucky I really was.

The drops of rain began to return and since I am now familiar with the slow-building traits of Porto’s precipitation, I began the short walk back to the refuge of the hostel. As I crossed the large metal bridge the booming thunder grew louder and the jolts of lighting brighter. Arriving simultaneously, they seemed so close that they were on top of me, that there really could be an angry Norse god hammering away straight into Porto and sending the reverberations through my body. My walk hastened as I crossed the largest piece of metal in Portugal, whilst I peed my pants about standing on a massive conductor in the eye of a storm. One more ominous clatter shook the hills of Porto and the sound waves pushed me along to the hostel where the staff lined the entrance, absorbing the hostile sky.

I spent the next few days lying in the grass of the Jardin de Moroc at the end of the Luis I Bridge, looking up from books at the view down the Douro. I finally got to surf, on my surfing orientated rod trip and I got to relax in an amazing city. The wait for my van to be repaired finally ended and I received a text from the Spanish mechanic to go pick it up. I was sad to be leaving Porto, it had made my rough month worth it, and as I walked through the streets of this great city, I rediscovered why I loved travelling. That the bad parts are worth it and, other than the sleeping in repair shops and being stranded on hard shoulders, the world is a vibrant, lively place full of love and happiness. I was just able to appreciate it better after breaking down. Although I’m sure eight times was a bit excessive, I still would’ve appreciated it without breaking down…

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