Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Snogging In Porto

Like Marseille, Porto is also a gritty city. However, Porto is much softer, friendlier, and not as rough around the edges. As is evident from the dingy apartment buildings lining the streets with their peeling paint, crumbling facades and laundry strung everywhere, the city is poor, but its inhabitants warm and welcoming, nonetheless. The Porto denizens may not speak a great deal of English, but unlike the Marseilleans, they try as hard as they can to assist you. This became evident immediately at the airport. The signage (sp?) for the metro was a little unclear and I could not find my way there. I asked one of the airport maintenance guys, who was not able to tell me how to get there, but was more than willing to show me by accompanying me downstairs, through the walkway, all the way over to the metro station where he subsequently proceeded to help me purchase a ticket. How incredibly kind! As I then rode the metro into town (Lonely Planet needs to update its info on this one, btw. There is a beautiful new metro now and no bus needed to the city. This is yet another testament to the Lonely Planet´s growing pile of misinformation), I quickly became enchanted with this locale as we passed rolling green fields and beautiful scenery on the short 20 minute ride into town.

Again, as I got off the metro, I stopped to ask for directions at the first corner store, and while given to me in Portuguese, I was able to make out that I needed to simply follow the street just outside and then make two lefts and I would be on the street I needed. I thanked her and went on my way. After my experience in Marseille I couldn't help thinking to myself that "we´ll see how this pans out". But, lo and behold, it DID pan out and I found myself where I needed to be in just a few short minutes.

I checked into the hostel, where there were more friendly and inviting people. I found my bed and plunked all my stuff down on it, exhausted from the night I had spent in the Marseille airport, not getting much sleep. I took a quick nap and decided to head out in search of the bus station. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had originally intended to go to Lisbon as I had heard so many great things about this city. So, I wanted to go to check out the bus schedule to see if I could feasibly make my way to Lisbon and thus add another city to my growing European repertoire.

By this point in the trip, I had navigated enough cities that I don´t doubt my ability to figure out a map or how to get around. But, either the map they gave me was crap (my theory), the city is truly complex, or it's an intricate combination of the two! One of the hostel staff had kindly circled the bus station for me on the map and looking at the map, it appeared to be about a 20 minute walk. Ha! If I had only known what was in store for me, I might just have surrendered and gone to bed right then and there.

While the map seemed very detailed, half of the streets were not on the map. Additionally, the streets are narrow and winding in all kinds of crazy directions, so it´s not easy to get your bearing of where a particular street might be heading. Not to mention that there are uphills and downhills and things that are not where they are supposed to be, as marked on the map. Oy! What a headache! It probably took me about an hour to locate the elusive bus stop, only to be told that ¨Nope, we don´t sell bus tickets to Lisbon here and I can´t tell you where they do¨ Aw, cod bucket! Now what? Ah, some quick thinking and I see that according to the map there is supposed to be a Grand Hotel right around the corner. I will go there. Being that they are there to serve tourists, they must know where the bus station is!

I walked all the way around the block where the Grand Hotel was supposed to be located, TWICE, but no hotel. I saw the street sign for parking for the hotel, but no darn hotel. Argh! At this point, I'm tired and desperately need to find a bathroom, but I still have no clue where to go, and now I am absolutely certain that I want to go to Lisbon to get the heck out of this city where the citizens may be super friendly, but finding my way around is a nightmare!

Thankfully, while I did not locate the Grand Hotel, I found a travel agency, and the lady there was incredibly nice. Told me where the bus station is (of course, it was located almost all the way back to the hostel). She also let me use the bathroom, which was a huge relief. If you've done any traveling around Europe, you know that they are pretty funny about the use of their bathrooms. There are VERY few public bathrooms and if there are any, there is usually a charge. You are not allowed to use bathrooms in bars, cafes, restaurants, etc, unless you are a paying customer and they are really strict about this. Porto was not like this! Along with its helpful and friendly inhabitants, it was also the most toilet friendly city I encountered in Europe. Hooray for people who understand the human need to relieve oneself every now and then!

Relieved of urine and with a new destination in mind, I set out to find this bus station whose existence I was beginning to doubt. The trek back across town to this new location became even more circuitous and time consuming. Part of the trip I could easily figure out as I just needed to retrace my steps, but the rest of it was just as confusing as my initial trek due to the crappy map and confusing city layout. Finally, three hours later I managed to find it at last, got my bus timetable for Lisbon and decided to leisurely wander about the city to take in as much as I could since I would probably skip town for Lisbon the next a.m.

At the end of the day, I was exhausted from all the walking and the little sleep I had gotten the previous night. At this point of the trip, I was also really tired of all the sightseeing. Exploring new cities is fun and exciting, but it's also a lot of hard work. Every day you get up, eat breakfast to fuel yourself for the day's adventures, check your ´to-see´ list and head out to see all the things on your list. After a while, it becomes like a job. So, even though it´s a vacation, it's not really a vacation. Now, I´m not complaining, I'm merely stating my state of mind at this particular point in time. I´m exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Ready for bed. I get back to the hostel and take a much needed shower. As I'm getting ready for bed, I start chatting with one of my roommates, a lovely girl from Bath, England. Her name is Kirstie and she is an ER nurse, avid traveler, and about to apply to professional school to become a either a psychiatrist or psychologist! We hit it off right away and she starts telling me about this hot Italian guy who stayed at the hostel the previous night and whom she had gone out with to a concert. They had a great time together and at the end of the evening, he ´snogged´her. 'Snogged?', I asked, is that like kissing or making out? Yes, that is exactly what it is. I love the British and their funny expressions. Every time she said ´snog´or ´snogging´, I squealed with delight. We had such a nice time chatting that I decided not to go to Lisbon and stay in Porto for another night. She invited me to join her for a concert the next night, and I eagerly accepted.

The next morning, we continued our conversation over breakfast. She had been to the beach the previous day and that sounded like a nice plan for me that day. She was going to spend her last day in Porto taking a bus tour to see some sights as it only cost 10 euros, which was all the money she had left. We were both reading really good books so decided to go to a nearby park first to read together for an hour or so before heading off in our respective directions for the day. By the time we got to the park, we were so engrossed in conversation that we could not stop to read. We sat down in the grass and continued to talk. We ended up talking for hours until we were both starving and desperately had to go to the bathroom. At this point, it was too late to follow through on our day plans, so we decided instead to eat lunch, then buy some beer to enjoy in the grass of a different park I had found the previous day during my hunt for the bus station. Our trek from park to park was all the sightseeing I did that day and it felt great!

We had such a lovely and fun time drinking, chatting, and laughing that we were late for the concert and ended up missing it altogether. But, it was an absolutely amazing day, so restorative of mind and soul. Exactly what I needed. We shared so many personal things with each other and talked about everything, relationships, sex, politics, religion, and anything in between and beyond. There was a connection between us on so many different levels that it almost felt as if I had found my twin soul. Finally, around 10 p or so, we wandered back to the hostel. There, we shared some rum with a couple of handsome architecture students, one Hungarian and one Polish, both now living in Valencia. It was just such a great day and a wonderful way to end this amazing trip.

Now, I'm back in Madrid and I have to admit that it feels a little like coming home. Since this is where we started our European adventure and we really liked Madrid, it kinda feels like home away from home. One more day, and then I'm getting back on a plane to fly to my actual home. Before yesterday, I was so ready to head home, but after meeting Kirstie, I feel rejuvenated and ready for more adventure, so not sure I'm ready to end my European adventure just yet...

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