It was the last day. It was the best day.
We began the morning waiting in line for the Livraria Lello. This is a Porto bookstore that’s associated with J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. Rowling asserts that she had never heard of the place while she was in Porto. It’s easy enough to believe that the book store didn’t inspire anything about Harry Potter, but I’m skeptical of her claim that she’d never heard of it at all. In any case, it’s become enough of a tourist attraction that it charges admission. We wanted to get there early in hopes of avoiding a line. We weren’t successful in that, but it was a cool, sunny morning and the line moved pretty quickly. There were two different buskers on nearby corners competing for our attention and making the scene lively. The store itself is interesting and was packed. Its main feature is a sort of colorful, split spiral staircase. It’s a two floor book store with open space in the middle allowing you to look down on the ground floor from the upper floor. It has classic titles in a lot of different languages. Fairly small, very cramped. I liked it well enough that I felt compelled to buy a book. For some reason, I was thinking of Orwell’s “1984,” but I couldn’t locate a copy in English. Eventually, I went with a copy of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” by Jules Verne. It’s a colorful, hardbound copy with one of those little ribbons attached that serves as a bookmark.
Following the bookstore, we grabbed some snacks and a bathroom break at the Paderia Ribero which we’d been introduced to on our first night there. (Technically, I used the bathroom at the nearby Steak n’ Shake. The rest of our group avoided the chain restaurant!) I also got a beer, because vacation.
Properly fortified, we began to stroll Porto. We found ourselves headed generally downhill, toward the river, by way of the Escaladas de Vitoria – the Stairs of Victory which, I must say, weren’t as imposing as the Escaladas de Verdades we faced on Friday. There’s something profound about Victory being easier than Truth, I suppose. I was glad to find the statue of Prince Henry the Navigator at a little park called Jardim do Infante. Though, I will say that people at that park seemed to have trouble cleaning up after their dogs. There wasn’t much to it, but the statue was big and one of my favorite areas of history is the Age of Discovery, so it made me happy. Near there, we came across the Igrejas e Museu de Sao Francisco. Primarily, we were in it for the catacombs which Harper obviously loved. As I mentioned with respect to a church on an earlier day, its style was very busy and I can see why the Puritan reaction was toward very simple, unadorned churches. The catacombs were, unsurprisingly, a little creepy. There was a transparent section with an archeological dig. And you were walking on a bunch of panels framed into a lattice work, kind of like being on top of a drop ceiling – where there were crypts underneath each panel.
Escaping the crypts, we found our way to a literal hole in the wall for lunch. One of the things I loved about Porto and Lisbon were these small restaurants and stores crammed into twisting alleys. This one was close to the Douro River but not right on the riverfront which, I think, dialed down the tourist factor just a bit. Though the family at the table next to us was French – so clearly tourists are a big factor in the place’s existence. (When the owner got the French family to relocate so she could squeeze five of us into the same table – like I said, this place was tiny – I think the French father was trying to joke to me about buying their drinks; but the language barrier was a little too high for me to know for sure.) I had a daily special involving tripe which was pretty good, but it mostly tasted like a bean stew or maybe red beans and rice. Harper was the big winner with her order. I think the translation was shellfish and rice, and she got a pretty impressive variety of shellfish.
After lunch, we crossed over to the south side of the Douro River, this time using the lower level of the Dom Luis I Bridge. We arrived ahead of the other crew and sat on the shore watching the boat traffic. There were some guys having a great time on jet skis. (Not that you often see people having a *bad* time on jet skis.) Our port tasting and tour was at the Calem winery. It started in a room with some screens and videos telling you about the Douro Valley, the soil, the process of wine making and whatnot. From there, we went into a cellar with huge barrels. There was a mark pretty high up on the wall showing where one particularly nasty flood had reached. The tour wasn’t bad, but I’m not sure any of us was particularly engaged in the lecture. Upstairs from the cellar was a nice tasting room with long tables where they’d set out small glasses of port for us to sample. Poor Harper got a juice box. According to the label, it had “8 fruits!” Port is just a little sweet for me, and I don’t love it. But I drank it! My college years kind of toughened up my palate. Cole drank his, and despite having 8 fruits, Harper sampled a bit of the port as well.
Not far from Calem was “World of Wine!” Great name, but we didn’t get any wine there. The places in Porto and Lisbon where we’d toured tended to be areas where space was at a premium. Like I said, lots of small shops and restaurants seemed to be the rule. So, the facility where “World of Wine” was located was a bit of an eye opener. It is a fairly sprawling commercial building with bars, restaurants, and places with several “experiences:” the Pink Palace Experience, Planet Cork, the Wine Experience, and so forth. I’m not sure what all these experiences entailed, but the general feel of the venue was “mall cinema.” As luck would have it, this facility had a COVID testing site which we needed to board our flights the next day. The testing was in some cramped office spaces tucked into a corner. There was one woman working the office at the end of her shift, and we hit her with eight people. She took us 2 and 3 at a time. Their tests were of the “brain probe” variety. The range of reactions among our crew went from “super easy, barely an inconvenience” to “you’ve given me a lobotomy” with violent sneezing and watering eyes. Good news. We were all negative.
By this time, it was getting near sunset, and we hadn’t caught one in Portugal yet. We’d been told that Portuguese love their sunsets. We were still at river level and we needed a good vantage point, so that meant there would be a lot of climbing. And climb we did (oddly passing our food tour guide from two days earlier en route). Up roads, alleys, and stairs to Jardim do Morro. This is a park on the south side of the river with a fairly steep hillside that looks out over a small road on its edge and, beyond that, a commanding view of the river flowing away to the west. It’s a great place to watch the sun go down. And everybody in town seems to know it. There were a pair of guitar players working together, providing entertainment to the folks on the hill, playing on a path just past the road. It was a festive atmosphere. The guy in front of us just had his own bottle of wine that he uncorked periodically to take a slug. The hillside was full of people lounging. There was a trailer selling beer and wine. Kenza managed to find cotton candy.
At one point, a young woman wearing a grape costume happened by the guitarists and started to dance. This prompted a little girl to join in. Eventually the grape woman was dancing with an older woman. As the sun set, the guitarists were playing an extended version of “Sultans of Swing.” I can’t begin to tell you how much I loved this moment. The weather was clear, calm, and comfortable. I’m in a beautiful, far away place surrounded by happy people. Sharing the moment with Amy, Cole, and Harper. There’s music. Dancing. The moment was simple. Human. Joyful.
Kenza stayed with us, but the other crew headed for home. We savored the evening a little longer as sunset turned to dusk. Eventually, we got up and headed back to the north side of the river, crossing the Douro River on the top deck of the Dom Luis I Bridge. At that moment, from that vantage point, it was impossible to take a bad picture.
Realizing that our time was coming to an end, I hit a souvenir shop and picked up a “Super Bock” shirt. We walked to the Majestic. The Majestic is an ornate (art nouveau, I’m told) café on Rua Santa Catarina, an extremely walkable outdoor mall full of restaurants and shops. The Majestic is famous for its architecture as well as for being, historically, a place where writers frequented, J.K. Rowling among them. It was nice to see, but we made a mistake trying to eat there. Nothing looked all that appealing. It was wildly overpriced and mediocre.
We got drinks and a basket of bread, paid out the nose, and got out of there. Amy and Kenza wanted francesinhas. The Majestic experience pushed the kids and I over the edge into wanting food that was cheap, fast, and unchallenging. “Mr. Pizza” was calling our name. The line at Café Santiago (where we’d eaten lunch the day before) was long. Amy and Kenza settled in. Cole, Harper, and I headed up the street to Mr. Pizza. In no time flat, we had 6 slices that they were practically giving away. We ate in the park where Amy had left her sweatshirt the day before. I’m not going to say the pizza was “good,” but it definitely scratched an itch. Greasy pizza-by-the-slice a few blocks from a college campus. You know the type. After we ate, Harper needed a bathroom, so we headed back to “Mr. Pizza.” Harper used the facilities, and Cole and I got more pizza. We headed back to the park to wait while Amy and Kenza worked their way through dinner. They gave up on Café Santiago and went to another francesinha restaurant in the area.
What we didn’t know when we sat down on the bench in the park is that our “Mr. Pizza” dinner was going to come with a show! We took to calling this guy “Il Borracho.” Total nonsense. We were butchering the words for “The Drunk” in Spanish. Not even close to that meaning in Portuguese. This guy was very active. He carried a portable barricade into the street, smashed a bottle, emptied trash, sat in the street in a swivel chair that he found god knows where. He generally rode the razor’s edge between being merely annoying and actually doing harm. He looked like he was going to pee in the streets several times. We joked that, in America, the cops would’ve shot him by now. Here, when the authorities actually showed, they were pretty tolerant. Eventually, Amy and Kenza came out and watched the show. After a while, we had to call it a night. We’d milked about as much as we could out of the day. We got gelato on the way home just to stretch it out a bit more. Fantastic day.
The Trip Home
We woke up at 7 and packed. For the life of me, I couldn’t find where the Airbnb instructions were telling us to put the trash. So, we left it bagged up in the apartment. We called an Uber at 7:30. The first crew got theirs with no incident. Ours just didn’t show. Amy had used her app, so I summoned one on my app. We watched our phones and neither of them materialized. They were either sitting still or getting further away. Amy used a different cab app trying to call one of those. Nothing. We got anxious, then desperate, then resigned. We knew that there were two trains getting to Lisbon before our flight. We’d booked the early one because the late one would be cutting it close. We were hopeful that we could get new tickets on the second train. As we’d become pretty sure there was no way to make the train, the icons on our apps started moving. Two of the cars arrived at exactly the same time. We irritated one by sending him away. Apparently we picked the right one because he got us to the train station pretty quickly. Grabbed our bags without even closing the doors on the Uber. Apologized to our driver as we were literally running to the station. Matt had texted us the platform number so we didn’t have to look around. The doors to the train were closed. We got mildly scolded by the conductors, but they let us on without any time at all to spare. We hadn’t gotten to our seats or put our bags up before the train started pulling away.
That got our hearts racing in the morning! We had coffee and snacks to calm down. In Lisbon, we had some time to kill and contemplated storing our bags in a locker and doing some exploring. But, the weather had turned cold and gross, so we just took the metro from the train station to the airport. In the airport, we spent frivolously at the duty free shop to burn the spare Euros we had in our pockets. Then, because we have a fancy pants travel credit card, we get into a number of airport lounges around the world. Lisbon, it turns out, has a pretty nice one. Plenty of seating. TVs with soccer on. A buffet. And a fridge stocked with Super Bock mini-bottles. Score!
We killed time in the lounge and then headed through customs. Amy was impressed and mildly shocked by Kenza taking a beer through passport control. We ended up on a flight home packed with guys from the North Dakota State soccer team. Some guy a couple of seats back had a nasty cough that was pretty steady for the entire eight hour flight home. Getting out of Chicago went just about as smoothly as you could hope. The guy driving the shuttle to long term parking wasn’t all that good at his job. It was constant gas/brake/gas/brake. He dropped a couple of buddies or co-workers off at a spot that definitely wasn’t a stop. And, I’m pretty sure he scraped a car in the lot when he didn’t make a turn as sharply as he should have. But, we got into our car at around midnight and headed for West Lafayette without much in the way of traffic. The moon was amazing. We got home at about 2 a.m. The puppies were glad to see us, and we were happy to see them. Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.