Any Porto in the Storm

Our marathon day leaving the African continent began with an emotional goodbye in Niamey and a 3 a.m. flight to Casablanca, followed by a 6-hour layover in this airport that often serves as the gateway to Africa. Supremely modern in some respects – you can buy a $2 espresso and enjoy it with an equally overpriced croissant in bone-chilling air conditioning – you’re also just as likely to see a man clear his throat onto the floor on his way to pray, presumably unaware that marble’s not as absorbent as sand.

From Casablanca, we flew to Lisbon, partly because we’d enjoyed Portugal when we’d visited there six years ago, and partly because it was the cheapest ticket out of Africa. Originally, we’d planned to fly from Accra, Ghana, but an extra day here and another there to explore a beach in Senegal or a mountain town in Morocco meant that we didn’t have nearly as much time as we thought we would.

Still in the West African traveling mode, we steeled ourselves for the challenge of making the three-hour trek from Lisbon to Porto. In reality, the trip breezed by – we hopped a public bus from the airport to the beautiful train station in Lisbon, watched the country green and become more mountainous on the train to Porto, and a short metro ride and walk later, we were at Pensão Residencial LIS.

This guesthouse was sort of a random choice – we picked them because they let us send some stuff ahead and they kept it for the month we were traveling in Africa. But we lucked out. For 40 euros a night, our room was perfect and even came with a small bottle of the owner’s own 20-year-old port.

Traveling without guidebooks through much of France, Spain and Portugal has been a bit of a new experience for both of us. It meant we relied on hotel maps and tourist brochures a lot of times to find the sights. But it also meant talking to a lot more people, a skill Anne-Claire has a real genius for. Whether simply asking which bus to take or teasing the most enthusiastic restaurant recommendations out of a stranger on the street, we got to see up close just how proud most people are of the cities they live in, and provided a few surprises along the way.

We met a Malian who’s been in Portugal for 10 years. He has an African art shop in town, and when we greeted him in Bambara at a little street market in Gaia where he had a stall set up, I think he would have been less surprised by some sort of religious vision.

What was originally intended to be a one-night stopover on our way up to northern Spain turned into three nights of much needed rest in a city that charmed us with its location, its people and its laidback vibe. Folks from the northern part of the country like to think they’re a bit friendlier than those in the rest of Portugal, according to our guide at Graham’s Port Cellar in Gaia, one of two cellars we visited, with their prominent signs dotting the hillside across the Douro River canyon from Porto.

Our guide at Graham’s certainly was as friendly as advertised, and he spoke perfect English, thanks, he said, to the fact that Portugal gets original versions of American films with subtitles, rather than cuts with the voices dubbed over in another language as is common in France and Germany. It’s the second time I’ve heard that as an explanation for why someone spoke stellar English (the other was in Morocco), and I must say they both convinced me that it’s not a half-bad way to learn a language.

Port is one of my favorite drinks, so I enjoyed strolling the aisles in the cellars filled with massive barrels of the stuff, aging before being bottled and sold. In the same way that Champagne can only be called Champagne if it comes from that region of northern France, Port must come exclusively from grapes grown in the Douro Region of Portugal, west of the city of Porto. Otherwise, it’s supposed to be called fortified wine – fortified because before the typical conversion of sugars into alcohol by the yeast added to wine is complete, a very strong more-or-less flavorless brandy is added that kills the yeast. This step preserves some of the sugars originally present from the grapes and also pumps up the alcohol content to around 20 percent.

Tucked in the Graham family’s private selection are a couple bottles of port from 1868. That was a vintage year, which means the conditions were especially good in the Douro Valley. That’s no guarantee that it would be an excellent Port, but they tend to bottle 2 or 3 vintages every decade in the hopes of making a superlative batch. Prices for vintages are on balance quite a bit higher than the blended 10-, 20-, and 30-year varieties you can find at most stores. It was our guide’s last day before his vacation, and as he was in a good mood, he let us sample a vintage from our birth year in addition to the 3 other types of port we sampled after the tour.

The rest of our time in Porto, we enjoyed the sunshine, took a boat to see the six bridges that span the huge Douro River canyon within the city’s boundaries, and basically just basked in the ease of traveling in Europe again. Portugal’s the first country I ever visited in Europe, but it’s one I’ve spent far too little time in. Just like the first time we visited when we were volunteers, it provided us the respite we were looking for.

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