Perhaps the biggest surprise I’ve had thus far is how much I loved Porto. I visited the major Portuguese city last weekend, just before the major Spanish puente (4-day weekend, when it seems like almost everyone goes traveling – including me, to Granada in a day). While I’ve always had a major fascination and love for Portugal – its culture, language, and football players included – I was a little shocked at how much I liked the city. Maybe a more accurate way of putting it is to say that while I’ve always felt a little Portuguese (despite not being Portuguese at all), I didn’t actually expect to feel completely comfortable whilst there. My travels to Spain have been nothing short of a rude awakening – that Spanish culture certainly isn’t fully in line with who I am – but a short trip to Spain’s neighbour reminded me just how bizarre this thing called travel can be when we feel familiar in a foreign place.
I’m reminded of the security guard at my old job – the one I worked with in the government, not even that long ago, while still in school. My days at school and work always felt a bit like a drag, as if I wasn’t really treating myself to anything. I knew that hard work paid off, as it always has, and I’ve never been lacking in motivation. However, a random talk with my security guard around the time that I was deliberating doing post-graduate traveling pushed me to face my fears and jump into the unknown.
My security guard – we can call him Hugo – was a man I passed by at work every day. I usually gave him a smile, maybe a “hey”, but nothing more. One day, though, something in me urged me to be a little warmer; while I consider myself friendly, I often pass by people on the way to work. Hugo turned out to be a highly inspirational Canadian man of Portuguese descent. He told me all about how he traveled when he was younger, and how his family tried to talk him out of it. Hugo’s words of assurance – the ones that told me that I had to do it while I still could, and that I couldn’t let others control my goals and aspirations, no matter how unconventional they were – gave me a huge boost of confidence that day. Even better, Hugo told me he would have guessed I was Portuguese like him, and that I had something Portuguese to me.
Now, this brings me to Porto. Portugal is a diverse country; Hugo’s from the Azores islands, deep in the south, whilst Porto is in the north of the country. However, I was still urged to visit Porto. I didn’t know much about the city, other than that it happened to be a more industrial city in comparison to Lisbon. I was expecting a city with a cool atmosphere – where the people weren’t as open or friendly, and where the buildings looked a little futuristic. I knew Porto had a rich history, as does all of Portugal, but I was blown away by just how historical the town actually is.
There are cities in Spain – Madrid in particular – that often look as though they have absolutely no history behind them, if you go further back than 50 years ago. Porto, however, screams history – it lives in the buildings, for better or for worse, and in how much the people appreciate their major monuments. Like Seville, Porto has a UNESCO World Heritage site that was once one of the tallest structures in Europe, which has made the citizens of the city discourage the formation of new skyscrapers that would overshadow it. The people of Porto thrive on what they have – small town charm despite being larger in size. Along with this charm, the people of the city exude a warmth and a welcomeness I wasn’t really expecting. As I said, I had always pictured the north of Portugal to be colder, as the north tends to be in most countries, but it just so happened that this wasn’t the case in Portugal.
Another, maybe more minuscule for others, thing that attracted me to the city was all of its Harry Potter references. Porto is one of the birthplaces of the Harry Potter books; it’s where J.K. Rowling wrote much of the first few books, and where she got a lot of her inspiration from. Just having walked around the city – including seeing certain buildings that were reminiscent of Hogwards, seeing students in long, black robes, and seeing the effect of their very own Salazar villain – made it obvious. So much of Porto is a huge part of these books, and as a Harry Potter fan (as a kid, and now), it was nothing short of “brilliant”. Luckily, I was able to eat at the Majestic Cafe, where Jo actually sat down and wrote the books.
Not only is Porto rich in history and Harry Potter references, it also subtly references the navigation age on more than one occasion. A visit to the actual port in the city shows this, as there are still pirate boats around. Portugal has a vast history in navigation, and it shows. This, being majorly influenced by Portugal’s ridiculously long coastal line, is another reason why I love the city – for my own love of navigation. Porto’s river is not only beautiful, but its beach is also a huge fresh of breath air from the landlocked nature of central Spain. Being an avid swimmer and beach-lover, this only gave it even more points in my book.
At the end of the day, while some cities attract people for their monuments, their namesake, or what ever else, Porto meshed with me in a comforting way. It almost felt like the city knew who I was, and gave me what I wanted. As my old friend Hugo said, I guess I may be connected to this country in some way.