Porto

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As I write, I’m on a rather bumpy overnight speed train to Madrid. (Yay Spain!) This morning we were suppose to buy sleeping accommodations for our night train but somehow the term “bed” got lost in translation and the [unhelpful] lady at the ticket counter said “bed” when she really meant “seat”. Did I mention this is an 10 hour train? Seats. Awesome. Okay, I’m digressing…back to Porto. 🙂

Easy Jet is the airline that took us from Paris, France to Porto, Portugal in a cute little plane. This marked my first time walking on a tarmac and up a mobile staircase to get on a plane. Checking that off my bucket list.

From the airport we took the metro train to Porto and arrived in the evening. Our first hostel of the trip, ‘Yes! Hostel Porto’, was conveniently located near the metro station which was amazing because the city of Porto has a LOT of hills. Combine hills with about 35lbs. on my back and 10lbs. on my front on travel days and, well, my calves are looking pretty nice these days.

Yes! Hostel Porto was modern, clean and, best of all, had free breakfast! We were greeted by a sweet young lady named Amanda, from Brazil, who offered us a complimentary drink, got us checked in, and made us feel very at home.

We climbed the stairs to our four-bed hostel room located on the fourth floor, at the very top of the building. It had three windows, all with really cool, different views. Since we were at the very top, the ceilings were slanted making the room feel cozy. Everything was white and light wood. It almost felt like an attic converted into a dorm room. At night, we had an especially great view of the church next-door.

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After getting settled we were both starving and tired, not the best combination. We walked, searching for a recommended restaurant, but found that the streets of Porto were a little tricky to navigate. When we found the restaurant, it was closed. We gave up. Our white flag went up and we marched are American selves into the only thing that was nearby and open… McDonald’s.

Back at the hostel, I realized this would be my first time since summer camp when I was 12 experiencing sharing a room with total strangers. I prepped myself mentally for what was to come, but really had no clue what to expect. Were we going to be roomed with people who come back late and made a lot if noise? Would we be able to communicate with our roommates? All I knew is that everyone would be different and I would have to have the most respect for my surroundings and hope for the same in return.

Our first roommate, Ping, was from Hong Kong and we saw her very briefly, but heard her come in later around 3am from a night out. Which was great for her, we totally support partying. But I’m still wondering why she felt the need to shower that early, mess with her bags, loudly brush her hair, and then get out her bright iPad for an hour when we had a lounge area directly outside our door. Not cool Ping. Maybe it came down to a difference in culture, who knows. My sleep mask would definitely be on the next night.

Our other roommate in the same room was one to take hostel etiquette notes from. Coming from northern Italy, in a region known as Friuli-Venezia Giulia, near the borders of Austria and Slovenia, Filippo was a 22-year-old guy, curious to learn more English and see the world. He had studied Spanish in school so he and I were able to communicate a bit. He would go out each day he was in Porto and experience the city, the food, meet new people in the hostel, and go on the walking tours even when it was raining. Just like us, he would try to take advantage of all the amenities the hostel and city provided, but he was alone. That is how you travel. Thanks for being a great roommate Filippo!

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So those were my first two hostel roommates and they were completely different. This let me know that there cannot be expectations and I just had to hope for the best in people.

Our first morning in Porto, we grabbed our complimentary breakfast and headed out on our first walking tour of the trip. If you’ve never done a walking tour while in Europe, I highly recommend doing so. There are lot of companies that run the tours in each city and in my opinion the best ones are free, just tip-driven. These tours give you an insider’s view of the city; some history, some culture, some warnings and some suggestions.

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We loved the city of Porto. We weaved in and out of its mosaic streets, climbing hills and stairs through tiny crooked streets, finding castles, great views, and an incredible church.

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Our tour guide and group ended up being so fun, almost the entire group went out for lunch together.

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We kept it traditional and all tried some vinho verde (light green Portuguese wine) and Franchesshina, a yummy hot sandwich of ham, egg, and cheese in between layers of toast and drenched in a spicy sauce.

The next morning (February 14th, Valentine’s day!) it was off to a port tasting appointment across the Douro river at Taylor Fladgate.

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I wish you all could have seen us walking across that huge bridge. There was a storm front moving in and we were walking against at least 40mph gusts about 300 feet in the air. I thought I was going to fly away!

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Anyway, we made it in time for our tour, educating us on some of the best ports in the world and then getting to taste 13 of them. It was a good thing I had breakfast prior.

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I won’t bore you with what I learned about port…that the fruit is chosen from about thirty red grape varieties, it works together with the highest quality brandy like instruments in an orchestra, and creates a subtle, complex and multi-dimensional harmony as it ages. I won’t go on about all that. But I will say we sampled late bottle vintage ports, tawny ports, and a first estate reserve port; each one more complex than the last.

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Our hosts, Robert and Fernando, were excellent and got us set up in a tasting room that overlooked the Douro river we had crossed. Robert, who was well-studied in microbiology, began our tour of the facilities. He explained the terrior, the role the river had in transportation in the beginning, the barreling, the manual stomping, the aging, etc. Somehow, Robert made a laborious, complex process seem understandable.

Before beginning tasting Robert left for an appointment and Fernando took over hosting duties. By the thirteenth and final taste of port, we were asked which one we enjoyed the most and got to keep the rest of the bottle, which we appreciated very much. ‘Taylor’s 20 Year Old Tawny Porto’ was the perfect Valentine’s day treat. Thanks again for the tour and education guys.

While we spoke to Fernando about port, we got to talking about our trip and what was next. When we told him that we planned to take a train to Lisbon that Sunday, he said he was actually driving to Lisbon on Sunday for a Portuguese food and wine exposition and would be happy to give us a ride. What luck! So we arranged a meeting time at the train station (since we aren’t using our cell phones) and when Sunday came he was there waiting for us. We had a free (2.5 hour) ride full of good conversation and music, stopped for an espresso and, my favorite, Nata (a Portuguese dessert) and got dropped right in front of our next hostel reservation. Big thanks again to Fernando.

From the world renowned hostel we stayed in, to the people and geography, Porto was a wonderful experience for us. We knew the overall hospitality and charm of the city were going to be hard to top, but looked forward to our next stop–Lisbon, Portugal!

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Paris: A Bittersweet Ending

We were excited to get back to Paris because the trip was going to change course. It was going to be a bit more cultural and personal; just what we were looking for.

We took my parents to their hotel, dropped our bags and got cleaned up over a nice cold beer from the corner store. I was getting pumped up for several reasons. Julia has never met my French brother Vincent, who came to the US on an exchange program when we were both 14, and we have been going back and forth to stay with each other ever since, so I was excited to introduce them. We were also going to his parent’s house, which is where I have stayed in the past, so it was the first in-home experience for Jules and my parents. And lastly, Vince’s mom is one hell of a cook, so I knew we were in for some awesome French food and wine!

After Julia’s first white nuckeled ride on Paris roads driven by a Frenchman, we arrived at the house. We walk in from the cold air to a warm home filled with wonderful smells of food being cooked. Within two minutes we had drinks and hors d’oeuvre in our hands. We were also graced by Vincent’s girlfriend Swann who Julia made fast friends with. After we caught up on what we’ve missed in each others lives and we show them the video of the proposal, it was time for dinner. Four courses and five bottles of wine later we were full of marvelous French home cooking and I’m reminded why this feels like my home away from home.

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My parents get dropped off at their hotel by Vincent’s father, and we head to Vince and Swann’s place. They have a great place in the town of Montmartre where the famous Sacre Couer cathedral is and the Moulin Rouge is only a couple blocks away. Oh, and they have a view of the city, so it was a pretty damn cool place to kick our feet up for our few remaining days in France.

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That next day was the last day for my parents, so we explored the Louvre, saw the Mona Lisa and a bunch of paintings of naked babies and topless women.

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Above: I’ve seen this in person three times now and just now realized the model has both male and female parts. Did you ever think a solid slab of marble could look so comfortable though?

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No explanation needed.

We followed with a trip to the Champs E’Lysee and the L’arc de Triumph and ultimately to Sacre Coeur and the lookout point of Paris.

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We walked about the quaint hilltop town and the small cafe-lined town square which is famous for artists doing portraits of interested tourists and selling their art. We made our way into a nice little cafe off the beaten path for a quick lunch before heading back to Vince and Swann’s.

We have an ongoing issue with communication via electronics, as we have no phone and we need WiFi to connect to email, and you have to buy something somewhere to get their WiFi. We needed Vince so we could get into his place, but we had no way to get ahold of him. I kid you not, as we luckily stumble upon their place, Vince yells from across the street…he way just walking over from parking his car. It’s hard to explain, but the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. We very well could have been stranded outside for hours. We get inside and we say a final farewell to my parents as they head on their way with the tools I imparted to them on how to navigate the mean streets (metro) of Paris. Now, it’s just us.

That night we had Raqulette which is one of my favorite meals when I’m in France, and now Julia is a big fan as well. Basically you need a delicious assortment of different thinly sliced meats, cheeses, boiled Yukon gold potatoes, some fancy mustards, and of course a fresh baguette. Then you take your own mini skillet that’s about 3in x 3in and place whatever combo of meat, cheese, and bread or potato into the skillet and place into the device within the heating elements. What comes out is a divine melted meaty creation.

On a side note, I’m writing this on a train going 186mph across Spain and I’m now craving Raqulette and there not a damn thing I can do about it. Anyway, it’s a total comfort food that’s perfect for sharing with a small group of friends and family on a cold night.

We woke up at our leisure that next morning and headed to a bakery across the street for some croissants before setting out for the day. We had decided to do something that usually flies below the radar when people visit Paris; the Catacombs. I have already been, so I was excited to see Julia’s reaction to being ninety feet below the streets of Paris in a dimly lit tunnel system filed with the bones of an estimate 6,000,000 people. Yes, it sounds creepy, and it is. If you’re claustrophobic, afraid of the dark, afraid of dead people, or any combination of those, this may not be for you. Basically as Paris was expanding in the early 1700’s they started running out of room in the cemeteries and there was fear of disease, so King Louis XIV commissioned the churches to exhume the bodies in their cemeteries for relocation. They excavated a huge tunnel system over a half mile long, over almost 100 years and filled it with bones. But they decided to be artistic with it. They made walls with the femurs and the skulls about five feet tall and made designs with them, and then backfilled about ten feet with the rest of the bones.

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As we walked down the dark corridors getting dripped on by the ground water coming through the rock ceiling that was about 3in above my head, Julia started getting freaked out. She had the camera on her and would take a picture into the rooms that had big locked iron gates to illuminate whatever may be in there. It would make for a perfect horror movie scene; the flash quickly illuminated the pitch dark room, only to see some unearthly monster lunging at you. Needless to say she was glued to my side. After she got used to it, she was off taking pictures and enjoying herself as usual.

That evening we were in for a good time as it was Swann’s father’s birthday. These people are awesome. A couple years ago they had me and my friend Elliott over while they opened their Christmas presents with family, and even went as far as to get us presents. This is the French family life that few get to experience and I love the fact that Julia got to experience it with me. Regardless of the major language barrier, we laughed and drank and tried to figure out what each other was saying. Julia, in her trial fashion was not shy and tried her best to communicate with everyone. By the end of the night we were crowded around the TV while Julia and Swann’s sister sang Karaoke together. It was a hell of a fun night and we didn’t even have to go out on the town.

We said our goodbyes and gave our most sincere thank you’s to Vince and Swann for letting us crash on their couch as that next day was to be our last in Paris. Yet it seemed as though the city did not want us to leave. I had used Vince’s computer the night before to upload the proposal video and failed to take it out, because I’m awesome like that. Vince and Swann headed off to work early that morning, saying goodbye one last time. As I began double checking our flight time for 5pm, Julia turned on the camera to view pictures and realized I forgot the memory card in Vince’s laptop. No big deal, I could just take the metro to Vince, meet him at 2 be back by 2:30 make it to the airport by 3 to fly to Portugal. Wrong.

It started off fine, then the lights on my train turn off and we stop in the middle of a tunnel. Not cool. We sit there for ten minutes before we moved again. We made it to the next station where they said everyone needs to get off the train as there was a “grave accident on the tracks”. The line was shut for who knows how long and I was still several miles away. Myself along with 100+ people make or way out and cross the bus stop. I wasn’t going anywhere soon. This big problem because I have no phone and no way to tell Vince that I will be late, and he planned to meet me next to the metro stop but couldn’t be there long because he was supposed to be inside working. I bit the bullet and hailed a cab. 12€ later I made it. And wouldn’t you know it, no Vince in site. After all, I was 30 minuets late. Men with guns blocked the metro stop entrance, and right as I was about to take a cab back, they let us into the metro. I ran my out of shape ass back to the house where Julia was waiting. We rounded everything up and made it to the airport with one hour of our flight time. I didn’t get the memory card, but we made our flight just in time.

We both were sad to be leaving such a great city and our dear friends, but we were excited to be moving on to Porto, Portugal. After all, once we get there we really are on our own. And may I mention that neither of us speak Portuguese. This should get interesting.