I’ve never liked being a traditional tourist. I know that makes me sound like I think I’m above it all, but I genuinely dislike the process of “seeing the sights” and walking around like a herd of disruptive goats in a tour group. I may learn less, but I am much happier picking a cafe, sitting with a massive cup of coffee, and watching the world go by.
However, I had less than 24 hours left in Porto before I was set to begin my 150-mile hike north and my anxiety was off the charts. So I woke up on October 1st with a game plan:
- I needed food for the hike
- I needed clean clothing
- I needed to see the gold church
- I needed to see the river
- I needed to eat a Francesinha
The clothing was taken care of with some secret sink washing (despite the giant sign on the wall aimed at hikers warning us not to do this.) The food would have to come from somewhere in the city. Breakfast on the Camino was always tricky, especially since you tend to hit the road around 6am before things were open.
The hotel had a huge complimentary breakfast with nine–yes, I said nine–types of cake. Why does one need nine types of cake for breakfast? Unsure. But it gave me the feeling that Portugal had something figured out that we didn’t.
I took a seat on my own next to a television playing music videos from the movie Coyote Ugly, and since I was 13 when it came out (and was someone who owned the tape!), I know the words to every one of those songs. It was a nice, albeit weird, breakfast.
The air outside was the ideal mixture of autumnal clarity and cozy warmth from the last days of summer the week before. The morning was still misty and damp, and it appeared I’d beat all the tourists outside.
My destination was the Igreja de São Francisco, a 14th century church in honor of the early Franciscans. It was said to be one of the most stunning works of art in the city with more than 650 pounds of gold used throughout the decor. St. Francis was also believed to have walked the Camino as well, so it felt only fair to go have a moment with a fellow hiker.
I tested out my directional skills by memorizing the google map layout from my hotel to the Cathedral–about a 30-minute walk weaving through steep stone streets lined with pale blue and orange facades. The mist made the stones a bit slippery but the colors of the city came to life as the morning got on.
Finally winding down toward the Cathedral, I caught my first glimpse of the Douro River up close. I’d stared at these roads leading to the river from above for so many months, obsessing over the maps, coordinating my trip down to the last detail. But in person, I wanted to breathe in every ounce of the river’s air, blow off all my plans, and simply sit in wonder.
I temporarily turn away from the church plan, pulled in by the force of the river and walked further down to its edge. The boats were out of a book somewhere from a place you never get to visit. They were vibrantly colored and awaiting tourists with wine.
The months leading up to this trip were hectic and heart-wrenching. Ben and I had made the unexpected decision to bail on our picture-perfect suburban life for a leap back to New York City. It took seven years away from NYC to realize our loneliness and the weight of the suburban energy had worn us down into muted, angry artists.
But the move was hard and expensive, and I’d spent the weeks leading up to it counting down the days until I could be back in New York feeling whole again. As soon as we got there, I packed my bag and left. I missed my city, but the sight of the Douro reminded me why I was here: for true freedom that nothing back home could quite provide.
I headed back up to the church and wove my way through the catacombs, the museum, and finally, the gold-laden chapel that (out of respect) did not allow photos. I spoke with a woman at the front office about mass times–I may no longer be a practicing Catholic, but on the Camino, the ancient ritual comforts me. She explained they didn’t hold them anymore because it was too expensive. How sad, I thought. A holy place without ritual doesn’t seem right.
I purposely got a bit lost on my way back up the hill. I had all the time in the world, after all. There were no more planes to catch, no trains to buy tickets to, no hotels expecting me. The scheduling could be put to rest until I reached Santiago. And so, I wandered.
For lunch, I stopped into a white-tablecloth restaurant for the one planned meal of the trip. I was going to have a Francesinha. Not a quick, 5 Euro one from a fast food joint, but a NICE one. I’d learned about them, yet again, from Anthony Bourdain.
What is a Francesinha, you ask? Imagine a grilled cheese made with thick Texas toast filled with three types of meat, covered in another layer of melted cheese, and then doused in a tomato-beer sauce. Mine had a shrimp on it. And you eat it with french fries. Eating it was a religious experience. If you live in NYC and want a really good one, message me. I know the spot.
Filled with meat, cheese, and french fries, I dragged my happy and sleepy self to a grocery store for tomorrow’s trail food. The two women inside–who I guessed were sisters–were having a drag-out screaming match when I went in. As I hesitantly bought three apples and the heaviest loaf of bread I’ve ever picked up (I was flustered by the fighting), I paid without them even taking a breath in between the bickering. I oddly appreciated the lack of obsession with customer care. We put way too much focus on that in the US.
I spent one final hour sitting at a coffee shop on the main tourist road and wrote in my journal. I felt comforted and cared for in this city. It was a strange place with an energy I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but I didn’t want to leave. There was so much color and so much warmth. I felt at home here.
My love of the city was also bolstered by my terror of leaving the next morning. I knew how much it hurt to do the walk, but it’s not until you’re truly faced with the weight of your pack and the heaviness of a hot morning that it truly sinks in. If it had been my first Camino, I could have leaned on my ignorance. But I knew the truth.
I wrote in my journal, “You cannot stay in cities filled with rose-blue light forever. They are meant to be savored and left behind for your memory to enjoy.”
Taking in the last lights of the city, I head back to the hotel, resigned to not eat dinner since I am still so full from the Francesinha. The loaf of bread is so heavy that I have to eat as much as possible of it before I set out, otherwise it will weigh my pack down too much.
As night falls, I lay out my makeshift meal: an apple, some bread, and the port, chips, and chocolate supplied by the hotel. I flip on the TV and watch Groundhog’s Day with Portuguese subtitles.
I am terrified that I won’t sleep. I have never slept well the night before the Camino. 23 kilometers tomorrow. Little elevation but lots of hot road walking. I pack my bag for the morning and lay my clothing out. It’s the last time I’ll sleep alone in a room for weeks. I breathe and I write, “Porto has a hold on me, but I look forward to meeting the rest of Portugal.”
I set my alarm for 5am.