Travel Essays

The City Where the River Meets the Ocean

Down the hill?” my friend, Ariana, and I asked. The man, probably a native on his way to pick up his child from school, nodded at us lost American girls. He seemed to take stock in our appearance; we shifted on our feet, trying to find a patch of flesh that had not been abused by the cobblestone roads, and our eyes were glazed with hunger.

“Yes,” he responded in Portuguese. “Down.” Ariana and I looked at each other. Down? Now we were really lost. We thanked the man and slumped down the hill, our boots clacking and dragging along the uneven cobblestone with each step.

“How are we even lost? Everyone said to go up and take the second right. I mean, that’s what I thought they said. Didn’t they?” Ariana asked.

“I thought they did.”

“At least we kind of understand Portuguese.”

“Well, it didn’t help us all that much. That guy just told us to go down. Down!” I nervously laughed, my voice pitching higher. It was two in the afternoon and we had been walking up and down the yawning hills of Porto, Portugal for four hours in search of a winery on the other side the Duoro River, in a city called Vila Nova de Gaia. We had been told to simply cross the double-level bridge, take the road that swung to the right, and follow it for about a quarter of a mile to our reward of a free tasting. As college students on study abroad, affectionately known as “drunk abroad,” we were not going to let a bridge and a hill stand between us and free alcohol. It was a cultural experience, right?

“No one has told us to go downhill since we were on the other side of the river!” I gestured frantically downhill. “He can’t be right.”

“Worst case scenario we head downhill, and we find food and a bathroom. And at this point, that sounds pretty damn good,” Ariana crossed her arms.

“I hate asking for directions,” I scowled, matching Ariana’s posture.

We began our march of defeat, reflecting that our day had started out so well, only to have our hopes of free wine dashed.

It was the first full day of our trip to Porto, and already the city where the river meets the ocean had practically destroyed my boots and charmed me so much that it made me blush like a schoolgirl. The ocean crashed against the seawall, sending up spray as the costal wind made knotted messes of Ariana’s and my curly hair. That morning we climbed the of the Torre dos Clérigos, whose 225 spiraling steps grew narrower at every floor until the city blinked its drowsy morning eyes all around us. A kaleidoscope of buildings with terracotta rooftops rolled up and down hills, dropping where the late morning fog settled over the River Duoro, then rising again up the seemingly innocent hills on the other side of the river.

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We had done quite well for ourselves—without asking for any directions—and stowed away our map for the morning, deciding that after seeing the tower, we would simply continue going downhill until we hit the river, at which point we would cross the bridge and seek out our free alcohol. Ariana had not tried much wine before, and I had already enabled her new addiction to coffee, so I was feeling like a very good bad influence. Wine would be had, but we had to get there first.

As we wandered downhill, we saw little old ladies sweeping the front steps of their yellow houses—they, in turn, carefully eyed us outsiders. Ariana and I came across a church, Igreja de São Francisco, that seemed vaguely important, and we decided to pay the small entrance fee to take a look inside. Cameras weren’t allowed, but they wouldn’t have done the church justice anyway: the entire interior was gilded in gold. We spent an hour in that single room, our eyes trying to memorize the curves and styling of the gold, the purity of the color, and the way it shone. During my four-day trip to Porto, I took over 600 pictures—very excessive in hindsight—but it’s the church I remember best, the church whose interior I could only capture with my eyes and not my camera lens.

This success convinced me that we needed neither maps nor directions. We were two self-sufficient travelers, and we could manage quite well on our own. Such was the feeling of invincibility I had during the first ten minutes of our trek uphill once we crossed the river, which was lined with docked sailboats that resembled lean gondolas and bore the names of the wineries who painted their names on their roofs. Ten minutes turned into fifteen minutes. Ariana asked for directions, I smiled in gratitude off to the side, and we followed the directions to go up and take the second right. Fifteen minutes turned into twenty, and Ariana asked another person. I smiled again—a hopeful, “I’m lost but you want to help me” smile—and we received the same instructions, my smile reflected in the faces of our helpers. When Ariana asked one man outside a bar for directions, the entire bar ended up putting down drinks and pointing us up the hill.

Ariana and I could only speak Spanish to the strangers who guided us up the hill, but there was a vague mutual understanding that pushed us upward and onward. Our helpers pointed and gestured and repeated themselves until they believed that we understood. We were bid farewell and good luck by these strangers with what we believed were terms of endearment, an unassuming act of kindness that we did not know how to repay.

In the end, we found the winery on our trudge down the hill. We realized that the second right that we had desperately searched was under construction, so we had missed the turnoff. Exhausted and with empty stomachs, we sipped our sweet wine and sashayed light-headed through the gardens where peacocks strutted. Down the hill, the city where the river meets the ocean stretched, its shorefront dotted with colorful stacked houses that reminded me of postcards of Venice. At last satisfied by our adventure, we rushed downhill for a full lunch and wandered back to the bridge to cross the river.

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By the time we returned to our hostel and collapsed on the floor, we never wanted to see a cobblestone hill again. Too tired to curl up on our beds, we had torn our shoes off our feet and never managed to leave the floor. That was where our hostel roommate, Neils from Belgium, first encountered us. Small talk began, and he joined us on the floor. Nearly three hours later, after talking about the Obama administration, the pros and cons of universal health care, Bush, genocide, climate change, and civic duties, Neils confessed to Ariana and me that we had changed his perspective on Americans for the better. Just three hours before we were perfect strangers, but after that conversation, Neils invited us to join him for dinner because a native was going to show him the classic eateries of the city.

Our eyes poured over the menus as our tongues tried to wrap themselves around the foreign language whose only words we truly knew were “up” and “down.” We pointed and asked questions and smiled at more strangers; we received answers and explanations and smiles in return. But such was the nature of Porto: its kindness was as generous as the sweet wine produced on the other side of the river, and only a small sample proved satisfying.

Ariana and I were very disappointed when we managed to not catch Neils before he departed; we had at least hoped to give him our e-mails or connect on Facebook to thank him for the food and the conversation. We were left with the same feeling of hopelessness as we were when trudging up the hill to the winery, our fate resting on the directions of a few kind strangers. Our relationships were fleeting, but the amiability and that wine still resonates with Ariana and me over a year later. Like many things in life, the good things of that trip were free: wine, kindness, and perfectly accurate directions. I did, however, need to re-sole my boots.

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