The stories of a couchsurfer

Oporto: The unexpected

Portuguese ceramics

What to expect from a place like Portugal? It’s simply not a country that gets too much coverage or advertises itself for tourism too greatly, at least not in a far off country such as Australia. From time to time it briefly gets mentioned alongside Greece, Ireland and Spain and some of the worst affected countries of the Euro crisis. The country has been responsible for some of the earliest and most important European exploration but their heyday finished centuries ago. Their football team regularly punches above their weight given their reduced size and population and restaurants (at least in Australia) portray it as being full of a bunch of grilled chicken loving people.

That was the extent of knowledge about Portugal.

After Spain had caused such a shock in the challenges and issues that were faced, there was a deep fear that Portugal would continue to provide the same challenges but to a worse level. The lesser size and population of the country compared to Spain led to the assumption that it would be less advanced technologically and socially. Their greater isolation to the rest of Europe led to the assumption that their English capacity would be next to zero. The sheer fact that there were no real facts known about this place led to the assumption that there would not be any great deal of tourism to see. But the first stop of Oporto proved these assumptions wrong.

Oh, so wrong!

Just as landing in Madrid surprised a week earlier, Oporto also surprised, but on the other end of the spectrum. Oporto (Porto in Portuguese) is probably best known for the production of port wine, which originate in barrels on boats stationed on the Rio Douro – the river on which Oporto builds itself upon – before taking off for England and other parts. The Rio Douro winds itself through a series of hills quite close to the Atlantic Ocean to the west. One certainly wouldn’t call these hills “mountains”, but the steep decline of the hills to the river below produces a stunning landscape that Oporto lies on.

It means that the old city, and still the centre, of Oporto sprawls itself onto the steep inclines of the hills with long staircases providing pedestrian access between the residential areas close to the river. There’s no denying that in the old town the road network is a mess and it was (and still is) clearly difficult for the modern planners to be able to construct any form of main thoroughfare through the city. The result is a load of thin streets that make it difficult for driving, yet there still doesn’t seem to exist the same kind of traffic issues that plague some of the other towns already visited.

The public transport is fairly reliable, with a more than sufficient metro system servicing the city itself and an extensive suburban train network allowing travel to and from surrounding villages. These systems are simple to use and, refreshingly, they just work.

This is perhaps the best of all the surprises that Portugal has to offer when coming from Spain – their organisation. Networks have a system here. A well defined and well oiled system. The ticket machines here pose no risk of swallowing your money or card, are modern and actually provide helpful instructions – even in English if necessary. The trains quote a time and they appear at that time. The frequency of trains and the metro seems ideal, as they are never empty but also never too full to be uncomfortable either. The systems here in Oporto are simple yet effective. Granted, they weren’t tested during peak hour, however.

Here’s another surprise. Their English is more than adequate. Sure, they might make mistakes from time to time and it’s not fair to say that everyone can speak or understand the language, but it would be a fair estimation to say speaking to random people on the street would hit around an eighty percent strike rate. Translated English on ticket machines or menus, for example, are not broken English, as was the case in Spain. Things seem cleaner here – perhaps thanks to the place being more modern, but it still retains a great sense of history.

There’s no sense, however, of an economic crisis happening in Portugal. Facilities here are modern and well maintained. Construction is occurring and the shopping centres are filled with consumers. The services that work so effectively here do so because there is money spent on them. Most metro stations employ what seems to be a dedicated ticket assistant who helps you to purchase the right tickets for your needs. Every suburban train contains a ticket inspector. These kind of services are not what you would expect of a flailing economy that would most likely be looking for the most obvious resources to cut off to minimise expenses.

But perhaps everything is not as obvious as first pictured. Talk to the locals here and they will tell you that it’s simply a mentality thing. If the Portuguese have money, they will spend it. It’s a simple mentality. That is the purpose of money, after all. As soon as the European Union grants them some money, it will immediately be spent on upgrading highways or developing new shopping centres. There is no sense here to save, or indeed pay back, money. Looks can also be deceiving, as apparently the locals will tend to show off their possessions whenever possible. Joggers wearing the latest sportswear or iPods will jog in the heavily populated areas to ensure that people can see that they have the possessions. Businessmen will flash their phones out at any opportunity on the trains.

The people here are, for the most part, exceptionally friendly and willing to assist you when required. There is actually a great deal of tourism occurring here in Oporto and most of the systems accommodate this as well. The fact is that Oporto doesn’t really contain any stand-out landmarks or tourist attractions, besides perhaps that of the various caves (port cellars) that line the southern side of the Rio Douro that house the various port wines. But there are plenty of interesting areas and side streets to explore that it doesn’t really matter and you never find yourself longing for something grander.

Besides this, the stark contrast between Oporto and Salamanca before it just goes to confirm that it’s not the landmarks that are most important in order to enjoy a city, but instead the people. A great fear of the unknown has, this time, been alleviated and instead turned into a great excitement to continue exploring Portugal and it’s people.

Such are the ups and down of traveling.

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