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The Iberian Horseshoe — A Journey

Part I. North West

Postcard from Oporto

Steve Porter
Smaller text sizeDefault text sizeBigger text size Add to my bookshelf epub mobi Permalink Ebook MapOporto, Ponte Dom Luis

The Sandeman silhouette, a figure with cape and a broad rimmed hat, was enjoying his eternal glass of port. Illuminated in the evening light but with his back to my camera, his anonymity remained intact.

The river flowed under the Ponte Dom Luis 1 on its way from central Spain to the Atlantic. The Portuguese writer, Jose Saramago, once stood a few hundred kilometres upstream from here at a narrow border crossing in the remote Tras-os-Montes region. He wondered if the fish needed passports to swim on through and what language they used.

To Portuguese-speaking fish this was o rio Douro. Their Spanish neighbours argued it was el río Duero. Hopefully, they understood each other, allowing the politics of the river to proceed along western democratic lines.

I was interrupted from my reverie by a boy crossing the bridge from the direction of Vila Nova de Gaia. He was selling knick-knacks. One of them was a Buddha with a sack containing a few worldly possessions. I bought the keepsake for two hundred escudos. The Buddha’s obese figure reminded me it was time to eat.

In a cheap restaurant off the Praça da Liberdade, I struggled through a plate of lulas com batatas. Surviving lulas swimming north of here, end up on Spanish menus as calamares. I prefer them battered rather than bland. This plain dish was served with only a side helping of boiled potatoes.

I found a hostel where the receptionist understood my basic Portuguese. I retired to my room and watched TV. Unable to comprehend the dialogue of a Brazilian soap opera, I zapped with the remote until BBC World came on and I fell asleep with the sights and sounds of an old episode of Bergerac.

I was in Oporto because it was a relatively easy and economical way to get to Galicia, the northern Spanish region that, glancing at a map, looks as though it should be part of Portugal. In fact, back in the eleventh century they were one and the same kingdom. But the ebb and low of royal successions led ultimately to Portuguese independence and Galicia becoming incorporated into the kingdom of Castille and Leon.

At Sao Bento station, blue, white and yellow tiles depict historic battles and Portuguese fleets sailing to the New World. I would have to come back to Oporto and learn how to navigate the narrow streets. I wrote postcards on the train. One of them showed women hanging out washing along the banks of the Douro. Such images seem quaint on holiday—I would not dream of buying a photo of somebody’s smalls hung out to dry on the Leith Waterfront. But tourists have a fascination with the mundane. Once, on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, I saw a workman ripping up the street with a pneumatic drill, while a group of Japanese snapped away like paparazzi. I wondered if the workman was irritated or flattered by their interest. He should have put down a wee bonnet and took a collection.

I turned over another postcard showing the central square, Praça da Liberdade, and wrote:

Dear Mary,

The Indian summer continues—a pleasant 23 degrees in Oporto. It may look very quiet and cultured but don’t be fooled by the absence of heavy traffic on the front of this card. Frustrated drivers and their honking horns are here in force. Yesterday, I took a stroll down by the riverside—a bit like Leith with palm trees. On my way to Vigo now to begin my new job.

Hope to see you in a month or two. Take care.

Love S. xxx

The train rattled along through lush countryside full of eucalyptus trees. Rain was falling as we crossed the bridge where the broad River Minho creates a natural border between Portugal and Spain. I interrupted the chatting couple next to me.

“¿Es la frontera, no?”

The woman confirmed this was so with a friendly smile and went back to her conversation in the soft mattress-selling zzzzzzz of Portuguese. It sent me into a light sleep, knowing I could relax a little, dream, and wake up with Spanish, a language in which I was more competent, if not at home with yet.

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Copyright ©Steve Porter, 2004
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Date of publicationDecember 2005
Collection RSSGlobal Fiction
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