I know of a river
I know of a river
in which the only stars
that hover over it
are the lights of the city…
I know of a river
I know of a river
river where an absolute lie
has the flavor of truth
I know of a river
– Pedro Homem de Mello, Sei de um rio/I know of a river. Music: Alain Oulman. Fadista: Camané.
I feel like a child in a candy store when I return to Europe after an itinerant year in Africa. Emerging out of the metro station in Porto, Portugal, I see the impressive 1900s neoclassical town hall on my left, a grand descending Avenida dos Aliados on my right, and walk towards the hostel opposite the Teatro Municipal. After fifteen months of summer, I finally retrieve my jacket in my travel capsule wardrobe’s recess corners. In this brisk autumnal evening, I draw a few deep breaths, hastening my pace towards the glittering street lights like entering a stage, illuminated by a waxing moon. I know instantly that I’ve returned home, to grand boulevards and free air. They are my eternal Northern lights, the only bearings in my minimalist life.
My first picture is a morning view of the magnificent Art-Deco Rivoli Teatro. Minimalist, clean, fine lines, in perfect light and shadow! It sets the tone for the rest of my three-week stay in photogenic Portugal. I stroll along gentle rivers and taste old sweet wines, ride melancholic trams and wander up and down the cities’ signature ramps, linger around the innumerable miradouro where street music flows, before being pulled irresistibly inside a vintage bookstore, like entering a time machine to find a dog-eared copy of Viagem ao fim da noite, by Louis-Ferdinand Celine…
From Porto up North, I visit the UNESCO World Heritage medieval cities of Braga and Guimares before heading to Lisbon where I take day trips to nearby Sintra, Cascais, and Evora. Then, I follow the ocean’s call, down to Lagos and Faro to spend a relaxing third week along the southern coast before bidding farewell to Portugal. It’s November but the weather’s so balmy it feels like a second summer. What a generous country where all one wants to do is to wander!
I’m tempted to move to Porto, I confess to a fellow traveler. Wait till you go to Alfama in the capital to hear Fado…! he murmurs. What gorgeous Portuguese music and soul-stirring poetry, perfect reasons to move to a new country!
if only there was a day
flower verses so soft
on the branches with the cherries…
of this fado where I lie
up to your chest
in the veins of a guitar
– João Monge & Casimiro Ramos, Se Ao Menos Houvesse Um Dia/If Only There Was One Day.
The first thing I do in Porto is go say hello to Douro, this beautiful river where life and wine barrels flow. From Ribeira, the waterfront historic center, it’s a short stroll over a scenic bridge to Gaia with its treasure trove: the famous fortified wines of Porto. I follow my nose to Taylor’s cellar where Joao gives me a quick intro of Port Oenography for Dummies. The white and rosé are great aperitivos. For light desserts or dark chocolates, there’s always aged Tawny so syrupy that you feel the caramel, nut, and honey. Go for a Ruby if you’re in a mood for a pie of sour cherry or something decadently sweet like a chocolate ganache treat.
What might be a good gift for someone who appreciates something very full-bodied? I ask Joao.
We have a 1994 Tawny, a special year when Wine Spectator gave rare 100 points to both Taylor and Fonseca! he suggests. Or, if you want to splurge, our oldest single harvest is a Tawny from 1896. I can assure you your friend – or lover – would be impressed!
Oh, Porto is so sweet, the wine and the city!
Everything flows after such a sweet first morning filled with Port craving. From Ribeira, I ride a rickety old tram to the Foz lighthouse where locals chill along seaside cafes, reminiscing about the good old days. I take a detour to the marvellous Serralves Park and Museum where I admire the creative works by Franciso Tropa (Cinema 2016) and Christina Kubisch (The Greenhouse 2021), and the monumental eco-sculpture of Ai Wei Wei, Pequi Tree, an iron casting of a 1000-year-old Brazilian jungle tree. Famished and drunk with an overdose of culture, I take a sunset stroll to Matosinhos along the coast.
Where’s Casa Serrao? I ask a local.
Follow your nose! she quips.
Of course, she’s right. From coast to coast – and nose to nose – my first full day back in a European city ends with a classic Portuguese dish of grilled sardines, served with roasted buttered batatas. Life’s simplest, greatest pleasures!
From Porto, I take day trips to Braga and Guimaraes, medieval cities at their best. In Braga, I admire the 1000-year-old St. Paul’s cathedral cloaked in autumn clothes and the Bom Jesus sanctuary with beautiful fountains and gardens, vistas and sculptures, a place with soul. Guimaraes is known as the cradle of Portugal with an old castle and a famous olive tree in the center of the city. In both towns, I linger around the grand old buildings and cobble-stone streets, trying to capture fleeting light and shadow as the sun dips…
But my darling city remains Porto where I roam for days around the photogenic old town with pastel coloured buildings nested in narrow alleys and mazes, a scenic river front cast in subtle dusk light, and the most spectacular sunset high up from Miradouro de Morro…
And then there are the colors of Porto! Funky doors not far from classic Portuguese blue tiles, gorgeous azulejos, and highly attractive murals, sprouting here and there in an art-filled city with the pulse of Paris!
When evening comes, all one has to do is to follow the faint notes of guitars (not drums!). Crossing the bridge with a stupendous evening view of the city, I chance upon the Casa de Guitarra that I naturally enter, and a whole new universe opens from another era. Angelic Serafim is getting the stage ready, lending me a copy of A History of Portuguese Fado by Rui Vieira Nery. Ladies and Gentlemen, here’s our lead Portugese guitarrista, Alfredo Teixeira, and fadista, Rute Rita! Fado is so sweet that you have to close your eyes to taste its beats, until Serafim hands you a glass of Special Reserve Port and you find yourself in seventh heaven, wondering where all this subconscious yearning has been hiding. Não há fado sem saudade/There’s no Fado without longing…
For the rest of my stay in Porto, I just follow the flow. After a two-month break chilling in spectacular Canary Islands, Madeira, and Azores, what joy to return to portraiture: street artists showing their craft, residents milling about daily business, the ebbs and flows of life… And bonus: the Porto marathon that was cancelled last year runs back in full force with 10,000 participants! Go, ladies, go! Bravo, você é meu herói!
There’s so much light and energy in Porto that I leave only reluctantly, consoling myself with thoughts of a happy reunion and fantasies of daily morning strolls to hug the Douro. Lisbon is only three and a half hours away and the weather is milder, or so the locals say. I begin my week-long stay with an excursion to incredible Sintra, this Portuguese jewel nested in pine-covered hills. Eccentric King Dom Fernando wanted his palace to resemble an opera scene, with primary coloured castles set in a forest of jarring green. I meander through the trails between the iconic Penal Palace, Moorish Castle, and Regaleira Palace, like being in a fairytale onboard a time capsule, from Gothic to Renaissance styles, and back to the modern through the crisp thin air of autumn…
From Sintra, it’s a scenic bus ride to Cascais, passing through Cabo da Roca, the westernmost tip of Europe. Yes, people are still sunbathing in mid-November, no fair! And there’re happy hour and sushi bars, titillating Jazz clubs and a charming marina. I glide naturally along the coast to Boca do Inferno where seawater is supposed to strike its rocky walls, but the weather is so mild and gorgeous that Hell’s Mouth resembles more a heavenly fold in a glorious dusk glow!
I have been awaking early to visit all these luminous places. Just one last excursion to another picturesque World Heritage Roman city of Evora with white houses, blue tiles, and antique balconies. There’s the old wall, the aqueduct, and more cathedral, convents and palaces than one can see. As usual, I follow the light that takes me round and round the city, to unnamed places that only my lenses see!
Revisiting Lisbon has been an emotion-filled experience. I remember sitting in front of the Belem Tower, feasting on delicious summer cherries, whiling a lazy afternoon away in a forgone university era when I made my debut backpacking trip to Europe that would make the traveler I am today. Oh, those were the days… Incredibly enough, the legendary Pasteis de Belem is still churning out the same warm pastel de nata with crispy bottom and fondant center. What a sensory trek down memory lane!
Lisbon is such a walkable city. From Bairro Alto, I cross Rossio Square in the direction of the Sao Jorge castle in Alfama. My DIY photography tour begins with Mouraria, the birthplace of Fado, along the narrow alleys of Who’s Who in the world of famous guitarristas and fadistas, from Amalia Rodriguez and Maria de Fe to Argentina Santos, and Carlos do Carmo to Camane… I know of a river, I know of a river in which the only stars that hover over it are the lights of the city!
For a week, I follow the light that takes me through downtown to the bohemian and Moorish quarters where a small South Asian community has settled, with the Indians dominating in Mouraria and the Pakistanis in Alfama. I chat with Azad from Bnahmanbania, Bangladesh, who arrived here two months ago from Paris. “Portugal is the easiest country to get citizenship. If I stay here for six years, I’m good to go!” he says. Centuries of immigration make culturally rich Portugal what it is. I tramp up and down, from one miradouro to another, falling in love with this jewel of a city a second time!
Twilight in Lisbon is a pure delight. From Alfama, I walk down to Baixo, the downtown area, and take a ferry across the bay to the imposing statue of Christo Rei. What a palette of colors, from Lisbon all the way to Sintra!
I love being in a city, with all its architectural wonders and rich cultural offers. In Belem, I linger for a long time in the plaza of the Champalimaud Foundation for cancer research to watch a child learn how to ride a scooter and admire natural wonders. Lisbon has so many narrow streets and old buildings, long stairs and big walls, it’s a real delight to experiment with light and shadow. All I need to do is just follow!
Did I forget to mention Portuguese cuisine that alone should entice anyone to seriously consider defection? Follow your nose indeed has been excellent advice from locals. Seafood lovers are spoiled with an embarrassment of choices of some of the best fresh tuna, cod, seabream, and langoustine, all enjoyed with river and sunset views. Everywhere I go, the cities are filled with local variations of young green wines paired with age-old recipes of highly edible sweet pastéis. One cannot go to Porto without gorging on Frencesinha, a totally unhealthy Portuguese version of croque monsieur, filled with steak, ham, bacon, and extra cheese, the same way one suffers from an overdose of pastel de nata from Mantegaira. What a gastronomic tour filled to the brim with delectable flavours!
I have never found farewells easy. For my last evening in Lisbon, with Irina, Oana, and Manoraj, I return to Alfama to hear Fado in her cradle at O Corrido to remember the sweet notes of sorrow…
it still wasn’t the pain and it was the sorrow
it wasn’t the hope yet, it was the faith
it wasn’t the boat yet and it was the board
it still wasn’t and it already was what it is
it wasn’t the voice yet and it was the saudade
it wasn’t the sea yet and it was the singing
even before being at ease
it was still nothing and it was so much
it was still night and it was departure
it still wasn’t love and you
it was nothing yet and it was life
it wasn’t a dream yet and it already exists
– Ainda Assim/Even So
I spend my last week in the Southern coast of Portugal, chilling in sunny beaches and hiking along empty trails. From Lagos to Sagres, Portimao to Faro, there are miles of wild, spectacular coast, tall cliffs, and secluded beaches, a paradise for surfers, off-season trekkers following the fishermen’s path along Algarve, and blessed travellers who linger in November…
Alas, farewell I must say after such a blissful three-week stay, soaking up all the colours and minerals. Often I walk with my eyes closed, the sun so strong and the sea so close. And then there’s Fado, echoing in my head wherever I go. Obrigada, Portugal, for all your light and shadow!
break the light between the extremes
from the same renewed dawn
and vibrates every moment a new scream
it’s with this light from the scream that we see
that past and future are nothing
only the present is infinite
– David Mourão-Ferreira, Infinito Presente. Fadista: Camané.
Next: Love of My Loves: Andalusia!
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