I was really under-informed about how many vacation/holidays there are in France. Maybe I should have done more research, but if I had known that the French got so many “religious” holidays wherein we didn’t have class, I would have saved more money and taken way more side trips. As it was though, the final holidays of my Spring semester sort of snuck up on me. It wasn’t until Ariel tried to plan a trip with me (which I suspect she only did because Madison was going to Paris with her boyfriend) that I realized it was our last opportunity to go out of town. Since we had German friends, we planned to go to Munich. But that turned out to be insanely expensive. Then we planned to go to Budapest, or Prague, but the timing wouldn’t work out for lodging or air travel. Finally, we settled on Porto, Portugal. But Ariel had never been to Bordeaux. So we first planned to spend a day there, and fly to Porto from the Bordeaux Airport, which would be much cheaper than trying to fly out of the smaller Clermont Airport.
We took a Flixbus to Bordeaux, and I’d texted Leo and Isabelle to let them know that I was fulfilling my promise to visit one more time before going back to the U.S. Unfortunately, it was a little short notice for Leo, who was working outside the city and couldn’t get a day off in time to come see me. But Isabelle was all too happy to meet us and show us around the city.
Ariel and I arrived in Bordeaux right on schedule, and found our AirBnB, which was much cheaper than we expected it to be for such a great location. Our hosts were kind, showed us to our room and even pointed out a few good restaurants in the area. We put our bags down and set out to meet Isabelle. After a little confusion about a meeting place, we finally met up with her. She hugged me for a long time, and I felt grateful for how kind she was and how willing to treat me as her own. She also hugged Ariel and complemented her on her Canadian accent when Ariel introduced herself in French. Then she led us down the street, asking us how our studies in Clermont were going and about my family and how Ariel was liking France. We were supposed to meet up with her son Hugo, Leo’s little brother, because Isabelle was a little self-conscious about her English and she was always wanting to accommodate us—even though we were in France to learn French, as I tried to explain.
Hugo was late, but when he arrived they led us across the river to a part of Bordeaux that was once housing for the army, or training grounds (the scenario for the army being there was unclear, lost in translation) but was now a place for hipster restaurants, gyms and most interestingly, a graffitied skatepark. They led us in and out of the holes which once held doors and windows, and we climbed over ramps and leapt over puddles as we admired the colorful paintings in all their different styles. As we crawled around the wooden area behind the abandoned barracks, Hugo told us that they were tearing down the area to make room for new buildings and businesses. Even as we emerged, a security guard stopped us, yelling at us that “Ce lieu est interdit”—basically, we were not allowed to be there. Isabelle, our supposed adult supervision, laughed and told us to run. When we made it back to the main street, they asked if we were hungry.
Hugo had to leave, to meet with one of his friends, but Isabelle took us to her favorite kebab shop in the city. We ate, then she led us around some of the more famous parts of the city and gave us the history behind each building, statue, and area. Much of it, I had already heard from Leo the first time around, but it was all new to Ariel. We came to a glacier, an ice cream shop, which Isabelle said was Leo and Hugo’s favorite when they were kids. She bought us both two scoops, and we continued the tour. By the time we finished out ice cream we’d wandered far from our AirBnb, and far from where Isabelle had parked the car. She took us to the nearest tram stop, told us where to get off closest to our lodgings, and told me that she loved me and wanted me to visit her again soon. I told her that if she ever wanted to visit Texas or Oklahoma, I’d do my best to be as good a tour guide as she was.
The next day we wandered around the city, not really knowing where we were going or doing but having seemingly endless time to kill before our flight at 4pm. In the plaza closest to our AirBnb there was a flea market. I’ve noticed this all over France, that there are markets where people sell anything and everything, every Sunday. Fruits, vegetables, clothes, jewelry, bread, cheese even pets—chickens, rabbits, cats and dogs. We wandered around there for a while, Ariel was looking at teacups and saucers, and I was talking to a man from Cameroon. He had a set of 5 elephants carved from dark wood and in descending sizes on his table, and my mother collects elephants. They are literally all over our house, and I thought that it would be a great souvenir for her. The man said he’d carved the elephants himself, he could have been lying but he was willing to haggle. I got three—one to represent each of us: me, my brother, and sister—and we continued on our way.
We then went to the cathedral, to the old Roman theater, and to a community garden. We packed our things a little early, mostly because we were out of things to see and out of things to talk about. We had wandered around looking for a place for lunch before going back to the room, but we finally decided on a pizza place down the street from the AirBnb. It was run by two young guys, they had a great playlist going of new artists playing old styles like jazz and blues. It was literally the best pizza I have ever had. I know that the most annoying thing for friends and family of people who have traveled abroad is for them to always bring up some unattainable superlative form of food or drink they “discovered” on the other side of the world…but I will compare every pizza from now until the end of time to that pizza.
From there we walked to the bus station, which had a shuttle to the airport. We were early for our flight, by a lot, which turned out to be irrelevant. Isabelle texted me right at the time that our flight was meant to leave, wishing us safe travels. Unfortunately, the flight was delayed…by several hours. We waited around forever, and neither the airport nor the airline gave us any indication of when we were meant to be leaving. After a nearly 4-hour delay, we were able to board and take off. Our flight was to Lisbon, Portugal, and from there we had a flight to Porto. When we landed in Lisbon we had just enough time for a disappointing meal in the airport before our new connecting flight to Porto.
Originally, we were supposed to arrive around 8pm, enough time to find dinner in our vacation spot. After all the delays, we arrived around 12:30 am. We found our hostel with ease, and checked in. Which was frustrating, because the manager spoke no English and we didn’t speak any Portuguese. Finally, we got settled and had to sneak into the all-girls dorm while everyone was asleep. Of course, only top bunks were left so not only did we have to put our stuff in the lockers in the dark, but we also had to climb a bed whilst some other unfortunate girl was sleeping in the bottom bunk. I had trouble with the lock on the drawer, which was under the bottom bunk. Eventually, the girl in that bed helped me—which turned out to be a great thing.
Finally, after the worst travel experience to date, I was able to sleep.
The next morning, I met the girl in the bottom bunk who had helped me the night before. Her name was Cícera, she was Brazilian, and she spoke a little English. The hostel served breakfast, so Ariel and I met her downstairs. I apologized to her for waking her up and thanked her for helping me with the locked drawer. She asked me and Ariel where we were from, and why we were in Portugal. We told her that we were studying in France, and that we were on vacation. She told us that she was just on a tour of Europe, and that this was her last stop before returning to her job in Brazil. She told us that it was her last day and invited us to spend the day in the city with her. And I was grateful to meet her, because even though a lot of people speak English in Europe, it was nice to meet someone who spoke Portuguese. She was able to tell us a lot of the history of Portugal, and its long, checkered history with her home country, most of which I never knew.
Portugal in easily one of the mostly underrated countries of all time. The weather is perfect, the people are friendly, and the buildings are spectacular. Most spectacular in my opinion was the church that was not far from our hostel. It was situated on a precipice right in the middle of the city, so there was a balcony with a fantastic view of the rest of Porto right outside the church. We spent a fair amount of time right outside the church taking selfies and photos. Inside the church, the walls, floors, ceilings, paintings and statues were covered in gold—much of which was taken from South America and Africa during colonization. It gave me a strange feeling, admiring the beauty that came from an indubitably dark period for someone—obviously it was kind to the Portuguese. After the church, we wandered around downtown and eventually came to a street that is famous for its prolific graffiti. Some of the paintings were gorgeous of course, but some were just…odd. We had a little difficulty deciding what to do next, so we wandered around some more, telling each other about our home countries. Before we knew it, we had wandered to the river, and Cícera read the sign on the side of building advertising boat tours. The English sign was in the front, and it turned out that they offered much more than that.
The tour guide at the front desk told us that we could pay a little extra and get a tour of the port wine cellar on the other side of the river as well as a boat cruise. There was a tasting after the tour, so we decided to shell out the extra cash and then made our way across the bridge. The walkway was narrow but the sun glinting off the water was beautiful. When we got to the museum/wine cellar it turned out that the office from which we’d purchased our tickets had called to alert the museum of our arrival. They gave us an English tour guide, and we were accompanied by an older couple who were originally from the United States, but emigrated to Canada in the December 2016, for reasons “they didn’t want to get into.” I don’t know why they bothered to say that, since we all knew they moved to escape Trump but whatever. We had great conversation, for a group of people who didn’t know each other very well. Because it was so horribly hot that day, we decided not to get too drunk so that we wouldn’t be dehydrated. After the wine tour, we had a little time to kill before our boat tour, so we decided to get some lunch by the river.
There were all sorts of restaurants on the bank: simple ones, fancy ones, and very fancy ones—all right next to each other. We also passed several vendors selling shades, t-shirts, homemade jewelry, leatherworks, and textiles. We wandered through the pop-up market for a while, before heading into one of the less-fancy restaurants that was still nice enough to have “menu”—which is like several courses in one price—for about 11 euros. I had the best chocolate mousse for dessert, and since the restaurant was upstairs, we had a beautiful view of all the multi-colored buildings built in to the cliff on the other side of the river. During lunch, Cícera told us about her friends who had immigrated from Brazil to Portugal for college. They had planned a beach day and she invited us as well. We agreed, even though we hadn’t planned to go to the beach, so we didn’t have our swimsuits actually with us. I would come to half-heartedly regret this decision, as I ended up getting sand in my jeans, which remained for weeks.
We went on the boat tour, and it was by far my favorite experience up until that point. The speakers were playing Portuguese folk music, and there’s something comforting about listening a song in a language you don’t speak. You can just experience and enjoy the human voice, the instruments, and the feeling of just engaging you senses and being alive. The boat ride offered one of the rare experiences wherein you’re perfectly aware of your existence but not really thinking about it too hard—just hard enough to appreciate that you have the senses and capabilities to truly participate in the fabric of the world. I could see the water, and where it fed into the ocean and I thought about how incredible it is to be so small and partake in something as large as the earth and its oceans; and I saw the bridges built across the river (all from different time periods as they found better ways of engineering life around this force of nature) and the buildings built into the sides of cliffs, churches and mosques, homes and businesses, and the determination and fortitude of humanity just sort of overwhelmed me. All this plus the beautiful music coming through my headphones, I just remember thinking: “People worked incredibly hard to build these bridges, these walls to contain the river, these houses hundreds of feet up a cliffside. They worked hard to evolve and be able to accomplish something as mundane as a riverside civilization, just so they could exist next to all this beauty. And that makes humans the simplest and most sophisticated creature there is.” We’re an impressive species.
We disembarked from the boat on the other side of the river. And from there, Cícera said we’d have to walk nearly 3 miles to the beach. She said it like it was nothing, but to Ariel and me, it was unthinkable. During this semester, I’ve really learned how little we as North American walk. I mean, we really drive everywhere. And I also learned how even though most large European cities have much better public transportation systems than the U.S., people are really more willing to walk than use any other form of transport. Normally, I don’t mind so much, but there were two flaws in the plan: the sun was shining as though it had some vendetta against us, and the walkway the Cícera led us to was over the river.
There nothing to be done about the sun, but the walkway that she had chosen was not solid. It was a metal grate suspended over the river. There were no poles holding it up, it was bracketed to the road (which was on solid ground). We were at least 50 yards above the river, and while I normally don’t have a problem with heights, I did not like seeing the river flowing beneath my feet. I figured that it couldn’t go on too long, so I decided to suck it up and follow Cícera and Ariel. But by the time I realized that the suspended walkway was about 1 mile long and I was going to have to have anxiety the whole time, we were already halfway across. I had no choice but to stick it out and hold my breath. It was honestly horrible but clearly, I didn’t die, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
We waited in the heat for Cícera’s friends and then took the bus to the beach. It really was a beautiful day, and even though we weren’t dressed for the beach, we still made new friends and got to see the Atlantic from the other side of the world. And to me, that was well worth that infernal sand in my pants.