Some four years ago, during a youth exchange that took place in my home town, I met Joana, a girl from Porto. In the evenings, when all activities were done and participants of the exchange relaxed and mingled on the terrace of the hostel they were staying in, Joana and I talked about our homes. She talked about Porto and Portugal, while I talked about Rijeka and Croatia. She talked with much love and appreciation, without sugarcoating, about things that defined Portugal – about the then-actual economic crisis and many problems the young people were facing, about the saudade, the language, the Douro, the specific atmosphere and “feel” of her home town Porto and the way of life of the Portuguese people. And as she was leaving for home, we made a deal that, now that she has seen my home, I would have to visit hers, one day.
This year, this deal was finally realized, as Portugal became the destination of our annual family trip. Unfortunatally, I didn’t get the chance to meet with Joana (I was with my family and on a tight schedule, she was working and quite busy), but I thought of her quite often as I was visiting places and experiencing things I remembered her talking about. It turned out that she prepared me well for Portugal – the things I imagined all those years ago as I was listening to her stories were pretty similar to the things I saw and experienced “in situ”, during our ten-day trip through northern and central parts of the country. And although her stories were colored with her love of her home, they were not really exaggerated, and the Portugal we visited was as beautiful and dreamy and real, all at the same time, as she had presented it.
During our ten days in Portugal, we only scraped the surface of the complex and rich county and got a tiny peek into the life of a place, but even that was enough to see, hear, taste and experience many things to love.
I loved the relaxed, simple life of the country, not polluted by mass tourism. After visiting so many European countries that live from tourism and completely subjugate themselves to the requirements of the visitors, this felt like a wonderful refreshment and a reminder that there still are authentic countries that are so much more than just touristic destinations.
I loved the people – simple, honest, modest people, going around their daily activities, minding their own business, living a simple life of work and play in the shadow of their great, at times tragic, history and rich heritage.
I loved the coast – the never-ending white, sandy beaches of the western Portuguese coast and the mighty Atlantic… The feeling I had at Cabo da Roca of being at the edge of the world.
I loved Pasteis de Nata, the sweet pastry that became an essential part of our Portuguese every day, small, incredibly tasty and very fulfilling.
I loved vinho verde, young wine from the northern parts of Portugal, clear, of beautiful color, with a touch of fizz, tasty, fragrant and mild.
I loved the Douro, the quiet meandering river responsible for so much of what makes Portugal special.
I loved Porto, a gritty, untidy, punk city that knows what it is, loves it and savors its quirkiness.
I loved Lisabon, the capital whose twisty narrow streets and hilly atmospheric neighborhoods trick you into believing that this is a small, crowded town, and not a wondrous, monumental capital.
I loved the weather, and the constant breeze smelling of salt and sea, never allowing you to forget that Portugal is the country by the sea, of the sea.
The list could go on, with all the things springing into my head now as images through a filter with washed-out, overexposed hues. Quite a remarkable country, warm and beautiful both inside and out. A wonderful place full of wonderful people. Joana, you were right! 🙂