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Portuguese Hospitality

I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him. — Abraham Lincoln

Before finalizing the itinerary for our European vacation last year, David posted a message on his website soliciting recommendations for places to visit. He received emails from more than 20 countries, including Slovenia, Norway, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Italy, France, Belgium, and Germany; the highest number of responses from a single country (five) came from Portugal.

Though we were unable to make it to Portugal on our first tour of Europe, the beckoning from the fishing country’s locals had caught our attention, so we vowed to include a stop there on our next trip. Because food and wine feature so prominently in our travels, we were interested in visiting the city of Porto, the center of the world’s port wine production. There we would also be able to meet Fernando, a photo enthusiast who had invited us to dine on regional fare prepared by his wife at her restaurant in their hometown, Espinho (pronounced “eshpeenyoo”), 20 kilometers south of Porto.

David and I arrived in Porto by plane on a Friday afternoon and were deposited at our hotel by the friendliest cab driver we’d encountered in Europe. Once settled in our room, I pulled back the curtains to reveal a breathtaking view of the Douro River and the Dom Luís Bridge, whose metalwork is reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower (the bridge was designed by one of Gustave Eiffel’s associates). As the sun slipped behind remnants of gothic granite turrets and belfries, David and I walked to a small restaurant a few blocks away. We exited the restaurant to find the lights of Porto had emerged; the black water beneath the bridge reflected a thousand incandescent bulbs. The scene was so magical that as we strolled along the waterfront and back to our hotel I was inspired to stop and pilfer a passionate kiss from my man.

The next morning, after showering and breakfasting in the hotel, we stepped outside to learn just how harsh the light of day can be. “I don’t get it,” I said, surveying the endless rows of dilapidated tenements leading up the hillside from the river. Rusted, corrugated tin stood where walls and roofs had obviously failed. Only glass shards remained where windows had been. Mangy mongrels sniffed for scraps in passageways. Earlier, the concierge had informed us that our hotel was filled to capacity with German, British, and American tourists. “How can a place that draws people from all over, with such a gorgeous view and primo wineries, be so…forgotten?” I was reminded of American cities whose heyday had come and gone, such as Coney Island in New York or Galveston, Texas.

“It’s as though someone took Tijuana and dropped it in the middle of Paris,” David said.

We were standing before the entrance of our hotel, marveling at the Twilight

Zone-y strangeness of it all, when Fernando pulled up in a four-door sedan. He wore an untucked blue denim button-down shirt over lighter blue jeans and camel-colored construction boots. He sounded something like Sesame Street’s Count von Count and looked a lot like Nicholas Sarkozy, only taller, tanner, and with a longer chin and shorter nose. He greeted us with handshakes, then hugs and kisses, and then invited us to get in the car.

Fernando took a meandering route along the river to its mouth, at which point he followed the coastline south so he could point out areas David might be interested in photographing. He was disappointed when David confessed he’d left his camera back in San Diego, but he seemed pleased when David suggested a possible return trip to Portugal for the sole purpose of taking photos.

After 20 minutes of Portuguese coastline, Fernando turned onto a cobblestone road and drove two blocks inland to park on an empty street lined with whitewashed buildings, many decorated with yellow, blue, and white tiles. As he stepped over a cocker spaniel lounging on the sidewalk, Fernando said, “He is the enemy of Dick. I must to make sure Dickie don’t see him.” Shortly afterward, we met Fernando’s Macedonian shepherd — a giant, lovable beast that seemed way too mellow to have enemies.

Inside Casa Floro Adega Restaurante, David and I were introduced to Paula, Fernando’s wife, who is acting owner and operator of what had been her parents’ restaurant for 50 years. At nearly six feet, Paula was almost as tall as her husband. Her hair was long, dark, and straight, her cheekbones high and chiseled, her body that of a willowy fashion model. Toby, Paula’s obese beagle, loitered at her feet while we were treated to a tour of Portugal’s greatest culinary hits. Platter after platter was delivered to the table: blood, bean, and pork soup; cod croquettes; suckling pig with veggies; and cod baked with potatoes, followed by slices from seven different kinds of cakes and tarts.

Fernando told us the Portuguese red wine he was pouring was better than any wine we could have tasted in Rioja. He beamed when I said his wife’s espresso was better than any I’d tasted in Spain. He produced a bottle of Portuguese brandy, and while he and David enjoyed their glasses of the golden stuff, Fernando explained how this Aguardente Velha Reserva was superior to any French cognac. “Zee French,” he said, “is a laboratory. Here, this wine is genuine.”

To facilitate the return of easy breathing after our feast, Fernando guided David and me on a walk along the boardwalk, by “Portugal’s casino,” through a shopping square, around the town’s modernly styled, eye-shaped planetarium, and into a lavish church. It was a small, quiet town; we encountered few people along the way. As we walked, Fernando filled us in on more Portuguese trivia. “In English, you have only one word for one thing, is as bread,” he said. “In Portuguese, we have six words for bread.” I secretly hoped he would count them (Vhun! Vhun bread, ah ah ah!) but no go. He also said that the Portuguese who study English end up speaking the language with better diction than any native English speakers. Listening to Fernando’s enlightenments, I couldn’t help but think of the father character in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who traced the origin of anything and everything back to Greece.

When we made it back to the restaurant, Paula, having closed up shop and thrown a brown suede jacket over her stylish ensemble, stood ready by the door. The four of us piled into the sedan, and Fernando continued playing docent. He drove for an hour, singling out landscapes that might interest David’s artistic eye. When we reached the tip of the peninsula, we stopped in a small fishing village, where we watched the sun set as we sampled some more of that Portuguese espresso.

Once back in the car, David, who is used to deflecting the spotlight my way, mentioned my writing and how much I love to read. Thus began the new focus of our tour. Fernando whisked us to a shopping mall and led us into Fnac, a French-based chain of book and music stores. The mall — so modern, well kept, and bustling with people — was jarring after a full day of quaint, barren towns.

While David and Paula wandered around, Fernando led me to the foreign-language section and began pulling down books — the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges (who was Argentine but wrote in Portuguese) and the Portuguese poet and philosopher Fernando Pessoa. Enlivened by his passion for Pessoa, Fernando insisted I flip to any page (“Is not matter which; all equal are good”) and read a poem. I did and was duly impressed. “I will be ordering some of this from Amazon as soon as I get home,” I said.

While Fernando and I had been geeking out over poetry, Paula had been on a clandestine mission. When the four of us reconvened in the middle of the store, she presented David and me with specialized chocolates — for David, a chocolate camera; for me, a bag of chocolate letters and an oversized chocolate pencil. We were awed by her generosity and thoughtfulness.

Fernando invited us to join him and Paula for dinner at a Japanese restaurant in Porto to celebrate his birthday, which had fallen on the previous day. On the way there, and on the way back to our hotel afterward, he continued to regale us with tales of Portuguese prowess. We bid Paula and Fernando farewell in front of our hotel, 11 hours after Fernando had come to collect us. “Is nice to see both of you in Portugal and show you a little piece of this country,” said Fernando. Paula smiled. “Keep in touch and beginning to plan a bigger trip to Portugal. You are always welcome, and if you need something and we can help, is just to say.”

Hugs were exchanged, and each cheek was kissed. As Fernando and Paula disappeared back up the steep hillside, David and I gazed at the stunning, Monet-like sight of the glimmering bridge over shimmering water and reflected on the warmth and kindness that had been extended to us by our new Portuguese friends.

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