It has been a year since I have met Portugal. A secret love I have carried with me ever since… a place where I have felt that not only the people, but streets and sidewalks, buildings, crumbling churches and rooftops have a soul. A place where the display of emotion is extreme and common place, where people are warm, the food exquisite in its honesty, and fado is just another way of inhaling and exhaling.
A place so rich in history one can get buried in ruins, and so poor in pretense, one can read through the veils, penetrating straight to the core. One simply needs to enter that state of mind.
A little country of vast culture, a place where I can happily get lost, crisscrossed from east to west and north to south, from the manicured hills of Douro Valley that the delicious sweet Port wine calls home, to the contrasts and conflicts of Porto; the rugged, mesmerizing Atlantic coast, to quaint little old towns on top of hills with age-old citadels and blooming vegetation. To unforgettable fragrant eucalyptus forests, and cork tree hills, to Lisbon and Sintra, the quintessential feminine faces of Portugal.
For me, the most impacting and impregnating of spaces and moments was Porto. A place with a tangible masculine personality….
Virile and rough, in a sailor shirt, bare breasted and sweaty, showing a tacky tattoo while throwing a cigarette butt on the street and spitting with gusto. That is my Porto in the light of the day. So rough and annoying, yet, I can’t escape its attraction.
At night Porto becomes a different story altogether. Warm, sophisticated, fedora hat and cologne, music and vine, it woos and grabs me, pursues me with unexpected moves, and I can’t help surrender to its charms… And so conflicted I am… because I vividly remember tacky tattoos underneath, but I see Porto is not even attempting to hide them. So assured and self-confident this place is in its crumbling appearance; Porto gets me at core, I will not even care about image or appearance.
First impression, second impression, getting into details, diving in, coming back up, looking down from a distance… whether right then and there, in its sweat and its heavy breathing, or looking back one year after, Porto is this man of many talents and surprises, of strong attitudes, resolute and unapologetic.
It is quite intimidating during the day and yet I fall for him at night, I surrender even though I’m not confident that I can trust it. What a paradox, because with Porto what you see is what you get.
When Porto smiles, he shows me missing teeth and I don’t not care; I simply fall in love with the gaps. There’s no pretense, no fake façade. Sleepy seagulls atop of crumbling roofs at midnight, or open kitchens under falling red-tiled rooftops at day, a cacophony of old riches and old ruin, of empire and despair, of stolen gold paid with the lost blood of ever-present generations, of sea and salt, of cod-fish and olives, of tramcars and sweet wine, of facades covered in stories told in exquisite azulejos – blue and white-painted tiles that I could spend a lifetime deciphering.
A place of poetry and street survival; seagulls and dogs, pigeons and cats fighting over the crumbs of the party that is a day in the life of Porto.
You cannot attempt to understand Portuguese soul without eating grilled sardines or baked cod drenched in Portuguese olive oil, without listening to a fadista from the depths of her sorrow while feeling the pores of your skin electrified and attuned to emotions felt in the gut and pouring out through the eyes. You will get better at knowing this place once you taste Portuguese salt and read poems and lines by Fernando Pessoa… You will get even deeper when you look at the hypnotic westward horizon from the strip of a land that Portuguese men construed as the margin of an ocean that they have made home. And that is when you might understand Saudade – grey horizons swallowing men, taking with them the fragrance of round laughs in full family diners, taking with them at the bottom of the sea the meaning of fullness and simple contentment, leaving behind gilded cathedrals… tall but empty… the riches bearer and unforgiving ocean, whose salt is inexorably mixed with the tears of fadistas.