On the train from Porto, Portugal, up the Douro River Valley, a woman in her 60s sat across from us, holding a dumpling of a child, stuffed plump with her grandmother’s love (and cooking?). The baby had full, flushed cheeks and squat little legs that poured out of her leather booties. The grandmother cooed as she spoke in soft, splashing Portuguese, explaining how this was a river made of water, and there were fish down below that we couldn’t see—but that we could catch and eat them. She plucked an imaginary fish from the water and the child bunched up her doughy face. It was such a joy to watch these two together—the older woman enlivened by her little restless bundle.
The Douro Valley is narrow, with rusk, amber, sable, and rosy gold vineyards quilted over the steep river banks. White villages huddle on the hillsides. The river is sleepy and reflects the fall colors.
Now we sit at a little café by the water in the tiny town of Pinhão. Old men make bold statements by the bar, as I think old men do everywhere. The downward stripes of weeping willow branches contrast with the horizontal lines of the grape vines. I’m slowly drinking a glass of caramel-colored port.
Porto has been such a wonderful surprise. It’s one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever visited. Cathedrals stick up their spires to test the ripeness of the horizon, and buildings decorated with painted tiles tumble and crumble down to the water. An arched bridge designed by Eiffel (of the Eiffel Tower) connects the city to a town on the other side where Port wineries serve samples of sweet, sippable nectar.
We walked up and down Porto yesterday, to the top of the tallest cathedral spire down to the river, where tourist restaurants catcall to visitors. The day before we ate at a local lunch spot where we had to wait in line for a seat. Three women, two young and one older (the cook), hustled to run the place. Plates of cod, still in fins and scales, and thinly pounded lemon chicken breasts were offered. The fish was sold out (finito!) by the time we sat down, so we got the chicken, served with saffron rice and peas, and vinegary shredded carrot. It was delicious, consumed with two local Superbock beers, and for dessert, sponge cake swirled with chocolate pudding.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe I’m here, and then for me to believe I’m not here all of the time! I already miss it, and I’m still here.