When I woke to my alarm on my first full day in Portugal, I heard rain pattering on the balcony outside. The man at reception in my hostel said the weather was supposed to improve later, but I’d already decided I would head inland and take the recommended train journey to Pinhão.
Breakfast comes free with your booking at Magnolia Porto Hostel. I sat down with some cereal and juice and then a lady came and placed before me a plate of bread with jams and sliced ham and cheese. The only thing that would make the setting nicer was if the TV was playing traditional Portuguese music, rather than showing MTV and various scantily dressed women dancing. After filling my boots (because when it’s free, why not?) I asked the man where I could find the nearest supermarket. He said his brother at reception would show me on the map, which made me wonder if the lady who brought me the food was their mother. I hope so.
My geographical skills had not improved as I tried to find my way to São Bento station. Seeing me scrutinise my map, a man came over and pointed me the right way and with 10 minutes to go until my departure, I was in the queue for tickets. The member of staff asked if I was under 25 and when I said yes, he asked for proof. Amazing! The first time I’ve ever been asked to prove I am younger rather than older! With my age, a return ticket cost only 16.30Euros. Good on the Portuguese for offering international travellers discounts too. Telling me when the last train back would leave, the man warned me with a wink to watch out for the red wine. I found my train and asked the conductor (Jorge) if I could sit anywhere. He recommended the front carriage and sure enough it was empty so I could find a seat near the window. I liked how friendly and helpful both these men had been – if you just make some effort in the language to clarify that you don’t speak Portuguese (by asking “Fala Inglês?”) you will be helped in embarrassingly good English. Seeing him help a group of young French tourists in their own language raised an interesting point of comparison. Working on a train in England isn’t regarded as the most impressive of jobs, but over here the use of different languages makes it a very important one, alongside other hospitality and retail work.
At Campanhã station a lady got on with her teenage daughter and sat opposite me. The mum looked exactly how I’ve always imagined Portuguese women to be – curvy in a floral dress and sandals with a strong big-boned face, big brown eyes and hands that have worked. As the mother read some biblical pamphlet, the girl and I would occasionally catch eyes and with her sulky face I was reminded of those days as a teenager when your parents are the most embarrassing thing on the planet and you feel completely misunderstood and frustrated.
The cloudy skies began to disappear as we headed inland. Lush green jungle-esque vegetation strewed the landscape with a few dots of white houses with orange roofs here and there. We passed hills hosting wind turbines and then the glistening river Douro appeared, winding its way around hills zig-zagging with vines with cars slowly ascending the hairpin bends. The mum opposite would pat her daughter’s knee and encourage her to take photos, upon which the girl would unplug her earphones with a scowl.
On this inter-regional train there were no announcements when the next station was coming so after two hours I started to check the signs at each station. Stepping onto the quiet platform in Pinhão, I instantly regretted still having leggings on from rainy Porto as the midday heat began to roast my legs. There was no bridge to cross to the other side so people would casually cross the rail track – a fine-worthy offence in England! Unable to find a washroom at the tiny station, instinct told me to turn left and along the quiet cobbled street. I needed a bathroom to change in and a cafe called Princesa do Douro looked promising. I wandered in and nobody was around, but there was a WC to the right. Hallelujah! Changing into shorts, I couldn’t decide if I was being travel-smart or being a trespasser. The pastries on the counter looked too good to resist and I wanted to say thanks in some way, so I called over to the lady mopping in the corner and chose a popular toasted ham and cheese croissant and a pastry coated in chocolate with apricot jam on the inside.
Wandering along with no idea where I was going, I noticed before a bridge that there was an open metal gate off the side of the road. After going over curiously to inspect, found myself walking down some steps past a bunch of orange trees onto the river front. This was when I believed my traveller’s instinct had returned.
There isn’t too much to do in Pinhão and most of my afternoon was spent doing nothing apart from enjoying the quiet rural setting of a town that wasn’t overloaded with tourists. For a moment I wondered if I was bored. In London it’s hard to switch off and with so much always going on, doing nothing feels strange. I had to remind myself that I was on holiday and it was okay not be tearing around various institutions with the aim of doing something productive.
Further along the river in the busier part of the village are the boat tours and wine merchants. I remembered what the man in the station had said about the red wine here, but it was definitely too hot to be drinking. I opted for a cooler liquid and walked into a mini-mercado. It must have been obvious that I didn’t speak Portuguese because when I went to pay for my water and iced tea, the old lady got a yellow sticky note just like the ones I use at work and wrote ‘1.80’, showing it to me with a smile. I was tempted to ask to keep it as a souvenir but wasn’t convinced I would be able to make the lady understand why I wanted a scrap of paper.
In the early evening I headed back to the train station for the journey home. Hearing a lady tell a fellow French tourist that the train for Porto was “en face”, I quickly crossed to the other platform before I found myself sleeping in the station for the night. It was reassuring to know I remembered some French! By now the midges had introduced themselves and I ignored any odd looks I got from people as I slapped my legs irritably. There was no chance of me finding a seat on this rammed train and I found myself stood in the doorway with the French group from the train here and a Portuguese family. It was hot and my mouth felt dry but there was hardly room to get water from my bag. The thought of standing for two and half hours became more bearable when some merry men in the next carriage began to play the accordion and dance around. Thankfully at the next station a few people got off but I stayed behind preparing to remain standing as the French group shot forwards to grab a seat. Then the girl of the group looked back at me and pointed at a free seat whilst one of the boys held the door for me. I sat down gratefully, only to hear the little boy next to me (also French) say “J’ai mal au ventre!” and feel less comforted…
Following their cooperation I was tempted to make conversation with the French group, but I’ve also learned during my travels when you should just accept some things as a nice gesture and not a sign of possible friendship and company. Sure it might have been nice to go for a drink with them, but did I really need their company for the evening? Instead of changing trains back to São Bento, I walked back from Campanhã past cheap quiet cafes and staring men. I was perplexed to notice that my dorm was unlocked, and a little disappointed to discover there were two new residents inside. I’d been looking forward to lounging around in private. The lights had been fixed as well…and one girl seemed to be afraid of the dark, as well as glued to her phone. I asked if she was from Portugal and she said “Sim” before saying she didn’t speak English. The other lady was Eastern European with long legs and a scary face. Suddenly I wished I’d approached the French group afterall. Luckily the festival in the park opposite had a live singer tonight which covered up the hostile silence, with my restless skin-scratching filling in the gaps.
I was glad to have visited a more rural, quieter area of the country and experienced the interaction I did with the locals in Pinhão and other tourists on the train. I was feeling like a traveller again, getting something out of every seemingly insignificant moment. I was remembering how pleasant one’s own company can be and feeling truly switched off from other commitments.
The rain had stopped and tomorrow I would explore more of Porto.
Part Three: Exploring Porto Without a Camera