02 July 2018

Porto: Part Two

Beach Day!
 A few days into our trip to Porto, we decided to venture outside the confines of the city and see some of the coast that lines the Atlantic ocean. Lucky for us, the tour bus tickets we bought picked us up right outside of our hotel and dropped us off near the beach.
Having no real plan for the day, we wandered around a bit, taking in some of the fresh air and sunshine. Near one of the inlets, there's an old stone fort that was used for some sort of port protection, judging by the number of cannons lining the upper deck...there were certainly more than what people would've kept around for decoration. For a couple of bucks, we were allowed to wander around inside, though there was relatively little in the way of history about it. It appears to have been built in the late 15th century but I could be completely off. Reading Portuguese is not something I boast.
Continuing on our tour, Jack discovered a few surf shops that were offering lessons and lucky us (once again), the first session was starting only five minutes after we inquired. We paid, squeezed ourselves like stuffed sausages into wetsuits that smelled faintly of sweaty feet (it was hilarious trying to get Jack zipped up...in the largest suit that they admittedly rarely used, he kept bursting out of it like a stuffed lobster...the Portuguese people are not that large), and took to the waves.
For the first five minutes, our long-haired, slightly hippy-ish teacher taught us a sort of surfing yoga on the beach. Basically, he was teaching us how to get up on the board once we caught a wave. Realizing how hard it was to do surfer yoga dressed as a stuffed sausage, I didn't have that high of expectations for myself.

Jack had a different idea.
On his second attempt, he was on his feet, speeding along the baby waves that were crashing toward shore.

What can I say? He was born in California and apparently, surfing is embedded in his DNA.
When all was said and done, Jack had some awesome runs and even I managed to get up onto my feet for two nanoseconds before I fell face first into the water. Whatever. I'm a bonafide surfer as far as I'm concerned.
When our lesson time was up, we spilled out of our stinky wetsuits, thanked our teacher, and walked along the beach, looking for a place to eat. One thing I noticed at the beach was the blue tinge that speckled the sand. Turns out, there are a large number of blue shells that break up on their way to the shore. Blue shells, blue tiled buildings, blue ocean, blue skies...Porto does blue well.
After lunch, we caught the tour bus back to town (where apparently, my exhaustion caught up with me and I fell asleep, open-mouthed on the top of the tour bus. Jack kindly woke me up, though I managed to get a pretty awesome sunburn and probably embarrass myself. Oh, well). By the time we were back downtown, the city was really getting ready for their annual São João (St. John the Baptist) festival. Everyone was hanging out fancy streamers with lots of colors (other than just blue), selling basil plants, garlic flowers, and squeaky hammers, all which came into play later in the night.
Since the city was practically busting at the seam with tourists and residents ready to celebrate, the street performers were out in full force.
Here's on the of the most interesting ones we saw:

(That dude had some awesome rhythm and lung capacity)

Trying to decide where we were going to stand for the fireworks on the river at midnight, we tried to cut through a park, only to realize there was no exit. In consolation for having to walk a couple extra miles to get back out, we did discover that the park was pretty cool. For one, it was one of the very few places in Porto that has any plants going.
 And look! A fancy peacock putting on a display just for us!
Or, maybe it was all the pretty peahens behind us that he was showing off for. Whatever.
As the sun started going down, we started coming across our first lantern lighting of the evening. Several restaurant employees lit it together and everyone within the vicinity clapped and cheered as the lantern floated up into the air.
And then we found dinner. We wandered the streets for an hour, with the party getting more and more intense with each passing moment. People crowded into neighborhood streets, grilling tons of sardines and serving it at tables lined up for the occasion. Since we didn't know anyone, we found a neat little cafe that was just opening up. We invited ourselves in and sat down for a traditional meal.
After a basket of several types of bread, olives, spicy pork with pickled vegetables, and a HEAPING bowl of chicken gizzards (good thing I've been eating chicken gizzards since I was a kid), it was on to potato and kale soup.
Already feeling stuffed, the waiter brought us the main course: grilled sardines, boiled potatoes, peppers, and sliced onions. I'll be the first to admit I'm not a fan of fish but wanting to really immerse myself in the experience, I did my part and ate three fish, a bunch of potatoes, and enough onions to give myself onion breath.
Sardines remind me a lot of white fish, something my mom served too often for my liking when I was growing up. Good thing I'd learned to choke them down. They weren't so bad. But holy cow, I could barely eat the barely sweet (a very European thing, by the way, is their sweets aren't really that sweet compared to American ones) chocolate cake they brought out next. When we finally waddled out of the cafe, we were ready to party.
And apparently, so was everyone else.

I wouldn't say Porto's streets were ever quiet while we visited but give the Porto people some sardines, wine, and squeaky hammers and they practically go crazy.
Every time we asked someone what the meaning of the squeaky hammers was, no one really knew the answer. So far as we could figure out, the São João festival came about when the Catholic church integrated a pagan sun worship holiday together with a Christian celebration of John the Baptist. Something about whacking each other on the head to bless each other with good fertility, combined with a more recent tradition that came about from college students excited to graduate medical school, and you get a city full of people running around with squeaky hammers, bopping each other on the head.

Yeah, it didn't make sense to us, either.

But it was funny.

And once again, Jack's statue came to his advantage. I estimate it was about a 10:1 ratio of how many people hit me on the head versus how many people physically could reach Jack's head. If all that hammer bopping does make people more fertile, I might be the next Octomom.

The sun going down only caused things to escalate. People started crowding to the river and more lanterns were being lit and sent up into the night sky. Rumor has it that the floating lantern scenes of the movie, Tangled, were inspired by this Porto party and after seeing it myself, I can believe it.
Unable to see much from the crowded streets below, we scaled our way to one of the bridges over the Douro River to get a better vantage point. Hundreds of lanterns were floating in the night sky and it really was pretty fantastic to behold.
Those aren't stars...they're dozens of lanterns floating upward!
Initially, we'd planned on watching the fireworks from the bridge but were told that they close it because they shoot them off from barges on the river. When it was almost time for them to start, we decided to try and sneak around the back way to the river streets, thinking maybe we could get a spot someone else hadn't thought of.
After descending what felt like thousands of uneven steps and running miles through the windy, narrow streets, we found ourselves in the thick of the party once more. It was so jam-packed there was hardly room to breathe or turn or move. "Canned sardines" came to mind more than once. I got Jack's attention and told him in no uncertain terms that I wanted to get out of the crowd. Sweaty bodies all smashed together with loud music playing isn't my idea of fun. Happy to be an observer, not interested in being a participant.
For the third time, Jack's height came in handy. He bowled his way through the crowd until we found a less busy side street. Still plenty of noise and hammer bopping but much more comfortable for the both of us.
Someone finally smacked Jack!
Though our view was slightly obstructed, we saw plenty of fireworks, fireworks...
...and more fireworks! All timed to really, really loud '80's music, too.

I mentioned to Jack that his fireworks finale is just as spectacular at his family's annual 4th of July party. He seemed pleased with the comparison but for me, it was nice to watch it with him for once.
At around one in the morning, we decided we were done with the fun though the party was anything but over. It continued on until the morning light, with a very rowdy, drunken march along the river to the coast. Um, pass. A lot of people had the same idea we did and we had plenty of company walking the several miles back to the hotel.
The highlight of the trek was stumbling upon a genuine Steak 'n' Shake. Normally, they're humble fast food restaurants that exist only in the eastern U.S. but somehow, this little franchise popped up in Porto. It was like a little hello from home!
To say the São João festival was wild is a horrendous understatement. It's one of those things you really have to experience to be able to truly appreciate the Porto culture. One time was probably enough for us but certainly, the memories will last a lifetime.

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