“Whoever you are, I have always depended on the
kindness of strangers”
– Blanche Dubois, Streetcar Named Desire
My tale today not only dovetails with the sentiments of dear Blanche, but also involves actual streetcars. Fortunately, I was not in the throes of a nervous breakdown as was gentle Blanche, although circumstances could have gone that way. Like Blanche, I was in an unfamiliar and exotic locale and similarly was at the mercy of strangers. In addition they spoke a language in which I am not well versed, thus heightening my drama.
It all started innocently while on an otherwise lovely trip through Portugal, a country at the extreme southwest corner of Europe. In fact we actually climbed (200 foot cliffs) up to Cabo de Sao Vincente which is the very tip of Europe – kind of cool:
Though a very small country, Portugal has immense variations. The northern regions are very traditional – a rural lifestyle unchanged for centuries, while the southern Algarve region, blessed with soft sand beaches and a warm Mediterranean climate all year round has become a favorite cosmopolitan vacation playground for elite Northern Europeans.
There are two great rivers, the Tagus and the Douro (“Golden”) which rise in Spain and then flow across Portugal into the Atlantic Ocean. From the upper reaches of the Douro Valley comes Portugal’s (and my favorite) most famous product – port wine. At the mouth of the Douro stands one of Portugal’s major cities – Oporto (“Port”) and this is the site of this post’s adventure.
Oporto is at once modern and yet steeped in the past – its waterfront and criss-cross, this-way-and-that streets (clue!!) a literal maze. Upon arriving in Oporto, we dropped off our bags at the Hotel Ipanema – a luxury hotel on Rua do Campo Alegro, right at the center of town. We then embarked on a local sightseeing tour to get the lay of the land , stopping for lunch (large sardines and wine) at one of the many open-air restaurants. Following a short cruise we of course had to stop for a wine tasting6 (including port of course) tasting at the Calem Wine Lodge:
The rest of the afternoon was unscheduled free time and the local guide suggested we go for afternoon espresso at the must-see Majestic Cafe, an Art Deco styled restaurant located on Rua De Santo Catarina. She also suggested another prime people-watching while palate pleasing eatery for pastry – the Confeiteria do Bolhao, just around the corner. And it would be easy to get back to hotel via local Streetcar #23
The Majestic Cafe was aptly named- sumptuous, ornate with great big mirrors and windows to help us catch-all the local action:
After getting totaly wired on their delicious espresso (that on top of the wine, remember) we definitely needed some sweets (and a sugar high to add to our systems). It was very easy to find the cafe around the corner but NOT easy to choose from all the mouth-watering confections:
When we finally started to come out of our alcohol/sugar stupor we realized it was getting late and we needed to get back to the hotel – to get ready for dinner, of course- more wine! As instructed, we went down the street to the streetcar stop – presumably, it would take about an hour to get back to the hotel – following a pretty straightforward route:
The streetcar had large windows so we got another mini-tour of Oporto as we wended our way. However, we soon noticed that we no longer were looking at a city scene as acres upon acres of open grasslands were now in our view. Our hotel was smack dab on the middle of town so we started to have a creeping uneasy feeling that we were lost. It didn’t help that we were now the only passengers.
Needing the kindness of a stranger at this point, with the help of a vocabulary handbook (this was before the days when I could use my iPhone translator) I mustered up a poor rendering in Portuguese saying, Where are we on this map? I think I missed my stop (“onde estamos neste mapa? Acho que perdi minha parada”). The driver proceeded to point to the red line in the center of the map – following its trajectory toward the ocean and the end of the map.
Fortunately, the terminal appeared before we fell off the face of the earth/map. In a combination of sign language and Portuguese, the driver asked us to wait in the streetcar while he went to check in with his captain.
This would be an opportune time to mention that the Portuguese people are known to be mild- mannered, easy-going, polite and respectful, despite being a gregarious bunch who love to drink, eat and gossip. And so we get to the reliance of the kindness of strangers – for the driver returned and somehow explained that he was going to take us back to our hotel (we had shown him a card with the name and address earlier) – in the same streetcar!
The locals must have thought it quite strange to see a streetcar drive up to the hotel’s entrance and deposit my friend and I safely, upon which time we went immediately to the bar and paid our respects to the wonderful country of Portugal and its people by drinking many elegant flagons of port.
Viva os portugueses!!!
N.B. – turns out the guide had given us the wrong streecar number-Vida cie!