I stood 146 feet above Portugal’s Douro River on the Dom Luís I bridge in the city of Porto. For a moment, it felt like I was at the center of the universe.
The late afternoon Iberian sun shone brighter than any sun I’ve ever known. Hanging languidly in the sky, it seemed so close I could reach out and touch it. The air was sweet, like the tawny port wine and pasteis de nata, or custard tarts, I’d been having too much of. I admired the outline of the buildings stacked on one another standing tall in all their vivid colors — ochre, cobalt, emerald — and terracotta roofs. The boats disappeared into the horizon as sounds of music from the street performers and children’s laughter down below reached their way to the top of the world, where I witnessed this celebration of life. All at once, I was dazzled by this place teeming with vitality. To put it simply, I was in love.
On a trip named “Romance of the Douro River,” I should have expected this. I laughed when I first read the title of my 10-day Flying Longhorns excursion, attributing it to some sap’s idea to entice couples — not a 25-year-old single woman who avoids falling in love as much as possible — to join the cruise along the 557 mile stretch of water that runs from the Spanish province Soria to Porto. But from the moment Portugal introduced itself to me that October day when I landed in Lisbon, I knew that a piece of me would always remain there.
Before I left Austin to travel nearly 5,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, friends who had been to Portugal warned me this was going to happen. “And you’ll never want to come back,” they said. I’m not sure what it was that did me in. It was partially the feeling that this place was familiar but strange at the same time — like how the Spanish I grew up hearing at home helped me, much to my surprise, make sense of the Portuguese written on the sides of buses or street signs. It was the kindness of Portuguese strangers, from Mikas, the bartender in Lisbon who whipped up my own personal whiskey-based cocktail, to the family in Vila Seca that taught us how they make the wine they’ve produced for generations.
It was the music playing around every corner, melodies from street performers luring me to my next adventure. There was the man in Lisbon who played a haunting tune on an electric violin by the water in front of the 16th-century Tower of Belem, which once served both as a fortress and as a ceremonial gateway to the city, commissioned by King John II. “He feared an attack that never came,” our tour guide told us.
In the medieval town of Óbidos, I came upon an old woman in a bright red hat and a man in a striped shirt and orange scarf sitting before a cerulean-colored wall. With his guitar in hand, he played Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velasquez’s “Bésame Mucho,” and I sang along as I tried ginja, a cherry liqueur that came in an edible chocolate cup.
The morning of that day on the bridge in Porto, my group took a tour of the city by way of a little yellow tram, a popular means of transportation there. As we waited to board, I wandered toward the sound of a trumpet smoothly greeting the day. Listening to the melancholy tune, I longed for the country I’d only known for five days and hadn’t even parted ways with yet.
The rest of the afternoon, I meandered through the colorful streets that bustled with tourists and locals all blending together. I visited the São Bento railway station, sipped on a glass of Jameson at a cafe, and cheered on a British street performer who juggled flaming batons while balancing atop a unicycle. I made my way down to the river, where people gathered to enjoy a cup of espresso or simply watch the boats go by. A man sang Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” as I watched an ensemble of young local boys jump in and out of the river, sliding down a boat dock that ran slick with algae, putting on a delightful show for those who noticed them.
I wanted to know everything there was to know about Portugal. By day, I learned about its past and the people who shaped it, visiting churches and palaces with my group. We learned that Portugal is the oldest nation-state on the Iberian Peninsula, and one of the oldest in Europe. For centuries, the territory has been continuously resettled and invaded, by the Iberians, Celts, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, and Arabs. These influences are still apparent in the language, the ornate architecture and tiled walls, and the faces of the Portuguese people. As ancient as its past goes, Portugal as we know it is also so very recent, having joined the European Union in 1985.
By night, it was just me and Portugal. I explored the cities we stopped in more intimately, ducking into neighborhoods and alleyways and studying the patterns on the tiled walls. I passed restaurants where locals smoked cigarettes in doorways and dined with friends late into the night.
Most days play in my head like a montage in a romantic film. There was the afternoon in the old coastal resort town of Cascais, where I dipped my feet into the cold ocean as the locals basked in the sunshine on the beachy shore. I remember watching the fog lift off the pastel-colored villas and palaces in Sintra, a forested royal sanctuary. I relived my childhood upon meeting the law students at the University of Coimbra whose black cloak uniforms inspired J.K. Rowling’s look for the students in her Harry Potter books. On the day trip we took to Salamanca, Spain, I climbed to the top of the Old Cathedral, where I etched my initials into the 12th-century sandstone like so many others before me had. In the empty port town of Barca d’Alva, I looked up at the brilliant blanket of stars, trying to make out constellations. And there was the night in Peso da Regua, a small municipality made up of 17,000 people, where I danced to UB40’s “Red Red Wine” with a group of Portuguese people in a little hotel bar by the river.
On our last day, we returned to Porto. After our final dinner, I left the boat and explored downtown as it buzzed with the excitement of a Friday night. I wove my way through the streets, watching couples drunk on wine and love dance in and out of bars on the cobblestone roads. Under the evening darkness, my world back home didn’t exist. I could pretend that Portugal was my own.
Eventually, I made my way back to the Dom Luís bridge, the streetlights making the water gleam black and gold. This time, at 2 a.m., everything was quiet. I took a deep breath, knowing my love affair had come to an end. I bid the river goodbye and trekked back to the boat to ready myself for my flight to the U.S. that was just a few hours away.
As much as I hope to, I’m not sure when I’ll ever tango with Portugal again. For now, all I can do is find the romance in every place I find myself, whether that means rekindling my love for Austin, which I’ve called home for nearly eight years now, or anywhere else life leads. I’m going to keep searching for the center of the universe.