BootsnAll Travel Network


Rode a bus three hours north, through vineyards and pine forests to Porto. (Yes, Pam, I have a camera. I´m not taking hundreds of pictures, but I am taking a few.) I spent the day staggering around in Porto, which is vertical, so I´m either going up or down with every step. People walk faster here than in Lisbon or anywhere else I´ve been in this country. I had a bowl of the famous “Caldo Verde,” a creamy soup made with some kind of greens that are piquant, not bitter like most of our greens. It´s like eating mouthfuls of springtime. A street musician was playing wonderful music on his accordion. Businessmen in Porto wear their suit jackets over their shoulders without putting their arms in the sleeves (how do they hold them on?) and carry thin briefcases under one of their arms. Their shoes are highly polished and slightly pointy. Women come in every imaginable variety: rich and fashionable, poor and begging, tattooed, pierced, in black mourning, in short shorts and bra-tops, in khaki shorts and polo shirts, all jumbled together. My tiny fourth-floor walkup room in a Pensao (toilet in the hall, shower down on the third floor) has a single bed, a window onto a maze of tiled roofs, and a slanted floor, so when I am in there (so far only for about half an hour), I don´t know if I´m dizzy or if it´s the floor, or both. I´m dazzled, dazed, a bit sore of foot, surrounded by gorgeous tile decoration in the most unlikely places, laundry billowing above cobbled streets, the bustle and hurry of a CITY, and best of all I met a woman whose work may change my life. Seth said I would be blown away by Porto, and I am.

First, it´s gorgeous weather: cool breeze, upper 70´s F, sea gulls flying and crying over the city. I´ve been to the Tower of Clergymen (I chose not to walk up the 665 stairs to the top), and to the elliptical Church of the Clergymen: it´s really an oval church, so celebrated that the architect, Nasoni, is buried in it–and yet it feels somehow heavy–the ellipse is actually only about 60 meters long and 60 meters high, but it is weighted with thick columns heavily decorated with gilt and curlicues, heavy velvet draperies, and wildly extravagant niches with huge holy-looking figures in them borne aloft by angels, etc. One thing I loved about the Church of the Clergymen is that for the first time in Portugal, I saw votive candles burning. There weren´t candles available for people to light, but it was nice to sit in the flicker of candle light and take in the shapes, textures, and weights of what surrounded me. Then I spent an hour or so wandering in what is billed as “the most beautiful bookstore in the world,” and probably is. It´s the Livraria Lello, with stained glass, carved wood, a magnificent three-layer stairway, pressed copper, glass-enclosed bookshelves arched at the top, and Art Deco outside and everywhere inside. Their book collection is not really as stunning as their architecture, but they stock Asterix in Portuguese (Asterix in French was the delight of Seth´s childhood when we lived in southern France). They had an English translation of some short stories about life in Northern Portugal which I carried around with me for a while, but it was thirty Euros for a paperback, so I put it back. I still have about 70 pages of Saramago left, and I think when I finish it, I´ll just start again on page 1. But just to tease me, every street has another bookstore. I think there are more bookstores per capita in Porto than in Boston.

The shock of the day is that I stumbled by accident into a woman whose art so resonates with my own life and passions that I felt our meeting was more than chance. First, the place where I found her: an enormous four-story stone building with arches everywhere. If it weren´t for the thick iron bars on all the windows and the heavy iron doors at each level, you might think you were in another monastery. In fact it´s formerly the regional prison. It´s now the Centro Portugues de Fotografia, a photography museum. I came across haunting mug shots of former prisoners, then galleries of old cameras, a few books in glass cases showing photos taken in the Portuguese colonies in the 20´s, but I kept on wandering, climbing, climbing, till I came to a room where a new exhibition is being hung. It doesn´t open till Saturday, and the artist, Paula Luttringer, was sitting on the steps I came to, as some workers hung her pictures. She was born in Argentina, now lives in France, but comes to Houston once a year for a couple of weeks. Her show is “El Lamento de los Muros,” The Lament of the Walls, and it is, in her words, “seventy-five percent testimony and twenty-five percent photographs.” She was imprisoned in Argentina during the dictatorship, and now she returns to Argentina to do oral histories with others who were imprisoned. She asks them what they SAW while they were in jail, and the “testimony” is excerpts of her interviews with them. She mounts excerpts of testimony next to very large blowups of black and white photographs of what prisoners look at: walls, shadows, pipes, ants, walls, walls, walls. She speaks English, and I commented briefly on how excited I am by her work, said I also work with prisoners, and she gave me her email address and said the next time she is in Houston she´d love to come meet some of the prisoners John and I work with, if we can get her in. I told her that´s never predictable, but we can certainly try. Meanwhile she will send me copies of the testimonies that John and I can distribute to the men in the writing workshop, and maybe we can give them an assignment to write about what they look at. While I was talking with her, a guard came over and apologized to her for my presence: he didn´t notice when I stumbled into the gallery where, as he saw it, I shouldn´t have been. But she was wonderful, told him she wanted to talk to me, and sent him away. I noticed as I left that two of the big iron doors had been closed. No more of this riff-raff coming in! I also told her that I love pictures of walls, have been taking pictures of walls on this trip, including the walls at Batalha that are covered with patterns in gray, white, and black from acid rain and other forms of pollution. Until I saw her work, I hadn´t realized how many of the few photos I have shot are in fact pictures of walls. Her work inspires me. In September she will put up a website with the testimonies and some thumbnails, because she wants her work to be accessible to people who can´t buy art. I told her it won´t be accessible to people in prison in the USA, and at first she was troubled by that, and then she laughed, “If I had had the internet when I was in prison, I don´t think I would have felt that I was in prison at all.” Maybe. Maybe not. Finding her, her work, and having the chance to talk to her at length was beautiful synchronicity.

The question I must answer tomorrow is whether I am going to make this a semi-proper pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, or not. I have my “credential” obtained from the US branch of the confraternity. If I´m going to do this, I need to get down to the Cathedral tomorrow to get my credential stamped, at which point I have to register that my pilgrimage begins in Porto tomorrow, and that instead of going by foot or bicycle, my means is “other.” Real pilgrims go by foot, but if I at least follow the route and get my credential stamped, I will have–what? A stamped credential. But not a “Compostela,” as those are granted in Santiago only to pilgrims who have arrived by foot, bicycle, or perhaps donkey or horse. But I wasn´t after one of those anyway. What would I do with it? As I divest myself of possessions, it would be just one more thing to give away or take to the dumpster. And yet, if I´m sort of doing this, in every town I visit from now on, I should go somewhere to get my credential stamped. The very word “should” raises danger flags for me. The stamps are wonderfully made, many of them dating back to the medieval pilgrimages. But does that part matter to me? Am I on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, following a prescribed route that others have followed? That is a beautiful thing to do. But maybe it isn´t what I need to do. I seem to be on my own private pilgrimage, for which no stamps are required. There is something amazing, I might even say miraculous, happening every day. Places are the environment in which these things happen, but the places are not the point. Paula Luttringer is part of my pilgrimage. As is the woman in Alcobaca who plays the organ and sings Ave Maria at the same time. As is Alicia, who coins the phrase, “English is the language of greed.” As is the opportunity to learn to say no. The question of this pilgrimage, as I decided when I conceived it, is “What will I do with what is left of my one wild and precious life?” Every one of these encounters sheds light on that question. As I write that line, tears fill my eyes. This is a glorious pilgrimage, and everything that the Way is giving me, falls into place exactly as it needs to. I don´t think getting a credential stamped has anything to do with this. Right for some pilgrims, certainly, and a fine thing to do. But not right for me. I am grateful to John Brierley for his books about the pilgrimage, because I have learned and continue to learn from his words and observations. I am grateful to the universe, and to everyone who reads this blog and shares the journey with me, and to my feet, and to Manko, who is taking care of Pookie and Basho, and to Seth, who cheered me on, and to every day of the nearly sixty-one years that have led me to this moment. I am a Buddhist woman on a pilgrimage in Portugal, full of gratitude. That is my credential.

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-3 responses to “Porto!”

  1. La Rosser says:


  2. admin says:

    Yeah, smiling and ducking my head. Perfect. Thanks, La.

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