Porto, Portugal | June 5, 2009
A tall glass bottle appeared on the check-in desk, it’s golden contents, studded with cloves, sloshed inside. In perfect English inflected with a French-Canadian accent and twirled by a deeper, Portuguese mother tongue, the man with fatigued eyes explained that his mother had made this aguardente in the hills of Manteigas. I had asked for recommendations of where I should try the local firewater and João had produced his family’s own homemade liquor in response. We had arrived to the heart of Porto scant hours previous, idling down the cobblestone corridor of Rua Fonte Taurina as we inched the car around cafe tables, pedestrians, and pigeons. With a few deft swipes of hospitality, João and his wife, Carmen, had trimmed our unknown pasts away.
Like old comrades, we shared a throat-blistering drink and traded the tribulations of Portuguese business with plans for seeing the north country. I sipped the aguardente from a tall, narrow glass, its bouquet flowed like lava into my nostrils and the liquor pleasantly stung my lips. As our conversation aged, the evening collapsed into night and draped itself atop the restored brick buildings with chipped and faded paint and wrought-iron balconies that looked across the Douro’s gray band toward the Port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia. Outside, the sound of voices and the sticky tread of car tires bounced off the buildings that seemed to huddle together conspiratorially.
A handful of hours earlier, we had arrived at Guest House Douro to hugs and “my lovelies” from Carmen before the introduction to a room enshrined to details: a spotless, plush duvet, shining chrome fixtures, soundproof windows overlooking the river, and two glasses of ruby and white Port. One of us had sighed: we chafed at the shackles of our itinerary, which left little more than a day to meet Porto between Coimbra and Braga. João and I clinked glasses, wished each other saúde, and took our final swallows of the moonshine.
Minutes later in the balmy night, only the slow descent of the aguardente’s legs in our empty glasses told the tale of something special: a friendship quickened in the night like a blooming moonflower. Sarah and I walked slowly down the Rua. The uneven cobbles pushed against my thin-soled shoes, and my cheeks ached from a permanent smile. Past open-air bars blaring reggae, beneath clotheslines riffled by a breeze, and behind darting alley cats, we eventually stepped into a praça in bloom with white umbrellas nestled against the river, like a field of flowers running toward the sea. A smoky, spicy scent of flaming chorizo hung in the air. We picked a table and sat staring across the Douro at the lights.
By morning these umbrellas would be folded.