PORTO, PORTUGAL

Porto is my new favorite European town.  We took the metro from the train station and as soon as the elevator doors opened, both Tony and I stood at the top of a hill and oo’ed and aw’ed at the view.  We were right on Rue de Flores, where we would be staying for the next three nights.  The street itself was packed with cafés and restaurants, which I am not kidding when I tell you we sampled each and every one, including a few in the alleys on the side streets.  We had pizza, and burrata, and chicken piri piri (another Portuguese favorite), and cheese boards, and sangria, and black spaghetti.  I am wearing stretchy pants on my flight home and as I type this, all for good reason.

Our AirBNB was in a building built in the 1700s.  It had two large windows that overlooked the street and on each side of the windows was a small built in seat.  The owners called them ‘loveseats’ and it was perfectly fitting.  We would leave the windows open at night and the sounds of the street – restaurant goers chattering, street performers singing, loved ones giggling – would fill our room.  Oddly it didn’t bother me and I slept great.  The occasional smell of cigarette smoke (the Portuguese love their cigarettes) didn’t even get to me.  I was just taking it all in and loving every minute of this quaint and beautiful little European town, tucked away and completely underrated.

My absolute favorite part of Porto (and probably our entire Portugal trip) was the Cais da Ribeira.  There is a small street along the river that is lined with restaurants, performers, and merchants.  It sits at the bottom of a hill, and when you look up, there are multi colored homes and buildings staring down, brightening the entire city.  Tony and I walked along the river for quite a ways and found ourselves at the end of a bridge.  I was uncertain if I wanted to cross (the traffic scared me) but he pushed me to go all the way and boy am I glad I did.  The other side was equally as beautiful and it was here that we had our first Port wine tasting, paired with delicate chocolates.  Port wine is a very strong wine, almost like a liqueur.  And while other countries can and have made similar wines, only the Portuguese version can technically be called Port, much like the French can only call their Champagne, Champagne.

We continued our gluttony at a few other locations, ending our evening listening to a woman sing along the street.  Seriously, the US needs to figure out street dining and street performers.  I could do it every day of my life.

In Porto, there are certainly other things to see – a famous book store, dozens of churches, a few markets.  But for us, we really enjoyed just wandering the streets, taking in the sights, smells, and sounds.  Our AirBNB was an experience in and of itself, and the town was a perfect ending to our trip.  Obrigada, Portugal.  Obrigada.

The COVID-19 Pandemic

While this wasn’t our first trip traveling internationally during the pandemic, it was our first time traveling to Europe and the first time traveling during the Delta variant outbreak.  Tony and I have both been vaccinated (and can’t wait to get our boosters!).  This helped us to feel safe and I highly encourage everyone who hasn’t yet been vaccinated to consider doing so as soon as possible.  

Before we could get into Portugal, we had to present a negative PRC test that was taken within 72 hours prior to departure.  CVS or Walgreens can do these in their drive-thrus, and insurance in the US is mandated to pay 100% of the testing cost.

We had to complete a form prior to boarding for the Portuguese government – called a Persons Locator Form – to essentially track us should an outbreak occur.  We also had to show proof of a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours OR our vaccine cards before we could check into any of our AirBNBs. 

The European Union has implemented a vaccine passport for items such as hotel or AirBNB check-in.  As US citizens, we are not yet eligible for the EU vaccine passport (hopefully soon though).  The EU vaccine passport can also be used for entry into restaurants should you choose to dine indoors; we always opted for outdoors to stay safe from the virus, and also to enjoy the Mediterranean weather.

Prior to departing for The States, we needed to present another negative PRC test taken within 72 hours prior to departure.  There are labs everywhere, and we did this 48 hours prior to departure and paid 100 euros (about $120 USD).  Many insurance companies in the US will also reimburse these charges.

Out of sheer abundance of caution, we also brought with us six packs (12 tests total) of at-home COVID tests.  I had read that on rare occasions a restaurant or hotel might not accept the US COVID vaccine card, and this was going to be our back up plan should we not have a negative COVID test from the prior 72 hours.

Finally, masks.  Masks, masks, masks.  We obviously went with a ‘few’ masks, to put it lightly.  We had KN95 masks for the flights (required in flight, at the airport, and the entire time you are traveling).  We also had surgical masks that we would wear when in less crowded environments.  In Portugal, everyone wore a mask, all of the time.  This includes walking down the sidewalk in 80-degree weather, or sitting on a train, or visiting a store.  The Portuguese government only recommends surgical masks or respirator masks.  Cloth masks are prohibited as the science has proven them to be less effective.  So everywhere you looked, there was a sea of blue surgical masks.  It became so normal that it was odd if I saw someone walking without a mask.

Accessibility in Portugal

Aside from the history and landscape of Portugal – the hills and the cobblestone – both of which make it the stunning country that it is, everywhere we went was overly accessible.  Every train station and metro stop had an elevator.  Every restaurant and shop had an accessible bathroom.  There were ramps and helpful people at every corner.  It was to a point that when we asked our tour guide in Sintra if one of the buildings was accessible, he said, “Well of course, it has to be, right?”

The hosts of our last AirBNB were concerned that there wasn’t an elevator in the 1700’s building (I knew this going in and was okay to climb the flight of stairs on my hands and knees).  After we checked in, we headed out to explore the area. The hosts must have been concerned, or perhaps just thoughtful, because when we returned, there was a shower stool sitting in the bathroom and the hand-held shower nozzle had been taken from the high mount in the tub just so I could reach it.

At one of the train stops, we had opted to climb the three stairs in rather than wait for the accessible trolley to come along.  A family of four – mom, dad, and two little girls – sat across the aisle way from us.  While we couldn’t understand their language, it was clear that the girls were curious, and a little scared, of my wheelchair sitting nearby us.  The mother so calmly conversed with them, and when we were getting off the train, they were waiting – all four of them – at the door to see if we needed help getting off.  Perhaps this was a teaching moment for the children; perhaps it is just how their culture is; or perhaps it was both.  None the less, it wasn’t uncomfortable or unwanted.  I embraced it and appreciated the help from strangers, who we weren’t able to exchange a word with.  It is these moments that I cherish and hold onto; in a world of hate, violence, illness, and uncertainty, these moments give me hope.

As we were walking through the Porto airport on the morning we left, I told Tony that I was so incredibly impressed with the way the Portuguese people treated the disabled.  He agreed and we tossed around a few words to describe it, none of them fitting perfectly, but knowing a combination of them is how we both felt.  Respected.  Equality.  Inclusivity.  Trusted.  Embraced.

~~~

On the flight from Porto to Amsterdam, the flight attendant refused to put my wheelchair in the closet aboard the flight.  In the US, this is a federal regulation and I always, always, request that the flight attendants put my wheelchair in the closet.  While it is a struggle sometimes and they don’t often want to comply, there are several reasons this is important to me.

Tony and I had a very short connection in Amsterdam, so we needed to get off of the plane quickly.  When the wheelchair is below the aircraft, it is often the last thing to come up, even after checked baggage is sent on its way.  This created a bit of stress for us but the flight attendant assured us it would arrive on time and we would not miss our flight.

We waited patiently as everyone on the flight slowly took their bags and walked off.  I crawled to the door, and when I saw my wheelchair, I gasped.  A metal part underneath the seat was broken in half and the chair no longer properly unfolded.  I could not sit on it and be stable.  My chair is a custom-made chair, and I know that the part will take weeks to come in.

Most airlines will provide reimbursement for broken medical devices, but it often takes weeks or months for the airline to even review the claim.  And who knows what this experience will be like since I am dealing with an international treaty.  I will go through the motions – file the claim, order a new part for the wheelchair, wait patiently before I can resume my normal lifestyle activities.  Unfortunately, though, my story is not unique.  It has been reported that in the US over 700 wheelchairs are damaged each month.  That is 700 human beings who lose their mobility, and often their independence.  It is not as simple as suggesting that the airlines provide a replacement wheelchair; almost all wheelchair users I know have a wheelchair custom designed for their specific needs and uses.  I wish there was a comparable understanding for abled body people.  The closest thing that comes to mind is asking, “If you had to put your shoes – every single pair you own – below the aircraft, would you?”

Ironically, much of this could be avoided if flight attendants just asked where the passenger would like their medical device transported – the closet or underneath.  In almost every case, when I ask if I can place my wheelchair in the closet, the flight attendant responds that the closet is already full with their luggage, as if it would be too much work to move one suitcase so I don’t lose my mobility (a federal mandate, by the way, that the luggage be removed if a medical device needs to be stowed).  We need to get better at this.  The AIRLINES need to get better at this.  Disabled travelers deserve to fly knowing that they will be able to move after the flight lands.

But as Tony pointed out, “Thank goodness this happened on the way home and not the way there.” I was able to enjoy Portugal, every single bit of it. 🙂

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