On this trip I head north to Porto and further afield to the Douro Valley. The charm and laid-back feel of Portugal’s second city are the main attractions for me but when you travel to where the port wines come from close to the Spanish boarder you get to see the Portugal as it once was, gentle serene and utterly seductive.
Autumn had truly begun when I visited Porto in early November. The crisp clear air was a pleasant change from the cold damp London I had come from. Portugal is lovely at this time of year with the leaves turning shades of tan and brown and a bright sun low in the sky.
Portugal has a population of 10 million of which 1.4 million live in Porto and Gaia – the Douro River separating these two conurbations. The historic centre of Porto is a UNESCO world heritage site and the star of this wonderful city. It runs down to the river’s edge where you can clearly view the famous lodges or caves of Gaia where Porto’s most famous export drink port is kept, but more of that later.
There are six bridges spanning the river including a spectacular arched wrought iron connection constructed to take trains from Porto to Lisbon. Designed by Gustave Eiffel it was at the time the widest spanning bridge in the world at 160m. It is a marvelous feat of engineering and particularly attractive when lit up at night viewed from one of the many restaurants along the riverbanks.
One of the first of many pleasant surprises about Porto is the cost of public transport. While the centre is easily walkable it is €1.90 from the airport to the city and €0.50 for an hour on either tram or bus. There is an old tram that runs a route up to the port lodges that is worth hopping on if you fancy giving your feet a rest.
Grahams, the famous port producers have a large cellar on the banks of the Douro. One of the oldest houses founded in 1820 by two families, Grahams and Symington. The story has come full circle in recent years. The Symington family left the business only to return in 1970 (a vintage year incidentally) and have been there ever since. A tour of the operation is a right of passage for any visitor to Porto. The musty smell of the damp French oak in the cellars, explanations of process and of course a chance to taste at the end. Try white port with tonic for an unconventional alternative aperitif, it’s delicious.
If you thought that port was one of those ‘drinks you have at Christmas’ think again. It can and should be enjoyed year-round either chilled or at room temperatures depending on the type and vintage and with a variety of foods not just Stilton. If you wanted to push the boat out then why not treat yourself to a bottle of 1882 at €6,500. But a more down to earth price is possible but still a good vintage, say, 1963 for less than €200. Start saving for your 60th!
A question often overlooked about port is how long does it last after opening. I put this to the cellar guide; tawny 5 to 6 months, ruby 3 to 4 months and wait for it vintage (usually the most expensive) just 1 to 2 days. So enjoy it while you can!
Porto is of course not just a place for port. The historic centre is a treasure trove of independent shops and boutiques offering everything from designer clothes and fashion ware to the latest pottery or stylish interiors. There are old staples too. The Majestic café is a glorious homage to Art Nouveau in Santa Catarina Street. Opening its door in 1921 it has served the smart set ever since. It’s a confection of elaborate plasterwork on the ceiling, carved wooden booths and chairs with leather upholstery, a classic example of European café culture at its best.
The tiles that adorn many of the buildings in the city have a purpose other than aesthetic, they are there to protect against the damp of the city. Often blue they offer a delightful background to the already fascinating architecture. As well as practical use they have become decorative, for example, take a look at the São Bento Railway Station designed by Jorge Colaço only a 100 years ago. The main hall is covered in historical tales told through blue azulejo tiles.
The old market ‘Mercado do Bolhão is a slice of Porto past. Scheduled for restoration this 100-year-old market traders centre has been tied up with red tape for years so it still carries on as it did. You can find fresh flowers, food and tiny cafés with locals drinking small tall glasses of port at any time of the day.
Chef stardom has also come to Porto, José Avillez’s eponymous Cantinho do Avillez casual restaurant is a good example. Modern Portuguese food with a nod to the past is on offer. Think cod risotto with ‘exploding’ olives. Not as dangerous as it sounds and an excellent foam chocolate with hazelnut dessert. José is a TV chef with seven restaurants under his belt (most of which are in Lisbon). The food is very good and sensibly priced.
A trip to Porto would not be complete without looking in at the start of Harry Potter. The bookshop Lello has been in business for 100 years and is celebrated as the birthplace of the world’s favourite boy wizard. J.K. Rowling lived and worked in Porto and used to come here to drink tea on the top floor mezzanine level and write. Yes, it all started here and you can see why. This is a glorious building with a double winding staircase made of concrete, as the structure would be too complex to make from wood. It is said that the carved bookshelves and elaborate ceiling were the inspiration for Dumbledore’s study.
The culture doesn’t stop at bookshops in Porto. Casa de Musica is a vast public music venue with two performing halls. Both entirely soundproofed it is possible to watch the performers through strategically places windows without hearing a note (nor them you). It looks like an enormous shoebox at least that’s what the locals called it during construction. It has won the hearts of the locals and is now known affectionately as ‘casa’ or house. Another unique design feature is windows in the ceiling that can be screened if it’s too bright. Natural light adds another dimension to theatrical performances.
Drive for one hour north of Porto and you come to Pont de Lima, the bridge on the River Lima. The bridge has Roman origins and is multi arched. But it’s the small town itself that is the lure here. Charming, impossibly quiet and packed with little bakers, cafés and an inexplicable number of hardware shops it is simply lovely. I wandered around for ages just taking it all in. Nothing really happens here, that’s the attraction. The only thing that does move quickly is the water in the fountain in the central square. It’s worth a stop off on the way up to the vineyards of the north.
Not only port but also wines are big business in Portugal. Their mission is to innovate through sustainable systems. Wine has been produced in the Douro region for millennia and although small compared with other European producers they have a worthy place in the wine world. Nearly all the wines produced in this region are tended and harvested by hand due to the terrain. This ‘hands on’ approach is evident in the care taken and the love of what they do.
There are plenty of small producers offering accommodation as well as wine. Quinta do Ameal near Pont de Lima is one that has five rooms (all very chic) to stay in and you can drink their local wine and look onto the vineyard that yielded the grapes that made it. Their wines are rather good at least Gordon Ramsay thinks so and has a selection in his restaurants. British wine critic and journalist Jancis Robinson no less raves about the place. A small producer at only 60,000 bottles a year they would rather concentrate on the quality than quantity.
It’s possible to catch a train from Porto up to the Douro Valley. I took this route to visit Quinta Nova (two hours). A short drive from the station (they will pick you up by arrangement) this is a place to stay a while and just drift away. Sitting up high in the mountains it has a commanding view of the surrounding land. A warm welcoming fire and roast chestnuts greeted my arrival. They offer tours of the winery, which finish conveniently in the restaurant. I urge you to take advantage of this, as the food is superb. Tastings are available too. For €150 a night you can stay in this traditional quinta and let your troubles ebb away. Booking is advisable as it fills up all year round. No surprise really as this is a very cool place to hang out.
I took a boat most of the way back to Porto, the same way the barrels were once transported to the lodges at Gaia. Very soothing and as you drift downstream I could see the large signs of all the port houses on the hillsides showing their vineyards.
The surrounding countryside offers a tremendous of variety to the visitor and you don’t need a car. Train travel is cheap and plentiful and there are plenty of boats for the wet bob amongst you. The best thing in my mind about the Porto region is Porto. It is full of history, slightly decaying grandeur, a sense of fun and great food. The shops are all independent and on my visit in mid November not one reference to Christmas at all. Name me another city in Europe that you can say that about? Anytime of the year is good for Porto, wander the streets, hang out in the Majestic, visit a wine lodge, have a tasting or two and enjoy the local specialty of cod bacalhau. Salt cod, potatoes and eggs, concocted into an open pie with a crusted top, it will warm your heart as will Porto.
For more information on Porto and North of Portugal please visit: www.visitportoandnorth.travel
TAP Portugal flies direct from London Gatwick to Porto 13 times a week with prices starting at £42 one way including all taxes and surcharges. For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call +44(0)345 601 0932
Neil Hennessy-Vass is a widely-published globetrotting food and travel writer and photographer and one of our regular writers.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass