Porto as we all know is the birthplace to that revered tipple Port. Despite a decline in popularity it has had many loyal followers over the centuries and continues to generate new admirers, including this writer. Even that great recorder of Dr Samuel Johnson’s work, James Boswell noted “Claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy”. It’s an interesting and as ever amusing quote but not as informed as it might sound. Port’s origins are said to have come from a necessity to preserve wine for long voyages. It was this desire of longevity that created the idea of adding brandy to the mix – and so port was born. So Dr Johnson should really have amended his witticism accordingly.
A rather good octopus salad, baked beef terrine, an almond crème dessert and a couple of glasses of fine wine from The Douro enhanced my flight to Porto with TAP. It’s always enjoyable to start a journey with the right emphasis on quality, it boded well for the rest of the trip.
Porto was named best European destination in 2014 as well as producing port it has a reputation for world class wines, which frequently appear in the top ten of wine contests. It is a vibrant city with a beating heart that makes it a working city with character, history, gastronomy and more than a few passing references to books about a well-known boy wizard.
Staying at the Hotel Musica was convenient as it’s fairly central, there is a music theme (as you might imagine) running through the hotel with notation on the walls and carpets. The rooms are ultra modern with clean white lines and enormous square flat sinks in the centre of the room that take a bit of getting used to (they don’t hold a great amount of water).
Wandering around the centre of Porto with its mainly Baroque architecture, trams, many churches and individual shops (lots of them shoe shops) I came across the most incredible bookshop: Lavraria Lello, Rua das Carmelitas 144, established in 1906 it is dominated by an incredible red art nouveau curved staircase winding through the middle. The decorative steps and detailing are made of plaster. The twin set of semi spiral stairs lead you up to the second floor passing walls of books on the way. The ceiling has a stained-glass skylight. The whole interior is stunningly intricate and the attention to detail amazing. Designed by architect Xavier Esteves the front of the building is no less impressive with muted Gothic and just a hint of art nouveau. Some people have likened the shop to Dumbledore’s office in the Harry Potter films, I can see why.
I hopped on a cruise of the river Douro that winds through the city. For €12.50 I sailed under the six bridges that join Porto with its opposite number across the river Douro, Gaia. The architecture of these bridges all varied and had a strangely hypnotic effect when you cruise underneath. Gustavo Eifel, of the tower fame built the iron Maria Pia Bridge railway in 1877 it spans 353m and is a giddy 60m above the river. I loved the views on either side of the bank, with sloping sides and terracotta tiled roofs, it looks unchanged in centuries.
All the port lodges are actually not in Porto but in Vila Nova de Gaia, known locally as just Gaia. There are various stories that offer reasons why Gaia was chosen, the shade is better for maturing the port or that the land was cheaper at that time, take your choice! Established over 400 years ago this is Mecca for port wine lovers, but the port is not actually made here but further up the Douro River in quintas or estates. You can see the original boats used to transport the port moored outside the lodges, now it’s all done by motor vehicle. All the big names are here, Taylor’s, Graham’s and Croft etc. I went on a tour of the spectacular cellars of Sandeman’s.
The moist damp smell that greets you instantly grabbed my attention. Musty and sweet, the cellars are full of giant barrels and have wooden cobbled floors to help preserve the casks when rolled. My guides, Marta and Inês provided a rich story of the history of Sandeman’s. Founded in 1790 by an enterprising Scotsman George Sandeman with money borrowed from his father. In 1805 they were the first port producer to brand their casks and in 1928 the famous silhouette of the Sandeman ‘Don’ was born, synonymous with port and those Orson Welles adverts in the 70’s.
Some 4 million litres of aged tawnies, classic and vintage ports are stored here. If you were feeling flushed you could find yourself a vintage from you birth year – a word of warning, it might cost you a few €’s though, some of them are very expensive! For a more reasonable but excellent tipple try anything from 2011 vintage – an excellent year to invest in. Even if you don’t opt for a vintage year, that is a year that is declared independently of the producer to maintain scrupulously the high standards. There is something here for all price ranges, just to see the cellars and the ancient barrels enthused this visitor.
I lunched at the Palácio da Bolsa in the historic centre of Porto. This magnificent neoclassical building with Palladian influences now houses restaurants and small businesses but was once the equivalent of their stock exchange. I looked around the main hall that started life in 1832. The exterior of the building was completed around 1850 but the interiors took a while longer. Once you’ve visited you’ll understand why. It is an extraordinary feat of architecture and design. The highlight being the Arab room, designed by Gonçalves e Sousa and not competed until 1880 after 18 years of work, it is a treat for the eyes. A vast room decked out in Moorish revivalist style popular at the time it is the last word in opulence and style. A true one off this room is now used for public functions and small concerts.
It was time for a little afternoon pick-me-up so I went to the best place in town, The Café Majestic. It’s superb for people watching and of course to try a few delicacies. The Belle Époque is in full swing here with a glamorous interior that looks unchanged in its 95-year history. But it was not always the case in the 60’s and 70’s it fell into decline and left to rack and ruin. In the 90’s a refurbishment programme brought it back to life and is now one of Porto’s finest cafes. It has the swish and kinetic verve of a Parisian or Viennese cafe but retains the charm of Portugal at its core. I had to try one of their specialties, rabanada, a tasty little French toast-like concoction but a little sweeter, delicious.
The next day I headed north to Braga through the slow undulating countryside with vineyards providing most of the backdrop. Braga is thought to be one of the oldest Catholic cities in the world. It has suffered its fair share of invasions and conquering over the centuries by the Romans and Germanic races but now has a tranquil feel. It has a very pedestrian friendly centre with plenty of shops and bars to view the Neolithic, Medieval and Modernist monuments and churches. It is the third largest city in Portugal.
The gorgeous Art Deco Café A Brasileira sits in the historic centre of the city (isn’t there always a super historic cafe in every town in Portugal I found!), the perfect place to have a hot drink. People travel miles just for the coffee.
Refueled and refreshed it was time to push on to the highlight of my day. I had wanted to visit a quinta or wine estate for some time and had been invited by Pedro Araújo, a small producer of some fine white wines. An impossibly romantic avenue of hanging wisteria reaches Quinta do Ameal from the main road. Pedro has his production based in old farm buildings and houses scattered around 30 acres. Working exclusively with the loureico grape that offers low acidity, good structure enables his wines to mature over 10 -15 years. He has notable success with his small production of only 50,000 bottles a year, some of which are snapped up by Michelin big hitters like Heston Blumenthal for his restaurants. By creating only white wine he is able to refine and concentrate his efforts to maximum success. Pedro was so passionate about how he makes wine his enthusiasm is infectious.
The quinta is so peaceful that Pedro recently decided to start offering accommodation in converted outbuildings. At the moment he only has five self-catering apartments and a house for rent, there will be more. I looked around a couple they were gorgeous, very stylish and enormous. You could easily spend a few days here with your family to break a journey travelling around the region. It was a most tranquil setting; imagine sitting looking at the vineyards and drinking wine made from the grapes for a couple of days – heaven. There’s even a pool for those who need to cool off!
Crossing the Ponte Lima an ancient bridge constructed by the Romans I travelled on to the grand Pousada de Viana do Castelo a luxury inn owned by the government. Perched on top of a large hill with views of an exquisite Basilica that was started in 1897 but not finished until 1953, and the beautiful estuary of the Lima River beyond. The town of Viana and the Atlantic in the distance couldn’t have been more dramatic. Built in 1918 by a wealthy Brazilian the hotel is a timeless tribute to how things used to be done. Marble bathrooms, large public spaces and an excellent restaurant where I enjoyed a local onion soup and delicious goat curry. The superior room (that was for once superior) costs between €130 – €180 per night for a view to die for and the luxury on offer this is good value.
My final day and I wandered down the hill to look inside the Basilica, which has a dedication to St. Luzia, the patron saint of the eyes. The interior is simple but impressive. Nearby there is a vehicular train down to Viana where a 16th Baroque church is walled with blue and white tiles, some of which are of an explicit nature showing what might become of you if you sinned!
The town is like all in northern Portugal, peaceful, charming and full of character. My return was just in time for an excellent lunch of carpaccio of octopus and a splendid steak. The short 45-minute journey to Porto airport went far to quickly. I wanted to stay longer and soak up the unique atmosphere that Portugal has to offer. I will be returning to try again all those wonderful wines, pastries, cheeses, ports and of course to meet the friendly people and drink in those splendid views.
TAP Portugal flies from London Gatwick to Porto 14 times a week, with return fares starting at £120 including all taxes and surcharges. For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call 0345 601 0932.