The Rio Douro is the gateway to the best-known vineyards in all of Portugal. The steep hillsides along the upper stretches of the river are one of the earth’s oldest grape-growing regions and Porto, located near the mouth of the river, has based its economy on the vineyards for centuries. The wealth generated by the export of the wines funded the building of vast churches, monasteries, and grand houses.
The historical center of Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage district known as Ribeira, and it is filled with winding staircases, narrow streets, a multitude of churches and crumbling tall townhouses from the early 20th century, many of which have been abandoned because the young crowd prefers the modern suburbs closer to the sea. The Atlantic is only 5km from Ribeira and it can be reached easily by age-old trams or the modern metro lines and air-conditioned buses.
The southern banks of the river were once part of the Roman province of Lusitania that encompassed all of Portugal south of the Douro as well as Extremadura in Spain. The wine-making industry and the vast warehouses required for production and storage were confined to the south side of the Rio Douro beginning in the 18th century, and indeed, once you cross the iconic Ponte Dom Luis I (bridge), you are technically in another city altogether, Vila Nova de Gaia. It is here that visitors come to sample the fruits of the Douro region. Dozens of cellars vie for the attention of the tourists with tours and tastings, daily, throughout the year.
Portugal’s most famous son, Henry the Navigator, was born in Porto and while he and his fellow explorers were busy seeking a sea route to India via the Cape of Good Hope, the British wine merchants began to do business with Portugal in a big way. They were forbidden to trade with France at the time and so discovered a trade secret of their own. They didn’t care for the astringent wines of the Douro region, so added some brandy to the grape juice and port wine was the result. The brandy not only sweetened the wine, but also preserved it for the long voyage back to England.
It’s not hard to discern the strong British influence in the port wine industry. When you look across the river from Ribeira, the huge signs for Taylor’s, Graham’s and Sandeman’s cannot be ignored. The British developed a real fondness for port wine, especially when consumed with nuts, dried fruits, and cheese. There are those who believe that a cigar must be accompanied with a glass of fine port in order for both to be appreciated fully.
Kapoors On The Road
We arrived in Porto by train from Lisbon, a comfortable journey that took less than four hours. We had contemplated renting a car for a second week in Portugal and taking our own sweet time exploring the provinces between the two capitals. However, when I realized that such an itinerary would put us in Santiago de Compostela, Spain on November 1st, All Saint’s Day, when it would be crowded and indeed overwhelmed with tourists and pilgrims, we decided to speed things up a little and head straight to Porto for three nights.
I knew that Porto was situated along the banks of the Rio Douro, but I was unprepared for the sight of the magnificent bridge we spotted as we crossed a neighbouring bridge aboard the train. The buildings rose high above the river on both sides, and the red roofs and white walls were stunning in the afternoon sunlight. We were required to leave the inter-city train and change to a metro line for the last two kilometres into the city. To make it easy for travellers, the train ticket was also valid for the metro.
We disembarked in the 100+ year old São Bento train station, in the heart of the historic city centre. Instead of taking a taxi, we decided to walk to our hotel even though the streets were exceptionally steep. It gave us a chance to absorb the flavour of the city as well as stretch our legs after sitting for several hours. When at last the streets leveled out, we found ourselves at a large plaza filled with young people dressed in clothing from a bygone era.
Both men and women wore all black, trousers, stocking, coats, and cloaks. I also noticed that many were carrying what looked like wooden clubs, though some of the long-handled batons had ends that looked like ladles rather than weapons. Some of the young females carried small tambourines with ribbons tied to the sides. I remarked to Anil that it looked like we had walked into a Harry Potter film set.
It wasn’t hard to notice the other young people standing with the people in black. They were all dressed in blue jeans and red t-shirts, and were wearing what appeared to be red baby potties upturned on their heads as hats. I realized that we were witnessing a hazing ritual of some sort and pulled out my camera to take a picture. As I aimed my camera at one group in particular, the tallest fellow, dressed in black, caught my eye and almost imperceptibly, shook his head from side to side.
It was clear that he didn’t want me to take a picture, and I was very tempted to pretend that I didn’t understand and take one anyway. I thought better of it though, and slipped the camera into my pocket. A moment later, the young man came over to talk to us and was exceedingly friendly. We spent the next fifteen minutes explaining what was going on and answering our many questions. He spoke excellent English, and when I commented on this, he told us his father was Portuguese, his mother African, and that he had been raised in England for many years.
We learned that the students were from the Portuguese Catholic University, a private, non-profit university that started in 1967. During the freshman year, the students dress casually and must wear coloured t-shirts to identify themselves as such. We noticed groups in red, green, yellow, and purple t-shirts during the time we were in Porto. Once the students progress to their second year of studies, they begin to wear the all black dress of the upper classes. They must wear this strict attire for all but 25 days in the school year.
We were fascinated by what we learned and I was even more convinced that the author of the Harry Potter books must have visited Porto at some time in her life to see the dramatic sight of the UPC students as they roamed the streets of the city. You can imagine my delight when we learned from a friendly woman at the tourism office that J.K. Rowling was once married to a Portuguese man and had lived for some time in Porto. No surprise to me!
It was late afternoon but we had only the two following days to explore Porto, so we set off to following the walking tour outlined in our Lonely Planet guidebook. The tour started conveniently close to our hotel and one of the first buildings that caught our eye happened to be a bookstore. We were standing across the street from it’s striking façade, when a Portuguese woman tapped me on the shoulder and told us in halting English that we should go inside, that we didn’t have to buy a ticket to see the interior.
My curiosity was piqued and we made our way in. The moment we crossed the threshold, I knew we were in some place special. So special, I was sure that this had to be one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. By chance, we had been to a bookstore located in a former opera house in Buenos Aires. We learned that it had been voted the second most beautiful bookstore in the world. When I checked later, I was not surprised to learn that the ‘Livaria Lello’ was indeed number three on the very same list.
Here is a link to a 360 degree video of the stunning interior: Visit Livaria Lello
We continued on following our guidebook and I could see that it would end up with us walking across the lower level of the Ponte Dom Luis I bridge. We felt we might be able to have dinner beside the river, below the warehouses of Vila Nova de Gaia. The walking tour gave us a great idea of the lay of the land, but unfortunately, most of the restaurants appeared to be closed for the season.
We weren’t too very hungry so we just walked back to our hotel, along a different route and had a picnic in our room. What I failed to mention though was that we had decided to take what appeared to be a shortcut up a series of stairs to the Praça de Lisboa where the land leveled out. It was one of the steepest climbs we’ve ever made and when we arrived at the top, a woman resident gave us the biggest of smiles in what appeared to be approval of our stamina.
We spent the next day exploring Porto on foot and then, after touring the Tram Museum, riding the complete circuits of all three tram routes around the city and out to the Atlantic. When we would get to the end of the routes, the conductor would have to move her seat from the front of the tram to the other end where a second set of controls were located. Once I realized that she also had to flip the seat backs so that the passengers could all face forward, I helped her to complete the task at the end of the next route. Anil and I were both in our glory.
Our last tram ride ended at the Praça Gomes Teixiera and we walked to the nearby Rua do Carmo to a restaurant recommended in our guidebook. Once again, we arrived too early for dinner. We can never seem to get used to the European timings for meals. We had less than an hour to wait, so I guided Anil a couple of doors away to a small wine store that had caught my eye. It had a quaint look too it, not all chrome and glass and modern like so many others I had seen while out walking.
We decided it was high time we tried some of the Vinho Verde, white wines from a special grape grown only in this region of Portugal. We chatted with the owner of the shop about the wine and he helped us select a bottle to purchase. While we were talking with him, I happened to mention that I would like to buy a port, but we hadn’t been to Vila Nova de Gaia yet to participate in a wine tasting or tour. He was a warm and cheerful gentleman, and asked if we had time before dinner, he would do a personal tasting for us right then and there.
We were delighted. He had already demonstrated to us that he wasn’t a high-pressure salesman and he proceeded to introduce us to the joys of port wine. He started us out on white port, who knew? We tried four varieties and then moved on to port wines more like what I expected we would be sampling. They just kept getting better and better, though I have to admit, they each tasted fine in their own way. We sampled ruby, tawny, aged tawny and late-bottled vintage ports. I won’t go into how each is different from the other because to tell the truth, we were feeling a little fuzzy by the end of it all.
What I do remember though is that the grapes are harvested in the autumn, crushed immediately (many times by foot as in the old ways) and left to ferment until the alcohol content reaches 7%. Brandy is added at this point, one part to every five parts of wine. The brandy stops the fermentation immediately and the sugars that were yet to be fermented are what make the port wine sweet. The different varieties are derived from the use of different grapes and the ways in which the port is aged and stored.
The finest port, vintage port, is made from the best grapes from a single year, no blending here before aging the wine in barrels for two years and then aging in bottles for a minimum of ten years. Some are aged for up to one hundred years. The result is a dark wine with flavours I’m not equipped to describe, especially because we never tried any vintage port. I did notice some bottles displayed in another shop window with labels showing a price of €1600.00.
Editor’s Note: Yes, Vicki does have her decimal in the correct place!
We walked out of the shop with a bottle of Vinho Verde and another of Late-Bottled Vintage port along with a couple of wine glasses we coveted for about what a decent bottle of Malbec would cost at home. We thoroughly enjoyed our wine tasting in the ‘Garrafeira do Carmo’ wine shop and promised to send our host copies of the photos I took and a link to this journal entry. In the end, we never did venture into a warehouse across the river. We had such a great experience already, nothing could top it, nothing could even come close.
We were finally ready for dinner and we joined the few other early diners at the neighbouring A Tasquina for a hearty meal of delicious sautéed pork smothered in sliced of crispy potatoes. The olives piled in the middle and the jug of red wine were perfect accompaniments. Like so many days, in fact every day since we left to start Year Five of our travels, we looked at each other and agreed ‘It had been another great day’.
For our last day in Porto, we chose to walk through areas of the historical districts we hadn’t yet covered and then as we were at the highest point of land near the river, we walked across the top of the double-decker bridge. We criss-crossed the platform several times in order to peer down at the boats passing under the bridge. We had to keep an eye out for the metro trains that use the top deck as well, to pass from one side of the river to the other. There are no railings to keep pedestrians off the tracks, but the driver’s can sound a horn if they think anyone is in danger of being hit.
We walked down to the banks of the river below the warehouses and contemplated going for a wine tasting at the Sandeman winery, but when we entered, we quickly retreated to the street. It was so unlike our first tasting, we didn’t want to venture in, and be charged for the tour as well as for the port at the end. Instead, we walked along the street and found a small restaurant where the local residents were stopping for lunch, and we spent our euros there.
We’re always amazed at what a hearty amount of meat is considered appropriate for one person to eat. There aren’t a great variety of vegetables consumed in Portugal, but it’s not surprising to see potatoes and rice served at the same time as side dishes to the meat or fish. Our bellies were full now and it was time to head back to our hotel and relax. The prospect of climbing those steep stairs was more than a little daunting, but then I remembered that there was a funicular railway at the Porto end of the bridge. We rode the ultra-modern lift to the top of the rock face and found the exit to be very near one of the tram stops. It was the tram that would take us close to our hotel, and as the funicular ticket allowed us to transfer to the tram, we rode home in comfort.
We spent the evening on the internet, me uploading photos and Anil doing his research for places to stay and cities to visit once we crossed the border into Spain the following day. It was hard to believe that we had been in Portugal for almost an entire month, and though we had seen more than most visitors do, we knew there was still more to see in this beautiful country. Should we ever find ourselves back in Portugal, there’s no way we would every think ‘Been there, done that’. We’ve really only begun to scratch the surface.