Street Art
Seaside promenade
Blue-tiled church
Vintage tram
Tasting Port at Grahams
Garlic & chilli prawns
previous arrow
next arrow
 

If you think it’s all about Port, think again

Like most everyone we spoke with prior to our trip to Porto, we were also under the impression there was not much else to see or do besides visit Port houses and taste Port.

Were we in for a big surprise.

While Port does remain the city’s major claim to fame (more about this very special wine later), we found a multitude of unique attractions that can happily keep a visitor engaged for days, even weeks. And a major plus is that everything (hotels, taxis, restaurants, and merchandise) is a fraction of what you would spend in any other major city…anywhere.

For instance, who knew that surely the world’s most gorgeous bookstore was right here? J.K. Rowling knew. It was the local university student’s black uniforms, complete with flowing black capes, that gave her the idea for Hogwarts. And she sat in this very bookstore and scribbled away. The rest, as they say, is history.

Not too far up the cobblestoned hill (lots of steep hills all over Portugal) we came upon the Via Santa Catalina, Porto’s premier shopping street, with enough jazzy merchandise to satisfy the pickiest fashionista. Smack in its midst we came upon one of Porto’s most beloved landmarks, the opulent, marvellous Majestic restaurant. Serving delighted diners (like us) since 1923, we oohed and ahhed over the magnificent decor before feasting on their deliciously tender (shared) perfumed duck, which was perfectly paired with two glasses of a lovely local white. Cliff’s dessert sweet tooth was catered to in the form of a wonderfully warm apple tart (not shared) accompanied by a small glass of white Port. Our charming server in her vintage uniform was thoughtfully only there when needed. The overall ambiance was heavenly (no loud music, tables well-spaced apart), and the entire experience was memorable for all the right reasons.

So, how much would you estimate for this dream of a meal? An incredible 24 Euros.

And now a word about Port.

As you may be aware, it’s illegal to call a sparkling wine Champagne if it isn’t made in the Champagne region of France. The same is true of Port.

In fact, Port got its name from Portugal’s so-called second city on the banks of the Douro (river of gold) not the other way around.

While I had been to Portugal four times over the years, I never got as far north as this surprisingly dynamic, exciting city. (Now not surprisingly, it has been voted the top city in Europe three times since 2012 by the European Best Destinations organization. And it is mind-boggling to discover that aside from the world-famous Port houses, the sophisticated metropolis boasts scores of excellent restaurants (some Michelin Stars amongst them), and surely the most fabulous book store on the planet is here, as well as many marvellously blue-tiled buildings, stunning architecture at every turn and jaw-dropping views wherever you look.

We enjoyed Porto every bit as much as we did Lisbon (along with over 1,600,000 other annual visitors), even though a mere 276,000 inhabitants call Porto home.

Our Pestana Hotel was ideally situated, plunk on the waterfront. We were mesmerized by the endless parade of fascinating river traffic–ferries, sailboats barrel-laden scows and other colourful craft–as well as the picture-postcard view of the south side of the river, which held our attention.

One morning we tore ourselves away from our birds-eye view of the fascinating activity outside our window, walked across the nearby iron bridge and found ourselves on the other side of the river and on the legendary Via Nova de Gaia. This riverside thoroughfare is home to the world-famous Port houses. They patiently awaited our arrival. However, my advice is to Google ahead and check out tour times, your language preference, and prices, because no two Port houses are alike.

I must admit, it was kind of thrilling to see them all lined up in a row. Camus, Caleb, Croft, Taylor’s, and Sandeman.

Most all these houses have public reception areas that are quite elaborate, while others are modest by comparison. One of the Port houses, in addition to their extensive tour and tasting, shows a film, offers a short fado performance (unique Portuguese soulful songs of love and loss) and even serves lunch. I really can’t recommend one over the other. It’s up to how much time you can or want to spend and what your personal tastes are. So, I’d check the internet first. All the houses are listed with detailed schedules, location, hours, and pricing. None of what’s on offer is free.

When we were invited to a private tour and extensive tasting at Graham’s (founded and owned by the English Symington family since 1882), we didn’t realize what a big deal it was. Even though this Port house is well off the main drag and at the end of a very steep climb up, up, up the hillside, it’s often booked to capacity well in advance.

An experienced Graham’s tour guide took us on a walk up and down rows upon rows of aging barrels, gave us an exceptionally extensive (and boozy) tasting (we sipped generous samples) of a dozen kinds of Port, from some aged in the barrel, a couple aged in the bottle and a tawny (my favourite), a ruby, a white aged three years and a couple aged much longer. Although I must admit I am not a port drinker myself, I did quickly discover that you didn’t have to be an expert to find the twenty-year-old tasted the most mellow and well rounded, but the forty-year-old sample tasted even better. After a long and absorbing perusal of their museum, packed with family history, memorabilia and fascinating photographs of early Porto, the tasting, and a look at their barrels, it was nearly three hours later that we stepped out into the sunlight. So, choose carefully if you only have time for one brand.

While on this side of the river, we decided to call an Uber to take us all the way up to the top. We had heard about the extraordinary, ultra-luxe Hotel Yeatman. Out of our price range but fascinated with checking out its amenities, we strolled around the premises and were shown one of the suites where a king-size bed enclosed within a huge, curtained wine barrel occupied pride of place. Hard to believe but we saw it with our own eyes. We peeked into their elegant Michelin-starred restaurant (“poached oysters with jalapeño foam”) and eventually found ourselves in their chi-chi but comfortable bar and lounge. Always challenging bartenders to make a better negroni, we ordered two, paid the 32 Euros for both perfect renditions and toasted our third glorious day in this very special city.

We made our way back to our hotel to catch our breath and freshen up and left in search of a spot for dinner. In less than five minutes we were seated at a table at one of the strings of comfortable outdoor restaurants along the riverside.

One day, after watching the students, then on a spring break, entertain us on the wharf, we looked at the vast premises of the old food hall, now a performance venue.

A few steps away was one of Porto’s many palaces, no longer inhabited but now open to the public. We squeezed in a quick tour before hopping on one of the vintage trams, which we hopped off when we saw a sign advertising an Escher retrospective. So glad we did, as it was the most comprehensible collection of one of our very favourite artists ever. On display were his art, his photographs, and various Escher-designed constructions to try out for yourself. An added plus was that the exhibit was housed in a converted old but beautiful customs house, now a popular exhibition space and part of the Transportation Museum.

We had to tear ourselves away, but our original aim was to visit Serraives, the ultra-modern cultural centre surrounded by lush greenery, way up on top of yet another very steep incline in one of the city’s poshest suburbs. Once again, our FitBits were working overtime. But the trek was well worth it.

The main building and the museum (its surrounding lush gardens graced with eye-popping sculpture here and there) were a total departure from the rest of the city. They gave us another opportunity to marvel at how amazing was this city of well under 300,000 souls.

Our last evening was spent at a very touristy yet fantastic Fado restaurant just a couple of minutes from our hotel. The food was the best of authentic Portuguese, and the man and woman singers, the finest we had heard in the country. They sang as they moved about the large fancy room, stopping at each red velvet banquette as they sang and strolled. Simply called RC, it was the perfect finale to a marvellous five days. The food, the ambiance, the singers – it couldn’t have been better. Not surprising then, as it has been providing these flawless evenings ever since it opened in 1894 and was understandably named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO some years later.

Text Sandi Butchkiss / Photos Cliff Shaffran