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Porto and the Wine Lodges

VISIT PORTUGAL’S SECOND CITY

The town of Porto stretches for nine kilometres along the north shore of the Douro, at the point where the river merges with the Atlantic Ocean. Seen from the opposite river bank, from Vila da Gaia, Porto’s time-worn houses seem to puncture the granite bluffs like red-roofed swallow’s nests.  Portugal’s second city is densely populated,  and its manufacturing complexes and suburbs stretch into the hills, but the old town, the designated heritage site, is tidily compact and easily explored. The atmosphere of the late middle ages survives in the network of narrow streets and alleys tumbling down to the riverfront.  The first royal customs house, the 16th century building on the Rua da Alfandega, is said to be where Prince Henry the Navigator was born in 1594.

The shadowy streets and tiny shops of the old town centre, along with the colourful waterfront of Porto’s Ribeira district, make for very satisfactory sightseeing in themselves, but there’s much more to see. Visit the 12th century fortress- cathedral and the 18th century former prison, which is now Portugal’s Photography Centre.  Climb the 240 steep steps to the top of 18th century Tower of Clerigos – the ‘symbol’ of Porto- for one of Porto’s best views.  Afterwards, cross the street to Lello’s bookshop for a glass of Port or a coffee. It has been described as  ‘the prettiest bookshop in the world’.  Step into the entrance hall of the Sao Bento Railway Station to view the panorama in tile that covers the walls from floor to ceiling.   Take a taxi to Boavista to visit the severely beautiful contemporary art museum set in the gardens of Serralves.  And while you’re in Boavista, make up your own mind about the controversial Casa da Musica. To me it looked like a cement fist bursting up through the pavement.

Back in the centre of the historic old town, not even the most uncommitted tourist should miss the Igreja de Sao Francisco. Gothic on the outside, baroque on the inside, it took hundreds of kilos of gold to make the interior of this plain-faced church look as if it were carved out of a solid gold nugget.   Literally around the corner is the entrance to the extraordinary mid-19th century stock exchange, the Palacio da Bolsa. You must join a guided tour to see the highlights but they include the stupendous Arab Room inspired by the Alhambra in Granada. This opulent ballroom is where Porto’s debutantes were once introduced to society and is now where visiting dignitaries are entertained.

Also inside the Palacio, you can watch a craftsman in a tiny atelier painstakingly producing Porto’s time-honoured gold filigree jewellery. When I was there, examples of his work included an enormous gold pendant priced at 345 euro and a small golden bowknot at 54 euro.

The art of the goldsmith has a long tradition in Porto. In  1521 the king, Dom Manuel I, ordered that a new street be built – Rua das Flores – with shops beneath and apartments above for the many goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewellers and shopkeepers of the wealthy, cosmopolitan city. Rua das Flores still retains its 16th century atmosphere with azulejo-clad facades, iron balconies and ornamental shop names.

This street, like all the streets in the Ribeira area, eventually slides back down to the river.  Here are the waterfront cafes and restaurants, the cheerful souvenir shops, the moorings for riverboats that offer an hour’s tour under the six bridges. A turn to the left brings you along the Cais de Ribeira to the two-level Dom Luis I bridge linking Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia where the port wine is stored. The views from the upper pedestrian walkway of the bridge are superb and those from the walkway on the lower level are almost as good.

But if the view from the top of the bridge is worth the vertigo, and the view from the tower of Clergos is worth the climb, the view of Porto from Vila Nova da Gaia is worth the journey!    Enjoy it from the grassy promenade that leads along the waterfront and from the restaurants and cafes that line the Rua Dr. Antonio Grenjo.  In the foreground are the picturesque old flat boats that once transported the casks of wine from the vineyards further up the Rio Douro. Now they bounce at their moorings, their dangerous work taken over by tanker trucks. Once a year those that are still seaworthy compete in a good-natured race, crewed by company officials.

Across the road from the promenade are some of the 37 port wine lodges of Vila Nova da Gaia. Other lodges range behind them on the hill.  In these cool dark buildings the wine from the designated Douro region ages in mammoth oaken casks until the addition of brandy stops the fermentation. Carefully judged periods of maturation – from three years to more than 20 years- produce the range of ports:  ruby, tawny, late bottled vintage and the sublime ‘vintage’. The wine lodge tour guide will walk you through the process and reward your attention with sips of the final products.

The export trade in port wine began in 1678 and became firmly established following a treaty between Portugal and England in 1703. Many of the port lodges belong to English families still. The house of Sandeman, for example was established by the Scotsman, George Sandeman in 1790 and is currently directed by his namesake, the seventh generation to manage the firm. The Sandeman lodge on Rua Dr. Antonio Grenjo includes a unique Port Museum tracing the history of port wine. It’s open 9:30 am to 12:30 pm and from 2.00 pm to 5.00pm every day of the week April to October but closed weekends November through March.

About half of Vila Nova da Gaia’s storehouses are open to visitors for a tour and a tasting.  Opening days and hours vary. A booklet with all the details, published by the Port Wine Association, is available free from their headquarters at Rua Dr. Antonio Granjo 207.    

Staying there: The four-star Casa Branca ‘Beach and Golf Hotel’ in Vila Nova da Gaia overlooks the Praia de Lavadores, the erstwhile ‘beach of the washer women’. The washerwomen are long gone and their beach transformed by a modest promenade, which runs between the hotel and the rocky shore.   The Casa Branca is tranquil, secluded and only a short taxi ride away from the Old Town, the port wine lodges and several golf courses www.casabranca.com.

Getting there: Porto has an international airport. Vila Nova da Gaia is a comfortable 3-hour train journey from Lisbon.

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