Portugal Calling #2: Porto
A three-hour comfortable train ride from Lisbon will bring you to Portugal’s second city, Porto. It ranks first for global wine merchants and English aristocrats who can’t get enough of its world-famous product but until recently it played second fiddle to Lisbon. Today however new design centres nestle proudly among heritage town houses and Baroque churches in the Old City on the North Bank of the River Douro. On the South Bank is Vila Nova de Gaia, a comparatively younger town. Several bridges across the Douro facilitate easy movement. The Ponte Luis I bridge is the most iconic, inspired by Gustave Eiffel (who also partly contributed to the design) and bearing reference to his famous tower in Paris! Scores of benches that line the esplanade of the South Bank offer breathtaking views of Porto’s gentle hill-scape on the opposite bank. Wooden sailing boats that once brought wine casks from the northern vineyards to the mouth of the ocean now offer two-hour-long rides up and down the river for us to click memorable photographs.
Both banks throb with high touristic density all day long and well into the night. On the Porto side, scores of old restaurants and bars serve a wide variety of Port wines and Portugal’s most famous twist on the humble sandwich. The francesinha is a cholesterol bomb, but eat one you must. This working man’s snack is a massive sandwich of cured ham, beef, sausage cipoletta and cheese, doused in a sauce made of beer and tomato puree. Devour it. Just don’t tell your cardiologist!
Everywhere in Porto large hoardings with a masked figure logo scream ‘Sandeman’! No, it’s got nothing to do with the Metallica song. It’s one of Port wine’s biggest brands, right up there with legends such as Graham’s, Cockburn, Taylor et al. If you are in Porto, you already know why most port producing companies have British names. At Graham’s one learns about the differences between a white, a tawny and a ruby port. The entrance price also includes a tasting session conducted by experts. Built in 1890, Graham’s is still a working cellar , housing over 2000 oak casks (pipes) and 40 large oak vats (balseiros) of ageing port wines. Its terrace, open to all visitors, gives breathtaking views of the river and its banks.
Come with me on a day-long trip to the Douro Valley, where it’s all produced. (Along the way, stop by at the quaint town of Amarante, famous for its penis-shaped biscuits!) The two-hour drive from Porto to the Douro wine region is along stunningly scenic mountain ranges that are more rustic than Tuscany or Bordeaux. Till the mid-18th century, England bought and consumed only French wines till a dispute broke out between the two countries. In search of newer wine sources, British merchants sailed onwards to the Iberian Peninsula. But how would wines survive the long journey back to England without rotting? Simple. Stabilise it with Brandy. That’s how Port wines were born and the rest is history with Port makers laughing all the way to the bank. The Douro Valley, conferred World Heritage Status by UNESCO, is the current darling of the global Enotourism circuit.
Where To Stay:
Hotel Infante de Sagres, Porto
Its main advantage is being located in the heart of Porto city. It’s easy to visit the touristic sights of the old city from this hotel. The outside facade may resemble that of a rundown office building but it’s like having a Jekyll and Hyde personality. Once inside the hotel you feel as if you have entered a time warp. Renovated recently, they have retained the turn-of-the-century decor. From pile carpets to antique furniture, some of it even hung on the walls, one immediately recalls the grandeur and the lifestyle post World War I. Our large room with comfortable twin beds had double glazed windows to keep the noise out. The bathroom turned out to be as large as the room itself. Do examine the baroque furniture inside the room and also on the landings towards the elevator. Breakfast every morning is copious, with the serving staff being very young and enthusiastic to help. It’s a comfortable three star property and great value for money.