At the end of November we decided a short break in Porto sounded like a good chance to catch some rays while tasting the ports that brought fame and glory to the region. Well, we hit the mark on the port, but I think the best description of the weather would be 'soggy.' We were in town for 3 full days...and the first two featured incredibly heavy November rains. This wasn't a sprinkling - it rained so much on the second day the town was under water the next morning. The flooding shut down the restaurants and port wine cellars along the river, but as tourists we soldiered on, getting drenched to see the sights.
Porto is the capital of the North and is usually described as Lisbon's opposite - the locals say "Lisbon shows off and Porto works," and this seems to be an apt description of the city. You can see this hardworking nature pretty much anywhere you look - the people are always doing something, even in the rain. The centre of city has been designated as a World Cultural Heritage site and while there is an intense contrast between the prosperous business core and the earthy charm of the Ribeira area where the cobbled warren of steep alleys and passages appears to have changed little in centuries, I wouldn't describe Porto as particularly beautiful. We did tour most of the city's main tourist sites, and while the buildings didn't really capture my imagination, they featured beautiful tile work, much in traditional blue and white, which seemed to transform the rather uninspiring churches and buildings.
However, in all honesty, we didn't really come to Porto for the architecture. The real draw, for us and most other tourists, was the port. Porto sits on the side of the Douro river, which has carved a steep channel through the mountains of northern Portugal. Up at the top of the river sit the Port vineyards. Porto found its fame because after the grapes are pressed in the Douro vineyards, they would travel down the river to Vila Nova de Gaia, for cask aging and blending. As Vila Nova de Gaia is directly across the river from Porto, Porto became the port epicentre. It really is quite the sight, to stand on the banks of the Porto side of the river, looking across at all the neon signs proclaiming the names of the port houses...kind of like a port drinker's Disneyland!
History lesson - The British claim to have invented port sometime in the late 17th century. Apparently they were seeking a source of wine during one of the regular spats with the French. But Portuguese wines were too thin to survive the passage to England (wine with less than 16% ethanol spoil when exposed to air and couldn't survive the journey), so local spirit was added to the original wine strengthen them. Soon someone came up with the idea of fortifying the wines before fermentation finished, stopping fermentation at the height of its sweetness and creating the port we know today.
Obviously, our trip highlight was the port tasting. The short walk across the bridge into Vila Nova de Gaia puts you in front of close to a hundred port lodges. Some offer tours, and all offer samples where you can taste the basic styles of port for free - its kind of like touring vineyards in BC or whisky distilleries in Scotland. So, our standard day consisted of a morning of soggy sightseeing, followed by an afternoon visiting the port lodges. But we didn't get too crazy...I think we only made it to about 7 lodges!
Have to say, now that we're in Scotland, where the whisky industry has mastered tourism like nobody's business, I was a bit disappointed with the tours in the port lodges. With whisky tours, every distiller is keen to tell you what sets their malt apart from the others...with the port tours, the distillers didn't really tell you much about how they blend their ports. Guess trade secrets go for a higher premium in Portugal!
One of our highlights was the discovery of white port. This isn't exported all that much, but it is made from white grapes and has only the slightest bit of cask aging (most of the aging is in really large casks), and is served cold as an aperitif. And yum, is it ever good! So good it was worth lugging home a couple of bottles in our suitcases!!
So, good drink calls for good food, right? Well, Porto's specialty dish is tripe - I guess during the times of Portugal's expansion overseas the citizens of Porto provided all their meat for the sailors, retaining only tripes for themselves. The Portans thus acquired the nickname tripeiros, but I have to confess, we stayed away from the tripe. I would be okay if I didn't know what I was eating, but I just can't beat that mind over matter game! Tripe aside, it was cool to see how food was served - instead of ordering individual meals, you ordered dishes which were served to share, making the tables look like you were eating out in someone's home. Quite comfortable way to dine!
1)Tram from Airport to town. Porto's airport is state-of-the-art facility, having undergone a massive program of refurbishment in 2004. To go along with the snazzy airport, the city is working on the Porto metro system, the most expensive public construction project currently in progress in Europe (apparently the city's soil is extremely complex and very expensive to dig). Anyway, once you land, the tram is super clean and very efficent - and the little tram ticket guys are very helpful at sorting out the dumb tourists who can't figure out how to insert the money. Not that we needed the help.
2)Tourist guide book. When you land at the airport, head for the tourist info booth and pick up their guide to Porto. I have never seen a city do a better guide book - from history to walking tours to restaurants...well worth grabbing a copy!