Some cities never change, others seem to be on a roll. It certainly feels like both Lisbon and Porto are gunning hard at the moment, making Portugal the hippest European destination. In 2015 it received nearly 11 million foreigners, the highest number ever; this year, 2016, is bound to top that.
I’ve posted about Lisbon before (here and here), and in 2014 even did a piece for CNN about it being Europe’s coolest city. The reaction to the latter? A huge hit in Portugal leading to a string of interviews with Portuguese radio and newspapers. They loved the praise – sign of their underlying modesty. And last year I investigated Lisbon’s seafood scene for the Independent.
But I’ve never had time to look at Porto on this blog – so here’s a quick overview.
Everyone’s heard of the Douro, that long and lazy river that swings gently through steep hills all the way from Soria, in Spain, to reach the Atlantic at Porto. On the way, it helps produce some pretty sublime wines like Ribera del Duero. However at the Portuguese end, it’s all about Port, that rather sweet digestif that was developed as an Anglo-Portuguese venture in the 17th century. Other nationalities were there too, but the Brits were king of the tipple. The addition of brandy to the robust Douro wine was in fact to stabilise it on the rough sea journey to British shores. The rest is history of course.
Today, central Porto is booming in a different way. Regeneration is forging ahead along the riverside, from the spanking smart marina on the south bank, close to the mouth of the estuary, all the way upriver past four bridges to the new-ish pousada, the Palacio do Freixo. Old industrial buildings are seeing new life as apartments, and restaurants and bars fling open doors and inviting terraces to lure locals and visitors alike.
The food is diversifying too We had some pretty good presuntos (Portuguese tapas), at the riverside Presuntaria Transmontana – thronging with aficionados salivating over a fantastic choice. I loved the Bulhåo Pato, typical of Porto, i.e. clams cooked with garlic and coriander in white wine. Simple, divine. Then came the beans with pork, above, equally delicious.
This was in Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank, where port warehouses were set up by the Brits centuries ago. Many of them are reinventing themselves; not Sandeman, the most visible and cleverly marketed of all (see behatted man in cape above), but above all Taylor’s. Its inventively conceived new museum tells the story of port wine – and includes a long stroll through vast, gloomy cellars stacked high with kegs. And of course tasting is indispensable.
I’ll confess here that I’m not a huge fan of port (too sweet for my palate), but some of those Vintage ones were exquisite. This one above, 1966, was memorable (€180 a bottle). And I’ll just skim over the effect of a sip of Taylor’s Scion, an exclusive tipple bought by the port house from an old lady’s estate in 2005; the nectar dates from 1855…. Now that’s drinking history. Only two casks existed, and very few bottles remain. At €3000 a bottle, it was snapped up – just goes to show the passion of port-drinkers.
A gentle meander along the Douro river is a must-do here, if only to admire the huge span of the bridges, from the double-decker Dom Luis I above (often mistakenly said to have been designed by Gustave Eiffel, in fact it was one of his students) – the longest in the world when built in 1886. You can stroll along the top for sweeping city and river views – or sunbathe beside it. Both riverbanks are now heaving with bars – so thirst is no problem.
Uphill on the north bank unfolds the hub of the city, full of palatial 19th c buildings. A requisite stop is the Såo Bento train station, where extraordinary azulejos (tiles) blanket every wall of the soaring entrance. I skipped the legendary Lello bookshop as it was teeming with Japanese tourists – as much for its art nouveau splendour as for the J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter connection. She in fact lived in Porto in the early 1990s, married a local journalist, had a baby, then divorced and hightailed to Edinburgh.
One of Porto’s top restaurants is DOP, run by the exuberant owner-chef Rui Paula. Two years ago I ate at his sister restaurant in the Douro Valley, equally slickly designed, and was wowed by the food. This time, although prawns with black squid ink purée (above) slipped down nicely, little else was memorable. Victim of success?
Finally came a real treat – dinner at La Feitoria Inglesa (The Factory House). Now this institution is not normally open to the public, though it really should be. Another big slice of port history, it’s the original members’ club of the British port-producers and shippers. Although founded in 1727, its present home is a neo-Palladian building close to the river, completed in 1790 – though a brief dark period followed, when it was occupied by Napoleon’s troops – quelle horreur. I bet they enjoyed the cellar. In fact today, it’s the French who are the greatest consumers of port, though the Brits go for better quality.
This extraordinary monument (the entrance above is the least of it) is packed with history, books (in a vast library whose first editions include Darwin’s Origin of the Species), maps, old port bottles, paintings of members of port dynasties and of royals – Elizabeth II watches proceedings in many a room. The amazing cornflower blue ballroom resembling Wedgewood porcelain boasts a parquet floor placed on chains to encourage bounce – all the better for a minuet or perhaps a waltz.
We were privileged to have dinner there, served by ageing flunkys in baggy frock-coats, seated at a seemingly endless dining-table. The Chippendale furniture and English porcelain glowed. After finishing our cheese washed down by a tawny port, we were invited to follow tradition and adjourn next door – to be faced by an identical table dressed purely to drink port! What obsession! Candle-lit, the mahogany gleamed as we nibbled dried fruit and walnuts and sipped vintages.
This quirky Factory House tradition was led by the eccentric CEO of Taylor’s, Adrian Bridge, an ex-Sandhurst officer married to a Taylor heiress. Apart from setting up the stunning Yeatman Hotel beside Taylor’s cellars in Gaia, his avowed aim in life is to create the highest dinner-party ever in the world – on Mt Everest. Pure Brit – it’s in the blood.
Then it was back from these flavours of ye olde England to the highpoint of Portuguese baroque at the Palacio do Freixo. Lights glinted over the river, and Porto felt like it was awaking from a deep. long slumber. Definitely port-fuelled.
Read more about Portugal’s spectacular wine regions bordering the Minho and Douro rivers in my article in The Independent