Portugal is more than just the Algarve. Travel editor Neil Sowerby drinks in the beauty of its northern wine country and is smitten by Oporto
TWENTY years ago, on a family holiday that took in rather too much of northern Spain, we took a helter skelter short cut from Salamanca to Santiago de Compostela through Portugal’s Douro Valley. The precipitous, terraced landscape seared itself into my memory. My destiny was to return. To stay among its vineyards. To taste the wine. Somehow I never got round to it.
An out-of-the-blue invitation to a wine conference in Oporto (or Porto, which is what the football team calls itself) changed all that. Tagging on a few days would enable me to compare wine tourism opportunities in the Douro with the Duero (the same 200km river further inland across the Spanish border), which I’d visited earlier in 2010 (www.manchesterconfidential.co.uk/Travel/General/Wine-Architecture-Spain_15715.asp).
The Portuguese trip worked out well, lovely wines, interesting food, a friendly welcome everywhere in an awesome landscape. What I hadn’t reckoned on, though, was losing my heart to Oporto.
On the surface that had seemed unlikely. I vaguely knew about its World Heritage Status and the transient glamour bestowed by the tyro football boss Jose Mourinho, but the impression was of an industrious mercantile sort of place, dominated by the port wine trade.
Even after arriving, my love affair was a slow burner. Our hotel, the well-appointed five-star Tiara Park Atlantic was a long hike from the city’s old centre. A taxi ride in chaotic, crammed streets didn’t save much time. Then there was my commitment to the conference hall where wine luminaries from across the globe discussed the merits of the Touriga Nacional grape variety, my concentration not aided by some glorious wine sampling.
When I couldn’t face a seminar on the “Commercial Future of Portuguese wine in the former Soviet Union” I allowed myself some free time along the riverfront in the atmospheric Ribeira district.
It’s not the rough sailors’ haunt of yore, but the cobbled lanes and ancient dark houses are still far from gentrified as they might be in Lisbon. This tiered townscape, particularly glorious when viewed from the Vila Nova Port warehouse quarter across the Douro, guaranteed the World Heritage Site status.
A cynic in me wonders if Unicef pay a stipend to Oporto’s housewives to spend half their day hanging picturesque washing out from their balconies. The flap of laundry is everywhere, high above in even the narrowest, shadowiest of passages.
The winding sheets were not in evidence in the catacombs of the Igreja Sao Francisco – just skulls adorning tombs. This Gothic church is the city’s oldest public building. It was dusk when I entered the ossuary and I felt like an extra in an MR James ghost story.
It was relief to cross the courtyard to the church itself. The 14th century exterior belies the astonishing interior – transformed in the 18th century into a Rococo cornucopia of gilt. Over 200g of gold encrusts the high altar and pillars, culminating in the ornate carvings of the biblical Tree of Jesse. More sombrely, the opposite wall flaunts some gory images of martyrdom.
Playful in comparison is the church’s gaudy rival next door in the monumental Bolsa Palace – the lavishly gilded Arabian Room, representative of Oporto’s rich global trading past.
Cargo used to be shipped in to the Cais de Ribeiro, but these days restaurants and bars populate the riverfront. These come to life after dark when the signs of the legendary port houses, Sandeman, Cockburn, Taylor and the rest (the English links are still strong), light up across the water in Vila Nova de Gaia.
It’s worth crossing via the stupendous two tier Ponte de Dom Luis metal bridge, to get the best camera-shots but, that aside, it’s all quite sedate over there. One must is to take in a port lodge tour. You are really spoilt for choice I recommend the convenient riverside Calem cellars, which and holds an international "Best of Wine Tourism" attract 100,000 visitors a year.
Most leave with a better grasp of what sorts out the tawnies from the rubies single quinta from a colheita, and how a late bottled vintage differs from a vintage character. For a small entrance fee you get a multilingual guided tour amid the huge vats and casks of the renovated 19th Century cellars plus samples of two port wines in the attractive tasting room. It ends in the gift shop, but there's no pressure to buy.
Outside the various port houses’ barcos rabelos line the quay. Before the Douro was tamed these barrel-carrying craft used to brave the rapids to bring the newly fermented source wines downriver.
The grapes are still grown, harvested, crushed, and fermented on quintas or wine estates. upriver. Traditionally (though this is gradually changing) they are blended, aged, bottled, and eventually distributed by the lodges in Oporto.
High above Vila Nova the famous Taylors wine folk have built a lavish new hotel into the hillside called The Yeatman. It’s best reached by taxi. I made the mistake of trudging up a cobbled lane on a surprisingly warm autumn day.
With the paint still fresh and burdened with being a wine-themed hotel, the Yeatman felt slightly uncomfortable in itself, but it is undeniably a sign of Oporto casting off its run-down image. In summer, fresh from the infinity pool, a glass of vinho verde at hand, your suite terrace facing THAT view, it will do nicely, I’m sure. (www.the-yeatman-hotel.com)
The Ribeira aside, Oporto is easy to get around (if pretty steep everywhere) with lots of charming corners and stunning views around every corner. To reach the cathedral, the Se, on its rocky outcrop take the funicular up from the quayside.
The cloisters feature some exuberant azulejos. These typical Portuguese tiles run rampant floor to ceiling in the Belle Epoque era railway station Sao Bento. But perhaps the most show-off space in town is Oporto’s legendary bookshop, Lello (Rua das Carmelitas 144, http://lelloprologolivreiro.com.sapo.pt/). With its red carpets, panelling and ornate staircases, it regularly gets named most beautiful in the world.
A more sedate literary experience, art and a welcome coffee or beer, can be found at the Literary Club of Oporto along the riverbank from Sao Francisco on the Rua de Monchique. Stand out on the balcony and watch Oporto’s remaining vintage tourist trams rumble past
For dining out there is an abundance of fish restaurants out at Foz, Oporto’s seaside suburb but, staying in the city, try cult chef Rui Paula’s Oporto new outpost DOP (Largo, Sao Domingos 18, www.ruipaula.com).
We passed Paula’s original riverside restaurant, DOC, at Folgosa as we drove eastward into the heart of the Douro Valley, traditionally the source of grapes for port but these days producing a range of spectacular table wines, often reds from the same grape varieties, particularly touriga nacional.
A good introduction to these wines can be found at the Restaurante Douro In, as matches for its imaginatively cooked local specialities. This upstairs restaurant is situated in Peso da Regua, an unhandsome workaday port, where the Corgo and Douro rivers converge, long the hub of the port trade in the Douro. Its history is told in Regua’s Douro Museum (www.museudodouro.pt).
Allow yourself plenty of time if you drive into Douro country. Precipitous hairpin bends offer spectacular views but make taxing motoring, particularly if you get stuck behind a tractor.
If you can spare the time boat trip from Oporto (www.douroazul.com) is more relaxing.
Then there is the spectacular 175km rail service up to Pochino by the Spanish border – one of the world’s great train journeys, much of it alongside the broad, swirling river, and on Saturday’s offering a steam service from Regua to Tua (www.cp.pt).
I like sleepy little Pinhao, where we stayed at the magnificent Vintage House Hotel, a renovated port warehouse with a pool by the river and fine food. Highly recommended (www.hotelvintagehouse.com).
It’s a perfect base for the wine lover. In truth, there’s precious little else to do around here but go wine tasting at the various estates, but I can live with that.
Wine tourism is big business and some of the top estates offer lodging and quality dining experiences. Her are two on top of their game both in hospitality and winemaking...
Just east of Régua, this house has been in the same family since it was built in 1716. Sensitively renovated, it boasts a pool, snooker, great views and offers activities such as water-skiing and cycling. I’d look no further than its ageing cellars and wine shop, selling outstanding bottles from its 38 hectares of vineyards. The Reserva old vine red is particularly appealing. Four rooms and a suite. Prices start at 95 euros for a room, 140 euros for a suite, including breakfast. www.quintadovallado.com.
A restored 18th century manor house with oak beams and big fires. From up on high it oveelooks its 85 hectares of vineyards, almond and olive trees and the river. Their own fig jam is a breakfast speciality. Room prices range from 90 to 150 euros. Owned by cork manufacturers, it runs wine courses and even a chance to pick the grapes at harvest time. Among its wines, try the herby Quinta Nova Grande Reserva. www.quintanova.com.
You can’t stay at the winery of Alves de Sousa, alas. Which is shame since they are spectacularly situated above the winding Douro. Twice Portuguese winemaker of the year, Domigos de Sousa is now joined by his son Tiago in cultivating their five estates containing 110 hectares of vines, some over 100 years old. The winery, open to visitors is at the Quinta da Gaivosa. Visitors are welcome 9.30am-6pm all year round, by appointment only (+351 254 822 111, www.alvesdesousa.com). The whole range is outstanding.
As wine trade guests, we were granted a hair-raising four wheel dusk drive up 1 in 4, rutted mud tracks to the topmost, lately recovered, vineyard, which produces their Vinho do Abandonado. Wine of the Abandoned. Spicy, inky, broodingly intense. Like the starkly beautiful landscape around it. I was glad I had finally made it to the Douro.
There are no direct flights from Manchester to Oporto. Via a shuttle flight to Gatwick you can catch one of the daily easyJet flights straight to Oporto. Alternatively, bmibaby run twice-weekly flights from Manchester to Lisbon on Tuesdays and Saturdays. It is a three hour drive north to Oporto.
Vintage House, Lugar da Ponte, 5085-034, Pinhao (www.hotelvintagehouse.com). Rooms from 119 euros.
For Oporto (sic Porto) visitor information, go to www.visitporto.travel.
The best foodie guide for any visitor to Portugal, with a strong section on Oporto and the Douro, is The Wine and Food Lovers’ Guide to Portugal by Charles Metcalfe and Kathryn McWhirter (Inn House Publishing, £16.95). Charles chaired the conference I attended. For 12 years he was resident wine expert for Richard and Judy on telly!
Portuguese wines. To discover where to buy the finest in Britain visit www.viniportugal.co.uk. The Port Appreciation Society site www.the-port-man.fsbusiness.co.uk unravels the complexities of this fabled fortified wine.
For Neil Sowerby’s personal verdict on Portuguese wines visit: www.manchesterconfidential.co.uk/Food-and-Drink/Vital-vinhos
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