Exploring Porto

by Judy.Darley

A short trip to Porto is just enough time to sample the city's highlights, from tasting the wares of the port lodges to watching the world go by in the parks

To get a sense of how Portugal's second city has evolved, the best thing to do is consider the Rio Douro. This beautiful river stretches northeast into Spain in one direction and to the Atlantic ocean in the other, providing a flourishing trade route in the late 17th century, and leading to a multicultural city with a village-style friendliness.

Porto’s parks and praças provide the best examples of this. On our first morning we visited the Palacio de Cristal, a gorgeous multi-tiered park where we saw groups of card-playing pensioners exchanging friendly “Olá"s and “Bom dia"s with high-powered executives heading to the Solar do Vinho do Porto, the head office of the Port Wine Institute. Cockerels strolled among the flowers and ran along the paths of the park, providing some unlikely competition for joggers dressed in the latest Nike gear.

We meandered through the winding walkways to the gardens overlooking the river and drank in panoramic views of the bridges and boats far below. Eager to get closer to the water, we followed the streets of steep granite stairs down to the Ribeira district, sidestepping the stray cats and the occasional chicken as we walked beneath the lines of colourful washing that hang between the crumbling facades.

Close to our boutique hotel, the Pestana Porto (a 16th-century building with panoramic views of the Rio Douro), we settled at a café by the Ponte Dom Luis I, a glorious bridge engineered by a student of Gustave Eiffel. Sipping strong ‘cimbalino’ coffees, we watched the fishermen working on their boats, and gazed across the water to Vila Nova de Gaia, where the famous port lodges lie. We strolled across the bridge to sample the lodges and their wares, and discovered a distinct rivalry between the different houses, with most claiming credit for inventing the sweet, silky wine.

Our first choice was Cálem (Avenida Diogo Leite 344), located close to the water’s edge. Inside, we gazed up at the barrels containing the maturing port, and learned the difference between white, tawny, ruby and late-bottled vintages. Having been thoroughly educated, we were rewarded with a free tasting, sipping the plum-coloured liquid and picking out notes of berries, chocolate and honey.

Having purchased a couple of bottles in the astonishingly cheap shop, we wobbled back out into the sunshine, marvelling at a rainbow that had appeared during a brief downpour to arch out of the stormy sky above the bridge. We caught a taxi up the hill to Taylor’s (Rua do Choupelo 250), eager to see how their ports compared. The setting was more formal and less laidback than at Cálem’s, but the ports were just as delicious, with the Chip Dry, a white sherry-like port being the surprise favourite.

Feeling slightly sozzled, we caught a tram to Foz Do Douro, a seaside town where gentle dunes roll towards the ocean. We reached the shore just as the sky melted into a mass of gold and pink, offsetting a silhouette of the Ponte de Arrábida Freixo bridge against the sinking sun.

The following day we headed for Rua de Santa Caterina, a beautiful street of shining basalt and marble stones, lined with shops and cafes. The elaborate exterior lured us into the Majestic Café. Originally opened in 1921 as the Café Elite, this was a gathering place for writers, artists and thinkers. The interior is a mass of gilt-framed mirrors and general lavishness, with small tales where locals and tourists alike indulge in traditional Portuguese dishes such as codfish 'João do Porto style' or, less enticingly, tripe. We decided to try their wonderfully sticky almond tarts, blanketed in thick yellow custard.

We took a moment to peek into the vibrant Bolhao market, where stall holders sell whole squid, sardines and unrecognisable sea creatures alongside carefully balanced piles of gleaming fruit and crates of live chickens. The market is as much a social opportunity as a shopping venue and the locals took their time examining the immense apples and grapes, sniffing and stroking the fruit as they caught up on each other's gossip.

With just a few hours before our flight back to the UK we caught a bus to Avenida da Boavista, home to highlights such as the Casa da Musica, an extraordinary concert hall whose architectural curves provide the perfect playground for skateboarders and cyclists.

Further down this road, we reached the Fundação de Serralves, a contemporary art museum surrounded by a sculpture park, where wonderful oddities such as a gigantic red trowel stand among the trees. It’s the perfect place to lose yourself for an afternoon, and we did exactly that, wishing we had time to get lost in Porto for far longer.