Porto, Portugal and the River of Gold
By Paul Shoul
Just minutes after arriving at the Hotel Infante de Sagres in Porto Portugal, I stowed my bags in the room, grabbed my cameras, and headed out on the town.
Walking down the hilly street, past The Veneza barber shop where men relaxed into their newspapers, the pastry shops that beckoned me with a thousand sweet offerings.
The cafes on the corner where couples stared into each other's eyes, slowly clinking their spoons stirring dark coffee in little espresso cups, set the scene for me. I was led out into a vast square in front of city hall and the Avenida dos Aliados.
Magnificent ornate buildings line the old, wide tiled square and many grand statues each with the requisite pigeon perched directly on their heads.
A Polite Interaction
Across the square, and up one of the steep thin medieval streets, I found what I was looking for. Laundry hung from many of the third and fourth-floor windows, fluttering in the ocean breeze, bathed in strong glowing sunlight, I watched as a woman appeared from her window.
Meeting her eyes, I yelled up at her in Spanish, “Buenos tardes, senora.” She shook her head. I tried “Good afternoon.” Again she shook her head. Having no Portuguese to draw upon I simply held up one of my cameras with a questioning look on my face.
Subtly, she held her palms up for a second, shrugged her shoulders slightly, and went about her business. (The international sign for “What the hell, go ahead if you want to.”) I photographed her as she brought in her bright dry towels. She was perfect.
In the Middle of the Street
Turning to cross the street, I faced a line of cars waiting and realized that I had been standing in the middle of the street. Meeting her eyes again I bowed in thanks as if we had just danced together. Bowing back to me, she flashed a grateful, slightly flirtatious grin.
No one had honked at me; they were not glaring at me from behind their windshields. In fact, all the drivers were smiling. They had all seen my interaction with this woman and had politely waited until we had finished our dance.
As they drove by nodding in approval, I walked on having formed my opinion about Portugal that would prove to be true for my entire time there. The Portuguese are good people, gracious, polite and incredibly nice. I knew I was going to love this place.
Loyal and Unvanquished
Sometimes referred to as the capital of the north, Porto is Portugal’s second largest city, with more than 300,000 inhabitants, located in the north, bordering Spain. It literally means “the port” but the full name is “Antiga, Mui Nobre Sempre leal e Invicta Cidade do Porto (the ancient, very noble always loyal and unvanquished city of Porto).
The streets are lined with outdoor cafes, Sections of Roman walls are interspersed with terraced houses on rolling hills that border the banks of the Douro River (the river of gold) as it winds its way gently under the many arching iron bridges that connect the two sides of the town.I would also add classy and comfortable to the list.
This is a city that should be strolled through slowly. The historic center has been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and has, timeless feel to it, much like the Portuguese people themselves.
At the mouth of Douro River where it meets the sea, old men gather along the shore and on the docks to fish and play heated games of cards, and of course, to drink Port. The river that looks golden in the afternoon sun also carries a golden cargo down from the wine-growing region that has sustained this city for which the world-famous Port wine is named.
Intense and Magnificent
Wine has been produced in the Douro region since Roman times. In the 17th century, when war was raging between Britain and France, the British, who were a trading ally, looked toward Portugal as an alternative to French wine.
Some say it was the English who added brandy to the wine to increase shelf life, creating Port, while others credit an Abbot at a monastery in Lamango. In any case, adding brandy when the wine is still fruity and sweet stops the fermentation process and the end result is intense and magnificent.
Wine is brought down the river to the Vila Nova de Gaia section of the city, where many of Porto’s wine lodges blend and age their Port. This is a beautiful part of town to hang out by the riverbank or in one of the cafes or restaurants along the shore or to visit one of the lodges.
I visited The Calem Port wine lodge calem.pt/.webloc (Avenida Diogo Leite 26, Vila Nova de Gaia). The wine is stored in huge oak barrels in cave-like room that also has a pictorial history of winemaking and to end the fabulous 30-minute tour, they have a store and a tasting room where you can try some free samples. The tour costs about $2.50. If you want to learn more about Port wine, go to: intowine.com/port.
I had dinner just down the road at the DTonho Restaurant (Cais da Ribeira, 13-15.) This is considered one of Porto’s best restaurants and is a lovely place to end an evening.
The Casa de Musica
I stayed within walking distance of the Center at the five-star Hotel Infante Sagres. Much like the historical center, the hotel has the aura of a time gone by.
Beautiful stained glass windows, dark mahogany antique furniture, and an elevator that actually has a small sitting couch. The rooms are comfortable. The breakfast buffet is elegantly presented and the bar is the perfect setting to sit and enjoy a glass of Port and a cigar after a long day.
A Giant Playhouse
Although my favorite pastime in Porto was just walking the streets, there are many museums and historical sights worth checking out.
The new and very modern Casa de Musica designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is a concert hall and music educational facility. It's all sharp angles and chrome plays with your with a sense of perspective as if you have entered into a drawing by M.C. Escher. It’s kind of like a giant playhouse.
I also spent some time at the Museu De Serralves. This museum and library, surrounded by gardens and a sculpture park also has a fine restaurant that I highly recommend.
The River of Gold
The 560-mile long Douro River travels through some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever gazed upon, The Douro Valley, is perhaps the worlds oldest demarcated wine region (1756) and was designated a World Heritage Site in 1991.
Only wines that are produced in this region can officially be called Port. The grapes are grown on steep terraced mountains, far too steep for machinery, and all the work here is done by hand. Over the years the schist rock that covered the poor soil has been broken up and the plants have to send their roots down as far as 65 feet to find water.
Watching the river shine golden in the afternoon sun as it winds around the terraced hills is a perfect postcard moment. The narrow twisting road we drove down offers some amazing views of the valley as it travels through ancient towns.
Old women dressed in black beckoned us to try the baskets of freshly harvested grapes as we made our way to our first stop in the valley, the amazing Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo estate. If and when I ever get married, this is where I am coming on my honeymoon
A Working Vineyard
You do not have to be a wine freak to love the Quinta Nova. The beautiful rooms, amazing views, and exemplary food are enough to keep anyone happy, but if you are, this is wine heaven.
Close to Pinhao, perched on the north bank of the river, overlooking the valley and nestled in amongst rows of grape vines, the old manor house of the estate was renovated to include 11 bedrooms that are all beautifully done.
It takes its name from the chapel that still stands today in the manor courtyard that has wonderful terraces, a swimming pool and a grapevine-covered outside dining area where I had lunch.
They have been making wine here for hundreds of years and produce both dry and port wines that are marvelous and they are also starting to produce an extra virgin olive oil that is bright green, and intensely fruity.
This is a working vineyard and you can not only tour the entire wine production process and bath yourself in wine history in their amazing facilities, you can also get your hands and feet dirty by either jumping in one of the traditional granite tanks and stomping out some wine through your toes, or as I did, taking a trek up the steep vineyards to help out picking some grapes right off the vines. This place is the real deal.
The Happiest Woman in Portugal
When you meet Maria Manuel Cyrne, the vibrant owner of the Hotel Rural Casa Dos Viscondes Da Varaza (Varzea De Abrunhais 5100-878 Lamego, about 25 miles from Quinta Nova) she wants you to know two things: You have just arrived at one of the most beautiful spots in the world and you have just met the happiest woman in Portugal.
I could not fault her on either of these claims. This was where she was born, but in 1975 her family sold the estate and left in fear of the political climate at the time. It took 27 years to accomplish her lifelong dream and regain her family home.
This is a grand old noble house that she has been renovating for more than five years. The living and dining rooms are spectacular with a museum like quality but are comfortable with fireplaces and deep soft couches.
The grounds of this 180-hectare (538-acre) estate are beautiful and the 37 bedrooms rooms are gorgeous; each one has its own individual feel. Maria's favorite room is number 104, because, as she told me, “I was made there.”
Her enthusiasm for her home and her message to “follow your dreams” is contagious. I had an amazing traditional Portuguese dinner in the grand elegant dining room.
The wine was a 2003 reserve, from the estate of course, and then meat pies, breaded sausage, black-eyed peas with tuna and onion, creamed salt cod and potatoes, beef filets, caldo verde (green soup), and on and on. This is a truly delightful place.
A Quick Tour
My last day on my drive through Portugal to Spain turned out to be jammed packed full of places that I want to go back to. We stopped in the Town of Amarante and took a quick tour of the town and a look at the five-star hotel Casa Da Calcada.
This is an elegant hotel that has one of the region's only Michelin-rated restaurants. I had coffee and some amazing pastries there and wish we had the chance to try more of their food. The historic town has a bridge built over the river that was built in 1790 and is very picturesque.
We also stopped in Guimaraes whose old quarter is another world heritage site and definitely worth some time to wander the old cobblestone streets, and the well preserved historic center.
I had lunch at the Restaurante Vira – Bar (Largo Condessa, Juncal,27, Guimaraes.) The restaurant is built around the original wall of the city and has a great atmosphere and wonderful food.
Our next stop was in the town of Braga. This is a very pious and religious town that has its own Archbishop. It is jam-packed with historical sights and cathedrals, gardens and the famous Idols fountain that dates back to the 1st century A.D.
An Open-Air Market
Our next stop was in Barcelos, one of my favorite places in Portugal. This town is famous for its weekly market, one of the largest in Portugal, held every Thursday in the center of town in the Campo Da Republica.
I absolutely love open-air markets. They are a great window into a community. Aside from the ceramics and handicrafts; you can find almost anything you need to live here. Broken up into sections there are chickens, ducks, huge stalls filled with giant pieces of salt cod, vegetables, hardware, clothing nuts, bread, pastry, fruit, the list goes on. It’s a very social atmosphere. I just loved this place.
For the afternoon we headed to the town of Viana Do Castelo, located at the mouth of the Rio Lima. This an important fish processing/harbor town and shipbuilding area, and has a beautiful historic center with one of the most beautiful town squares in Portugal, the ‘Praca da Republica' the center of which is the famous Chafariz Fountain.
We checked out two fabulous hotels, one of which, the Melo Alvim House, was right downtown and the other was just minutes away along the beach, the very modern and classy Flor de Sal. For dinner I had the pleasure of eating at the Posada de Viana do Castelo situated at the top of the hill Santa Luiza.
Portugal has 40 Pousadas that are owned by the government that are located in historic castles, monasteries, convents or places of extreme natural beauty. These are four- to five-star hotels and restaurants that are reasonably priced by European standards and emphasize excellent service, comfort, history, and amazing food.
Eating or staying in one is as close to feeling like royalty that many of us will ever experience. I had an amazing dinner there of whole grilled fish in the elegant dining room. After all the good food and way too much wine, we headed out to spend the evening just a short drive away at the Pousada de Vila Nova de Cerveira.
You enter through the 13th-century manor's stone archway that leads you up the stone walkway set inside the original castle walls. Each room has its own courtyard. The rooms are very comfortable and the feeling of being part of history is very cool.
Expensive Phone Calls
This was my last night in Portugal and whether it was the wine or sadness to be leaving this beautiful country, before I knew it I had cracked open the bottle of vintage Port that I had been given as a gift at the Calem Lodge in Porto and headed out in the rain to the top of the castle walls to ponder my trip and make really expensive cell phone calls to friends all over the world.
This place was just too nice not to tell someone about it firsthand while I was experiencing it, and heck, it is hard to resist a bottle of the best Port in the world.
Needless to say, there was a price to pay in the morning. After my friends helped in waking me up (thank you Miguel and Jesus) I had a huge cell phone bill and an epic hangover to match.
Both were well worth the pain.
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Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he’s lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there through his work in the Valley Advocate. He’s also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.