A taste of vin­tage Porto

There’s more to this glo­ri­ous city in Por­tu­gal than that fa­mous tip­ple

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - ALEX CLARK THE OB­SERVER

BE warned: stop­ping for a sand­wich in Porto might floor you for the rest of the af­ter­noon, at least if you tuck into the lo­cal spe­cial­ity, a francesinha — gen­er­ous amounts of steak and cured ham stuffed be­tween slices of toast, swathed in a mass of melted cheese and then doused with a boozy tomato sauce, with chips and beer op­tional but rec­om­mended.

On the bright side for the health con­scious, there’s plenty of chance to walk it off in Porto’s ver­tig­i­nous streets, which rise from the banks of the Douro River in a jumble of wind­ing paths, broad av­enues and shady squares.

And there are mul­ti­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties to stop and stare: at the 20,000 blue-and-white tiles, or azule­jos, de­pict­ing scenes from Por­tuguese his­tory in the Sao Bento rail­way sta­tion; at the iron fa­cades that adorn count­less shops and restau­rants, and which will, our guide as­sures us, sur­vive the city’s grad­ual mod­erni­sa­tion.

Then there’s the city’s mag­nif­i­cent ro­manesque cathe­dral and the fa­mous and won­der­fully pre­served Lello book­shop, in which a diminu­tive cart dis­trib­utes stock on a shop-floor rail­way.

If you get lost, nav­i­gate by the tall bell tower of the Cleri­gos church, vis­i­ble from vir­tu­ally ev­ery­where in the city, or by the sur­viv­ing sec­tions of the 14th­cen­tury Fer­nan­dine de­fen­sive walls, hewn out of the gran­ite on and out of which Porto is built.

Chances are, though, that these and other at­trac­tions — the vast glass-and-steel Casa da Mu­sica de­signed by Rem Kool­haas, the Ser­ralves Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art in its beau­ti­fully land­scaped gar­dens — are not the first things that spring to mind when you think of Porto. They aren’t for my fa­ther — a semire­tired som­me­lier — or me. Spec­u­lat­ing about what to ex­pect dur­ing our jour­ney here, we can muster only one word — port.

It’s a cor­rect but par­tial view that the city’s tourism of­fi­cials, hote­liers and restau­ra­teurs are keen to ex­pand by draw­ing at­ten­tion to Porto as a breath-of-fre­shair al­ter­na­tive to other Euro­pean desti­na­tions, such as Barcelona, Ber­lin and Am­s­ter­dam.

For the first two nights, we stay in the pala­tial The Yeat­man ho­tel, which sits over­look­ing the Douro from the Vila Nova de Gaia re­gion on the south side of the river. Less than two years old, the ho­tel is the brain­child and pet project of Adrian Bridge, the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Tay­lor’s, and although port and wine are cen­tral to its aes­thetic — from the de­canter­shaped swim­ming pool to the Cau­dalie Vinother­a­pie treat­ments in the vast spa — he is keen to make sure Porto no longer hides its light un­der a bushel.

For the fairly well-heeled trav­eller, The Yeat­man is a lux­u­ri­ous and com­fort­able base, all hushed cor­ri­dors you could drive a car down and im­pec­ca­ble ser­vice; it’s right next to the byzan­tine net­work of nar­row roads that con­nects the city’s long-es­tab­lished port-wine cel­lars and a short hop over one of Porto’s six river bridges to the bustling north side.

Those who pre­fer to stay right in the heart of town might try the Teatro, a more mod­ern (and mod­estly priced) ho­tel that takes its de­sign in­spi­ra­tion from the theatre that stood on the site in the 19th cen­tury. Go­ing up­scale again, there’s the five- star, al­most im­plau­si­bly beau­ti­ful In­fante Sa­gres, where the likes of Bob Dy­lan and the Dalai Lama have stayed. We don’t bunk in with them, but the ho­tel has re­cently opened a brasserie-style res­tau­rant called Book, and we en­joy a de­li­cious din­ner there.

We also visit a cou­ple of posher es­tab­lish­ments that seem to fall in with the im­age of the hip new Porto cur­rently be­ing pro­moted. They are fine, but it seems to us that they of­fer the kind of food and at­mos­phere not hard to find in most Euro­pean cap­i­tals — self­con­sciously re­fined, art­fully pre­sented, com­par­a­tively ex­pen­sive.

But the one culi­nary ex­pe­ri­ence not to miss is eat­ing bar­be­cued sar­dines in the har­bour dis­trict of Matosin­hos, a short drive from the city cen­tre. Fol­low the smoke and head for the Rua Herois de Franca, where you can take your pick from a lengthy row of plainly dec­o­rated restau­rants, each with an out­sized pave­ment grill and burst­ing with peo­ple — all piscine life is on the menu, but the sar­dines, newly caught and whacked on the bar­be­cue with noth­ing but salt, are sen­sa­tional (and un­fea­si­bly cheap).

Porto’s en­thu­si­asts are right to point out that there’s far more to the city than its most fa­mous prod­uct but you’d be un­wise not to pay it some at­ten­tion. Sit on the banks of the river and sip it in its white, pink, ruby, tawny and late­bot­tled vin­tage in­car­na­tions, look­ing idly at the ra­belo boats that are now a tourist at­trac­tion but were tra­di­tion­ally used to trans­port casks of the stuff down­river from the Douro Val­ley.

And, if you’re here for more than a cou­ple of days, don’t miss the chance to head fur­ther in­land to the small towns and nev­erend­ing vine­yards of the Douro, less than a cou­ple of hours away by car and also reach­able by train to Regua or Pin­hao, or by river cruise.

We drive

and

ex­pe­ri­ence proper dropped jaws when we turn off the mo­tor­way and ar­rive at the first viewing point: from high up, all you can see is a vast ex­panse of broad river and enough grapes, it seems, to keep the world drunk for ever.

In 24 hours, we man­age to lunch on roast kid at Regua’s splen­did Cas­tas e Pratos res­tau­rant, visit the Douro Mu­seum, re­lax in the cool lux­ury of the Aqua­pura spa ho­tel and sam­ple the wares of no fewer than four quin­tas (in­clud­ing the Quinta do Seixo, owned by San­de­man, where, some­what com­i­cally, we are shown around by a man dressed in the com­pany’s trade­mark black hat and cape).

At one, the fam­ily-owned Quinta da Pacheca, my dad and I sam­ple the de­li­cious wines and port so com­pre­hen­sively that a cool­ing swim and a short nap are re­quired be­fore din­ner ( af­ter which, of course, there’s more port).

We’re cer­tainly not up to the grape-tread­ing that you can par­tic­i­pate in at some of the smaller quin­tas; although most grapecrush­ing is now mech­a­nised, tra­di­tional meth­ods are still found.

Spit­toons are not much in ev­i­dence and so a word of cau­tion: un­less you are teetotal and have nerves of steel, con­sider en­list­ing the ser­vices of a driver to take you on quinta vis­its. We are here dur­ing the Septem­ber harvest, and the fairly chal­leng­ing roads are fur­ther complicated by the con­stant traf­fic of grape trucks.

By the end, I feel I know more about port than I had imag­ined pos­si­ble: that its grapes grow so well here be­cause of the schist soil that reg­u­lates night- time tem­per­a­tures; that one of its great­est pro­duc­ers was a woman named Dona An­to­nia Ade­laide Fer­reira; and that the lit­tle chapels that dot the river­side sprang up to bless the ra­belo boat­men who might come a crop­per in its treach­er­ous shal­lows.

I also re­alise that I will come back — here and to Porto — time and again, and that its cham­pi­ons are right to think it can give other Euro­pean cities a run for their money. the-yeat­man-ho­tel.com hotelteatro.pt hotelin­fan­tasagres.pt aqua­pu­ra­ho­tels.com por­tocvb.com

MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP

The Douro River, once used to trans­port casks of port, re­mains a busy wa­ter­way

PORTO CON­VEN­TION BUREAU

Porto is home to many long-es­tab­lished port-wine cel­lars

Francesinha, a Porto spe­cialty

Bar­be­cued sar­dines

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