Sunday, June 06, 2010

Boa Viagem: Porto

 We arrived to Porto around noon following a three-hour train ride from Lisboa's Santa Apolonia station to Porto-Campanha. Most visitors bypass Porto, Portugal's second city, in favour of Lisbon and the sun-drenched beaches of the Algarve, but it is really their loss as there is much to enjoy in Porto. For one, it is a lot smaller than Lisbon and has a slower and relaxed pace of life; but equally as charming as Lisbon if slightly gritty. Of course, you cannot miss the famous wines of the Douro Valley, particularly its famous Port wines.
We enjoyed our stroll through the hilly streets of Porto whilst admiring the various azulejo-clad and Baroque churches on our way down to Ribiera, Porto's UNESCO-designated historic centre. It was a hot Sunday afternoon, which my friend later told me that it is rare for Porto as it is usually overcast and gray. We spent the rest of day along the riverfront of Ribiera and Vila Nova de Gaia. There were loads of people, tourists like ourselves and locals, enjoying drinks alfresco, or sunbathing along the Rio Douro. Like Lisbon's Alfama district, Ribeira is full of narrow, steep cobbled-stone streets with beautiful balconied houses and interesting architecture. I highly recommend wandering around this fascinating little neighbourhood.
The next day, after a quick detour to the Mercado de Bolhao for fresh strawberries and a caffeine fix, we made the trek back to Gaia to visit Taylor's. It is all uphill from the river but well worth it. The estate and the manicured garden are beautiful; they even have peacocks on the property. We could have spent a few hours in the garden and terrace which also has an amazing view, but we had a lunch date with my Ph.D. friend who moved back to Porto after spending five years at Berkeley. We had complimentary tastings of a semi-dry white Port and a LBV Port; the former an apéritif, best served with berries and pineapples; and the ladder, a digestif is best with strong cheeses like Stilton. The guide took us on a 30 minute tour of the cellar and gave us a history of the region and its famous wine, Port. 
Taylor is not a Portuguese surname; it is English as you might guess. In fact, many Port houses are owned by English and Germans, including Graham and Dow. In a nutshell, in the 17th century, due to frequent wars with neighboring France, the British traders were cut off from their supplies of Bordeaux wine. Looking to new supply of claret (red wine), the British took a liking to the Portuguese-style wine and under the Methen Treaty of 1703, a commercial treaty between the two nations which stipulated that no tax could be charged for exports of Portuguese wines to England, or English textiles to Portugal regardless of the geopolitical situation between France and England. However, the wines did not travel well across the turbulent Atlantic Ocean, so the traders added Brandy to fortify the wines for their lengthy travel to England. What we know as Port today was the created in the 17th century.
In order to bear the label Port, the grapes must be grown and processed in the Douro Valley region, which also produces some excellent red wines as well. In the old days, the barrels were transported down the river by Rabelos, old wooden sail boats, to Vila Nova de Gaia for aging and storage, which you will still  find these historic boats moored in the Rio Douro.

There are various styles of Port wine: white, ranging from dry to very sweet best served chilled; Ruby-style, the most extensively produced style which is often blended with other vintages; and the tawny style. Most of the Port wines I've tasted in the past are disgustingly sweet, however, the Taylor ports are quite nice. 

The highlight of our trip to Porto was seeing an old colleague from Berkeley and his wife, both native Lisboetas who decided to settle in Porto for the time being. He literally just landed in Lisbon and took the three hour train ride up to Porto so many thanks for making the extra effort to see us! We had a late lunch at Cafe Guarany, a quick walking tour of his city, and again stopping at San Bento station to admire the striking Azulejos tiles that gives Porto its distinctive character.  Boa Viagem!
Here are some restaurant recommendations in Porto from my friend - enjoy!:

Aleixo, in Rua de Campanhã, close to the Campanhã train station (excellent octopus fillets; it's away from the most interesting neighborhoods, but it's well worth the trip);

Tasca do Godinho, in Rua do Godinho, in Matosinhos (very good seafood rice);

Sunday Brunch at the Serralves Museum cafeteria (pleasant for a meal while visiting the museum if you happen to be there late on Sunday morning, I think you may have to make a reservation);

Café Majestic, at the beginning of Rua de Santa Catarina (probably the most beautiful café in Portugal, great for breakfast, for coffee, or for an afternoon tea).

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