My last trip to Portugal was in 1988 as a newly married traveller in our VW Combi! We drove vast miles, lived on NZ$25 a day, stayed along the beautiful Algarve coast and explored Lisbon and Sintra. Fast forward to 2016 and it was a 3-day getaway to the historically important city of Porto (aka Oporto) at the mouth of the Douro river. The second largest city in Portugal, its charm lies in the bustling riverside and winding streets of the old town, not to mention the traditional Port Wine Cellars along the riverside.
A 2.5-hour Ezyjet flight from Gatwick to Porto and then an easy train ride from the airport into the 19th century São Bento Railway Station finds you in the middle of the old town, just up the hill from the Port. The metro runs every 20 minutes on weekdays (approx. every 30 on weekends) and the ride is only €2.45 which includes the rechargeable card. The mosaic work at the railway station is breathtaking and the number of tourists there just for the mosaics is incredible! Over 20,000 Azulegjo glazed blue and white ceramic tiles depicting the stories from Portugal’s history, cover almost every surface.
Famous for its history of Port wine production, it was a given that we would visit some of the most famous and historic Port production houses on the riverside. First stop was the Croft cellar, located in Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite side of the river and over the Dom Luis Bridge. One of the most distinguished of all Port houses and founded in 1588, it is the oldest firm still active today as a Port wine producer. We took a guided tour of the cellar (€10) and learnt a great deal about the industry and Porto’s history, amidst the musky smells and aromas of oak barrels and fermenting grapes. There was the obligatory tasting which is included in your entry price and we sampled one of their new products – a dark pink port rosé, recommended served chilled. There was a fascinating explanation of the markings on the barrels. Each one is handmade and therefore uniquely sized. The number at the top of the barrel denotes the “modern” litre-age, while the numbers within the “X” at the bottom right represent the ancient Moorish system of calculating the capacity and volume of the barrel according to how many jugs a woman could carry on her head (the old system of transportation).
Porto is a relatively easy walking town if you have some fitness, although there are a few gentle hills down to the port. Our accommodation was around 10 minutes walk from the Port which gave us a chance to work off the famous custard tarts (Pasteis de nata) which Mo had a love affair with! Typically, fish features on many menus and we were lucky to find a table at a cafe along the Ribeira where we whiled away a couple of hours eating grilled sardines, enjoying a couple of cool glasses of Vinho Verde and people-watching in the sun.
The streets of Porto are relatively clean and safe, the people friendly and English is generally spoken in the main tourist areas. It’s not the cheapest Portuguese city however still one of its most charming and interesting. Do wear sensible shoes because many of the streets of the old town are still cobbled and after a couple of Vinho Verde, you may need to watch your step!
Happy travelling – Liz 🙂