Bom Dia! I’d love to continue in Portuguese but after one week in Portugal, that’s all I can muster. Sad, but true. Egg tarts I can seriously get behind. Ronaldo? I mean, the guy has an ego the size of Everest but he defies gravity when it comes to executing a perfect scissor kick. But Portuguese, the language? Identifying the language as something between Russian and Spanish is pretty much as close as it gets.
But let’s get back on track. Last summer, I was lucky enough to enjoy a 7-day girly getaway to sunny, stunning Portugal. Over the past couple of years, I’d heard whispers of people’s travels to Portugal and how much they absolutely loved their time there. Rumour had it that Portugal was still less expensive than it’s neighbour to the north (and east) but just as accessible.
Untouched and more preserved than typical tourist hot-spots like Rome, Barcelona, Paris or Madrid, it reportedly had a hopping night life and plenty to keep you occupied during daylight hours. It was steeped in history and diverse in it’s geography. And to top it all off, it is best known for it’s exclusive production of port, of which I am a very, very big fan. I was sold.
So many cities, so little time.
We started plotting our trip in May and within a week, we pretty much had everything booked. We would fly into Porto, stopover in Aveiro and then finish the tour in Lisbon. The original plan was to make a pit-stop in the university town of Coimbra, but unfortunately within weeks of booking, 50km to the south-east, residents experienced what Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa referred to as “the greatest tragedy we have seen in recent years in terms of forest fires.” Given the uncertainty of future fires and the sensitivity surrounding recent events, we thought we’d stick to the coast and see instead what is often referred to as the “Venice of Portugal“.
We knew we wanted to see Lisbon and with one week to explore the country, we had to make a choice between wandering the streets of Porto or escaping to the natural beauty (and stunning turquoise waters) of the Algarve. In this case, Porto, with it’s windy roads and stunning architecture won out and the Algarve went back on the bucket list.
Two Days (and a half) in Picture Perfect Porto
And so it was that we flew into Porto for a 3-night stay at the Eurostars Porto Douro. The hotel itself was perfectly situated at the beginning of the Ribeira, the neighbourhood best known for an endless array of restaurants and coffee shops that entice customers with the promise of great food and an even better view.
From the airport, the hotel was a 45 min subway, easily reachable via Porto’s highly developed transit system (says the Torontonian). Find a detailed map here.
As we made our way down the hill from the train station to the hotel (Porto is very, very hilly) we quickly caught a glimpse of the Dom Luis Bridge, a double-deck metal arch bridge standing 564 ft high that connects Porto proper with Vila Nova de Gaia. The bridge spans the Douro River and provides one of the best views over Porto.
Since we arrived late Saturday afternoon, and since the best decisions are made over a heaping glass of wine, we plopped ourselves down at a restaurant smack in the middle of the Ribeira and ordered our first glass of Vinho Verde.
5 Fun Facts about Vinho Verde:
- Vinho Verde is not a grape, it’s a region.
- Vinho Verde doesn’t refer to the colour of the wine but the age. Vinho Verde wine is typically released 3-6 months after harvesting.
- The white wine is both light and delicious. And sometimes sparkling (which makes it ultra refreshing).
- The Vinho Verde region has been producing wine for over 2,000 years.
- The name isn’t pronounced how you think it is. It is NOT pronounced Vinho Ver-DAY. The correct way to pronounce the name is Vinho VAIRD. Mind blown.
Fortunately, the wine solidified our very professional and well thought out plan to conquer Porto. Spend one day wandering aimlessly through city streets and one day sampling ports in Vila Nova de Gaia. Wait, scratch that. Port comes first. Then comes cultural exploration. Clearly.
Port Tasting in Vila Nova de Gaia
For those of you who follow my adventures, you’ll know how much I love to run my way around a new city. So, to kick start our first full day in Porto, we geared up and took off for a run, starting at the Ribeira and winding our way up and down the busy streets where bakers, retailers and tourists were just starting to crowd the sidewalks and ready themselves for the day ahead.
During our run, we made it all the the way to the Crystal Palace Gardens, providing sweeping views of the Douro River. Maintaining our tradition of ending the run with a bite to eat on a sunny patio, we strolled back to the hotel and, after having sweat out all the toxins from our flights in, were ready to refuel. With port. What else?
Now, before you plan your visit to Vila Nova da Gaia, you should know that there are two ways to enjoy your port-tasting excursion. You can a) reserve time slots at specific wineries that include informative tours and complimentary tastings or b) Wander aimlessly and taste at will.
We chose the latter.
Following our run into the city, we left Porto for Vila Nova de Gaia. Upon arrival, we strolled the waterfront and started our day with a traditional egg tart and (another) hit of espresso. Pumped up on sugar and caffeine, we plotted out a sort of, kind of, vague-ish plan to work our way from one distillery to the next.
We both agreed to skip out on Graham’s – said to be exceptional by the way – and focus on the little(-er) guys. Consequently, we ended up doing a bit of a loop that lead us to the doors of tasting rooms at distilleries such as Ramos Pinto, Sandeman, Offley’s, and Croft Ports. We quite literally sipped our way from one tasting to the next, indulging in flights of port wine and basking in every moment of baby-free… oops, sorry I digress.
White, Rose, Tawny or Ruby? Getting to Know Your Port
There’s this great scene in Runaway Bride (not to date myself or anything) when Julia Roberts realizes that her whole life, she’s been eating her eggs however her partner at the time ate their eggs when in fact, she had absolutely no idea what kind of eggs she liked. This is how I felt about port, only until this trip, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
I have always been a huge fan of port. I can’t say I knew what I was drinking, where it came from (seems obvious to me now – duh!) but I didn’t really care. It reminded me of the sherry my grandmother used to drink now and then but tasted richer somehow. The perfect end to any meal. Needless to say, this definitely inspired the inclusion of Porto in our week-long Portuguese adventure.
Once however, we arrived at our first tasting room, we were a little overwhelmed. For example, did you know that much like wine, there are various styles of port? Four in fact. To-date I had unknowingly been drinking Tawny Port, the most common but (in my humble opinion) definitely not the most delicious. Tawny ports are sort of caramel in colour, exude spicier flavours and come in Colheita, 10, 20, 30 and 40 year bottles.
Tawny ports are good, but Ruby Ports are great. Ruby ports are typically cherry hue in colour, exude berry-like and chocolately flavours and come in Reserve, Late-Bottled Vintage or Vintage bottles. I know, it’s confusing, so let me point you to someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. Wine Folly offers beginners a great guide to familiarizing yourself with the four main types of port. Check it out here.
While it’s great to do your research before you go, there are definite benefits to going in blind. With no preconceptions, it was easy to be pleasantly (and once in a while unpleasantly) surprised at every turn. You learn very quickly what you like – and what you don’t.
After hours of drinking, we figured we better pause before the next tasting room. So, we climbed up the hill (and climbed and climbed some more) until we reached the stunning Yeatman Hotel for what was arguably the best view we would have all trip. The hotel itself is named after the Yeatmans, who entered the Port trade in 1838 and were among the most distinguished and enterprising of the Port families. We sat, we ate and I tried to love Aperol spritz (for the millionth time) and failed. The lesson here is, when in Porto… stick to Port (or Vinho Verde). But hey, it made for a perfectly composed picture, no?
After having tried a number of different ports during our full day of popping in wherever our prancing feet would take us, in the end my absolute favourite was Kopke. Kopke is the oldest port wine house in Porto and we were fortunate enough to find it on the menu of a tasting room early on in the day. If you try it and love it, be sure to pick up a bottle as it can be hard to track down once you flee the city of wine.
Do you Fado?
After catching the most stunning of sunsets, we stumbled back towards our hotel. I honestly can’t remember where we ate dinner that night, mostly because of the plethora of restaurants lined up and ready to serve you on either side of the Douro.
However. Before signing off, I will provide you with one last tip! If you’re interested in seeing a Fado performance – Fado being a music genre with roots in Lisbon that date back to the 1820s – head to Caves Calem where a tour, tasting and Fado show will cost you around 21 EUR. We skipped the offering with the plan of attending a Fado performance in Lisbon during our last night in Porto and it was a bit underwhelming. I would say that attending a more formal show is definitely a worthwhile investment.
While Day #2 in Porto consisted of whole lot of aimless meandering, there’s one thing on the agenda you won’t want to miss. Stay tuned!