From Forts to Ports

11 – 14  February 2018

We left Almeida heading over the River Coa and west towards the coast in gloomy weather that soon gave way to rain. On the way we passed huge areas that had been burnt in summer wild-fires including some villages where houses had been destroyed – it must have been absolutely terrifying. We turned north up the coast and skirted Porto to reach our campsite by the sea at Vila Chá.  There were about 12 other tourers there – mainly Danish  for some reason – and the site kindly provide complimentary glasses of port to welcome visitors.

In the morning we joined a queue at the campsite gates and waited for our turn as the only 2 taxis in Vila Chá ferried people 4 at a a time to the nearest station where trains run every 20 minutes or so into Porto.  On arriving in the city we followed our noses downhill onto the broad Avenida dos Aliados with the city hall at it’s head, grand old buildings flanking it, and the Praça de Liberdade and big statue of Dom Pedro IV on horseback at the bottom. The place thronged with tourists all heading in a similar direction, clicking their cameras all the way.

Uphill past the cathedral to a high point where suddenly we could see the famous double-decker iron brige of Dom Luis I (top trams, bottom cars) and across the river Douro to the riverfront of Vila Nova de Gaia with its wooden boats moored alongside and dozens of port wine lodges, including Sandemans, Warres, Cockburns, Graham’s and Taylors. Time for some photos.

Across the bridge we walked down the steep, cobbled back-streets to the quay-front and the Calem port house where we signed up for the next tour in English. With time to kill we had some tapas of tripe, padron peppers and squid to keep us going through the tour before starting our education on port.

In the interesting interactive port museum we learnt about the history, the different vines that are grown in the Douro valley to produce the various ports; the coopering process – some of the wooden vats here are huge – and the many different types of port, far more than we were aware of – including rose port, apparently poular in cocktails – with their various colours displayed in glass columns.

Our engaging tour guide explained the processes including fermenting methods and we were surprised to learn that the brandy used to stop fermentation and fortify the port is actually from Spain not Portugal – apparently the Portugese do not produce enough brandy of the right quality. The grapes are harvested and fermented in the Douro valley then transported down to the port houses for storage – some in the huge wooden vats – and then into barrels and the end of the process.Then on to the tasting session – a white & dry, a ruby and a 10 year old tawny – which worked it’s magic and we parted with some plastic money in the strategically placed shop.

The sun was still shiing when we came out and we wandered over the lower part of the bridge to the now-trendy barrio of Ribeira, it’s waterfront cafe’s packed with tourists – must be hell in summer.

We wandered up through the run-down back streets to the cathedral then across town, stopping at a cafe where bakers worked on marble surfaces to make the beautiful little custard tarts, and we had one each, warm, with a coffee. We then visited the crumbling, two-storey wrought-iron Mercado do Bolhão, but it was really too late in the day to be at its best.

Before catching the train home we followed our tour-guide’s recommendation and sampled a white port and tonic- served in the large, bowl-shaped glass we now associate with G&T – that was surprisingly pleasant. We may re-visit Porto on a warmer day and sample some more if we are passing through again.