From the Vineyards to the Sea – the Douro River

From the Vineyards to the Sea – the Douro River

A gauzy veil of early morning mist hovers over Porto’s Ribeira pier when we board the Tomaz de Douro for a daylong cruise to the birthplace of the celebrated Vinho do Porto. The prized liquid gold of Portugal may be coming of age right across the river, in the Gaia cellars of world-renowned Port producers, but it is some 60 kilometers (40 miles) upriver, in the famed vineyards of the Douro Valley that it all begins.

A Cruise Back in Time

Douro-Maria Pia Bridge.

Gustave Eiffel’s Maria Pia Bridge (circa 1877) straddles the Douro just upriver from the historic center of Porto

Leaving behind the bustle of the piers and the soaring bridges of Porto, we meander upstream between the cliff-like banks. Soon the dense mosaic of homes climbing the hills of historic Porto fades away, gradually replaced by stately haciendas surrounded by lush vegetation. Eventually, just as the sun begins to pierce through the mist, we enter a pristine nature preserve. Herons feed in the shallows and bright kayaks silently slide by on their way downstream.

Douro-pink hacienda.

Haciendas dot the banks of the Douro.

After days of roaming through the cobbled city streets, it is a treat to settle on the viewing deck and watch villages drift by. By late morning, we reach the first of the two locks on our itinerary, a reminder that the Douro was not always the serene river we enjoy today. Until it was tamed by a series of dams in the 20th century, it was a turbulent stream coming from the high sierras of northwestern Spain. Starting in the 1960’s, dams and locks were built to normalize traffic along the river.

Douro-Crestuma lock.

The lock of the Crestuma-Lever Dam.

Shortly after we enter the lock of the Crestuma-Lever Dam, lunch is announced in glassed-in dining room on the lower deck. It is a formally served meal of traditional local fare, preceded by an appetizer of assorted bacalhau (dry, salted cod), vegetable and cheese fritters paired with glass of lovely white Port aperitif. By the end of the meal, we pass through the lock of the Carrapatelo Dam and landscape changes. The wild slopes turn into socalcos, the terraced vineyards hewn into the riverbanks. They follow the sinuous contours of the valley to mold a unique landscape with its own microclimate. It is this product of two millennia of human labor that has earned the Douro vineyard their UNESCO World Heritage status in 2001.

Two Millenia of Human Labor

Douro-Terraced vineyards.

The terraced vineyards of the Douro.

Harvest time came early this year, and in the fading days of summer the sprawling whitewashed quintas (country estates) and the yellowing rows of gnarly vines that surround them are a surprisingly silent place. Suddenly, a familiar black silhouette materializes among the ripple of terraces. It’s the world famous Sandeman Don (or Sir) draped in his traditional Portuguese student’s cape and wide Spanish hat, growing to gigantesque proportions as we draw nearer. We definitely are in the heart of Port country.

Douro-Sandeman.

The familiar silhouette of the Sandeman Don overlooks the rippling vineyards.

The Tomaz de Douro pulls into the sleepy little town of Peso da Régua, where Pedro Batista, the friendly English-speaking guide who has been with us throughout the cruise, shepherds us to the tiny train station a short walk away from the dock for the two-hour ride back to Porto. “The best views are on the left side,” he hints as we board.

Whilst serious oenophiles may want to extend their time of the area with visits of some of the famous quintas, I find this daylong cruise to be a comprehensive introduction to the spectacular Douro Valley. And the slow, cliff-hugging ride back to Porto on a train of another century offered yet another perspective of the unique landscapes of the oldest wine-growing regions in Europe.

Douro-Panorama

Westward to the Sea

Although the city of Porto is located inland from the Atlantic, the Douro’s estuary is just an easy ninety-minute walk from the Ribeira waterfront, following the right bank of the river to the sea. Along the way, you pass through the colorful medieval neighborhood of Miragaia. Located outside of the old city walls, this arrabalde (suburb), it is where the Jews and Armenians of Porto used to live.

Douro-Foz Lighthouse.

The Felgueiras Lighthouse in Foz do Douro.

In Miragia, houses are constructed below the level of the Douro, on an ancient beach where the boats of the Discoveries Era were built, to carry explorers headed for the Cape of Good Hope and settlers bound for outposts of the empire. Nowadays the houses are protected by a wall, their upper floors built over arches that give that give the whole neighborhood a unique atmosphere. Keep going and you pass the small fishing village of Afurada before reaching the seaside resort town of Foz do Douro. Its lovely 19th century Passeio Alegre Garden with its grove of palm trees overlooking the ocean was designed by German landscape architect Emille David (of Crystal Palace Gardens fame).

Douro-Matosinhos Sardines.

Grilled Sardines and Vinho Verde are a Matosinhos tradition.

It’s another hour-long walk along the shore to Matosinhos. Today, the town’s long fishing tradition is most noticeable by the large charcoal grills in front of its many seafood restaurants. A variety of fish, from sardines and sea bass to cod and shad are roasting in the open air. The restaurants are packed with locals. Join them for a bountiful meal of fresh grilled fish and boiled potatoes drizzled with olive oil, washed down with a glass of refreshing Vinho Verde (green wine, which in this case refer to the young age of the wine rather than its color). It’s the perfect way to cap the long morning walk by the sea.

Douro-Atlantic Sails,

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – To the sea. If you prefer not to walk, or for the return trip to the city, the most scenic bus line route in Porto (bus 500), departs from the center of the city (at Aveniad dos Allados). It crosses the historic center and follows the coast to end at the Matosinhos central market. You can catch the bus at any stop along the way in either direction and purchase a ticket from the conductor (€1,70 at the time of my visit). To the Douro Vineyards. There are a number of companies with varied boat types offering cruises from Porto the Douro vineyards. At the recommendation of a local acquaintance, I opted for the Tomaz do Douro, with offices at Praça da Ribeira  5, 4050-513 Porto. Contact: tel. +351 222 081 935, e-mail. geral@tomazdodouro.com.
  • Best avoided unless you yearn for a bygone era transportation experience. A rickety tram (line 1) outfitted with old leather seats and wood paneling departs half-hourly (more or less) from Praca do Infante Square where tourists jostle for position in an unruly waiting line. It follows the river non-stop to Esplanada do Castelo on the Foz de Douro waterfront. The ride takes about 25 minutes and cost €2.50. The tram is usually packed, so chances are that you will be too busy trying to keep your balance as it rocks along to enjoy any of the scenery.

 

Location, location, location!

Douro River Valley.

Traditional Portugal At Its Finest – Porto

Traditional Portugal At Its Finest – Porto

Porto has the enduring charm of medieval cities that grew from their river. Today its Ribeira (literally riverbank”) waterfront is a picturesque promenade that welcomes throngs of visitors who, after a day of scaling the steep cobble streets of the city on a treasure hunt for its elaborately gilded churches and public buildings clad in blue ceramic Azulejos, enjoy relaxing at one of the many café terraces. Here they can sip a leisurely glass of Port, while gazing at the far bank of the Douro, Vila Nova de Gaia (or simply Gaia), where the word-famous nectar still ages. On the river, the traditional rabelos, the flat bottom boats that once ferried the wine from the vineyards some 100 kilometers (60 miles) upstream now offer popular tours under the six soaring bridges of the city while seagulls glide overhead on the Atlantic breeze.

Porto-Laundry_Flags.

The narrow balconies of aged appartment-houses are draped with fluttering laundry and the flags of local soccer supporters.

But step through one of the ancient arches that line this postcard-perfect riverfront, and you find the soul of Ribeira waiting for you up the winding streets. An unruly jumble of skinny houses clings like barnacles to the precipitous hills, their aged facades speaking of many generations of hard-working residents. The little wrought iron balconies are draped with fluttering laundry and flags that proudly announce support for the national football team (or soccer if you are in North America). Narrow storefronts display the stuff of everyday life, and the tantalizing scent of grilling sardines leads you to tiny family-run restaurants where you can feast on simple traditional fare, warm welcome included.

A Tale of Two Markets

Porto-Hard Club

Once an Art Nouveau covered market, Mercado Ferriera Borges is now an art exhibit and concert space.

Yet there are signs of evolution. A couple of blocks up from the waterfront, the renovated steel-and-glass structure of the Mercado Ferriera Borges, a grand Art Nouveau covered market built in 1885, was recently reborn as the Hard Club. Today, it houses art exhibit and concert spaces, a bookstore, a restaurant and bars. Events staged here can vary from photo exhibits to crafts fairs to indie rock concerts.

Porto-Mercado_Bolhao

A sizeable section of the Mercado do Bolhao is dedicated to fresh produce.

In stark contrast, a 20-minute walk away, little seems to have changed at the two-story Mercado do Bolhao since it opened in 1914. Dedicated mainly to fresh products, it is divided in specialized sections: fruit and vegetable, flowers, meat, fish (you can still hear fishwives hawking their catch), cheeses and deli products. In recent years, the inevitable souvenir shops have claimed a section as well. On the ground floor, there is also a sprinkle of stalls where you can eat fish so fresh it probably was still swimming in the Atlantic yesterday, and sample local cheeses and wines. Less than ten euros will get you lunch and a total immersion experience of the real Porto.

 

Art Nouveau Institutions

Porto-Livraria_Lello.

Behind its Neo-Gothic façade by architect Francisco Esteves, the Lello Bookstore has been a Porto institution since 1906.

From “one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops” to “an Art Nouveau masterpiece,” guidebooks rival in hyperboles to point you to Livraria Lello, a Porto landmark since the turn of the 19th century. Behind the Neo-Gothic façade, a curvaceous two-story staircase with ornate woodcarvings that match the intricate columns and wall panels dominate the illustrious literary emporium. Rumored to have inspired J.K. Rowling in her depictions of Hogwarts, the shop has become a pilgrimage site for Harry Potter fans from all over the world. Crowds are such that Lello now charges a €5.5 entrance fee (to be credited toward your potential purchase) and urges on its website to purchase tickets ahead for a specified day and time to avoid the long lines. What of the books? They are still there, some 60,000 volumes in Portuguese, Spanish, English and French, stacked high toward the stain glass ceiling. But they seem an afterthought to the visitors who jostle for selfie opportunities on the famous staircase.

Porto-Vida_Portuguesa.

All manners of traditional Portuguese products are available at A Vida Portuguesa.

For a more laidback shopping experience through a general store of a bygone era, step right around the corner to A Vida Portuguesa (Portuguese Life) on the second floor of the venerable Fernandes Mattos (circa 1866) store. Once dedicated to fabrics and sewing supplies, Fernandes Mattos morphed over time into a funky gift shop where you can browse through all manners of funky stuff from cotton handbags to fun kitchen gadget, as you head toward the elegant staircase with its back wall covered with A Vida Portuguesa’s trademark ceramic sparrows. On the light-filled second floor, displayed on original 19th century store fittings, you will find every imaginable type of traditional Portuguese products from notebooks, pencils and cans of sardines in their retro-style packaging to lettuce ware china. And from the balcony you can enjoy a unique close-up view of Porto’s iconic Clerigos Tower.

The Gardens of the Crystal Palace

Porto-View_Crystal_Palace.

View of the Gaia from the Gardens of the Crystal Palace.

Regrettably, all that remains of the 19th century Palacio de Cristal is the name, the original glass and steel structure having been replaced in the 1950’s by a huge UFO-like domed sports arena. However, the eight-hectare (20 acre) park landscaped to complement the original building has fared much better. Today, it is a mosaic of luxuriant terraced gardens dotted with fountains and sculptures that reveal themselves along with stunning views of the city and the Douro, as you wander down toward the river. Under a canopy of giant magnolias and cypress trees, the sun-dappled lawns are favorite picnic spots for local families, and students of the nearby university neighborhood of Massarelos.

Little Frenchie

Porto-Franscesinha.

This Franscesinha sandwich is drizzled with Port Wine for good measure.

It’s impossible to speak of Porto’s daily life without mentioning the Franscesinha. When this Little Frenchie got its name vary from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, depending on whom you ask. But its origin is usually attributed to some returned immigrant from France who tried to adapt the croque-monsieur to the Portuguese taste. One thing is certain, there is nothing little about this cholesterol bomb of a sandwich that has by now found its way onto the menu of every eatery in town, from humble diners to posh epicurean venues. Order this Portuense right of passage and in between two thick slabs of white bread, you get generous slices of steak, ham and two different kinds of sausage in a shroud of melted cheese, on a bed of thick, spicy tomato and beer sauce. For good measure it is traditionally topped with a fried egg, (although some trendier establishments will replace it with a drizzle of Port Wine) and a mound of French fried on the side. Bom Apetite!

Porto-Rabelos_Regatta.

Rabelos Regatta sails under the Arrabiata Bridge.

Good to Know

  • Getting there –The Porto International Airport, with direct flights from most major European cities, is located 17 kilometers (10 miles) north of the city, and easily accessible from the center of town via direct metro line. If you prefer door-to-door service, taxi fare is around €20 -25.
  • Getting around – The best way to get around the web of narrow cobble streets of the touristic center of Porto is on foot, with comfortable walking shoes a must. If walking is a challenge or to go farther afield, Porto offers an extensive public transportation system, mainly metro and buses, operated by the Sociedade de Transportes Colectivos do Porto to reach the top attractions in and around the city. Bus fare can be purchased on-board, metro cards at the station.
  • Visiting – The Central Tourist Information Office , 25, Rua Clube dos Fenianos, is open every day from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Tel: +351 223 393472. Hard Club ( previously Mercado Ferriera Borges), l Rua do Infante D. Henrique, 4050 Porto, is open daily except Monday, from 11:00 am to midnight. Mercado do Bolhao, Rua Formosa, 4000-214 Porto, is open Monday through Friday from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm and Saturday from 7:00 am through 1:00 pm. Closed on Sunday. Livraria Lello, Rua das Carmelitas 144, 4050-161 Porto, is open daily from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm. Contact: Tel.+351 22 200 2037. A Vida Portuguesa, Rua Galeria de Paris 20 – 1º, 4050-162 Porto, is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm and Sunday and holidays from 11:00 am to 7 pm. Contact: Tel. +351 222 022. Jardim do Palácio de Cristal, Rua de Entre-Quintas 20, 4050-240 Porto, is open daily from 8:00 am to 9:00 pm

Location, location, location!

Gardens of the Crystal Palace

Days of Port and Churches – Porto, Portugal

Days of Port and Churches – Porto, Portugal

The history of Porto reaches back to the 1st century BC when, under Roman rule, the city on the banks of the Douro played an important role on the trade route between Lisbon and Braga. Little remains of Portus Cale, as it was then known, other than the origins of the name Portugal. And the foundations upon which the city anchored itself up the steep hills that border the river, creating the mosaic of medieval, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical architecture that captivates today’s visitor.

Porto-Ribeira waterfront.

The Ribeira neighborhood rises from the waterfront.

Behind the colorful waterfront of tall houses and medieval arcades of the Ribeira neighborhood, a maze of winding cobble streets climbs toward a skyline punctuated with the bell towers of dozen of churches. Meanwhile, on the Vila Nova de Gaia (or simply Gaia) side of the river, rows upon rows of sprawling warehouses (or cellars as they are called here) bear the names of the most famous Port Wine brands on the planet.

 

 

A Reclining Eiffel Tower

Porto-Ponte Dom Luis I.

The Dom Luis I Bridge connects Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia.

This is the moniker affectionately given by the Portuenses to the soaring bi-level Ponte Dom Luis I that arches over the Douro to link Ribeira to Gaia. Often mistakenly attributed to the famous French engineer, it was build from 1881 to 1886 by one of his disciples, Theophile Seyrig (Eiffel had previously designed the Maria Pia railway bridge a little farther upstream in 1877). More than a way to get across the river, the upper deck of the bridge offers a unique vantage point to soak in the history and vitality of the city, the jumble of terracotta roofs and the medieval Fernandina fortification wall of the Ribeira side, the steady boat traffic on the river and the aerobatics of the seagulls that flock here from the Atlantic shore just a few miles downstream. Meanwhile on the Gaia side, the signs emblazoned on the rooftops reads like the Social Register of Port Wines.

The Call of Port

There are almost fifty Port cellars in Gaia, although not all of them are open to visitors. But all the familiar names, Calem, Croft, Cockburn, Cruz, Ferreira, Taylor, Sandeman, et. al., have tasting rooms, and most of them offer guided visits.

Port-Gaia cellars.

The rooftops of Gaia read like the Social Register of Ports.

Calem is the first cellar along the Cais de Gaia, the avenue along the waterfront as your get off the bridge. One of the top cellars in town, and one of the largest, it offers scheduled 45-minute tours throughout the day in a variety of languages. They feature a walk through the fermentation cellar and barrel room before ending with a tasting of the three main types of Ports: the ubiquitous Tawny, the darker, more full-bodied Ruby and the sweet golden yellow White. In the late afternoon, there is an English tour that ends with an hour-long performance of (somewhat) traditional Fado music in the tasting room.

Porto-Colheita.

Barrels of the prized Colheita single vintage Port are aging in the Calem cellar.

My take on the experience? The visit raised my casual drinker’s appreciation of the Vinho do Porto. In a nutshell, the wine is produced exclusively in the demarcated Douro region, some 100 kilometers (65 miles) up-river from the city. It is fortified with an addition of neutral grape spirit that stops its fermentation, leaving residual sugar in the wine and boosting its alcohol content. It is then transported to the cellars in Gaia, stored in barrels and aged before being bottled and brought to market. It acquired its name in the 17th Century, from the seaport city of Porto where much of it was exported, mainly to Britain. In recent years a Rosé as been added has been added to the three traditional Port varieties. Fermented like any rosé wine with a limited exposure to the grape skins to obtain its pink color, this trendy tipple is finding its way into everything from cocktails to ice cream.

Porto-Tasting.

Port tasting is a major tourist attraction in Porto.

Another interesting visit is the Ferreira cellar, the only major brand that has remained in Portuguese hands since its foundation in 1751. Here, the focus is on one of the iconic figures of the Douro region, Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira. She took over the family in business in 1844 after being widowed at the young age of 33, and made a major lifelong contribution to the development of the brand and the evolution of the Douro wine industry. The tour includes a visit to the Old Bar, a 19th century tasting room, for some of the best Douro wines.

Rococo Bling

Porto-Se Rococo altar.

The main altar of the Se Cathedral glows with gilded Rococo woodcarvings

Porto may have gained its notoriety from wine, but it is religion that shaped its historic center. The skyline bristles with churches illustrating the evolution of architecture from Romanesque to Gothic to Baroque. Yet, from the 12th century cathedral (Se do Porto), which has retained its church-fortress Romanesque façade and towers, to the somewhat understated Gothic exteriors of Santa Clara and Sao Francisco, to the startling adjoining Carmelitas (Gothic) and Carmo (Baroque) churches, all display a similar interior style. Step inside, and prepare to be dazzled by the most extravagant Rococo interiors imaginable. Spurred on by the economic prosperity flowing into Portugal from its new world colonies in the 18th Century, especially the discovery of precious stones and gold mines in Brazil, the churches received lavish interior face lifts. The profusion of precious metals and gilded woodcarvings can feel overwhelming but is well worth a visit.

The Azulejo Trail

Porto-Azulejo facade.

Introduced in the 16th Century, azulero-tiled facades remain a common sight in Porto.

To me, however, what most symbolize the city are its azulejo murals. Azulejos (pronounced “azuleyo”), the mainly blue and white ceramic tiles that decorate the churches and public building as well as the façade of apartment buildings, have their origins in the Arabic al-zulaich (polished stones). Initially introduced in the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors in the 13th century, they gained popularity in Portugal following the visit to Seville by King Manuel I in 1501.

Porto-se cathedral azulejo.

In the cloisters of the Se Cathedral, ceramic murals illustrate the Song of Solomon.

First used in traditional geometric repetitive patterns on walls and facades, by the 17th century they had evolved into custom-designed figurative murals representing religious, mythological and satirical scenes, covering vast architectural surfaces of sacred or state buildings. The practice became so widespread that it is now difficult to find any relevant historic building that does not have a façade covered in azulejos.

Porto-Sao Bento.

The São Bento railway station murals represent major milestones of Portugal’s past.

Most notable is the 14th century cloister of the Se Cathedral, which acquired its ceramic frescos depicting the Song of Solomon and the life of the Virgin Marie in 1729, with the two gigantic panels on the upper terrace added even later in the 18th Century. Further up the hill, the Igreja do Carmo (Church of the Carmes) at the corner of the Praça de Carlos Alberto Square and Rua do Carmo, has an outstanding azulero-covered exterior added in 1912.

Another spectacular creation of 20th century azulero artwork is the hall of the French Beaux-Arts style São Bento railway station in the center of the city. Created by Jorge Colaço, it consist of 20,000 tiles that illustrate major milestones of Portugal’s past, its royalty, its historic battles and the history of transportation.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – The Porto International Airport, with direct flights from most major European cities, is located 17 kilometers (10miles) north of the city, and easily accessible from the center of town via direct metro line. If you prefer door-to-door service, taxi fare is around €20 -25.
  • Getting around – Keeping in mind that the touristic center of Porto is a web of narrow, cobbled and winding streets, the best way to get around is on foot, with comfortable walking shoes a must. If walking is a problem or to go farther afield, Porto offers an extensive public transportation system, mainly metro and buses, operated by the Sociedade de Transportes Colectivos do Porto to reach the top attractions in and around the city. Bus fare can be purchased on-board, metro cards at the station.
  • Visiting – The Central Tourist Information Office , 25, Rua Clube dos Fenianos, is open every day from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Tel: +351 223 393472. Porto Calem, 344, Avenida. de Diogo Leite, 4400-111 Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal, is open daily from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. Tel: +351 916 113 451. Ferriera, 70 Avenida Diogo Leite, 4440-452 Porto, Portugal, is open daily from 10:00 am to 12:00 pm and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Tel: +351 22 374 6106.

Location, location, location!

Porto