An Education in Port on the Banks of the Douro

Porto is a wonderful city.  Take a walk around the centre and it’s hard not to fall for the charm of the place: the higgledy piggledy coloured houses sitting on top of each other in the old town of Rebeira, the steep climbs connected by cable cars or funiculars that bring you out onto stunning views across the Douro river, the old vintage trams trundling along cobbled streets, and the laid-back atmosphere of life in the city.  There’s even something here for Harry Potter fans who can step into J K Rowling’s world and drop into places that have inspired the books (most notably the Livraria Lello bookshop in the centre of town).  There are also plenty of places to visit within easy reach of the city, which add to the overall experience, and are perfectly possible on even a short trip to the city. There really is something for everyone.  However, for anyone who likes a tipple, you can’t leave Porto without a visit to the port cellars and caves, the trade that is synonymous with the city.

The caves are located on the opposite side of the river to the main old town. You can reach them via a leisurely stroll across the top level of the Dom Luis I bridge, which links Rebeira to Villa Nova de Gaia.  The walk itself is well worth it – although at times it can be a bit hairy, you are presented with the most fantastic views of Porto and if you are okay with heights, you won’t regret it (there are, however, alternatives, either by walking across the bridge on the lower level, catching the train across, or taking a cable car).

When you’ve reached the Port institutes side, you only need to wander a short way downhill through the small winding streets and you come to Villa Nova de Gaia and the plethora of port caves that are scattered along the water’s edge (it is a misnomer that the main port cellars are in Porto, when they are actually in its small neighbour of Gaia).

This is particularly lovely area to visit.  It’s true that it has been commercialised (you only have to take a look above you to see the regular gondolas that carry tourists down to the quayside) but there’s still a sense that this is a more residential area than Rebeira and that the way of life is a little slower here.

There is a wide boulevard that is perfect for strolls alongside the river and which gives an ideal vantage point of the boats that bob up and down.  These boats are rabello boats, traditionally used to ferry the port to the cellars from further down the river and that can only be found in Porto.  We were lucky enough to see these boats as the sun was going down and it really was quite atmospheric, evoking a real sense of how the area would have been in bygone days.

Rabello boats on the Douro

Once you’re in Gaia, you’ll be spoilt for choice in terms of which caves de vinho to visit (these include Sandeman’s, Graham’s, Vasconcelos, Calem’s, Cockburn’s and Ferreira’s) and many offer guided tours and experiences that you might want to sign up to.

If like us, however, you turned up more on spec and weren’t able to join a guided tour, all is not lost.  There are plenty of riverside bars offering “flights” of port tastings where you can sit in sunshine trying a few different varieties, or, as we did, you could visit the small bar/shop belonging to the Noval cellars.  We stumbled upon this place, a little disappointed not to have made it to a trip around one of the big factories.  However, we found that this was no ordinary bar and there was plenty of learning to be found here.

On entering, we were presented with an extensive drinks menu, divided into categories.  Having no knowledge whatsoever of the difference between ports, we opted to try two different types – a Noval Black and a “fine white” – which we could then compare and contrast.  Our waiter appeared with two bottles and two glasses, along with some dry crackers to help cleanse the palate between drinks.  We were given an explanation of the two different samples, followed by more general information: through this we learnt that there are three different types of port wines (white, ruby and tawny), along with more expensive vintages and “colheitas” that are dated to specific years; that the fermentation process for white port is different than that for red and that port is produced through a process of stopping the normal fermentation process and then adding brandy to the mix.  Our waiter’s knowledge of the industry was really quite impressive and he happily spent time answering any questions we had.  Having learnt a lot in just a short time, we then ordered two more ports: this time a more expensive (8 euros) 20 year old vintage to compare against a cheaper (2.5 euros) blended port.  To our uneducated palates, both were lovely ports, although to us, the more costly vintage just edged it.

After a couple of ports each, we decided it was probably time to move on and stop drinking – there are so many things to do in Porto that we decided a hangover was not wise!  However, we came away with plenty of knowledge to help us choose the port we took home as a souvenir; when we eventually cracked this open, it provided a great memory of our short time here and a good opportunity to reflect on all the wonderful things that make Porto a place that should be high on everyone’s travel on a time budget hit list.

Read on for further ideas for a short break to Porto and practical information…

– Trips out: A trip out to the Atlantic coast and Foz do Duoro is easy and particularly fun if you take the vintage tram (line 1); it’s a short trip, and ideal for long walks in the fresh air along the seafront.  There are a few good restaurants for lunch, a lighthouse and small castle to see, as well as Porto’s Sealife aquarium.

The historic town of Braga is worth a visit and is under an hour from Porto by both car and train.  It’s a place worth visiting in itself but is also an interesting stop en route to Bom Jesus do Monte, a beautiful baroque church perched on a lush, forested hillside on the edge of Braga.  Visit this to be amazed by the incredible staircase leading down from the church.


– Getting there: You can get to Porto easily from the UK with airlines such as British Airways, Easyjet, Ryanair, and TAP, as well as from European cities such as Amsterdam and Brussels.  It also links to other Portuguese cites such as Lisbon, Faro and The Azores.

– Accommodation: We stayed for 5 nights on the waterfront in Rebeira in the Porto River; I’d definitely recommend this – although it was a little more expensive than staying further out, it was a fantastic location overlooking the Dom Luis I bridge with plenty of café culture on your doorstep for those long lazy lunches.  The breakfast is also worth a mention, with mini pasteis de nata on offer every day.

For more ideas for short trips to Portugal, see:  The Magical Gardens of Monte

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