Porto always had a great advantage for being on both a navigable oceanfront and river, perfect for commerce and travel. Many a grand exploration left from here, indeed the ship yards here played a crucial role in the development of the famed Portuguese naval fleet. Porto’s name was Portus Cale in Romans times, it roughly translates to “Road to the Sea.”
Porto, whose historic center is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site is filled with historic cathedrals, museums and the famous Port lodges on the banks of the river where traditional flat bottom barcos rabelos shipped wines, now they sail only with tourists. With plenty of cobbled stone streets and a maze of alleys and passageways, you can get a real feel for the old city.
Don’t miss the “blue”, this town has an amazing collection you could spend days getting to know. The remarkable Belle Epoque São Bento Station constructed in 1903 is covered in extraordinary azulejos from floor to ceiling. The station was designed by Theophile Seyrig, a Belgian engineer working with Gustave Eiffel’s team that were also responsible for the classic iron bridge that spans the Douro from Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia. It was King Manuel I of Portugal who in the 15th century brought azulejo tiles from Seville to Portugal. Azulejos were very common in parts of the Iberian Peninsula dominated by the Islamic Expansion during the middle ages. Indeed, the word azulejo comes from the Arabic word al zellige which means “the polished stone”. The list of azulejos fronted buildings in Porto and surrounds is very long; Porto Cathedral, Capela das Almas, Igreja do Carmo, Santo Ildefonso, to the new Casa da Musica. To emphasis how important these artistic tiles are to Porto, City Hall has a Banco de Materiais, created in 2010 to preserve and display many of Porto’s pieces that tell the story and it also helps in the restoration azulejos tiles facades in the city. It’s a treasure trove.
Crossing the bridge, we were skipping the Port Lodges and heading east on the A4 to a little bit of wilderness and unparalleled beauty, journeying up to the Douro Valley, truly a wine’s lovers drive on a cool fall day. The colors were a full spectrum of red, orange and golds on the steep terraced hillsides along winding roads on our way to Lamego on the southern side of the river. The grapes have all be harvested but the vineyards are stunning in their glowing colors before the leaves drop.
One of my favorite places to stay is Six Senses Douro (formerly AquaPura) I watched as they were starting remodeling the property through its opening back in 2007….but I keep going back as it is ideal and it holds many memories. They have melded the old with a very contemporary interior with generous rooms with huge windows out on to the vineyards.
This beautifully renovated and reimagined 19th-century manor house is set high on a hill overlooking the vine-covered countryside of the Douro Valley and the river below winding lazily through the oldest wine-producing region. It has gardens, including an organic kitchen garden, woodlands and the views from the terrace is a full sweeping panorama. It happens to be my favorite spot. The hotel’s Earth Lab, is a commitment every Six Senses has promoting sustainability efforts to reduce consumption, produce locally and support communities and ecosystems. It is consistent in being awarded many accolades, including World’s Best.
The open kitchens and dining rooms offer excellent cuisine with a mix of Portuguese and contemporary items they make great use of the wood burning oven not just for the breads but the traditional regional oven dishes. This I also a location for cooking classes, where we can learn some of the finer points of preparing Portuguese cuisine. Feno and chef’s table menus with matching wines is another treat.
Six Senses offers plenty of things to do with interactive oenology, cooking classes, and of course, a great spa. Then nearby Quintos for tastings one of which should be Casa de Mateus epitome of baroque architecture and an example of a centuries-old unbroken family tradition passed down from a bygone era. The other star of Lamego is Nossa Senhora dos Remedios with its theatrical stairway that climbs up Monte de Santo Estêvão to this 18th-century Baroque and Rococo sanctuary. Religious devotees have been braving the 686 steps since at least the 1300s. But the nine landings are enriched with blue tile azulejos panels, chapels, fountains, obelisks and statues to give you a chance to catch your breath.
Even though we were only an hour and a half from Porto and could have spent another few days here, we were flying out of Porto early morning so we headed back to the Atlantic side of town. One of the “overlooked” areas of Porto is the beach front north of the estuary, from Ingelese Beach to Matosinhos there are beautiful Atlantic beaches where many wonderful waterfront restaurants have popped up, like Praia da Luz. If you are flying out of Porto early it would be convenient to stay beach side your last night, and get another perspective.
And you thought I was going to tell you about Port Wines!