With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, a lot of folk will be pondering where to head to for a weekend of romance and love. Paris, Barcelona, London? The obvious choices spring to mind, but what about Porto, Portugal’s second biggest city, and a stonkingly romantic one at that!
Porto is a city of sweeping views, whether you’re coming in to land at their brand new airport or sailing down the River Douro aboard a rabelo boat. It’s a city of impressive bridges, tumbledown houses, an exquisitely tiled railway station and a river front that screams, “pick a table, any table, order a glass of Port, and enjoy the company of your loved one, because this, my friend, is happiness in the sunshine”.
Porto is divided in two by the River Douro, which flows down from Spain (where it’s known as the Duero) through the Douro Valley here in Portugal and out to the powerful Atlantic Ocean which lies along the western coast of Portugal. The two ‘divisions’ are actually two towns which for tourism purposes, are considered one. There’s Porto proper, the town on the right bank of the river if you look out to sea, and Vila Nova de Gaia, on the left bank.
Porto itself is home to the Ribeira district, a Unesco World Heritage Site. It’s a maze of tiny cobbled streets, tiled shopfronts, bakeries, restaurants and, by the river side, bars and small markets. Whether you arrive by train or not, make sure you head to São Bento railway station in the centre of town for an intricately tiled entrance hall depicting the history of Portugal in traditional azulejos. Getting around is simple thanks to a state of the art metro system that runs both under and over ground, but the fun way to see the town, is by tram, and old fashioned trams at that. The no 22 picks up in Carmo and heads to Batalha. Sit back and enjoy the view. Or, catch the no.1 tram down by the river near the Palacio da Bolsa for a twenty minute journey to the Atlantic coast town of Foz do Douro – there’s always impressive waves in Foz so stay well back!
Vila Nova de Gaia is the land of Port. Cross over the Dom Luis bridge (designed by a partner of Gustave Eiffel, so there’s no escaping Paris, after all) and you’ll find yourself on a quayside that looks upwards to a plethora of Port lodges, most of which you’ll spot have unusually non Portuguese names – they’re mainly British, and downwards to the River Douro and the rabelo boats – once used for bringing wine from the valleys, now used for boat trips. In the Napoleonic era when the British and French were at war, the British needed their wine fix in a society that was growing increasingly accustomed to a tipple, and, as there was an embargo on the Bordeaux Claret that was à la mode at the time, the Brits found an alternative liquid refuge with their oldest allies- the Portuguese in the liquid joy that is Port. They’re still the biggest market for it today… how time stands still. Take a trip around the Port lodges for a history of the wine, the winemaking process and some samples to whet your whistle before investing in a vintage bottle to crack open next Valentine’s Day.