The Pleasures of Porto
In the latest in his series exploring how to experience travelling as an antidote to your mood, Kyle Taylor recounts his adventures in the home of Port wine.
Work. Life. Balance. The endless pursuit, with the “life” bit forever losing out to the “work” bit. Sometimes you want to just go away, forget work, forget the gym, forget your diet and go for it.
And if you do, Porto is the place to do it.
Home of Port wine (it’s in the name, isn’t it?) and the gateway to the Douro Valley (one of the world’s oldest and most awarded wine regions), Porto is also home to a booming food scene comprised of hundred-year-old staples and cutting-edge cuisine.
To top it all off, the city hasn’t yet ascended into the tourist trail mainstream, which means everything is remarkably affordable. If you want to let go and be truly glutinous, this is the place to do it.
What to expect:
The city of bridges is laid out zig-zagging up the side of a hill that runs north from the riverfront. No street runs in a straight line and these former donkey paths are narrow, winding and steep.
At the top of the hill is Clergies Church and Tower, the highest point in the city at just a few hundred metres tall. From there, things flatten out and creep into the modern world.
The city is a clash of old and new, though not building-to-build like London or Berlin. Porto has done an incredible job of maintaining – and upgrading – its historic centre while letting the 21st Century creep in around it. People meander here. There’s no urgency in day-to-day-life. Slow food, slow coffee, slow walking.
From the water you look out across the river at Villa Nova de Gaia, a completely “separate” municipality and home to the world’s finest Port houses like Taylor’s and Croft. Gaia isn’t hugely residential and is instead a winding world of caves and tasting rooms ready for you to sample their finest pours in perfectly manicured gardens offering sweeping views back to picturesque Porto. Nothing is more than 20 minutes’ walk away, which is helpful because some walking in between feasting will be very appreciated.
Every day has to start with a spectacular cup of coffee and a buttery pastry stuffed to the brim with smooth, silky chocolate. Cafe do Comercio has it covered, but don’t expect to eat before 9am. Remember, this is Portugal.
From there, begin your ascent upward to Clergies Church and Tower. This vantage point offers the best view of the city – a sea of red tile roofs dotted with balconies covered in clothes hung out to dry. Turn your gaze northward and the red fades to modern roofing as the “new city” expands outward. Take particular note of Praca de Lisboa, an angular “green roof” park that sits atop a modern shopping mall (the mall is entirely invisible from street level and above).
After descending, walk through it to Livraria Lello, a historic bookshop covered in velvet and dark wood that was an inspiration to JK Rowling when she was writing Harry Potter.
At this point, it will have been at least a few hours so it’s time to eat again. Wander east to Conga, home of the most delicious meat sandwich this writer has ever eaten. At two Euros, it’s also the best value meal I’ve ever consumed. Their spicy “special” sauce will leave your mouth watering for hours afterwards and a half pint of SuperBoc at one Euro washes it right down.
Keep the glutenous times rolling Bolhao Market – a mix of cook-at-home fresh food, ready-to-eat treats, wine, souvenirs and everything in-between. While the main market is being renovated until 2020, they’ve set up a temporary “mini market” just a block away. While it doesn’t have the hundreds of years old charm, it gets the job done. You’ll be ready for a walk (or a nap!) after that so head South towards Luis I Bridge, calling in at the central train station to see the mosaic tile murals, Porto Cathedral and Saint Lawrence Church. You’ll approach the bridge at the “top” crossing, which offers breathtaking views down the river, Porto on one side and Gaia on the other.
At the top of the bridge, right in the centre of the river, give yourself a moment to reflect.
On one corner is a massive cathedral. Another, a working monastery. Opposite them is a bustling stream of restaurants offering spectacular food and an entire town dedicated to Port wine. The river runs down the middle – a fascinating spot to consider gluttony in all its diverse forms.
The cable car ride down to Gaia followed by a chilled glass of Port in Taylor’s famed gardens will give you all the time you need to further reflect on that life balance question while you eat and drink to your heart’s content.
Dinner can be a tough time in a city full of fabulous restaurants.
There are three top options, which means multi-day’ers have a brilliant few meals ahead of them. If it’s the classics you want, the only place is Cafe Santiago for Francesinha, the dish of Porto. They take some bread, layer is with ham, add more bread, layer that with steak, add more bread, layer that with cheese and tomato, add a fried egg, plop that on a bed of chips then cover it all in beer sauce. It. Is. So. Glutenous. And divine.
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If you’re looking for old-world fine dining at reasonable prices, it’s Restaurante Flor dos Congregados, whose pork sandwich starter has been made using the same recipe for more than 100 years. Order seven.
And if it’s seafood you’re after, the family-run Grupo Desportivo Infante D. Henrique set right on the riverfront. The garlic prawns are mesmerising.
After dinner the only option is to drink wine. Copious amounts of Vinho Verde (a young wine found only in Portugal that costs about six Euros a bottle in a bar) and Port. Do it at Wine@District until the wee hours of the morning and regret nothing.
If you’re staying multiple days, absolutely book in to a Douro Valley wine tour. They’re all about the same but make sure the lunch is on a vineyard and not in a group tourist trap mass restaurant.