AS the early evening autumn sun shone over the Douro Valley and into the barn, warming the stone, our beautiful guide launched into a haunting lament, the fado, the melancholy soul music of the Portuguese.
It was a moment of pure romance, undercut only by the fact that I was standing barefoot in an 18-inch deep pool of squashed grapes. It’s hard to look suave and worldly when your legs are stained purple up to the thigh.
And yet, it was hard not to think that the whole trip had been leading towards this point. I had arrived in Porto on a Ryanair flight from Liverpool a couple of days before, leaving the gloom behind to be warmed by the sun of a Portuguese autumn.
“Porto? Is that in the Algarve?” I was asked before the trip. “No, it’s in the north,” I said. “Who goes to the north of Portugal?” I was asked. “I’m not sure,” I said.
On that first night, it was impossible to get a proper sense of the city, beyond the fact it was both buzzy and hilly, so our resourceful guide, Ricardo, took our party to Cantinho do Avillez.
This is a restaurant owned by one of Portugal’s brightest new chefs, Jose Avillez, and featured clever twists on traditional Portuguese cooking, beginning with bread and truffled butter, with a tomato “cream” which tasted more of tomatoes than most tomatoes, and finishing with a sort of backwards salted praline ice cream, which started like custard and ended an icy solid, in defiance of both usual ice cream practice and the laws of physics.
Fed and relaxed by local wines, we returned to our hotel, the five-star Crowne Plaza, on the Avenida da Boavista, the road which leads to Porto’s Atlantic coastline. It was a fine, business-like hotel, catering for the international traveller, with a bed roughly the size of your living room.
Porto itself is a handsome city, elegantly ruined in parts, with twisting back streets leading downhill to the Rio Douro, the river which irrigates the valley of the same name and runs out to the ocean, and breathlessly modern in others.
And it was the modern Porto we saw first of all the next morning – namely the Casa da Música, the great concert hall, designed by Rem Koolhaas, and built as part of Porto’s successful bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2001, though not completed until 2005. A stunning angular hunk of concrete, it looks as if it has landed like a spaceship in a formerly run-down part of Porto.
From there, we went to the Contemporary Art Museum of Serralves, set in acres of parkland and gardens. There are no permanent exhibitions in there, which means it continually reinvents itself, as Porto itself did as a result of Capital of Culture, using the honour to transform the city, just as Liverpool did in 2008.
All that culture can make a man hungry, and so we sat at one of the outdoor tables at Fish Fixe, on Cais da Ribeira, which runs down the bank of the Rio Douro, where we ate sardines and cheese and ham, dipping bread in peppery oil made from local olives. We followed them with arroz marisco – a soupy mix of rice and seafood which every respectable Portuguese mae can make for her children.
Across the narrow river we could see the port houses of Gaia, the cellars in which are held the port wine which was both named after the city, and upon which most of the city’s historic wealth is based. Huge signs above the houses carry names like Sandeman and Taylor’s, names of British exporters who produced and took port to our country in the 18th and 19th centuries.
After lunch we took a tour round the cool dark Sandeman cellars, accompanied by a woman guide dressed like the Sandeman logo, the Don, a Zorro-like character in a black Spanish sombrero and black cloak, which Portuguese students traditionally wear, and discovered how port is made.
So, here’s the science part. Unlike sherry, which is wine fortified with brandy and sweetened after it has fermented, port is only partly fermented, before the fermentation process is stopped by adding a flavourless colourless brandy. This means the port packs a 18% alcohol punch, while retaining the sweetness from the grapes.
Red grapes make ruby port, white grapes make white port, and tawny port is ruby port which is aged in much smaller barrels, which means more of the wine has contact with the wood so more oxygen can get in, changing the drink’s flavour and turning it into a honey colour.
After a tasting of the three ports, our trip guide, Ricardo, took us to Livraria Lello, Porto’s most famous bookshop. It’s so famous it has a bouncer on the door and you have to buy a ticket over the road to get in.
It’s because it’s considered to be the inspiration for Hogwarts castle in the Harry Potter books. The theory has some weight. It’s very ornate and has an eccentric staircase. And JK Rowling lived in Porto for a few years while she was writing the first book in the series. It meant the shop was packed with Potter fans who, crucially, were not buying books.
“So, I expect this crowd are all here because of Rowling,” I said to the bookshop guide. “No, no,” he said, “this is a very important and historic place for Portuguese literature,” as he was jostled by three small children in wizard hats.
After a quick trip to Porto’s main railway station to see the stunning blue and white tile pictures which decorate the concourse, we got ready for dinner at Porto Cruz, another port house. But while Sandeman’s is big on history, Porto Cruz is about modernity, with a swish rooftop bar and restaurant, serving port-based cocktails with excellent food.
The following day we headed into the Douro Valley, the lavishly attractive source of the grapes which make the wine of the region. It is hardly any exaggeration to say that every part of the valley that is not a road, or water, or a house, or another business, is covered in vines, running along the terraces which cling to the hills.
The Douro was one of the world’s first demarcated wine regions, cold in winter, baking in summer, the sun beating down on the soil, which is covered with flat gravel, which soaks up the heat and releases it at night, keeping the temperature constant.
We went first to Amarante, a small golden town with an A-Level in charm, and a weird line in phallic-shaped biscuits. We had a traditional British afternoon tea at Casa da Calçada, a gorgeous villa of a hotel, with hefty fireplaces and comfortable sofas. The relationship with Britain is important to the Portuguese – we liberated them from Napoleon and we frequently got stuck into the Spanish – in a way we rarely reciprocate. Our loss.
After a wander through the bridge-crossed town, we headed further into the valley, to the Six Senses Hotel in Lamego. An unprepossessing entrance gave way to pure luxury, a modern hotel which was shot through with comfort and elegance, with everything just so, and amazing views of the valley. It was too good for the likes of me, quite frankly.
We sat on the terrace and ate veal and potatoes while we listened to absolutely nothing, a peace and quiet I have never before experienced. I gazed out at the wine terraces, the olive trees framing the crest of every hill, and felt an almost transcendent sense of calm. It was basically the cosmic opposite of the London Underground.
From there we went to Quinta da Pacheca, a lush green vineyard and medium-sized wine producer with its own four-star hotel. The sun dappled the terracotta roofs of the whitewashed buildings through the rustling leaves of the trees. There was a touch of lavender in the air. I looked at the unapologetically modern cantilevered first floor extension on the main hotel building and was smitten. I felt I wanted to…
GRAMOPHONE NEEDLE SCRATCH SOUND EFFECT HERE.
“So I will take you on a tour,” said our quinta guide, “and then you’ll be treading the grapes.”
“Hooray!” said the rest of our party.
“What?” said I. Maybe I am odd, maybe I am too damned buttoned-up, but I did not consider this much of a gift. Sloshing about thigh-high in pulverised fruit is not my idea of a good time, it is a forfeit in a Noel’s House Party game.
But after the tour, during which we sampled the producer’s excellent ruby and ridiculously good tawny port, as well as their fruity, if tannic, table wine – “It needs a little time to mature”, said our guide – we were taken to the granite vats, where we changed into T-shirt and shorts, and washed our feet before plunging into the grapes.
It seems ridiculous in the 21st century that treading the grapes is still a thing, but our guide explained that stainless steel presses, which some of the bigger producers use, crush the seeds, making acid leak into the wine and impairing the flavour. On the scale of production of this quinta, it makes more sense to use the old methods. And the alcohol kills off anything bad anyway.
I decided to take her word for it and stepped inside, joining a seven-strong crew as we marched back and forth, arm in arm, to the rhythm of songs sung by the Portuguese contingent. Apparently, walking in step to a rhythm reduces the chance of a stumble. And nobody wants to fall over in that.
Despite my qualms, it really did feel like an honour in the end, as if I had taken part in something ancient.
It wasn’t over yet. To finish our visit to the valley, we were taken to chef Rui Paula’s DOC in Folgosa. Paula is one of Portugal’s most inventive chefs, and there, on a wooden terrace, we ate a modern and witty five-course meal, each course matched with a wine from the region.
Sitting on the banks of the Douro, watching the lights twinkle on the jet river, drinking wine from grapes harvested a few miles away… it wasn’t a bad way to round off a visit to one of the most beautiful and underrated regions of Europe. Who needs the Algarve? Northern Portugal has so much more to offer.
THE CONTRACTUAL BIT AT THE END
I flew to Porto via Ryanair (ryanair.com) from Liverpool John Lennon Airport (liverpoolairport.com). Direct flights are also available from Gatwick and Stansted. He stayed at Crowne Plaza Porto (crowneplaza.com/porto) and Quinta da Pacheca (quintadapacheca.com). For more details on Porto and the Douro Valley, see visitportoandnorth.travel.