It could have been anywhere. Well, anywhere within a couple of hours from London, with convenient flight times that didn’t interfere with school drop-off. With good dining options. Not to mention a bit of culture. Oh, and somewhere warm would be nice (in November). This, was the brief I got from from my best friend – some explicit, some less so, but I know her well. I chose Porto for our weekend destination, mainly based on photos of pretty blue tiles (azulejos) that kept coming up on Pinterest. Only I was so disappointed with how my own photos have turned out…I say this as if my camera took the photos all by itself, but for being such an adorable place, I found it difficult to photograph. I found the shadows were always too dark, and the light was always too bright, and I couldn’t deal with the contrast. I must get myself on to that photography workshop.
Falling in love with Azulejos
I’d like to officially declare that São Bento Railway Station in Porto is The Most beautiful Station in The World. I mean, have you seen a prettier train station anywhere in the world? The walls are covered in various shades of blue tiles depicting the history of Portugal, and looks more like a palace than a railway station. The 20,000 tiles were designed by Jorge Colaço, the most famous of azujelo painters.
The azulejos are everywhere. Like the Church of Carmelitas here.
Across Douro River
Being right in Douro Valley, Porto has quite a concentration of bridges going across to the other side of Douro river. Ponte Dom Luís I is the famous one, designed by a student of Gustav Eiffel and completed in 1886. It’s on two levels and the top deck is actually really, really high up. If you’re not scared of heights, there’s a brilliant view of Porto from there. If you are scared of heights, you will probably be really, really scared.
The view looks like this. It was a little hazy that day, but still a pretty good view of the old town of Porto that you see on the right hand side of the river here. On the other side of Ponte Dom Luis I, is Gaia.
“The best thing about Gaia is the view you get of Porto”
I did not come up with this! I think it’s meant as a friendly neighbourly joke. Although I absolutely agree that you do get a really pretty view of Porto from the other side.
In Porto, the narrow cobbled streets are crammed full of colourful little houses of seemingly random shapes all stacked next to and on top of one another, as if a child has drawn it.
Across the bridge, Gaia feels instantly different.
It has the feel of an upmarket-ish Mediterranean seaside. Of course we’re not in the Mediterranean, and the sea is actually about 7.5km away (and it’s the Atlantic). Restaurants and cafes line the river bank, with the occasional street vendor roasting chestnuts – they smell so good! Oh, and there are so many cyclists in Gaia. Very friendly ones too, some still had the energy to give us a wave half way up a hill that’s actually steeper than it looks in the photo.
This was my favourite shot of the weekend. My friend was a little scared when I set foot inside a dark, abandoned building to take it.
Visiting Port Cellars
Our primary objective of crossing over to Gaia was to visit a Port cellar. So up we went, overtaking a group merrily drunk Portuguese weekenders along the way, towards Taylor’s. Around this time, we casually thought about the time. It was approximately 7 minutes to five, and the last tour was at five!! Our uphill walk turned into a dash at this point, and we’d just made it there, with 5 minutes to go. Only to find their tour was full.
Disappointed, we decided to at least check out the terrace bar with a view.
It looked like the perfect place to have a glass of something.
Only we still had Mission: Visit Port Cellar.
Thankfully, Gaia is home to hundreds…ok, dozens, of Port cellars. We raced our way to Croft (I didn’t even pause to take this photo), and just managed to buy tickets for the last tour of the day.
Finding a cellar that was open – Croft
As soon as we sat down, we were given 3 tasting glasses of pre-tour Port.
At the exact, and rather inopportune, moment of having taken my first sip, I came to the conclusion that I actually did not like Port. If were honest, I kind of had this sneaky suspicion the night before, but I’d half convinced myself that it was specifically the “pink Port”, specifically of last night, that I didn’t like.
But we had paid for our €5.00 tickets. And we had sprinted up several hills to get here, before closing time. We were fully committed to this.
I decided not tell my friend about my new found dislike of Port.
What exactly is Port (Porto)?
Referring back to my WSET text book, Port pretty much follows the usual wine-making process, only a grape-derived spirit is added to the still-fermenting grape juice. The alcohol kills the yeast in the grape juice, at this stage, which means sugar (uneaten by the yeast) remains in the resulting Port wine. The grapes are grown in the valleys further up the Douro River, but Port cellars are concentrated in Porto (or Gaia) because it used to be a major shipping port.
I’m absolutely certain that our Port guide told us a lot more, but by the time I’d had our fourth and final tasting glass, being their 10 Year Port, not much of the information had stuck in my brain.
That beautiful view of Porto “from the other side”
The only other Must-Do on my list was to take stunning photos of Porto, with its colourful little houses, from Gaia.
My timing was awful.
By the time we’d stumbled back down to the river bank, it was beginning to get dark. And my camera battery had ran out! So here’s the best I could do with my phone camera.
Gutted that I’d missed the photo opportunity because I was too busy discovering that I didn’t like Port wine, we did the only sensible thing. Which was to go back to these guys we’d walked past earlier and buy some roasted chestnuts. I know I’ve said it already, but they smelled so good!
It seemed like a good idea at the time, despite having dinner booked an hour and a half later.
It turns out the roasted chestnuts are prepared al dente in Porto. OK, they were just not fully cooked. But we ate them anyway. Port and semi-raw chestnuts, definitely not a great combination!
Satisfied that we had drunk and eaten as much as we shouldn’t have before dinner, we headed back to our base back in Porto, to get ready for dinner.
Have you been to Porto? What’s your Must-see?
Where we stayed..
We stayed in CALE Guest House, which was perfectly located for everything in Porto. The room was massive, with a sofa area and big windows leading out to a small balcony – you could see right down to the river and across. We paid €85 per night including breakfast. They also had cakes, fruit, tea and coffee throughout the day that we could help ourselves to, which I thought was a nice touch.