Vintage destination

Vintage destination

port of call

Vintage destination

The hilly city of Oporto, situated at the mouth of Rio Douro, reflects a history as old and fine as its famous fortified wine, writes Tanushree Podder

I was on a trip through the Iberian Peninsula, a long standing dream that had haunted me on many nights. All through the week I had traversed through much of Spain on the comfortable Eurail before embarking on an expedition through Portuguese cities.

The first port of halt was Oporto, a port of business (especially wine) since medieval times. A popular local saying goes — Porto works, Braga prays, Coimbra studies, and Lisbon bags the money.

Though not particularly a wine afficionado, I favour port wine and I knew that Oporto was synonymous with port wine. So, when I landed there one pleasant spring morning, my mind was filled with visions of people clanging their goblets, drunk on their favourite vino.

Yet, Oporto is not just about wine. It is a place full of marvelous Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque edifices flowing down a sheer gorge to the periphery of River Douro, which in turn flows into the stunning blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Proud of its ranking as Portugal’s second largest city, Oporto is also called the ‘City of Bridges’ because of its six lofty bridges, of which two were designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower fame.

Not very long ago, the place was declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Hugging the scenic Douro River, Oporto is full of stunning structures with lovely azulejos (tiles) brightening up their façade.

The undulating cobbled lanes lead up to dazzling churches, some of them gilded with the money that the Portuguese brought from their subjugated colonies. Also known as ‘Cidade Invicta’ (Unconquered City), Oporto’s history goes back to over 2,000 years.

I decided to walk down the cobbled lanes to take in the laid back ambience and the beauty of the place. Port wine could wait! The Porto Cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century, is an austere looking structure that has a beautiful interior with striking sculptures and a Gothic cloister.

Nevertheless, the cathedral is historically important because this is where Prince Henry, the navigator, was baptised and also where King John I married Princess Philippa in the 14th century.

If the cathedral was a tad disappointing, the Igreja de Sao Francisco, a Gothic church, turned out to be a cache of gold; a gilded marvel. Cherubs, trees and icons, everything is literally dripping with the precious metal that came with the rising prosperity seen by the town.

Someone whispered in my ears that there was a total of some 400 kilos of gold in it. Part Baroque, part Gothic, the church is an amalgamation of different styles — definitely over the top!

The boulevard Avenida dos Aliados, known as the heart of the city, is lined with imposing buildings alongside a cheerful promenade. This is where all important banks and hotels are located.

The promenade was once a garden but now teems with tourists and locals keen on catching a bit of the action that the town provides. On one end stands the Town Hall with the statue of famous Portuguese writer Almeida Garrett.

The promenade ends at the Praça da Liberdade, with its impressive statue of King Pedro IV astride a stallion. Dotted with cafes and restaurants on its pavement, the place provides hours of leisure for those interested in people watching or catching up with friends.

Twenty-thousand beautiful tiles adorn the foyer of the Sao Bento station. Illustrating Portuguese lifestyle and history, the tiles dating back to 1916 represent the work of artist Jorge Colaço.

Once the site of a convent, this is the place where the first train arrived in 1896. Lured by the wares of Zara, I traipsed down Rua de Santa Catarina — the shopping zone of Oporto.

Walking through alleyways lined with medieval houses complete with ornate grilled balconies, I reached the riverfront square — Praça da Ribeira — with its quaint bars, cafes and restaurants sited in every possible arch, niche and arcade. The quayside was crowded with boats and tourists.

It was time for the much recommended cruise on the Douro River that would take me right up to the mouth of the Atlantic floating under the famous Dom Luis Bridge, touted as the iconic Oporto Bridge, as well as the other bridges.

We drifted over serene river waters under the Dona Maria Pia Bridge designed by Eiffel, sighing at the beautiful skyline dotted with picturesque buildings.

Wines were transported from the Douro Valley since the town of Portus Cale was established by the Romans, I was told. Steep hills terraced into vineyards were punctuated with ancient quintas (wineries) which reminded me that it was time for indulgence.

Fine tastes

Lulled by peace and beauty, I went on to keep my date with the wine tour. Interestingly, Oporto people are called triperiros (tripe-eaters). According to legend, it was on the request of Prince Henry that the Oporto residents supplied all their meat to the armada that was sailing to Ceuta for a battle.

People donated barrels and barrels of salted meat and kept only the tripe for themselves. Eventually, the tripe soup became a speciality of the region.

Having saved it for the last part of my visit, I wanted to enjoy the history, taste and details of port wine though the ages. After going through the nitty-gritty of vine regions, various grape qualities, wine-making, cellars and history of port wine, it was time to taste the product.

As I sipped the garnet-coloured wine from a fluted glass in the one-and-a-half-century-old Calem winery, I realised it was the best port wine I have ever tasted.

The white port with its slightly lemony and nutty flavour drew sighs of pleasure from all those seated around me, while the robust Ruby and Tawny Port, matured in oak vats, drew popular votes. Traditionally, a bottle of vintage port was opened with a sword, I was told.

Seafood is as much a draw as port wine in Oporto. The gastronomically satisfying Caldo Verde (kale soup with potatoes) was a good beginning, followed by the popular Chouriço, the spicy pork sausage.

Although I wanted to sample tripe soup that is made of red wine, beans, sausage, garlic and black pepper, I just didn’t have enough space to accommodate it after the first course.

Pending it for the next day before I ensconced myself in the comforts of Eurail for my journey to Lisbon, I sauntered off to my bed for a much needed siesta.

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