Sunday, July 3, 2011

Porto: Call of the wine country

THEY were a picture of contrasts. Our Portuguese host Ana, a top-ranking official from Lisbon or Lisboa to locals, and Jorge, a Porto resident and our city guide. The senhora was a freewheeling spirit, with cascading laughter, twinkling eyes and not shy of faltering. The Porto senhor was solemn, duty-conscious and I can’t recall him smiling. The two provided a visual display to a common maxim in Portugal: ‘Porto works, Braga prays, Lisbon plays’! The adage is used to describe the country’s north-south divide (a la Delhi-Chennai but in reverse equation) between the apparently more traditional and hardworking Northerners, and the flamboyant Southerners, flaunting and flirting with power. Industrial Porto is an economy booster, but seemingly doesn’t get due credit. That it wears a chip on its shoulder came through as our tour progressed, with Jorge often making it a point to stress certain attributes of his city being “more/better than Lisbon” much to Ana’s amusement.
It appeared the two geographically-diverse cities — Lisbon (with its sun-baked plazas) and Porto (where cool mountain air wafts in making it semi-Mediterranean) — agreed to disagree on almost everything. Except, when it came to Port wine! The pride of Portugal, the wine is aged and marketed from Porto. Jorge knew he had no competition here and proudly said: “Portugal and its famous wine get their name from my city.” Maybe, just maybe, a faint smile lit up his face then.
Porto, or O Porto (The Port) as Portuguese refer to it, is the country’s second largest city and amongst the oldest provincial settlements of Europe. Dating back to AD 3, it features on the Unesco world heritage list. It’s on the estuary of the lovely Rio Douro (River of Gold) that meanders through the Iberian Peninsula before embracing the Atlantic Ocean.
Around 90 km north of Porto, its waters form the Douro Valley, where the wine is exclusively produced in over six-lakh acres of quintas (vineyards). In times gone by, wine casks were sent down the Douro in rabelos or flat-bottom sailing vessels, to be stored in adegas (cellars) at Porto and its sister city Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the river. It was bottled and exported from here, acquiring the name ‘Port wine’ or ‘Vinho do Porto’.
Vila Nova De Gaia — linked to Porto by the famous arched Dom Luis I Bridge (featured in many a Hollywood movie) engineered by an associate of Eiffel — is where we headed for a tour of the ‘wine caves’ (as cellars are called) at the circa 1859 firm, Calem, one of the leaders among the over dozen lining the Douro.
Our dishy Greek guide briefly introduced the fortified wine, consumed as an aperitif or dessert, before leading us to a casket-shaped room to view a short film on wine production. “You are sitting in a casket, if sweet enough you’ll turn into wine,” he joked. None of us did! Next up was a walk through the caves packed with oak casks and getting acquainted with different ports—Blanco or White, which was gaining in acceptance; time-honoured Ruby and Tawany that could be stored after opening; and the delicately-fashionable Vintages. The quick tour gave a wine novice like me a feel of the deal and concluded with a tasting of red and white port in a sparkling hall, with a live band adding to the mood. Expectedly, each of us picked up a bottle of port as souvenir.
Porto’s history shows a series of conquerors, from the Romans to the Moors, stepping on to its shores and dominating for centuries. Their assorted influences are visible in the compelling architecture found within its labyrinth of cobbled alleys, edifice façades with distinctive blue ceramic tiles, Gothic churches (the pick of the city sites for me being Igreja de São Francisco or Church of Saint Francis with Baroque-style gilt edged wood interiors) and the classic town square, all coming together to lend a quaint yet atypical medieval look.
The river-front or Ribeira is the most atmospheric part of the historic city, packed with open-air cafes, restaurants and pubs. It’s nice to sit by the river here and soak in the spirit. Adding to bygone charms are the sailing rabelos. Though no longer in use, these are a tourist attraction for cruises. On St John’s Day, June 24, crowds gather by the Douro to watch rabelos take part in the annual regatta.
And of course, celebrations mean the vinho do porto flows unrestricted and diligent Porto lets its hair down.
PORT WINE BRANDS TO PICK FROM: Fonseca,Taylor’s, Calem, Romariz, Sandeman
HOW TO REACH: Air: Several low-cost and regular international carriers fly into Porto.
Train ( From Lisbon stations (Gare do Oriente or Santa Apolónia), take the train for Campanha (3 hours), from where there’s the choice of changing to a train heading to Sao Bento, the city centre (5 minutes, no extra ticket required), or taking taxis.
WHERE TO STAY: Tiara Park Atlantic Porto (, Porto Palácio Hotel (

Published in The New Indian Express, July 2011

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