I decided to visit Porto Portugal on a whim and booked my 7:30 a.m. flight not far behind departure. Perhaps not the best idea as one arrives after no sleep, on the back foot and exhausted but if you want to squeeze the most out of a weekend in Europe, then it is the only way.
Nevertheless, as soon as I buckled up I was away with the fairies, goblins and elves. I woke up in Porto Portugal at 10 a.m. and an hour later was ensconced in the Sheraton Hotel.
After, a swim and a steam and in their admirable spa, I met with Paolo Teixteira (the man who produces both Paul Smith and Viv Westwood’s clothes) who took me to the excellent restaurant, BH Foz.
Aptly named, it lies in Foz do Douro, a neighbourhood that, facing the Atlantic, proffers lovely little beaches that proudly display the blue flag eco-label (a sign of high quality unpolluted seawater). There is also a rather nice promenade named, Praia dos Ingleses, full of cracking little bars and restaurants.
Seduced by its unpretentious continental charm, in truth, I could have spent two days there but didn’t. Instead, I jumped on a wood-paneled, leather seated tramcar that, made in the 1930’s, is used by locals and travellers alike.
This marvellous contraption took me down to the sea/riverfront, into the riverside quay, Cais da Riberia and stopped outside the Igreja de Sao Francisco. From the outside this 15th Century church, dedicated to St. Francis of Assissi, looks like any old magnificent Gothic creation but its interior is barking beyond belief.
As excessive a Baroque creation as any, the inside looks like there’s been an explosion in a Gold smelting plant; golden gilding covering every nook and cranny from floor to ceiling and beyond.
All it needed was Liberace tinkering with his piano and we’d be off the hinge. I’m sure however that, Francis, who espoused poverty and the rejection of all worldly goods, would have been as puzzled as I was. The antithesis of the Franciscan doctrine, it is, nevertheless, an utterly glorious spectacle.
Porto is Great for Walking
By now I was on foot and Porto, like any truly great city, must be walked. But, beware, the hills (and they are legion) are taxing, while the city itself seems to have resisted the outrageous re-planning that has ruined London. As such, it is like an uphill maze.
Setting off in search of a few sites but using both printed and Google maps (which was more of hindrance than help), after two hours I was back where I started. I had accidentally scaled four big old hills and walked around the rather amazing and utterly wonderful Baixa district (which looks like the set of some 1950’s spy movie).
I had a little drink at the rather fashionable, Casa de Lo (Travessa de Cedofeita 20A, +351 914 900 409), passed the extraordinary futurist/deco/modernist masterpiece, Tribunal da Relação do Porto – not once but twice – and was sweating like wrestler.
Harry Potter’s Inspiration
At one point, in an effort to see just how lost I was I scaled the magnificent Torre dos Clerigos. Described as the ‘crowning jewel of the city,’ it is a skinny 225 feet tall edifice – the highest bell tower in Portugal and after an exhausting hike up tiny stone steps, rewards with the most formidable 360-degree view of the city. If you can cope with the vertigo that I failed to enjoy, it is worth the effort.
And lest we forget, this is the tower that inspired J.K. Rowling for Harry Potter. Around the corner lies the magnificent Lello + Irmao bookstore (opened in 1806) that she based Hogwarts on and began writing her stories while ensconced in the city as an English teacher. Whether a fan or Rowling or not, the bookstore, with its curling Gothic staircase, will take your breath away.
Porto Portugal for Amazing Food
By now I was hungry and determined to eat at one of the many restaurants I’d been recommended but couldn’t find any of them. Eventually, I managed to stumble onto Tapabento by accident after checking the azulejo (painted tin glazed ceramic tile work) frescoes that depict the city’s history in the Sao Bento Railway Station, which is right next-door.
At Tapabento the cuisine is an inventive Asian/Portuguese fusion; raw tuna with rocket on toast, fish soup, Thai mussels, a rather mad peanut and cream dessert and a bottle of an undeniably formidable Douro red.
Each mouthful was sublime and when the bill came in at less than €50 I was, as the Americans are oft to say, blown away. It was now 11pm. I’d had no sleep, walked for at least 4 hours, perspired more than the Welsh rugby squad, sank a couple of bottles of wine throughout the day and, as a result, my duvet was beckoning.
Great Beaches are Close By
The next morning after a sumptuous buffet breakfast I rode the Metro to Sao Bento and walked South to Cais da Riberia. Here I hired a bike from Porto Renta bike on the river side and took a lovely cycle down the coast to Foz, popped in the lovely Boa Vista Hotel for a look. I soaked up some sun, had a swim in the sea and, at the top of Foz, turned West and up the Av. da Boavista into town.
On the way, I stopped at the Casa de Musica, a concert performance space, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas (who did the Netherlands Embassy in Berlin). It really is modern architecture at its very best while tickets for performances are a mere €15.
Cycling back, I stopped at the Jardin do Palacio do Cristal (Gardens of the Crystal Palace) and took in its exceptional view of the Douro River. Then I rode south downhill through Clerigos, through town and returned the cycle to its owners at the bank of the Douro.
Next, I walked over the amazing Dom Luís I Bridge. This was designed and engineered by Gustave Eiffel’s (who also designed his own bridge up river) partner, Theophile Seyrig, is about the same length as the Charing Cross Bridge.
Porto Means “Port” – the Drinking Type
At its southern end lies, Gaia, and a lovely riverbank café society next to which the Barcos Rebellos (Gondola styled barges) that carry the barrels of unmixed wine from the Douro arrive. I sat in a café, ordered a galao (Portuguese coffee with milk) sat back, looked over the river and considered just how marvelous Porto is.
Famously, Gaia houses the esteemed port wine lodges of Sandeman, Croft and last but not least Taylor’s, where the Port is blended, aged and stored. Luckily for me I‘d arranged to visit The Yeatman Hotel – named after and owned by that Great British Port family who have been in the business here since 1838 and own Taylor’s Port. Here I was allowed to swim in their magnificent carafe shaped infinity pool and partake of its glorious view of the city.
Discovering a Belle Epoque Café
Unfortunately the hotel was fully booked and I was too full to sample the fare at the Michelin star eatery but, I’m sure, I’ll be back. Still in search of adventure, I walked back over the bridge, took the lift, alighted at God knows where and was again, as lost as Livingstone. But, heading purely for the centre, I chanced on the Majestic Café which, being an original art nouveau masterpiece, was on my to-see list.
After a Superbok (Portuguese beer) I walked east and enjoyed a remarkable gelato (Porto loves ice cream) at Gelataria Sincelo before turning south through the grand square, Praca de Liberdade, ending up at Sao Bento Station.
A Restaurant Packed With Locals
By now, with heavy feet, I ordered an Uber to take me to Restaurante A Marisqueira De Matosinhos, which to be fair, was quite a trek past Foz and over to the port. At first I was wary as from the outside it looked like a dodgy Kebab joint cum eighties disco in Kilburn replete with pictures of the food on the walls!
But, as this had come well recommended by Paolo (who knows his town) and I’d paid over €25 to get there (it’s a 13k journey from Sao Bento), in I went only to find that not one of the waiters spoke a word of English and it was full of locals.
Instantly gratified I started with an outrageously fine fish soup followed with succulent grilled turbot and boiled potatoes washed down with a bottle of Dourro.
I finished with the most incredible chocolate mousse laced with a good measure of cognac that was the best I have ever had. The bill came to €45 and I walked off a happy man
Luckily for me, the same Uber driver, Antonio (who spoke perfect English and knew the city upside down) picked me up and advised me to go to Cândido dos Reis, a street near the Clerigo that proffers all kinds of bars full of proper hipster locals who basically spill onto the street and let rip.
Porto Portugal is for Night Owls
Thanks to Portugal’s colonial past (Brazil, Macau, Goa, Angola) the locals are a handsome bunch who love to party. Indeed, the street offered all that I needed that night. I hopped from Bar Baixa (a long narrow bar the encourages dancing) to The Gin House (over a hundred types of gin), Twins (rather trendy with a beautiful interior designed by Paulo Lobo) and Piano B (retro interior and beats). All of which were open past 2a.m. and reasonably priced and packed.
Having met a gang of locals I ended up in Pipa Velha (Rua das Oliveiras 75, +351 223 222 780) an excellent ad hoc wine bar open until 4a.m. I was almost persuaded to take the night on to one of the many all night clubs such as the Pitch Club (R. de Passos Manuel 34 +351 22 201 2349). This is where many of Portugal’s top DJs ply their trade. There is also Industria (4150 154, Av. do Brasil 843) over in Foz that features everything from reggae to house. But I was done for and retreated to my hotel for a few hours kip before taking a train to Lisbon only to get lost again.
All in all, Porto didn’t put a foot wrong and I am glad to say that I have found a unique, inexpensive, stylish, chilled-out bolt hole. It’s perfect for a few days of R n’ R , not only fields amazing world class restaurants and bars, is near beaches such as Kos or Miramar (10km South) magnificent architecture, and is a city where its people refuse to accept austerity. The ideal weekend away, I really cannot recommend it enough. ML
Getting around Porto Portugal:
Andante ticket (€15 for 3 days, stcp.pt) and jump on any bus, metro or train. Taxis are at stands and Uber is available.
Stay in Porto Portugal:
The Sheraton from €110 a night
The Boa Vista from €70 per night.
The Yeatman from €280 per night