Sipping on port in Porto

July 16-28

Going back in time a bit here… Between our time in Lisbon and heading out on the Haute Route, we spend a lovely and relaxed twelve days in Porto, Portugal.

Porto is a coastal city in northern Portugal, right on the Duoro River, and is the second-largest city in the country (after Lisbon). It is also how port wine got its name, and where it comes from (to be called “port,” the fortified wine must come from the Duoro wine region, via the producer’s cellar in Porto).

We stayed in a small apartment in a centuries-old building in the historic part of town, and spent our days exploring Porto and its surrounds, eating good (and cheap) food, drinking good (and cheap!) wine, and getting caught up on some things before leaving to immerse ourselves in the Alps. We enjoyed hearing the sounds of the town echoing up into our windows: the bustle of people in the streets, the 24-hour accordion player who only knew four chords, the seagulls fighting over morsels who sometimes sounded like they might be with us in the room… [Theo is getting a bit poetic here, I believe she described it as “that f***ing accordion player” at the time. -Martin]

Porto is similar to Lisbon in terms of architectural and design elements, but it feels a lot older, looks a little more disheveled, and has quite a bit more funky and rustic charm. It seems like the town is starting to experience more tourism and is gearing up with new, modern construction, hip little bars and restaurants, and plenty of places to taste wine and port. The atmosphere is busy and lively, with buskers playing different instruments on every corner, locals lounging on the grass and drinking beers, and university students wandering the streets in their black uniforms and capes.

Porto is where J.K. Rowling (allegedly), came up for the idea of, and began writing, the Harry Potter series. Martin indulged me for a pastel de nata and an espresso at the Majestic Cafe, a beautiful Belle Époque restaurant where legend has it that Rowling wrote the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on a napkin (although, some internet people point out that she probably wouldn’t have been able to afford to go there at that time, much less be writing on the restaurant’s cloth napkins… who knows!). You can also see where she may have gotten the inspiration for the wizards’ outfits when you see the university students in their capes and traditional school uniforms that look exactly like wizarding robes, down to the crests on the breasts with their coordinating ties. And theoretically she drew inspiration for Hogwarts’ great staircase from the grand Livraria Lello bookstore (which I unfortunately didn’t get to see because there was either a really long line to get in or it was closed whenever I went by).

Our Portuguese dinner companions in Lisbon had told us that twelve days in Porto was too long to spend there, but we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and found plenty of things to fill our time.

Highlights from Porto:

Port wine tasting: One day we decided to head across the river to Vila Nova de Gaia, where all of the port houses are located. We naively assumed that it would be like tasting in the States where you can just walk into a tasting room and try a few wines, but each port house only offers “experiences” that all include tours, histories, museums, and then tastings. So we did the whole experience at one place, Taylor’s, but didn’t really get to try any port anywhere else. But it was still cool and really interesting! A lot of these places have been producing port for centuries in the same location so that was really neat to see. We learned a lot about the types of port and the differences between them all, and got to see some really really expensive and rare bottles.

Since our tasting outing didn’t work out quite as planned, we just stopped by a wine shop and picked two half-bottles to conduct our own tasting at home. 🙂 It was fun to try some varieties of port that we don’t really see in the US, and it was so comically cheap that we should have bought a few cases to ship home!

Duoro wine region: We rented a car one day and drove inland to the Duoro region, one of Portugal’s main wine-producing areas and where grapes for port are all grown. The landscape is completely beautiful and unlike any other wine region I’d seen before: The terrain is made up of super steep and rugged hills and valleys, not like the gentle rolling hills I’m used to in Sonoma. Winegrowers through the centuries have had to come up with creative ways to grow and harvest grapes on such steep inclines, and thus most of the vineyards are terraced.

We went to one winery where we were able to do a tasting without doing an entire “experience,” and that had amazing views of the valley from up on a ridge. We also checked out the Duoro location of one of the major port houses where we just sipped on some wine and enjoyed the view.

Cooking class: Since we had done a food tour in Lisbon, we wanted to do a Portuguese cooking class in Porto. There were just ten of us in the class which was led by a professional personal chef. We learned how to make some traditional Portuguese dishes: scrambled eggs with alheira sausage, bacalhau in the oven with onions and herbs, “punched” potatoes, and pastel de nata for dessert. It was fun to learn more about traditional food and ingredients, we learned some new techniques, and the bacalhau was really tasty, but the class wasn’t very hands-on and the wine was flowing quite freely so by the end it devolved into the chef just doing everything. But we still had fun, and met a couple from Poland who were trying to decide where to move to in Portugal, and a funny woman from New Zealand with a very heavy and impossible-to-understand accent who comes to Porto for several months with “[her] man” every year and invited us to come over for drinks some time (we sadly didn’t take her up on it).

Matosinhos: We had heard about this little seaside town just north of Porto and wanted to visit because we had heard tales of a street filled with fisherman grilling their fresh catches. It is about 10km away from where we were staying in Porto so we decided to hike it in preparation for our upcoming Alpine hiking. It was a very nice, but windy, walk and we had some beautiful views of the coast line and the ocean. And then we got to the town of Matosinhos, which isn’t very interesting on its own except for this one street where the air is completely filled with the smoke of a gazillion outdoor grills and the sidewalks are packed with people overflowing from the restaurants. It was really fun to see! All of the restaurants were pretty much serving the same things (whatever is freshest, local, and in season), and everything was being grilled to-order out on the street. We had a delicious lunch of dorado, sardines, potatoes, and vinho verde before trying to figure out the bus to take us home.

Churches: We’ve visited a fair amount of churches on this trip, as you might imagine, but Portuguese churches are pretty special. The outsides often have beautiful azulejo tiles on the outside, and the insides are full of incredible sculptures and detailing. Some of our favorites were: The Torre dos Clérigos, where we waited in a bit of a line to climb up the tower and got some magnificent views over Porto; the Igreja de São Francisco, which has the most gold leaf that I have ever seen in one place; and the gothic cloisters of the Sé which are covered in blue- and white-painted azulejo tiles.

Porto is definitely one of our favorite cities that we have visited on this trip. Martin has decided that we will return and spend a month there some day. And this was also the longest we spent in any one town which really allowed us to get to know the place and strike a good balance between being tourists and living our lives.


Check out more photos from our time in Porto here!

From Porto, we flew to Chamonix (via Geneva) where we spent a few days getting ready for our big trekking adventure!

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