A warm summer evening in Porto. Cafes strewn along the banks of the ink black River Douro are full to overflowing well after midnight. Pools of light shimmer on the water, while fleets of small, ildy bobbing tourist boats are tethered to the quaysides all around. Families, lovers and some serially curious tourists stop for dinner in some of the cellar cafes hewn out of the old fortifications, or stroll the old, castellated fourteenth century walls. There’s the tantalising smell of freshly grilled sardines, and a soundtrack of soft, sultry bossa nova that hangs in the air like fine perfume. A benign, kindly breeze drifts in from the Atlantic, but the night is as warm as toast. Nursing a glass of the local, ice cold Mateus, I reflect idly that life feels pretty damned good.
Porto is the second city of Portugal. It is well to the north of the capital, Lisbon, and enjoys a spectacular setting. Draped across both banks of the Douro, the city is home to a whole host of famous port wine cellars, such as Sandeman. In fact, the port trade was the lifeblood of the city for many centuries.
Today, the wine is still shipped downstream to be exported from here as it always was, but there are many fine wine cellars in the city itself that can be explored- and savoured- as well. These tend to be on the side known as Gaia, and their old stone walls and vaulted archways can provide a sometimes welcome distraction from the often searing heat of the summer sun.
Looming over the city is the trademark iron bridge built by Gustave Eiffel, of tower fame. It looks deceptively spindly and delicate at first glance. Illuminated at night, it has a quite remarkable stance, and gives the waterfront region a stunning, focal centre point that makes for a truly amazing backdrop.
Porto is a city that crouches along a series of steep, rolling hills. Streets and houses wind in narrow, disjointed lanes that seem to get increasingly steeper as you stroll them. Houses in amazing shades of ochre, terracotta and blue meander through an urban landscape populated by motor scooters, hopelessly snarled traffic, and ancient, beetling electric tram cars.
Lace balconies loom above you, filled to overflowing with a wonderful wash of hibiscus, jasmine and wisteria. It smells almost as intoxicating as the local, fresh baked black bread, which is quite possibly the most delicious I have ever tasted anywhere, period.
Avenues of smart plane trees stand awash in their summer plumage along roads thronged with umbrella shaded cafe bars, where the first of the lunch time diners are already fussing over the best seats. Pass this by for now, and instead check out the amazing cathedral to the industrial age that is Sao Bento railway station, with it’s majestic montage of floor to ceiling wall tile displays. They sweep right around the antechamber of this vaulted, almost Victorian masterpiece.
Much of the city centre architecture is a mix of baroque and art nouveau; typically Portuguese as you would expect, but also overlaid with much use of blue and white delft tiling, not unlike the stuff you often find in Holland. The churches are every bit as grand, imposing and over fussed edifices as you would expect, with their tapering spires looming above all else in this marvellous confection of a city. The Catholic religion is endemic to Portugal, perhaps to a greater extent than any other country in Europe, and it manifests itself in every area of the country.
Porto may not have the cool, swaggering scale and stance of some of the great Spanish cities of the Iberian peninsula, but it has a charm and a sense of neat, nuanced style that make it totally compelling alternative.
Prices are also generally a lot cheaper here than in Spain. And, with a flight time of only around two and a half hours from many UK airports, this beautiful, hugely under rated city would be a great choice for a long weekend visit, or perhaps even add on a few days in the scenic tour de force of the Douro valley.
Another thing; make sure you try the custard tarts with cinnamon topping. These truly are the appetisers for Heaven itself.