Oporto unplanned

By | Category: Travel destinations

The old town

After years of well-planned travel and painstakingly researched trips, for business as well as pleasure, I recently became aware of how long it had been since I indulged in a bit surreptitious spontaneity. Why not visit a new place, somewhere I only knew very little about, for a change? Said and done, I decided I’d venture forth with only a minimum of pre-trip planning, no guidebook, maybe not even a map. I didn’t quite close my eyes and place a finger on the atlas (that romantic explorer notion is rather harder to satisfy with Google maps anyway), but after some deliberation I settled on Oporto, well-known as the home of that fine beverage, port wine, something that might well have influenced my choice of destination, I confess.

Located on the coast in northern Portugal I arrived by car without a good map. This might have been taking the adventure a bit far, but never let it be said that I do things by half.

riverside restaurants in the old town

Oporto, or Porto as many know it, certainly isn’t small, nor is it all that easy to navigate, but most sights can be found in a fairly compact area along the Douro River, floating serenely through town towards the Atlantic. The historic centre is one of the oldest in Europe and was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996, adding to the city’s many draws. The Celts were early “visitors” as were the Romans, the Moors and of course the English, who fuelled the lucrative port wine trade in the first place (no harm in doing some research after one’s trip, is there?).

Depositing above-mentioned car in a local car park, I wussed out completely of going map-free and a kind hotel receptionist bestowed upon me a rather daunting city map, helping me get my bearings a bit. Turned out I was close to one of the city’s non-historic sights, Casa da Música, a large concert hall opened in 2005. If you’re into modern architecture, this oddly shaped, cube-like structure is a must-see and if you’re not, it makes for an interesting pit stop all the same. There are guided tours and a top floor restaurant, as well as a varied programme of concerts and performances.

Crystal Palace Gardens!

So much for new and modern Oporto – after a quick refreshment I was ready for the Oporto of old. A short amble down the road towards the historic centre – the streets are mostly downhill going towards the river, just remember you’ll probably need to traipse uphill again later – and I found myself in Crystal Palace Gardens, how very “south London”. This set of beautiful tiered gardens are known as Jardins do Palacio de Cristal and offer excellent views over the Douro and the south side of Oporto, home to all the port houses. Peacocks roam freely and dazzle visitors with their plumages among multi-coloured roses and water features – a quietly lovely place. But with only one day to see the city, it was onwards and downwards for me. Despite being tantalisingly close to the river, however, there appeared to be no way down to it. Clearly this was when some more homework would have come in handy – no matter how I tried to leave the garden and head down to the river, I kept finding locked gates and in the end had to return to the same spot where I’d initially entered.

I finally reached the river, feeling ever so hot and sweaty, mildly cursing after venturing down many a foul-smelling and tiny alley. Next stop the Port Wine Museum. Housed in an 18th century warehouse on the riverfront, this museum at least looks very promising, but whether it fully delivers on its promises is more debateable. Although there is plenty of history in the one large, open-planned room that is the museum, it’s more a history of trade and finances, than of port wine itself. Sorely disappointed by the lack of port, I decided it was soon high time to experience that which, after all, this city is famed for. Perhaps best to line one’s stomach first…

There were some intriguing-sounding menus to choose from. How about “selfish crème” and “bettered crème” in one restaurant? One can perhaps assume the second dish was the “selfish crème” after having seen the error of its ways! By now I had arrived in the old town proper, replete with fine churches, picturesque squares and fancy mansions dating from the height of the port wine trade. Grand 18th and 19th century buildings lined the narrow streets and riverfront promenade, but where to munch? Maybe the old market, Mercado Ferreira Borges, might be a good place? Alas, no stalls in sight, instead it appeared to have been converted into a dodgy-looking nightclub and a heavy metal dungeon.

Ponte de Dom Luis I

Food was eventually procured and then it was finally port time. Down by the river, especially near one of Oporto’s iconic bridges, Ponte de Dom Luis I, the bars and shops lining the riverfront pretty much all do port tastings. Scenic setting, al fresco glugging and fine views – suddenly this seemed far more my kind of place than only a few hours before. Beware though – Oporto’s weather in summer can be sweltering and there’s little point in doing a ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’. After some quality sampling (these guys really know their stuff), a quick look at the temperature confirmed that heading indoors was by far the best option – it was 41°.

A perfect place to cool down are the port wine caves themselves, all located on the south side of the Douro, crossing the aforementioned bridge, while admiring more fine views of the historic centre and the often colourful buildings clinging to the hillsides on both riverbanks. It helps if you know at least a teensy bit about this potent fortified wine. Vila Nova de Gaia, as the south side is called, is positively teeming with port houses and you’ll be hard pushed to choose if you don’t know your port – hence me doing some tastings beforehand. After some deliberation, the Burmester port house was my first and last port of call on my day in Oporto.

Burmester traditions

From what I remember their ports were excellent, as was the look around the historic port cellars, or caves, and it was also blissfully cool compared to the scorching heat outside. Rest assured I travel onwards from there by taxi.

All in all the unplanned trip worked well – getting somewhat lost and frustrated (even with a map) was made up for by just happening upon interesting and lovely-looking places. That said, I still find some pre-trip research to be a good idea, especially if staying somewhere a very short time. The “spontaneity kick” was enjoyable, but this writer will probably be back to her usual wicked ways for ease of travelling and maximum enjoyment in the future.

For more information about Oporto, click here.
Fo more information about Portugal, click here..

There are direct flights on easyJet from Gatwick and the Portuguese national airline TAP has links via Lisbon. From Lisbon it is about 200 miles north but good roads mean the journey should take no more than three hours as will the train journey.

Images © Anna Maria Espsäter except Burmester sailing vessel © Burmester

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