Port of call: Fortified wine proves a strong draw in Portugal
The historic Portuguese city of Porto, situated on the mouth of the river Douro, is famous for the most renowned export of the area, its port wine, which courses through its veins.
Historically the success of port wine is due to several factors, including the naturally predisposed conditions of the nearby Douro Valley, where the grapes are cultivated in huge swathes of hillside and valley, whose lush green landscape boasts a microclimate perfect for cultivating the renowned port grapes, and almonds and olives among other produce.
The port of this region of Portugal has a very supportive ambassador: the English nation. The tipple ‘du choix’ of the 17th-century elite during the glory days of the British Empire, the drink quickly gained in popularity and frequented the bourgeois soirées thrown by monied citizens. Port wine as we now know it was born in the second half of the 17th century when brandy started being added to the mix to fortify the wine for its long journey, by sea, to England.
Many port houses in Porto, or, to be accurate, in Vila Nova de Gaia, where the port is stored in barrels in centuries-old cellars are still owned by English companies; in the early days of the port trade, the English, not its expected Portuguese owners, dominated most of the port business.
On a stroll around the city of Porto, it quickly becomes apparent that there are many constructions with a distinctly English architectural influence to them. The conjunction of Portuguese and English style is embraced in this city, to unusual effect.
Another recognisable feature in Porto are the tiles, or Azulejos, that line some of the buildings, including the city’s cathedral and a fine example at the San Bento railway station. There are many striking examples of Azulejos in the Douro region, but the tiles are commonly used throughout Portugal. The towns of the coastline, such as the historically significant Vila Do Conde, just outside Porto, often utilize tiles on the outside of buildings, as the building will be better protected from the salty sea water with enforcement than without.
The town's famous bridge ‘Dom Luis I', designed by Leopold Valentin, a protégé of Gustav Eiffel, architect of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, that divides Porto from Vila Nova de Gaia, is intersected with a population of Rabelos, the traditional Portuguese boats that port wine was transported down the river in by the barrel to its resting place, the caves, or cellars, where ports of the future would be left to mature.
Portugal’s Douro region holds the prestigious title of being the second, after Hungary, protected region of wine growing in the world. Similarly recognised is Porto’s historic town centre, which is a World Heritage Site.
Vila Nova de Gaia is the place to go to visit the famous caves; two willing Portuguese and one very enthusiastic Greek friend accompanied me in my pursuit of Porto’s best port offering.
There is a selection of about 35 different port houses in Porto, many of which are spread out on the riverside. The better known ones, such as Dow’s, Taylor’s and Graham’s, give multi-lingual guided tours of the port cellars and the drink's history, and for an unportly sum, you can sample a whole host of different port wines, from the bold sweet reds and tawnies to the drier whites.
If, after this strenuous exertion, you subsequently find yourself crawling along the banks of the river at Vila Nova de Gaia in a stupor, console yourself that you will, at least, be looking at one of the finest panoramas in Portugal. With the wonderful tableau of the Eiffel-esque bridge, Porto’s red-roofed buildings and the elegant Rabelos bobbing around on the Douro stretched out before you, it may be a while, especially if you have taken a decent camera on your visit, before you are able to tear yourself away from this place.
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