Saturday, 13th July 2019 – Porto, Day 3
After a run from the hotel that seemed to go ridiculously uphill all the way, Saturday morning seemed like a good time to start on a tour of some of the main attractions of Porto, beginning with the Sé do Porto (Porto Cathedral), partly because it was close to the hotel and partly because we like that sort of thing! We realised that the route we’d been dragged on by Google Maps the day before was a long way from being the shortest way to the place (we could see it from the corner of our hotel but of course we hadn’t been sure that was what we were looking at the day before, from that angle it looks more like a chunk of medieval fortification). This time we just walked straight up the hill, stopping off to look at the market that was running close by. The fish stall was receiving close attention from an optimistic looking feline!
We swung round to the entrance of the cathedral, looking down on the town from the terrace in front of it, before diving into the Tourist Information office to buy one of their rather style fridge magnets, which were much nicer than the ones on offer in the souvenir shops, some of which were scarily garish. The square in front of the building has a column in the middle where criminals used to be hanged, but it does also offer impressive views of the city, the River Douro and the port wine cellars down on the waterfront.
We then bought our tickets to nose around inside the cathedral. It’s a very militaristic looking building and was clearly constructed to prove a point, on the site of a pre-Romanesque church. The building most likely dates from the 12th century, and like many major religious sites has undergone a number of renovations. It’s very forbidding from the outside, but inside it’s full of Baroque touches, including more of the glorious blue and white tiles. It also has a gorgeous rose window, a Romanesque nave. and a selection of flying buttresses, apparently the first ones ever used in Portugal.
It’s a National Monument and was constructed close to the wall that surrounded the city, in the area now known as Batalha, one of the highest points of Porto. It has an upper level reached from a staircase off the 14th Century cloisters, which is where you can find most of the tiles, depicting biblical scenes.
The cloisters themselves are rather peaceful, and are well worth stepping into. It also gets you a good view of the solidity of the towers, especially from the upper level.
You may need to dodge the photographer who will try and sell you a picture of yourself taken in front of the tiles (actually it was a very good photo so we were happy to buy it afterwards, but it does seem that parts of Porto are full of people wanting to take your picture for profit so it’s up to you whether you try and dodge them or not). You may also want to try and dodge the slightly threatening seagulls! They are markedly stroppy and really would like you to give them anything edible you might have.
We stuck our heads into the Cathedral Treasury, too, where there’s a selection of shiny things in that way of major ecclesiastical locations, though none as alarming as the stuff in the Vienna Schatzkammer, my go-to church paraphenalia collection. I can’t tell you much about what was in there because there was very little information in English available. I have been told that much of the materials used came from South America during the Portuguese colonial period, so it may be best not to know too much. I can’t imagine the record of the Portuguese is any better than that of any of the other colonial powers.
From the cathedral we headed across the square to go and see the Bishop’s Palace, which has been open for the last few years. It was very quiet inside, and we pretty much had the place to ourselves as the cruise ship passengers were shepherded back onto their buses straight after visiting the cathedral for about 3 nano-seconds. It was nice being able to nose around in peace. The 18th Century building has a most splendid staircase which greets you from the entrance hall. If the aim was to impress, it’s doing its job to perfection.
It was the town hall for a large part of the Republic of Portugal, but in 1956 it was handed back to the church. It seems to be not much used now for religious life, but you get an idea of what it must have been like to come here for official business, with a waiting room known as the room of lost steps, and a throne room (or red room), which while relatively grand is not intimidating.
It’s certainly worth a couple of Euro to come in. We needed to move on, however. There was still much to see. We decided our next stop should be the nearby Don Luis I bridge, built in 1886 by a disciple of the rather more famous Gustave Eiffel. It connects the city or Porto to the city of Vila Nova de Gaia, which is the place where the port houses have their cellars. You can walk across both levels of the bridge. We chose the upper level, which you share with the metro system. It’s a little odd walking along while underground trains pass by and there’s nothing to stop you stepping in front of them. The views are terrific and the bridge is certainly an iconic Porto sight.
After we’d walked across, we stopped at the edge of another park, the Jardim de Morro, where a stage was being set up and there’d been a massive outbreak of street food trucks; something was clearly kicking off, but we couldn’t find out what. There was a nearby cafe where we stopped to have a cup of iced coffee and figure out how to get to Graham’s for our visit to their cellars and tasting.
Suitably refreshed, we caught a ride on the cable car to save the down hill walk, made our way along the riverside and then slogged up the hill at the other end of Gaia till we got to Graham’s. It was a hot day and the hill seemed to go on forever, so we were hoping this would turn out to be worth it!
We were slightly early but that was fine because it gave us time to decide which tasting we wanted to do after the visit. The basic visit, which must be pre-booked, is €17 per person with a tasting of three ports at the end, with a glass each of Graham’s Six Grapes, LBV and 10 Year Old Tawny. We fancied something a little more interesting, and opted for one of the tastings in the Vintage Room, and were delighted to see that we could choose to have a different tasting each. We booked one Super Premium Tawny Tasting (30 Years Old Tawny, 40 Years Old Tawny and Single Harvest 1994) and one Super Premium Vintage Port Tasting (Graham’s Vintage Ports 1983, 2000 and 2016).
The lodge itself dates from 1890 Lodge and sits on the ridge above the Douro River. The views are spectacular from up there, and the atmosphere is relaxed but serious. While we waited for the tour guide, we took a swing through the museum, which provides a brief overview of the history of port and of the the Graham and Symington families’ involvement in the trade.
The tour guide, Max, was very well informed, and informative, and took us through the cellars, answering questions and explaining the process of making port. I won’t go into it here, but suffice it to say when I take the WSET qualifications in the next 6-12 months I think I’ll be alright on the port and fortified wines. The cellar is needless to say still un use, and currently houses over 2,000 pipes (French oak casks) and 40 tonels and balseiros (large oak vats which hold around 17,000 litres each) of ageing port. They also have extensive cellars of vintage ports, which are now ageing in bottle.
It was lovely and cool in there too! With granite walls half a metre thick it’s apparently always cool in there, which make sense because the last thing any wine maker wants in a cellar is fluctuating temperatures.
There is even a pool to help keep temperatures stable.
Apparently the lodge was renovated in the early part of this century and it’s been a very well done, providing a welcoming ambience and enabling more than one tour to take place at the same time. I was glad I’d chosen this particular tour because I was very impressed with everything about it. I was even more impressed when we came to the tasting.
The tasting room was well laid out and our chosen tastings were set out ready for us. We had a set of tasting notes each, and the table is designed to help with the process, the light enabling you to see the colour development of the different drinks. They were all rather wonderful (at €45 per person for this version of the tour I would have been very surprised had they not been), and we decided we would buy a couple of bottle to take home and enjoy with friends at Christmas instead of dessert. We opted for a 40 years old tawny port and a 1983 vintage. No, we didn’t ask how much one of the bottles of Ne Oublie (which dates back to 1890) is… There are certain things it’s best not to know.
With our two bottles nicely packaged (in a wooden box and a round padded tin) we headed outside and realised there was a bus we could catch back to the hotel, where we could drop off the carrier bag with it’s precious – and expensive – cargo. These are, by a very, very long way, the two single most expensive wines I’ve ever bought. The bus ride was slightly unnerving because the driver seemed determined to slam the brakes on hard at every opportunity, and I was hanging on to the bag for dear life, trying not to let it bang into anything.
After that we really needed a sit down so we decided to try the other route on the Hop On Hop Off bus tour, which actually took us back through Gaia. This is probably a lot less scenic than the red route out to Foz de Douro, but it did throw up some interesting and unusual sites, including a shepherd up by another wine cellar on what is in effect a grass verge next to main road!
A 90 minute ride around in the fresh air was very pleasant, and it landed us back by the hotel just in time for us to once more change for dinner and swing over to Gaia again for a second cellar visit, this time to Cálem where we would once more get to taste some port, and would also be entertained before dinner with a short fado show. Since it was created, Cálem focused on exporting its wines to Brazil, but it does also have pretty solid links to many other countries.
Here there is also a museum, this one interactive, though not all of the exhibits were working. It didn’t tell us a great deal that we hadn’t already learned at Graham’s though the guide did talk about the number of days the wines are allowed to ferment before the pure spirit that stops the process in its tracks by killing the yeast is added. The tour this time was very fast, with the guide speaking so quickly that I suspect the non-native English speakers on the tour (and there were a few) had no idea what she was saying. I was having to listen very hard myself and it’s my language!
We were shuffled through in 30 minutes flat and taken to an upstairs room where the only two ports available to us were waiting on the table alongside some crackers and some water to enable us to clear our palates between tasting of a Cálem Fine White and a Cálem 10 Years Old Tawny. It says something that wines we would happily drink day to day seemed to have paled into insignificance compared to what we’d tried a few hours later. In case anyone is wondering if there really is any point to paying more for the vintage and aged wines, I can now say yes, it really, really is.
We enjoyed these anyway but the comparative lack of depth and character was very noticeable. The music was soon underway too, with a guitar, a Portuguese guitar (which has a very different head to a normal guitar) and two singers. It was enjoyable if you like fado (I do), though I could have done without the self-described milennials on our table who seemed incapable of keeping quiet, despite being asked to do so, for the duration of the concert. They were more than a little annoying and I really wished we’d sat somewhere else.
After that we headed back out into the daylight to find somewhere for a pre-dinner drink before walking to the restaurant I’d booked for the night, the Blini, up the hill towards the upper level of the bridge and supposedly with good views over the river towards Porto.