Porto, PORTUGAL – May 27-30, 2016 — We departed Sicily from the Catania Airport, enjoying a gourmet lunch again aboard our private jet with a special celebration, not only because it was our last flight together on our private chariot for this journey, but it was John’s birthday and the crew had prepared a huge birthday cake and lots of surprises, all delightful. To start with, he sat in the cockpit on take off from Catania. Arriving in Porto, we were transferred to our accommodations at The Yeatman, a wine themed luxury hotel with wonderful views of the city from every room.
In the afternoon we headed out into the city to one of the historic cafes for a snack before our tour of Livaria Lello, a bookstore located in an incredible art nouveau building considered one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world and one of the oldest in Portugal; a jewel box of endless rows of bookcases and stairs. We headed back to the hotel after our brief introduction to Porto; heading off to dine by choice.
It seems, for most of the world, Porto is one of the least known cities in Europe. Since it was Cultural Capital of Europe in 2001 there are few Europeans unaware of it’s importance in history and it’s charms of today. So it was no wonder that we fell in love with the city. It is built near the mouth of the Douro River, along the hillsides on both sides of the river. The old city is a World Heritage Site, so it is protected and cannot be changed.
The original city is on the Right Bank, while on the Left bank the hundreds of warehouses were built to store the Portuguese wines before they were exported from here. Nowadays, the “new” city has developed on that side and it is larger than the old city. The quays are very quaint and picturesque and nowadays have many restaurants along the waterfront. We had lunch in one, the amount of food and the variety was overwhelming and it was all very good.
Heidi was certain that the hotel was a “transformed monastery”, all the corridors and public spaces were so large, it seemed impossible that any architect would build “a new building with that much unused wasted space”. We were surprised to learn that the architect had done just that: huge spaces everywhere, but fortunately, all rooms are very oversized too and the suites of our tour members were even larger than anyone could have imagined. Meals taken on the terrace of the Bar or the two restaurants gave a magnificent view of the old city, as did all of the rooms. An amazing property, now part of the Relais & Chateaux group, with a 2 star Michelin restaurant after only two years in business.
The next day we visited some sights in and around the old city. The “Bolsa” – the magnificent merchant exchange palace, where contracts were signed to ship wines around the world. Then “Henry the Navigator’s house” – now a museum, and we walked around the old town, visited a.o. the splendid railway station with huge blue tiled walls, before taking a private old tram car around the oldest parts of the city for one hour. It was great fun and hilarious at times, like when we realized that there was a tram coming towards us on a one rail track. Fortunately, both trams stopped in time but it was our tram that backtracked to let the other one (full of disbelieving passengers) pass by.
But the highlight of the visit, no doubt, was our full day trip up the Douro River Valley. There are many terraced hillsides in the world but none as highly developed as the mountains along this river: I tried to count the terraces and gave up after more than 200. It took centuries to build these and it took millions of man hours to plant neat rows of vines along them. The area is sparsely populated, the wineries are few and far between, all with huge land areas and all very beautiful. At harvest time, people from all over Portugal come to help with the harvest. No foreign labor needed for the harvest, as the Portuguese love to come to help.
The CRASTO winery we visited is one of the best, the property is beautiful, the views of the terraced hill sides are magnificent, the views of the river far below are splendid and we loved getting a “hay ride” down to the river to get on one of the typical boats used on the Douro river to transport wine. Many of the wines are of a light and crisp variety, some have a slight fizz and are called “Vinho Verde” ~ green wine, young, delicious and easy to drink. Much easier on the palate than the great variety of Port wines (the wines that are fortified with brandy), but we learned all about those while visiting one of the famous Port wine cellars.
On our last evening, we enjoyed a Fado performance on the terrace of our hotel, followed by a splendid dinner and a hilarious wrap up of the entire tour by our tour manager Jan, who tried to get everyone involved in remembering all the details of our tour. It seemed that we had started the tour months ago, as so many happy memories came to the surface! Bless, Tchau, Farvel, Arrivederci until we meet again.
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