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Welcome to Porto: The Gateway to the Valley

Editor’s Note: Today, we start the very exciting project of covering the Douro Valley for the next month. This means that all things Portuguese will be gracing your computer, consisting of a vast array of Portuguese food, culture, tourism, and of course, wine. Enjoy!

For those arriving by air, the first impressions of Portugal’s Douro Valley start in Porto, a grand sprawling magical metropolis of 2 million people, cloven in two by the Douro river, which acts as a gateway to the world’s oldest demarcated wine region. I hadn’t been back to Porto since the European Football Championships in 2004, when the green and red of the national flag hung out of every window and balcony for the duration of the tournament, and bars and houses spewed waves of jubilant fans onto the streets following each of the country’s sporting victories – a tumult that was accompanied by the honking klaxons of every car and Vespa in the city. The pain of one such victory, over my native England, was soothed shortly afterwards during a friendly game of street football with the charming and cheeky native kids, who were delighted to meet a foreigner (especially one whose team they had just beaten). Yes these Portuguese folk were all right.

Back to 2012 and I was glad that my memories of Porto were reliable (it’s always disappointing to come back to a city and find in fact that it is nothing like the one you had cherished in your mind’s eye). I had to buy an umbrella to explore and, apart from a vintage car rally, the wet Sunday streets were deserted, but as I wandered up and down around the city’s snaking and hillyback lanes I got a feeling for again for charming faded grandeur I remembered, with beautiful town houses often parked next to dilapidated ones on the same block. Even in the very centre you can find a grand mansion crumbling to the ground – but the city swaggers onwards nonchalantly. We’ve got plenty of more those it seems to say.

I found that this time around I particularly liked the doors, and I snapped well over 100 photos of these magnificent portals with their weathered panels, elaborate knockers and defunct doorbells, despite the rain doing its best to soak my lens. Of course you can’t get the measure of Porto until you get a good view of the river. I wandered up to the Crystal Palace Gardens, waved hello to the peacocks sheltering from the storm, and found a path that ended in a fantastic vista of fog-swept Porto. From here I looked over to Vilanova de Gaia, the southern riverbank where the Douro Valley’s port wine has historically been stored and exported from vast cellars – and where now tourists can turn up for tastings. (Little did I know that a week later I would be enjoying the same view from the other side, on the terrace of the 5-star Yeatman hotel, prior to some rather sumptuous Michelin-starred cuisine… but that’s another story). What stood between me and future me was the enormous span of the grey green Douro itself, and, to the left – my strongest residing memory from 2004 – the magnificent bridges, seemingly from the land of giants, which join hill top to hill top acres above the quaint riverside cafes and bars below. I could have gazed out longer over this cityscape, which was taking on a Turner-esque quality beneath the billowing veils of grey that were dramatically sweeping back and forth, but it was nearly time to meet my fellow adventurers in the foyer of the Infante Sagres hotel

What followed was a week of intensive exploration in which we delighted in nearly all that the Douro Valley has to offer… from eating cozido in the farmhouse of centuries old vineyards, to mixing pink port cocktails on board a private boat trip along the Douro river. This November at Catavino, we’re going to share much of what we learnt on our travels. About Portugal, about the Douro Valley, about Portuguese cuisine… and, of course, about the delicious table and port wines that we drank along every step of the way.

Cheers,

Duncan Rhodes
Editor of Urban Travel Blog