We have been looking at those Port wine cellars across the river since we arrived in Porto and today is our day to visit. After you cross the Dom Luis I Bridge over the Douro River, you are actually in another city, Vila Nova de Gaia. Ironically, the city from which Port wine takes it name is not the location where the wine is produced or stored. It is the Gaia (as everyone calls it) side that has this honor.
So why are the Port wine cellars in Gaia? Well I found a great article by a private tour guide (Porto and Northern Portugal) and writer Sara Riobom. She shares the following online on her web presence, Portoalities: “Port wine never sets ‘a foot’ in the city of Porto, despite its name. It comes straight from the vineyards in the Douro Valley to Port wine cellars located in Vila Nova de Gaia, just across D. Luis I bridge. Why so? The main reason was politics. In 1255, [the] king D. Afonso III [issued]… a Foral letter… The goal was to transfer commercial trade away from Porto, as only the Bishop and the Catholic Church were benefitting from it…[T]he Bishop was entitled to charge [various taxes]…in Porto…Port wine traders, in order to escape these tolls, opened up their Port wine cellars in Gaia, much to the dismay of the Bishop of Porto. There were also other reasons…[the] terrains in Vila Nova de Gaia were rich in water mines, so almost each cellar had their own private water supply. Moreover, Gaia is a facing North (so it has less solar exposure) and it is sheltered from strong winds, therefore having a milder temperature, providing good aging conditions for Port wines.”
I added a link to Sara’s website; you might want to check out the full article and the wonderful pictures that she has collected. In addition to the wine cellars on Gaia, our plans for the day also include a city tour of Porto.
Our day started with a fabulous hotel breakfast at the Gran Cruz House in the Casario restaurant. You could order as much or as little as you liked and sit inside or on the second floor terrance. We went down at 9 am and got a wonderful table on the balcony. We enjoyed the standards as well as some amazing pancakes-mine with apple, Boris’ with ricotta cheese. Our thought was that tours would get started around 10. Our cellar tours are set for the late afternoon and we have late (for us) dinner reservations after that.
I was still of the mind that we should do the hop on/hop off bus and get those great upper levels views, but Boris really wanted to try the tuk-tuk. There were no available reservations for an English guide until 12 noon, so we decided to use our free tasting ticket at Cruz. We walked across the Dom Luis I bridge (lower level) and into Gaia. There are so many tasting cellars along the river I don’t know how you chose. Our choice is just based on a free ticket.
There were lots of old barrel boats mored by the river’s edge and it was still pretty quiet along the waterfront given it was only mid morning on a Saturday. We got a free tasting and did some people watching before heading back across to meet our tuk-tuk tour guide. By the time we walked back, there was a lot more activity and the boys were out to make their bridge jumps. The bridge had a narrow sidewalk on each side-tough to be two abreast with the vehicular traffic.
After we crossed back over, I noticed the funicular. The Funicular dos Guindais, also known as the Guindais Funicular, travels along a steep hill connecting the Ribeira district with Batalha at the top of the city. The first funiculars appeared in Porto in 1891. The Guindais funicular was renovated in 1994. At the top is a well preserved section of the medieval walls. I had a great view of the wall during our river boat tour. This is one of two sections of the Fernandine Wall that still exist today. It was built between 1368 and 1437 to replace the old defensive wall that was then too small to protect the growing city. Wonder what those wine transfer taxes paid for? This is one thing. This section of the wall is called the Trecho dos Guindais.
We did not go down to the waterfront after we crossed back over but headed into town through the tunnel to meet our tour guide. We will be touring with a company called Tuking People. We were all a little early and got started right away. Our driver/guide is a 19-year-old Porto native and currently a student. In fact, this was his last day of work. He is heading to Poland to study. He will be back for the Christmas holidays, but doesn’t finish his course work in Poland until March.
We headed right back across the Dom Luis I Bridge and up to Jardim do Morro. We are accessing the lookout platform at the monastery by tuk-tuk; in fact he drove right up the sidewalk. You can also reach the gardens by taking the subway (Jardim do Morro stop), walking across the upper level of the Dom Luis I bridge (an experience in and of itself) or by taking the cable car. From the gardens you have lovely views of historic Porto and the Douro River. It is considered the best spot for seeing a sunrise or sunset in the area. I saw the crowds gathered at sunset on our first evening in town from my hotel room window.
A monastery was first constructed on this site in 1538, but the circular church now in place was consecrated in 1672. Now a monument, the Monastery of Serra do Pilar is famous for the circular design of the church and cloister and for its views from the jagged mont on which it sits of the same name. The monastery was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
Mont Serra do Pillar was also a strategic military site. “Reconstruction of portions of the monastery that had been destroyed by successive wars began in 1927. In 1947 some of the monastery grounds were converted into military barracks which remain on the site to this day.” We passed by the entrance to the military grounds on our way out and down.
Leaving Gaia behind, we crossed back over the Douro and headed into the historic part of Porto. The wonderful thing about the tuk-tuk was that it could weave in and out of traffic and go down narrow pathways that no bus could ever navigate. Boris was right. This was the way to see historic Porto. The tour companies do offer packages where you could do the hop-on/hop off bus as a transportation vehicle, the boat ride for a different perspective and bridge touring, and a tuk-tuk to get you in the Alleyways. This would be the perfect combination. The down side of the tuk-tuk was we passed by things, but did not stop. (Although we did have the stop at the monastery to take in the view.) If you want to go back to anything, you would need another form of transportation.
We passed quickly (I got a quick look at the interior) by the Sao Bento train station which I really wanted to see, especially with my love of Portuguese tiles. The station is built on the site of a Benedictine monastery and has 20,000+ blue and white tiles (azulejos) telling the history of Portugal. The station began operations in 1916 and still serves trains between Porto and its northern suburbs.
Another site we zipped by was the Porto Cathedral. Although it got a Baroque remake in the 17th century, the Cathedral still maintains part of its 12th century original construction and some of its defensive structures. The crowds here were overwhelming. I could tell we won’t have the time to make it back today to visit. I would have loved to have seen the titled cloisters and the gilded interior (reminiscent of Sao Francisco in Ribeira). Just another reason to come back to Porto.
After we passed by the Cathedral and not far from the train station, we toured through the old section of Porto built just outside the former city walls. Here we were on narrow lanes that get very little sunlight due to the tall buildings. Our guide Carlos explained that you paid taxes based on the width of your property. People built very narrow homes, put could make them as high as they wanted without incurring additional taxes.
This is where the benefit of the tuk-tuk choice really shines. Wandering through this section of Porto means a lot of up and down through narrow lanes where you might get lost. Love that we had a native local tour guide. Carlos pointed out what he has been told is the oldest street in Porto.
Finally, we returned to the Ribeira district where we started. We passed by Rua de São João, the steep pathway that leads directly to our hotel on the waterfront. The street has cultural significance. Named for the patron saint, it plays a central role in the city’s annual Saint John Festival around June 23.
Outside St. Francis church we saw the tram car whose tracks we followed on our first day in town. This is another way to tour the city. The Porto Tram City Tour offers three different lines to local attractions and as far out as the coastal city of Foz do Douro at the river’s month (think beaches). You ride on vintage tram cars.
We were hot and tired by the end of the tour so we went back to the waterfront. Before going by the hotel, we made a stop at the wall opening Boris had spotted the first day. Along the Ribeira waterfront in Porto there were 18 doors and hatches in the 14th century wall built to connect the water with the commercial street. This is the only surviving one. “This hatch has a gothic inscription from 1386.”
We thought we would take a short break and then head to lunch. Our hotel concierge has been great with recommendations and we have heard nothing but negatives about the sidewalk cafes so it is worth stopping by the desk to get a suggestion for an alternative to eating in one of the nearby sidewalk cafes.
With a recommendation in hand, we headed up toward the center of town for lunch on one of the famous streets of Porto, Rua das Flores (flowers street). This land was originally flower plantations. It was a major commercial street and home to noblemen in the 15th century. We were right in the hub of all the activity when we stopped at Impar for a late lunch (although this is when the locals eat). It was uphill the whole way and we were ready to sit down for food and drinks by the time we reached the restaurant. It wouldn’t be as bad if it wasn’t so hot. We did pass one interesting shop on the way.
The food was delicious and this was a great spot for some people watching. We started with the garlic prawns. Be sure to use the basket of bread to soak up any extra sauce. This was one of their specialties. I followed that with steak and fries, an added recommendation from our concierge. Wonderful! He also recommends the octopus here; it is a local speciality and quite common on the Porto menus.
Our first Port wine cellar tour was on the far end of the Gaia boardwalk and we weren’t sure we would make it by the time we finished lunch. We started out on foot (at least we were going downhill this time), but Boris grabbed a cab. The problem was the cabs can only go a short distance down the Gaia boardwalk. We should have just got out there, but instead the cab driver wound us around for while before dropping us off at theFerreira Tasting Room. Unfortunately this is where the tour ends, not begins, so we set off on foot again to the bottom of the hill.
We are at Ferreira, one of the traditional larger producers. Pretty fancy set up for a tour. They are apparently in high demand (at least on a Saturday). Good thing we had reservations; their tours were sold out for the day. They were only offering the “Classic Tour” with two tastings. The premium options (with food, more wine options, and/or aged Port) were not available today.
Our tour was in English. Their facilities are spread out up the hill side and they use a tunnel system during the tour to get guests safely across the streets. The Ferreira tour presentation was definitely focused on tradition. They even included a small museum with old equipment and photographs on the tour. Ferreira is also scooping up other companies like Sandeman, whose sign we can clearly see from across the river when it is lit up at night.
Our last stop at Ferreira was the stone tasting room and shop we had stopped in before. The tawny was again my favorite; I don’t particularly care for the white ports. We bought a bottle. They sell their product in the United States, but I am not sure we can get the Tawny variety. Our tour guide checked out our purchase and we talked about yesterday’s tours. She was very surprised that we hadn’t like Croft; she said it is popular. As I told the guide, the location, facilities, and tour were lovely; I just didn’t like the product.
Ferreira is on one end of the Gaia waterfront; our next tour is at Calem on the other end. You can’t miss Calem; it is the first large producer you come to after you cross the Dom Luis I Bridge. We were early for the tour, but it was too hot to linger outside. We sat down in the museum. Where Ferreira was all about highlighting the history, Calem was into sleek, modern presentation. They used a lot of technology not only in their museum, but on the tour. We have specifically chosen the last English tour of the day because it includes a Fado show at the end.
We didn’t walk through much of the cellars, so I was glad the show was included or there wouldn’t be much to the tour. I admit I may be on wine tour overload at this point given the last two weeks and the type of tours we have done. We will be enjoying a performance of Fado. Although it may have earlier origins, Fado is a music genre that can be traced to the 1820s in Lisbon, Portugal. While often associated with sorrowful music, it is decidedly beautiful. It can include vocal performances and the instruments used are often unique.
We had a tasting during the Fado show; the show was relatively short, but good. The female singer was much better than the male. The musicians were very good. I would upload a clip, but the people at the table in front of us talked through the entire show. I tapped her and asked her to be quiet and the people beside them suggested they leave if they wanted to talk. Clearly they could care less that they were disturbing other people. The wine was good, but not necessarily better than anything else we have tasted. We decided not to get a bottle.
At the end of Fado show, we went outside in time to see the sun setting in the distance. We walked back across the bridge to Porto. These two tours were extremely different so it was a good contrast if you wanted to do multiple tours and see the differences in the various company approaches to Port production. However, I wouldn’t do more than 1 or 2 of these tours. I recommend filling in the rest of your day with tastings instead. Just remember to pace yourself. Having the tastings was also a great excuse to have some wonderful meals. Natasha didn’t want to do her tastings on an empty stomach.
We had a little while before dinner, so I grabbed and shower and changed. It had been a hot day and the water felt great. We made the climb up Rue Sao Joao to our dinner venue, Traca. Traca sits at the Largo San Domingos; if you keep climbing , it spills into Rua das Flores. It was recommended to us by our concierge who also suggested the venison carpaccio. I was a little nervous about this choice. However with a touch of vinegar, some olive oil, chives, and parmesan cheese it did not disappoint. In fact it was wonderful.
Traca was great. The restaurant was multi-leveled with bar type seating as you walked in, outdoor seating, and table seating on the lower level. The building was on a corner with an incline so regardless of what level of the restaurant you were on you could see outside. Although we were there from 9:15 to after 10:30, there were actually a lot of families in the restaurant with their children. Traca was packed and I was glad we had reservations. Lots of people were in the area and buskers performed outside.
After the water, cocktails, more bread, appetizers, and main courses, both Boris and I decided to skip dessert. We had had a full day. We didn’t do much packing when we got back. We’ll do that in the morning before we go down for that fabulous Gran Cruz House breakfast. Its our last night in Porto, so I got the night view of the waterfront on our walk back and from our riverview windows.
The next morning we got up and finished packing. We had only pulled out what we needed for Porto. Most of our stuff was still in the suitcases from the cruise. Of course we had to figure out how to safely pack all our Port in our checked bags. Afterwards we went down for the wonderful breakfast and snagged the last seat on the balcony. Weren’t we surprised to see Hugo and Ruth (from our Douro Valley tour on Friday) run by). I know we caught them off guard when I called out to them, but they waved on the return.
We loved Porto and there is still so much to see that we will be back again.
Just an update before I post this now that we are back. To reach Houston, we flew from Porto to Newark, connected, and then direct to Houston. We went through passport control and customs in Newark, New Jersey. The queue to get through customs wrapped around all four walls of the luggage claim area and then did a second line against one of the walls. I am including that video-look to the far ends of the large room to see the line-because it is so unbelievable. Luckily, Natasha has global entry. Unfortunately, Boris let his lapse. On another note, we only lost one bottle of Port in transit. Luckily it was not the 30-year old Port. I look forward to the next adventure. –Natasha