It’s a miserable wet day and I can think of nothing better than to visit the city of Porto where I can warm up with a glass or two of the deep red fortified wine that is produced there. I don’t want to be driving, so I catch the bus into town. It deposits me not far from the beautiful San Benito railway station which is richly decorated with 20,000 blue and white azulejo tiles by Jorge Calaco depicting epic battles and docile domestic scenes.
I find more azulejos in the peaceful cloister of the cathedral with its attached treasury and the amazing chapel of St Vincento with beautiful wood carved panels of bible stories by an unknown artist. The cathedral itself is a very austere gothic structure but the grand terrace in front offers interesting views of the city, the river and the port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia on the far side.
I reach the port lodges by crossing the lower tier of the Louis I bridge. Built in 1886, it mimics the style of the Maria Pia rail bridge built 9 years earlier by Gustav Eiffel. Both have dramatic arches reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The upper tier of the Louis I bridge carries the modern trams, although some older, more traditional trams still operate around the town. There are 6 bridges in total spanning the Douro River and joining the cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia.
Along the river front of Vila Nova de Gaia are many port lodges offering tours. I try several, in search of an English Language morning tour and end up at Ferreira, which claims to be the most well-known producer of port in Portugal, if not beyond. It was founded in 1751 but reached its prominence in the second half of the 19th century under the guidance of Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, known as Ferreirinha for her small stature but kind ways and immense generosity. She was a shrewd business woman who bought 30 wine estates in the Douro Valley but used some of her wealth to provide schools and hospitals in the region.
There’s a French group who’ve booked but I’m kindly provided a private tour of the caves where various ports are maturing in huge oak barrels. My guide, Theresa, gives me all the facts and figures and educates me on the different types of port depending on the grapes used, the time aged, and the time when the fermentation was halted by the addition of brandy. At the end, I receive two very generous samples of white port and ruby port. However, I decide to buy the tawny port as this is my preference and usually the tawny is too expensive to enjoy in the UK.
It’s still raining persistently when I leave the Ferreira Lodge with a warm glow from the tasting. As I pass by the Sanderman Lodge, I notice the flood levels indicated next to the door frame and I wonder if today’s torrential rain will result in such flooding. Just beyond, I see the very basic looking S. Goncalo Restaurant with plastic green tablecloths and a hand-written menu do dia in the window. The people of Porto are affectionately known as the Tripeiros (Tripe eaters), due to their need to eat offal after supplying Henry the Navigator and the Portuguese Navy with all of their meat for the attack on Ceuta in 1415. So, I decide to order the local speciality of Tripas a Moda do Porto.
My tripe comes in a huge pot with white beans and pieces of chorizo and carrot. It’s served with boiled rice and a large glass of red wine. It’s actually rather good. Hot and filling, just what I need on such a wet day. The other diners are a mixture of local workers from the lodges, a few tourists and a group of German students who eye my choice of meal with a mixture of awe and disgust, while checking their i-phones over cans of coca cola.