Porto offers wine, food, awesome views
Ancient Portuguese city boasts distinctive character
The huge Netflix ad covering the façade of an old downtown church and the brightly colored hop-on-hop-off buses notwithstanding, Porto, so far at least, is a quaint town. It is not overtly money-seeking or touristy in the San Francisco, Calif., sort of way. Yes, travelers do throng the banks of the River Douro, locals do talk of some areas as catering too much to out-of-towners, but as a vacationer, you sense the heart of the city – warm, throbbing to its own beat, gentle. That pulse only locals can provide. As for the church, ah. This naked commercialism was in service to a higher end – repair, like many other churches around town, albeit sans Netflix.
In our not-full-four days in Porto this past April, I tried to come up with a convenient label – what other city does it resemble? – but couldn’t. The very narrow streets in old neighborhoods reminded me of cleaner versions of old Indian towns, as so many long-established European cities do. But it seems that every inch of the center of Porto is cobblestoned and could be a sibling to Oxford or Rome. A few days later in Lisbon, I was put in mind repeatedly of Prague. The same young energy, newish freedom* in a historical city. Porto, however, was all its own.
Wandering the streets.
At any time, but especially when you haven’t had a full meal all day, cuisine assumes an outsized importance. So, when the delicious almond torte at the Café Majestic failed to pacify the gnawing in the stomach, we knew that dinner would follow soon. But the City beckoned –the musicians – all of whom were remarkably in tune, the bridge across the shimmering Douro, the staircases. What surprises did the many narrow, winding, uphill alleys hold?
We wandered, enjoying the spring – literal and metaphorical of a town ready to burst into bloom. A couple of blocks from the Majestic we came upon the Capela de Santa Catarina where the corner of the Rua de Catarina touches the Rua de Fernandes Tomás. These blue tiles, Arabic in origin, are characteristic of Portugal and adorn many an interior and exterior.
It’s all about the food and grape.
We chose Italian, making our way to the La Ricotta restaurant http://laricotta.pt/?lang=en. On the upper floor, it seemed that most of the diners were tourists, hardly surprising, since our hotel had suggested the restaurant as one that offered vegetarian choices. But it did not disappoint.
I started with bread and Portuguese olive oil accompanied by a glass of the Carm rosé, which is made from the touriga nacional grape, distinctly Portuguese. Orange-ish in color, it was dry and crisp — a nice wine at the end of a long couple of plane rides. Not aromatic, it offered a burst of stone fruit, then a semi-bitter aftertaste. It was unlike any varietal I’ve tasted but unlike the pros, I cannot say what differentiated it from others I’ve had.
My husband had the Niepoort Dry White, a white port, as the name suggests, that is often drunk as an aperitif. I was struck by its amber color – this was no pale, shrinking wine! Contrary to expectation, it was quite sweet, but tasty with an aroma of fennel. At 19.5 percent alcohol, it asserted its presence. Throughout the trip as I tasted ports, I concluded that these are robust wines. No wonder women were excluded as men imbibed and smoked.
For dinner, I had a salad with quail’s egg and squid-ink pasta with a giant mussel in the center of the plate – quite a gastronomic adventure for me. I asked for an albariño or alvarinho in Portuguese to accompany this abundance of seafood, but the restaurant did not have it on their menu that day. Meanwhile, the rosé kept giving.
As I enjoyed these wines, I realized that so many of our choices are based on experience. For me, California wines provide the frame of reference; my German friends are drawn to rieslings from their country; and Indians to Bordeaux, since India is only now entering the business of winemaking. Greater exposure increases our enjoyment of the unfamiliar.
It was late. We strolled a bit more in the balmy evening air and went back to our hotel. How quickly two days had already passed from the time we left home.
*On April 25th 1974, the people of Portugal overthrew the dictatorial regime of Oliveira Salazar, who had maintained an iron grip on his country for five decades. We watched as the City burst into its annual celebration of civil freedoms.
Photo credits: For better for worse, these go to yours truly.
Featured image: Porto skyline from across the River Douro at Vila Nova de Gaia