Make your way pronto to Porto - Portugal's seductive second city
City breaks in Portugal
With air access booming from Ireland, Anna Coogan visits Portugal's second-largest city.
I've never even heard of Porto, the second largest city in Portugal after Lisbon. So I've no expectations at all, other than hoping it will be a few degrees warmer than Dublin in the middle of December.
I also feel there's a good chance there might be some port wine involved.
My first impression as we unload our bags outside the Hotel Pestana Vintage on a Friday morning, is of bells chiming, seagulls calling, water from the Douro river slapping up against walls, outdoor tables awaiting diners, and the sound of suitcases gently trundling along cobblestones.
The Hotel Pestana Vintage occupies a block of 16th, 17th and 18th century buildings in the medieval Ribeira district of Porto, and both the hotel and the area have been classified World Heritage by Unesco. My bedroom has three floor-to-ceiling length windows, each with French doors and window boxes, which look down on to the Douro with its stately bridges and passing boats.
After settling in we set off for Gaia, which is directly across the river, and famous for its cellars which store the world-famous port. We head to Vinum restaurant, part of Graham's Port Lodge, and lunch on avocado salad with raw tuna, followed by grilled beef. We also taste bacalhau, dried and salted cod, which is much loved by the Portuguese and is a very pleasant surprise.
Graham's Lodge is a working cellar and you can take a tour to see some of its 3,500 casks of port, and have a port tasting. I discover I've a very undeveloped port palate, preferring the cheaper varieties.
Next up we're off to see works by Joan Miro, the Spanish painter and part of the Surrealist group, and a pal of Cubist Pablo Picasso, who is the subject of an exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum of Serralves which opened in 1999.
We also walk in the adjoining gardens designed by Jacques Greber and see the stunning Serralves Villa, a unique example of Art Deco architecture, built in the 1930s.
We're all feeling very relaxed by the time we sit down to dinner in Restaurante Palco in Hotel Teatro, which was built on the spot where the Baquet Theatre was inaugurated in 1859. The place has a dramatic feel, and the food - monkfish and prawns with rice, followed by a chocolate and hazelnut dessert - is delectable.
Here's the perfect place to mention both the welcome and service we receive in Porto; they're both extremely warm and gracious. The locals seem delighted to see us and thrilled we chose to visit their city. Tourism has increased in recent years, with more low-budget airlines flying into the city than ever before, and they seem determined not to take anything for granted.
By Saturday we're all feeling at home in this cosy and charming city in north-west Portugal where a courteous manner leads to an atmosphere where you'll have lively conversations. I'm astonished I've never heard of Porto before.
We also have a blue sky and mild-ish weather as we tour the city centre, with its old grocery shops and colourful squares and designer cafes. We pop into Lello, the book shop said to have inspired JK Rowling to write Harry Potter (she lived in Porto) and it's a delight with its faux-wood interior and winding staircase. There's a massive queue to get in but our guide works it so we skip the long line and slink in feeling guilty, though not that much.
While wandering we stop for coffee at the five-star Intercontinental Hotel which is very glitzy. Porto prides itself on its upmarket hotels. We have lunch in DeCastro Gaia Restaurant where we have delicious tapas which include duck and cod. And not for the first time I'm struck by the size of the windows in Porto buildings - they are all very out-sized, and let you enjoy fabulous views of the city, which is great as the weather is mild all-year round, and very sunny in the summer.
The Stock Exchange Palace in the centre of the city was built in the 19th century by the city's Commercial Association. The famous Arab Room, built between 1862 and 1880 by Gustavo Adolfo Goncalves e Sousa, is decorated in the exotic Moorish Revival style, and the amount of gold is dazzling.
The Casa da Musica is an impressive building which houses a large concert hall. Think urban, and box-shaped and glass walls.
There is an educational room for children with an amazing floor - every time you put your foot down it makes a different sound. Talk about kidults.
There's octopus and duck for dinner, at DOP restaurant, which is owned by Rui Paula, one of Portugal's best-known chefs (he was on Masterchef Portugal). Tomorrow we will eat in his Michelin-star restaurant DOC in the Douro Valley. DOP is a very chic restaurant, and the food is presented beautifully, and the waiting staff look like a casting call in Hollywood.
Come Sunday morning and we head to the Douro Valley, and Quinta da Roeda, one of the valley's outstanding vineyards. I'm sure it's very hard work when you're harvesting grapes, but the terraced vineyards covering the undulating hillsides look like a slice of heaven. We try some more aged port and my palate hasn't improved one bit, still preferring the young fruity ones.
Lunch at DOC restaurant is another performance in exquisite taste and style, and the restaurant has fabulous views. Nearby, Quinta da Pacheca is a vineyard and home to The Wine House Hotel, an atmospheric boutique hotel where we are treated to even some more port.
On our way back to Porto, we stop off in Amarante, a quaint town on the Tamega River. We have coffee at Casa da Calcada Relais and Chateaux, a graceful old-fashioned hotel which is a big hit with well-heeled mature couples.
Dinner at Restaurante Os Lusiadas in Porto this evening is a highlight of the trip. This is a no-nonsense restaurant in appearance, but the fresh seafood platter is anything but ordinary. The crab, prawns, scallops and, wait for it, barnacles, are fabulous, as is the seabass.
Since coming back from this trip I've seen Porto written about as a hot spot this year, especially for a city break. You're in for a treat if you go, and you'll wonder why you've never been to Porto before.
Hotel Pestana Vintage: pestana.com/uk/hotel/pestanaporto
Graham’s Port Wine Cellars: grahams-port.com
Art Museum of Serralves: wserralves.pt/en
Casa da Música / House of Music - casadamusica.com
Palácio da Bolsa, Stock Exchange Palace: palaciodabolsa.com/home
Quinta da Roeda, Croft Port Wine: croftport.com/en/visit-us/
Quinta da Pacheca: quintadapacheca.com/
There are direct flights all year round from Dublin to Porto.
For more information on Portugal and Porto & Northern Portugal, please visit: www.visitportugal.com http://visitportoandnorth.travel.