Wine to put Bacchus to shame
Trip Start May 31, 2006
170Trip End Ongoing
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Lining the river promenade were endless small bars and restaurants where traditional Portuguese food consisting mainly of fish and shell fish were being served. By this time the temperature had risen considerably, so as Ed and I walked along the seafood-scented river bank we decided that a pitcher of sangria and a snack of olives would be perfect. The atmosphere of the ribeira was relaxed and happy, and we soon realized that anyone who comes to Porto without coming here cannot truly be said to have been to Porto at all.
After lunch we wanted to get the most out of the sunny day, so we walked towards the funicular which would take us the top of Pena Ventosa Hill, the rocky escarpment where the imposing cathedral known as Sé stood. The cathedral was build on a small vantage point overlooking the river and most of Porto, so it didn't come as a surprise that the old Romanesque cathedral looked more like a fortress.
We walked the worn steps up the street that led to the cathedral, with majestic views of the orange tiled roofs of traditional houses huddled together around narrow serpentine streets. When we reached the entrance of this extraordinary cathedral we found that there was a wedding about to take place. Being the silly little girl that I am, I begged Ed to stick around until the bride arrived. Not only did he stick around, but he convinced me to sneak inside the church and take part of the ceremony. I wondered how he thought we would blend in with our tired jeans and sneakers, among guests who were exquisitely dressed.
Nonetheless we sat inside just enough to see the bride walk in with her father (which was very emotional even though they were total strangers) but then decided to give them the privacy and respect they deserved. So we left towards the cloisters of the cathedral.
Church cloisters have always been my weakness. I think of them as quiet places for contemplation and introspection, and I often imagined the silent nuns or monks walking through the secret-filled vaults at dawn holding a delicate rosary or a prayer book, the only noise the ruffle of their thick habits. And as we walked through the door I realized no other cloister compares to the Sé Gothic cloisters.
Inside we were inundated with blue light reflecting from the blue and white azulejos or tile work. The harmonic combination of gothic and baroque architectural elements were perfect for the stories the ceramics depicted, such as scenes from David's psalms, the life of Maria and Ovid's Metamorphosis. Upstairs a terrace with more azulejos showed scenes from the collection of the grape harvest so popular in these parts of Portugal. Other pagan images included Bacchus riding on a sea monster escorted by small cherubs.
We exited the cathedral and walked back towards the bridge that would lead us across the river towards Vila Nova de Gaia. Evidently the best views of Porto are found up here. The river below held the perfect shadow of the Bridge Luiz I and the pastel colored houses that spread down the gorge unto the banks of the Douro seemed small fragile doll houses.
The town of Vila Nova de Gaia was as old as Porto itself. It had been an important Roman harbour called Portus Cale (the Port of Cale) and soon the whole region was known as Portucale or Portugal. But better known than for giving the name to the entire country, Gaia is recognized by the famous port wine lodges. It was here that this sweet succulent wine worthy of the gods was born.
After crossing the bridge we made our way down the gorge through the steep residential streets and alleys, eventually leading to the riverside lined with modern port cellars offering guided tours and port wine tasting. We were instantly hooked.
The first lodge we visited was Cálem. Many of the lodges were established in the 17th century here by English wine tradesmen who, driven by the lack of the Bordeaux wine they loved due to constant wars with France, turned their eye to the Douro Valley here in northern Portugal. The Douro Valley has remarkable climatic conditions, perfect for wine-grape harvest, and it was these conditions that fuelled the English to start their wine business here. Port wine differs from regular table wine in that it is a fortified wine: brandy is added to the grape juice before it starts fermenting, halting the process that turn the natural fruit sugars into alcohol. This makes port naturally sweet and stronger, which is why it is usually enjoyed as an aperitif or postprandial.
We were shown around the Cálem cellars where the different kinds of port were ageing. As soon as we entered the cellar we were overtaken by the sweet smell of alcohol and old oak, mixed with the cool humidity of the air. Some of the oak casks and barrels were as old as the lodge itself, and we were surprised to find out that when the barrels have finished serving their duties as port-containers, they are shipped up to Scotland where they quarter whiskey.
There are three kinds of port wine: ruby port which gets its name from its deep ruby color. Ruby port has red berries and forest fruits notes with a hint of butterscotch, perfectly served as desert with chocolate. Then there's tawny port, which is oxidized more giving it a chestnut colour, with notes of spices and almonds, served also after dinner with strong cheeses. And last but not least is vintage port, the most expensive port there is. It's ageing process continues in the bottle, so there are vintages which over 100 years old. There's also white port which isn't as popular as the red port. It is very sweet, with citric notes of pears and apples, always enjoyed as an aperitif light cheese and fruits.
Neither myself nor Ed had ever tasted port wine, so after the 20 minute tour of hearing all about the hints and notes of the wines, we were more than eager to finally taste what we had been imagining. We were led to the tasting room where we were given one glass of ruby port and one of semi-sweet white port. Each had incredibly distinct tastes, particularly the ruby whose chocolaty after taste left me wanting a bonbon or toffee. The white port was sweet and citric, and I could hardly understand why it was the least popular of all...I loved them all!
We walked out to find that Porto had been immersed in the caramel light of a lazy tired sun behind a hill. But this was the River Douro's moment to shine, giving meaning to the name it was graced with: the Golden River. The typical robelo shipping boats were bobbing drowsily, weary of displaying their proud hoisted sails and oak port wine barrels to the tourists. Porto was getting ready for the night, after what had been an extraordinary day.
We ended our evening in a traditional restaurant, a little gem hidden away in the backward crooked streets of the Riviera, where we had a feast of seafood feijoada, a typical Portuguese stew of white beans and rice. We couldn't have asked for more on this first day of Porto, and as we talked about the delightful sights and tastes of this city, we grew excited at the different things to see and do in a place that knows how to hide its secrets well.