The most recent of our near-monthly travel adventures was a four-day trip to Porto. Portugal is the Mother Land for my husband; his grandparents hail from the Azores, the gorgeous volcanic islands far off Portugal’s coast. We visited and enjoyed Lisbon and the Azores several years ago, but Porto had long called to me, with its promise of hillside towns along the Duoro, and its place as the home of port wine.
As a holiday destination, Portugal always seems to take second place to Spain. That’s just fine with me, if it means that Portugal’s streets will remain uncrowded, the terraces inviting and the people friendly and helpful.
We were joined on this trip by friends from the U.S. Last year we met up with them in Italy, and when we suggested Portugal to them several months ago, they were more than happy to join us. (Their trip started in Lisbon and continued on after we returned to Amsterdam. And they were quick to tell us that Portugal had overtaken Spain on their list of favorite vacation spots.)
Our itinerary was loose and flexible. On most days our only plan was dinner, and the restaurants had been well-researched by our traveling companions. I’ll admit that when traveling with these friends I tend to take a back seat in planning. We’ve never had a bad meal with them (at least if they selected the restaurant), and their traveling habits include frequent breaks for coffee or a cocktail. It’s a needed balance to my tendency to overdo, over-schedule.
Our first full day in Porto dawned grey and rainy, with a spectacular thunderstorm that literally shook the windows in the hotel dining room. We had a lazy morning and finally headed into the city center when the skies cleared…or so we thought. No sooner had we started to explore then we were hit with a wind-swept rainstorm that turned our umbrellas inside-out and soaked our sporty summer shoes. We ducked into a church to wait out the rain, and not 10 minutes later, we emerged to blue and sunny skies.
Our strategy for the rest of the day was to be sure we were never far from cover. “Cover” in this case generally meant an alcove, awning or tasting room where we could avoid the rain while drinking port wine. It was one of our better plans.
We started at Sandeman’s and seated ourselves outside but under the cover of the portico. Just in case. One whole page of the menu was devoted to port cocktails. Now, I know to some purists this might be a sacrilege. But I was curious. And my curiosity was rewarded when I was presented with a beautiful port and whisky cocktail with a spiral of orange zest. Delicious. A perfect start to a day of port tasting. Next up was the well-known Taylor Fladgate, which had a lovely tasting room, a English-style rose garden (complete with a peacock family!), and a grassy terrace to enjoy our drinks. We tasted two types of port, complemented with almonds and chocolate. But we weren’t done yet…
Several steep hills and some wandering later, we came across Cockburn’s (pronounced, we quickly learned, as ” Co-burns”). We signed up for a tour, but to pass the forty minutes until the start time, we settled in to the comfy couches and shared two rounds of tastings and some cheese. The tour was ok, manageable mostly because we knew we had two more tasting flights waiting at the end. (For those of you keeping score, that’s three full drinks earlier in the day, plus another 12 glasses of port at Cockburn’s, shared among 4 of us.)
The smooth-talking tour guide may have also been monitoring our intake, as he was easily able to sell us on a 6-bottle assortment. It’s being shipped directly to Amsterdam and should be here next week. An excuse for another party, perhaps?
We eventually wrapped up the port adventure and headed back to the hotel to rest before dinner at the extraordinary, Michelin-star Pedro Lemos. (I feel a sequel coming on. “Porto 2: The Things We Ate”)
What I learned about port – and what I like about it – is its versatility. Port can be enjoyed with chocolate or cheese, paired with nuts or blended with whisky or other liquors. It’s a drink for a cold evening by the fire, or a not-yet spring day on a terrace overlooking a river. It’s an all-purpose pleaser. It’s wonderful on it’s own. And it makes the things you already like taste better and more complex. It’s a sipping wine, the enjoyment of which is not to be rushed. Port is for holidays, for vacation days, and for any days (every day?) you just want to slow down and be transported to a hillside town on the Duoro.