Porto! Your first port of call

A PRICKLY green blanket of vegetation is laid out before us across the majority of the 300km drive between Portugal's northern powerhouses of Lisbon and Porto.

Small crop farms, leafy vineyards, orchards, sugar cane, natural vegetation, pine plantations and forestry areas dominate the landscape, almost swallowing up the tiny urban areas that can be glimpsed atop cliffs, tucked away in valleys or suddenly sprouting beside motorways.

At times we are convinced we have driven into an enormous open-air art gallery - one filled with quirky modern bridge architecture, the occasional surreal-looking fortress or castle in the distance, and an up-and-down ancient landscape of hills and mountains that point to a tumultuous geological history.


While toll booths are frequent, we don't mind forking out for smooth-as-silk roads that are almost deserted by Australian standards and where 120km is the norm.

Although the motorways are well-signposted, we overrule the GPS but end up taking a wrong exit on a side trip to Peniche and find ourselves pleasantly lost.

So we travel closer than expected through a couple of the quaint townships with their signature white-painted homes in stark contrast to their terracotta roofs.

Every now and then, we spot a distinctive blue and white hand-painted tiled masterpiece - an azulejo - on the side of a family residence to remind us we're in Portugal.

It's all very pleasant - and the overcast conditions are a welcome change from the 40-degree summer days of late.

We decided the only way was up after covering most of the Portugese west coast on a disappointingly swell-less surfing holiday.

But when we arrive in the city that put the "Port" in Portugal, we find it is every bit as exciting, palatable and inviting as its world-famous port wine - full of colour and intricate flavour, appealing to a wide range of tastes, based on a fine history of tradition but with a modern twist.

One or two days - like one or two glasses - is barely enough to savour the nectar and become acquainted with the nuances.

Ditching the car in an underground Old Town carpark, we explore the city on foot and by road with the help of our two-day Hop On, Hop Off (Yellow Bus) tour.

We've booked the upgraded bus tour with river cruise and wine tasting through Viator and the two included routes travel as far as Porto's closest beaches at Praia dos Ingleses and Praia do Ourigo, where the surfers this day are out in force with a backdrop of the fort (Forte de São Joao Baptista da Foz) as well as the Strand and seafood restaurants of Matosinhos, a 50-minute cruise taking in six bridges, plus a free wine tasting and winery tour at Calem's.

Within a few hours, we realise that while some of the world's best port is a good enough reason on its own to visit, Porto has barrel loads of must-do sights and attractions.

Here's half-a-dozen more reasons to make the trip to northern Portugal's unofficial capital.

1. The Douro: Porto's Ribeira district is the centre of attention, so staying on this quayside section of the Old Town is an absolute treat.

Gaze across the Douro at the port wine lodges that illuminate their giant neon signs at night.

See the colourful traditional boats (barcos rabelos), that once ferried the port, glide past full of tourists. Watch the vehicle and foot traffic cross the aesthetically beautiful double-decked Ponte de Dom Luis 1 (St Luis 1 Bridge). Dine al fresco on the riverfront (some restaurants seem like they are actually in the river).

Photo opportunities are endless in and around Praca de Ribeira - the main square - as you people-watch from an outdoor table at one of numerous bars.

Browse the souvenir shops and stroll through the pop-up markets or step on to a tourist boat for a leisurely cruise under bridges and past landmarks such as the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar (monastery, now an army barracks) that keeps watch above Ponte de Dom Luis 1.

2. Old Town: Whether gazing towards the heavens on a riverfront stroll, taking late-afternoon photos from the water and across the river on Vila Nova de Gaia's promenade, or winding your way up a medieval alleyways with their shops, bars and residential doorways, you'll be enchanted by the colours of Porto's Old Town - a UNESCO World Heritage-listed city centre.

The palette of vibrant hues stretches from traders' riverside homes and the barcos rabelos moored beside the Praca de Ribeira to the grand buildings of the sloping Avenida dos Aliados and the "Shopping Central" pedestrian mall on Rua Santa Catarina to the breadth of colourful blooms in the Crystal Palace Gardens.

Streets such as Galeria de Paris and its parallel Candido Reis (also known for their nightlife) offer up intriguing vintage clothing and old records, handmade souvenirs and other curiosities. A trip up Torre dos Clerigos - the bell tower adjoining the 18th century Clerigos Church - in the Carmo neighborhood and visit to the gothic twin-towered Se Cathedral are both highly recommended.

A walk around the Crystal Palace gardens offers a welcome break from the tourist mecca below and the late afternoon photo opportunities are spectacular. While the Crystal Palace is long gone ( torn down in 1956), the domed sport, entertainment and events centre remains a drawcard.

It was gearing up for a pop concert on the day we visited so the sound check provided a musical backdrop to our stroll. The flowers in summer bloom, regal peacock inhabitants and expansive views of the Douro was worth an hour-long sidetrack before heading down through the spider's web of suburban Porto alleyways back to the riverfront for a short stroll back to our accommodation.

3. Azulejos: The word looks more like a fiery-hot Portugese dish but the hand-painted, polished ceramic-tile pictures or patterns - mostly in blue and white - can be seen on the facades and exterior and interior walls of buildings throughout Portugal and especially in Porto. Religious stories, wild geometric designs or blocks of colour, historical scenes and depictions of village life and culture adorn churches, shopfronts, restaurants and bars as well as humble homes.

But head to Porto's main train station, São Bento, off Av dos Aliados, for some of the finest examples of the majestic murals. The sheer size of these, covering the length and breadth of the station foyer walls, is jaw-dropping. You'll be hard-pressed to take photos without other tourists in the way during the day, such is the popularity of the free attraction.

They were designed by Jorge Colaco in 1930 and contain about 20,000 tiles covering battles such as Henry the Navigator's conquest of Ceuta, rural life and transport scenes. One of Porto's more modern murals is near Ponte de Dom Luis 1, at the start of the tunnel to the lower deck: Ribeira Negro by Juliol Resende depicts life in the river district and was done in 1987.

4. Vila Nova de Gaia: Vila Nova de Gaia is best-known for its riverside wine caves where visitors can take a tour to learn about the port-making process and taste the world-class drops on offer.

In the late 17th century, Britain and France found themselves on opposing sides of battlelines and British wine merchants were forbidden from trading with the French. So the Brits set up shop in Vila Nova de Gaia and remain to this day in labels such as Taylor's and Graham's.

We arrived here on the weekend of the Porto Wine Fest in July so Vila Nova de Gaia was abuzz with even more tourists than usual enjoying the music, stalls and lodges.

More than 50 port wine factories are based here and more than 30 of them give tours. We found the tour guides at Calem's and Burmester extremely welcoming, knowledgeable and interesting - a good way to educate yourself in the finer points of port and perhaps sample the different types: the aperitif, dry white, amber-colored tawny, rich ruby and (expensive) vintage drops.

Sit by the waterfront promenade and watch the sun set across the Douro on Porto's Old Town or head to the top of the hills behind the waterfront for some amazing panoramas and a fuller perspective of Porto than any gained on foot.

5. Dom Luis 1 Bridge: Gaze upon this "meccano-set" bridge and it's easy to imagine it being a distant cousin of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. And no wonder: it was completed by a student of Gustave Eiffel just one year before the start of construction of Paris's iconic landmark .

Built in 1886, the bridge links Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. The top deck is for one of the city's metro lines but also welcomes pedestrians. The lower deck is mostly for vehicles with narrow walkways either side of the road for foot traffic.

Linger a while on the busy pedestrian walkways to soak up the view and take memorable snapshots.

6. The Majestic Cafe: To accept the invitation of the doorman to enter and step through the doors of The Majestic Cafe on famous Rua Santa Catarina is to be transported into another, much more elegant era. The cafe traces its history to December 17, 1921, when Elite café opened for business in Porto.

In days past, the business flourished and welcomed a host of celebrities. Later, the cafe suffered a period of decline.

But it is now enjoying a welcome renaissance.

The Majestic reopened in 1994 after a two-year refurbishment program by the Barrias Family that saw the interior floors replaced and the original furniture restored.

Consistently ranked among lists of the most beautiful cafes in the world, The Majestic's Belle Epoque atmosphere in its main room channels the Golden Age of Hollywood with its magnificent leather upholstery, varnished dark timber and Flemish mirror-enhanced decor combined with ceiling plaster detail and marble, and emphasis on fine dining in a convivial atmosphere.

The adjoining inside patio, built in 1925, is a garden conservatory and "retreat", that connects Santa Catarina Street to Passos Manuel Street.

The overall concept appeals to the lovers of art, architecture and history, as well as the footsore shopper who seeks a sanctuary of coffee and cake (although we found its Sangria also goes well with a hamburger and chips!).


* The writer paid her own expenses throughout Europe. For more on Shirley's travels, visit www.europetour101.blogspot.com.au

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