We flew to Porto at the beginning of summer, when rumours of impending airport apocalypse (or, as the world is going, apocalypse, full stop) were in their infancy. But if you want a taste of misery at high altitude, follow our example. Book Wizz Air. I had carefully avoided them since they cancelled on us last minute in 2020, but no matter how I calculated the logistics of our trip, their early morning flight to Porto seemed the best option. I held on to this positive thought until 3 AM on the morning of our flight, scheduled for 6:30 AM. The flurry of 6 AM departures from Forever Ferihegy airport is a tough experience as it is, but we were greeted by a two and a half hour delay and one of those famous Wizz Air vouchers which, at current prices, allow you to get a dismal coffee and half a sandwich. After exploring the full length of Terminal 2 a couple of times I started to feel like a peripatetic philosopher and was perhaps on the verge of grasping the meaning of life when we were called to our gate. Our plane was not ready. From a number of quickfire walkie talkie exchanges among ground staff it transpired that, quite likely, they were still looking for a suitable plane to send to Porto. In a happy turn of events, a shiny new Airbus A321 was located, in what I feel must have been a Monty Pyhtonesque undertaking of someone seeing a pink-purple plane on the tarmac and going, well, we might as well use this one then.
Roughly three hours later we were descending into a breezy Porto morning, and I was glad to discover that a) my luggage had also joined me at the destination and b) our Booking.com driver was well aware of Wizz Air’s dark arts and had nevertheless successfully located us. Our hotel, Eurostars Oporto, while not very central, passed almost every test in terms of amenities and comfort, but could perhaps tweak their policy of blocking half the amount of your reservation on your account for a full month, given that we traveled within a week of booking. Minor glitches aside, we located the terminus of what looked like a glorified tram but is in fact Porto’s metro. Generally speaking, I am a big fan of all things Portugal, but their public transportation ticketing systems remain somewhat baffling. In Porto, you can buy a so called Andante Azul card and then charge it with a number of fares, of which each costs 1.20 euros. You cannot, however, add more fares as you go along, you have to wait for the card to be empty. Which means that you may find yourself mid transit, with an empty card and little time to top it up but cannot charge it ahead if you know you will be needing more tickets in the near future. If it sounds complicated, it’s because it is, particularly when you are getting really hungry on a hot summer’s day. In retrospect, the Andante 24 daily pass sounded like a better idea, until I discovered that it has zones, which you need to double check before travelling.
Armed with an Andate Azul, we were deposited at the São Bento stop, which turned out to be a great starting point for exploring the city. The municipality of Porto itself is quite small, with around 230 000 inhabitants, but it’s the city’s metropolitan area, estimated at around 1.7 million people, which makes it the country’s second largest conurbation after the capital Lisbon. The two cities share the similarity of lying at the estuary of large rivers reaching the Atlantic Ocean. Porto’s river, the Douro springs in Central Spain as the Duero and travels 897 kilometres across Spain and Portugal before it reaches Porto. Its name could easily be associated with the Latinate oro, gold, but in fact it is of Celtic origin, from a root which means water- the English port of Dover takes its name for the same Celtic source.
To one side of the metro stop you will find the São Bento railway station, its front hall richly decorated with azulejo panels depicting scenes from Portuguese history. While the station is in use, and serves as the hub of Porto’s suburban railways, during the day it feels more like an overrun museum, with large groups of tourists being chaperoned around to take pictures. Everyone seems to be in transit here, the azulejos silent witnesses that are seen, but rarely genuinely looked at. Porto’s compactness, with the river, the historic centre and port cellars all situated close to each other in an easily accessible area makes it a very satisfying city break. But this compactness sometimes bites back with overflowing crowds all concentrated in the same area of town. To the other side of the São Bento stop you can turn onto the pedestrianized Rua das Flores, lined with shops, bars and restaurants, a perfect central axis to explore the ‘low’ neighbourhood of the old town, the Baixa. While I am generally wary of eating in overly touristic areas, Cantina 32 was a very fortuitous find, especially as we ambled in right before they closed for the siesta at 3 PM. Many restaurants in Porto will follow the Mediterranean habit of closing for a stretch in the afternoon, roughly between 3 and 6, which is worth keeping in mind when planning long days of exploration. Not being a fish expert, I went for the safe bet, namely the salmon, which was delicious, as for the wine, I felt local is the way to go, and chose a Dialogo 2021 which did not disappoint me.
Porto is of course most famed for port wine or vinho do Porto, as the locals call it. For a wine to be labelled as port, the grapes need to have been grown in the Douro valley, and the wine is subsequently fortified with a grape spirit (aguardente) and aged in barrels stored in cellars, known as ‘caves’, ‘cavas’ in Portuguese. Interestingly enough, while port obviously gained its name from the city, most of the cavas are located outside of the municipality of Porto itself, just south of the Douro, in Vila Nova da Gaia. Fear not, all it takes to get there is to walk across the Luis I Bridge, a spectacular double-deck metal arch bridge spanning 172 metres across the river. It was designed by German engineer Théophile Seyrig and finished in 1886, after an initial design by Gustave Eiffel, with only one deck, was rejected as unpractical. The choice of cavas you can visit is manifold, and a wiser traveler may have booked ahead, but we trusted our luck and sat down on the first available terrace, that of the Calem winery. Founded in 1859 by António Alves Cálem, the winery was among the first to set its sights on more exotic ‘target audiences’, and instead of exporting primarily to the British Isles, it focused on Brazil. The step, while risky, proved to be highly lucrative, and the winery soon had a small fleet shipping its wares across the Atlantic. As most larger wineries, these days they also offer tours, with wine tasting and fado, but we just went for a ‘simple’ taster menu with cheeses and hams, a lovely and unfussy choice, especially as, in all honesty, I am not a big fan of sweet wines. I am therefore more partial to dry reds, of which the Touriga Nacional, typical for the Douro and Dão wine regions of Portugal, is a new favourite, on account of a slight similarity with my beloved Cabernet Sauvignon.
Someone quite clever in the tourism board of Porto must have intuited that visitors pleasantly imbued with sweet, strong wines would find the hike to the Monastery of Serra do Pilar somewhat arduous, so, since 2011, the Teleférico de Gaia, the Gaia cable car, hoists people up from the banks of the Douro to the upper deck of the Luis I Bridge, a distance of around 600 metres. On a well timed afternoon, your ideal arrival to the top of the cable car’s journey is about half an hour before the sunset. Once you are there, one option is to camp out in the Jardim do Morro, but if you want to go one better, you will position yourself at the look out point just below the old Monastery (while the church is still used for mass, the monastery itself no longer functions as such, and can be visited as a museum). In high summer the sun will move slowly, almost sluggishly, across the river, towards the ocean in the west. From where we stand, we cannot see the waters of the ocean, but we feel them, like a promise yet to be fulfilled. It’s quite stunning and also impossible to capture on all the Instagram livestreams rolling around us, people setting their phones against the rocks of the parapet to entrap the dipping sun as they toast glasses of port, Super Bocks and unavoidable summer rosés. But the camera will never capture that fraction of a second right before the sun disappeared, shimmering, behind the horizon. That second which felt both painfully fleeting, and consolingly endless.