22.12.2014 - 25.12.2014 15 °C
I'm not quite sure when I formed the plan to spend the Christmas and New Year period in Porto, picked largely because it looked like somewhere I could expect the warmest weather in mid-winter Western Europe. I've run into a few people in my travels who assured me I'd find it wonderful, although some suggested that it might take a little while to get acquainted with the place in order to find it wonderful. Having spent close to two weeks there, that seems like a fair enough comment - it was by poking about in its nooks an crannies and walking for my miles that I came to really appreciate it. And the weather, being sunny and at least 15 degrees, helped.
Getting off the train, I found myself on a cramped and rather scruffy sort of street, but things became much better when I found the hostel - the Tattva Design Hostel was voted best large hostel in the world in 2014. Outside it was pretty nondescript, but inside, was very welcoming and stylish. Once I'd checked in, the first order of business was to acquire some of the local product.
Christmas was pretty quiet - luckily I'd been told that there would be nothing at all open and that the shops would shut early afternoon the day before, so I could get some provisions in: my dinner was not very Christmassy but very Kiwi: a big pile of roast veges and lambchops. In the morning, I took a wander along the Douro River, which runs along the south edge of Porto (a whole different city, Vila Nova de Gaia, is on the south side of the river - in fact, Portugal gets its name from these two cities run together - in Roman times, Vila Nova de Gaia was called either Cale or Gale, depending on how you chose to spell it).
Whoever said there was nothing open was not quite accurate - I found a kebab restaurant where I bought the world's tinest cappucino, and then on the waterfront, I found a couple of cafes open, but that was about it.
Vila Nova de Gaia is where all the Port cellars are: I can't remember the reason, but the powers that be at some stage decreed that they would not be in Porto. Of course, I had to take a look at one, but which one? I was told that the best experience comes with the more traditional, English ones, rather than the Portuguese cellars, but that still left quite a few to choose between. I decided to take a wander across the bridge and see how I felt when I got there. There are quite a few nondescript cellars lined up along the river
Of the few I had in mind, Taylors was the first I came across: for about 10 Euro, I had four ports to try and a good tour of the cellars, with lots of information. It turned out that Taylors was a good choice: it isn't quite the oldest game in town, but has the longest history of continuous ownership. It also employs traditional methods - for its better grapes, it still uses people to stomp on the grapes to extract the juices, as that means less skin and stems gets into the wine - but it is getting harder and harder to find people willing to mill about in a pool of grapes for several weeks.
What I did not know is that port is not a Portuguese wine at all: back in the 17th century, there was a bit of a trade war between France and England, which escalated to the point that it was illegal to import French wine into England. The English needed their wine, and they had strong links with Portugal, so that became the new source. Of course, Portugal is a fair bit further away than France, and there was a tendency for the wine to spoil on the way, but that could be prevented by adding a bit of alcohol, normally brandy, to the wine which stopped the fermentation process and left more of the natural sugars untransformed, plus it was stronger and more aromatic. The English went "we like" and the trade in port flourished. My tasting of the ports established one thing: I'm not that classy - I preferred the sweeter, younger ports to the drier ones which have been aged for more than a decade.
The kid in the last photo impressed me: he'd tell long, complicated stories to his parents and behave with the sort of gravitas you'd expect from a grand-father, but then next minute he could be rolling on the ground having a tantrum like any kid of his age might.
The grapes themselves are grown further up the river, and it is just the juice brought down to the city - originally in cute little boats - and processed and then stored in the cellars - the method of storage would depend on how exclusive the final product would be.
I went for a bit of a wander further into the district and came across one of my other choices, Crofts. After dithering outside for a bit, I thought what the hell and went for another tour - their cellars were considerably darker than those at Taylors and their barrels were rather more disordered, but it was quite a similar experience (I learned that Taylors and Crofts are owned by the same people, so that is probably no surprise). Here, I had another four ports, plus chocolate.
Although I was pretty much ported out for the day, somehow when I came across this, I was tempted - luckily there didn't seem to be signs of activity
I continued to wander - the whole area is almost exclusively devoted to the wine trade, and evidently has been for a long time, judging by the state of some of the paths.
Quite a few of the buildings were just for storage, with no sign to show who occupied them, let alone any sort of welcome given to random passersby.
I really enjoyed my time in the two cellars I visited and wandering about their neighbours, but what I was told made me wish I was here during harvest, which is a rather more dynamic experience than looking at a bunch of barrels in a warehouse!