Porto, Portugal—Porto, is Portugal’s “second city”. There’s a similar dynamic in Portugal with Porto and Lisbon that you see in Italy with Milan and Rome. The northern city being perhaps the more industrious, and the southern city being the center of attention, tourism and political power.
On the way to a weekend getaway on the Douro, we stayed overnight in Porto at mouth of the river. Port wine may have put this city on the map, but a walk up the hill from the river banks will show you how much more is really going on here.
I lived in Lisbon as a student for about six months, and never once made it to Porto—a mere three hour drive away. Folks would recommend all sorts of little, out of the way aldeias (towns) on the coast or in the interior for weekend trips, but hardly a word about Porto. It was years later that I finally made to this bustling, cosmopolitan city in the north.
On this trip, my friend and I arrived in Porto mid-afternoon on a Friday. We stayed at the Palacio do Freixo, which sits on the banks of the Douro River. In America, we convert factories and warehouses into luxury condos and shopping centers; in Europe, they convert palaces forts into hotels and restaurants—architectural recycling. Here, though, the sleeping accommodations are actually located next door in a converted flour factory. A strange neighbor. The palace features a restaurant, bar and pool, and is furnished with some lovely antiques and modern pieces. The rooms were quite nice, spacious, keenly decorated and have great views. Service was how I like it—subtle, polite and there when I need it.
The best part of the property for me was sitting in the open air lounge on the hotel’s dock and staring out onto the river. As I took sips of Port and puffs of my cigar, I let all concerns wash down that river, and got my mind clear and ready for a peaceful weekend.
As the sun dipped down beyond the river, we headed out into the city. From the banks, Porto’s quickly rising streets make the idea walking the city seem like a frightful test of endurance for one’s feet, but actually once you get to the top, it’s a much easier stroll that its rival, Lisbon. And it’s up there that modern Porto begins.
There is a nice balance in Porto between drivability and walkability that most cities do not have; it’s usually one or the other. We drove into town, a quick one minute up the hill, and we walked Avenida dos Aliados to city hall (Câmara Municipal do Porto), then along Rua de Passos Manuel. We stopped at Café Majestic, a gorgeous cafe with beautiful design detail, for a quick espresso. There’s seating inside and out, both great for people watching.
If you’re familiar with European cities, particularly in the south, you know that between 7PM-10PM is gets pretty quiet. Things don’t really start to happen until after 11PM. So, as we made our way back via Rua Formosa for dinner, the streets that had been bustling just moments before had gotten a little sleepy. But our appetites were wide awake, and if you have a big appetite, then Abadia is the spot. They specialize in roasted goat, but that’s just the beginning as the menu is quite extensive and varied. And what I found to be highly unusual for a restaurant in Portugal, the portions assume you have a really big appetite. To start, we had some grilled octupus and a mixed plate of empanada-type pastries filled with either chicken, shrimp or pork. We had braised goat (cabrito) and the grilled fish (robalo grelhado), both really, really good. (Sorry, no pics). And, of course, the wine is amazing. We had a bottle of red, Duas Quintas 2008, a medium bodied red that could stand up to the strong and rich flavors of the goat. But really, there are so many wines, great wines, in this region, that every meal is an opportunity for discovery. Generally, I ask the server or sommelier for a recommendation in whatever price range I’m comfortable spending and I don’t recall ever being disappointed.
We headed back to the palace to relax and get a good night’s rest before our drive up the Douro Valley. I sat for a bit on the dock looking at the flickering reflections of the stars on the river with a glass of Moscatel for company. Later, I made my way to the lounge chairs by the pool. With a cloudless, starry sky above me, barely a sound breaking the drone of river and the comfor of being blanketed by near-perfect sleeping weather, I simply dozed off right there.