Friday, 12 June 2009

Portugal- Day 2, Ruby, Tawny, Vintage and Reservé

The weather wasn’t especially clever again when we woke and went to breakfast and it didn’t improve as we walked to the Santa Clara tram stop for the short journey to Porto. It took about forty-five minutes to travel to the city on the Bombardier Flexity Outlook low-floor dual-carriage ‘Eurotram’ and it stopped every few minutes to pick up and drop off more passengers. It was an impressive metro that was only started in 2002 and continues to be expanded and enlarged today and it stopped twenty-four times before we reached our stop at Trindade in central Porto.

The sun was struggling to come through but it remained overcast for most of the journey and, close to the city, as we went underground weather prospects didn’t seem too promising at all. We changed lines at Trindade and took another tram across the river. After a couple of stops we came out of the underground tunnels and to our amazement the sun was shining and the sky was gloriously clear.

The historical centre of Porto is a declared UNESCO World Heritage Site and we were now approaching one of the six bridges across the River Douro, the Ponte Dom Luis I, which is an iron bridge, designed by a student of Gustav Eiffel and built on two levels. From the top elevation there were unbeatable views of the river, the old town and Vila Nova de Gaia, a sister city to Porto on the other side of the river. It was simply stunning riding across the bridge, the sun was shining, the river was a glorious shade of deep indigo blue and the tiles on the coloured houses on either side reflected the sun and made everywhere look cheerful and happy. On the balconies of the houses people were opening the shutters and allowing the sun to fill their homes with welcome warmth following a miserable start to the day.

On the other side of the river we left the tram and walked through narrow streets of derelict houses where some families were hanging onto occupation that must surely end soon and down to the riverbank that had good views back across the other side of Porto. We were now in the city of Vila Nova de Gaia, which is where the city’s famous port lodges all have their cellars and sit side by side next to the river. On the water were flotillas of Rabelos, which are traditional sailing boats that used to transport the wine in barrels from the vineyards up river, but that was before the river was dammed in the 1950s and 1960s to prevent flooding in the city and to create hydro-electricity. Now the wine is brought to the City by road in tankers but that is not nearly so romantic or picturesque and these little boats are left here bobbing up and down in the water simply for the benefit of the tourists.

All along the riverside people tried to persuade us to visit their port lodge or buy a ticket for their short river cruise and eventually we gave in and bought tickets for a fifty-minute boat ride and entry to two of the lodges, Offley and Croft. All of the port lodges offer visits and tastings and we were keen to take advantage of this.

The boat left at midday and just went up and down the river to visit the six bridges of Porto that cross the Douro. Furthest west is the road bridge Ponte Do Friexo and then following the river towards the Atlantic Ocean the train bridge Ponte San Joao and then Eiffel’s own iron bridge the Ponte Do Maria Pia, which was undergoing renovation and repair, the concrete and unremarkable Ponte Do Infante, the marvellous Ponte Dom Luis I and finally close to the mouth of the river the bridge that carries the city’s ring road, the Ponte Da Arrabida.

It was hot now and without sunscreen and on the open deck of the boat we were beginning to turn rosy pink by the time the trip ended and we disembarked back on the south bank of the river. We found somewhere in the semi-shade for a drink and a rest before continuing our port education with a visit to the lodges. We went first to Croft and discovered here that the all-inclusive ticket was a bit of a con because this was a free tour anyway. We sat and tried a white aperitif port and then not wanting to wait half an hour for the English tour joined a party of Portuguese for the twenty minute walk through the barrels of ruby and tawny port and the cellars full of bottles special reservé and vintage wines.

Next we went to the Offley port lodge where there was a charge but this was covered by our boat trip ticket and once again, being impatient, we didn’t wait the half an hour for the English tour but this time joined a French one instead. This was alright for me and Kim who had had an English tour the last time we came and visited the Cálem lodge and for Micky who can follow a bit of French but it was not too helpful for Sue and Christine who had no idea what was going on. At the end of the tour there was a tasting session with an especially nice reservé so we bought two bottles for evening consumption back at the hotel.

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