Porto — where the hordes are smaller and the delights are huge

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Tourist hordes are increasingly inundating Lisbon — and for good reason. It is rich in food, culture, history and selfie backdrops and is far cheaper than many of its European peers. 

But for those yearning for a saner, quieter and just-as-beautiful Portuguese city break, there’s thankfully an ideal alternative a two-hour train ride away: hello, Porto.

I first visited the city in early spring. Rain and wind lashed the seafront district of Foz where I was staying. I surfed in the churning grey Atlantic — taking some solace in the fact that the water temperature, while icy, wasn’t as searingly cold as Cape Town’s. Occasionally the storms abated and golden sunlight washed over the elegant streets. As I rode a bus, the coastline gave way to riverbank, and grand bridges loomed overhead. I hopped off in Ribeira, Porto’s compact and startlingly pretty historical centre. I strolled the steep, cobbled alleys, passing buildings brightly painted or covered in hand-painted tiles. Bells pealed over the city from the Clérigos Church tower which jutted into the moody sky like a finger. 

I found the illustrious Livraria Lello, the bookshop once frequented by Harry Potter author JK Rowling. With its ornate flourishes, it comes as no surprise that it supposedly inspired her vision of Hogwarts. The phone camera-wielding hordes were annoying but still, it features arguably the best selection of English language books in town. Nearby, I browsed Almada Em Branco, a design store featuring artisanal products made in Portugal and beyond: dapper neck-ties, Port-infused chocolate, exquisite jewellery and satchels.

Over the weekend, I got my culture fix: I headed to the Serralves Foundation, a huge contemporary art museum that showcases temporary exhibitions, featuring both Portuguese and international artists. When I visited, there was a retrospective of the Porto-born Álvaro Lapa — one of Portugal’s most important artists. I drifted from white cube to white cube, admiring the nearly 300 abstract works: vivid, gestural, playful, sombre. The exhibition has since been taken down; there are several others in its place. Joan Miró and the Death of Painting — a selection of harrowing, angry works the then-80-year-old painter made in 1973 is on display until 3 March. The Serralves’s setting is as rewarding as its art: there are sprawling, elegant gardens dotted with sculptures and a sublime art deco mansion you can visit too. 

I also visited the Casa do Música, a music and performing arts hub right in the centre of the city. Designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the building is a triumph: boxy and angular off-white marble and glass. I sat inside the enormous warm-hued, wooden panelled concert hall and listened to Porto’s symphonic orchestra perform Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. In the first half, only the strings performed, lush and silky and stirring — it was so sublime I got almost teary. After interval, the entire orchestra performed the thunderously beautiful second-half. I returned to the Casa a few nights later to a smaller hall to listen to Andreia Alferes. Her singing is inspired by melancholic fado music; but instead of offering simple nostalgia, she gives the genre contemporary force and relevance with a soulful richness and power that belies her petite size. Scanning through the calendar afterwards I found myself rather envious that this pint-sized city has such an outpouring of different music styles throughout the year in this exquisite venue.

For rand earners, Portugal is arguably the most affordable country to visit in Western Europe, and nowhere is this more apparent than the food — with prices roughly on a par with back home. While Porto has more than its fair share of fine dining establishments, I enjoyed exploring the plethora of everyday options that offered some insight into the Portuguese way of life. As with many other places in southern Europe, you’ll rarely spot someone carrying a takeaway cup here. However busy they might be, the locals always find time to knock back an espresso — and if it’s on a stool alongside an acquaintance with whom they can discuss last night’s soccer, then so much the better. 

Confeitaria Tupi is a case in point: a retro canteen with brass-framed windows and a herringbone wood ceiling. Regulars squatted on shiny bar stools drinking freshly made orange juice. I rather liked Aviz Cafe too: ostensibly a tea salon, but like many of the city’s establishments, it offers all sorts of things no matter the time of day: Super Bock beer, Buondi coffee, pregos and pastries. I had a creamy pastel de nata (Portuguese custard tart) and a glass of Port for €3.50, watching the garrulous locals gesticulating as they stared at flat-screen TVs.

The best meal I had was at Venham Mais 5, which serves exceptional (and exceptionally cheap) pregos to a mostly local clientele. The decor is bizarre: a mixture of antiques, religious iconography and tat but that’s all forgotten as you bite into the tender beef steak and slowly melting cheese encased in a chewy bread roll.

Nearby, Maus Habitos, on the fourth floor of a parking garage, overlooks the old art deco cinema Coliseu. With parquet, school chairs and glowing light, there’s a hint of Wes Anderson to it. The staff are young and hip and service is erratic — but the pizzas and vegetarian options (a rarity in a city obsessed with meat) are pretty good. 

Cafe Santiago, also close by, is renowned for its francesinha (“little Frenchie”) — the city’s most famous dish. This Porto twist on the croque monsieur is far more decadent than the French original, featuring several layers of bread separated by minute steak, ham and sausage, topped with an egg and melting cheese and swimming in a tomato and beer sauce. The dish might give you a heart attack, but you’ll be sent straight to heaven if it does.

The Mercado Bom Sucesso is a breezily modern food gastronomic market round the corner of the Casa do Musica, making it ideal for a pre-concert snack. I tried the delicious, garlicky leitao (traditional suckling pig infused with garlic) from Leitao do Ze and cheese and bread with a glass of Evel, a decent, medium-bodied red from the Douro from Tapas & Des. Other stalls offer vegetarian cuisine, sushi and yet more petiscos (tapas) with wine.

For a more detailed snapshot of the local wine scene, head to Prova, which offers tastings from all of Portugal’s major wine regions. Porto hasn’t proved to immune to the global love affair with beer, either so for those preferring hops over grapes, Letraria, is one of several craft beer establishments in the city, with 20 on tap that you can enjoy in its laidback garden with snacks. 

As one would expect from a city with a strong seafaring heritage, the Matosinhos area close to Porto’s harbour has plenty of good seafood restaurants. I went to the no-nonsense Tito 2 and had one of its signature dishes, the marisco arroz — shellfish with rice, similar to a paella. It was creamy, crunchy and bountifully delicious.

When I returned to Porto in late July, it was a different city:  hot and sunny, the streets lively without being crammed. We hired bikes at the base of the stately iron Luís I Bridge and pedalled along the Douro for about 20 minutes until we reached Afurada, a humble fishing village. In the street outside Taberna do São Pedro, dead-eyed fish sizzled on braai, the smoke permeating the air. Inside, on wooden benches, we feasted on tender polpo (octopus), squid, and fleshy, salty fish — and washed this all down with glasses of vinho verde, a fresh, light and slightly fizzy white wine.

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Taberna do Sao Pedro serves up delicious seafood, fresh from the braai.

No Porto visit is complete without paying a pilgrimage to the Port wine lodges, where Port is aged before being exported all over the world. These are all concentrated in the Gaia district on the edge of the Douro, each within staggering distance of each other. We took a tour of Graham’s, heading down from its white-washed reception area into the dank, grape-scented cellars where 7 million litres of wine is stored. Our guide explained that all the of the grapes that go into Port wine are picked using manual labour — the terraces on the slopes of the nearby Douro valley are too narrow for machines.  He explained the difference between the two styles of Port. Ruby ages in large wooden vats for a maximum of seven years; it’s closer in style to red wine and there’s a strong emphasis on viticulture to convey its character. Tawny Port, on the other hand, ages in smaller barrels. It’s denser, dryer and more liqueur-like in style and tends to have smoky, woody characteristics. There is no maximum limit for ageing — indeed some of the bottles we walk past are more than 100 years old. The final product is a blend of different years.

As we proceed from lodge to lodge, my note-keeping became increasingly erratic. But this I know: we had an excellent 20-year-old tawny at the wondrously named Cockburn’s — which also served a very refreshing white Port and tonic in its shady courtyard. Taylor’s, I wrote, has a nice garden, shitty Port and stuffy waiters. Another gorgeous 20-year-old awaited in Burmester’s gloomy interior. Then we headed up to the vibey rooftop bar at Porto Cruz where we ordered beers, having reached our Port limit for the day.

The next day, we decided to go to the source, boarding the train in the majestic São Bento station. Drab suburbia was replaced by open fields; an hour or so later were surrounded by cliffs. The track meandered along the river which flashed in the sunlight next to us. We disembarked at Pinhão, a village in the heart of the Douro valley. In the sweltering heat, we walked uphill to Quinta da Roêda, home of Croft Port, and the oldest Port farm in the valley. We sat on the stoep, drinking in the views of the green ribbons of vines on the steep slopes as we sipped on a refreshing pink Port Tonic. It was the ideal spot to reflect on my Porto sojourns. Affordable, beautiful, charming and unpretentious, this multi-faceted jewel of a city offers visitors so much.

An edited version of this story appeared in the 28 February edition of Business Day.

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