We arrived in Porto, to the bustle of a “big” city again, a feeling that always hits as a bit of a surprise after traveling through little towns. The vibe though was more relaxed than Lisbon – a little more easy going and cool. We stayed at Guest House Douro because it’s where we were supposed to stay back in January on the trip that was cancelled by another relentless wave of COVID. The staff there were so lovely and thoughtful when we were trying, desperately, to weigh our options for that January trip. This time around in the busier season, they only had one small room left that faced a quiet street. But when they realized that we had originally booked a nicer room back in January, they upgraded us partway through our 3-night stay when the guests in that room checked out. They wouldn’t even let us pay the difference, and it was the kind of friendly act that reminded me why I’d wanted to visit this place so much.
It’s no secret that you visit Porto to drink port. I first tasted port some time in my teens – my mom was a fan of the 10-year Tawnys. Through my endearing and convincing ways, I’d wrangled her out of a sip or two. I still remember the syrupy sweetness of that first taste that lingered with just a hint of a bite. For Porto we booked a wine tour around the Douro valley on a bus with 6 other visitors. On the day of our tour the sky was sadly dreary – the beautiful rolling hills of the valley were still picturesque, abet blanketed in grey. Still, we enjoyed the Zen. The tour included a short boat ride with homemade cookies and more port. They told us that an open bottle would go to waste if left unfinished…and nobody wants to be wasteful. We were left teetering even after our feet were on solid ground again. At one point our tour guide, maneuvering the van like a champion up and down impossibly narrow country roads, stopped along the side to crack open some fresh almonds right from a tree for us to taste. “I hope” she said, “that this farm doesn’t have cameras”.
We learned that you could tell the age of a port by the way it tingles on your tongue. If you swirl a sip in your mouth and immediately feel a tingle, it’s probably 10 years old or younger. If there is a slight delay, more likely a 20 year. And a long delay usually indicates a 30 year +. The color of the wine also lightens as it ages, from a rich ruby to a translucent caramel.
The next day, after a haze of port and rolling hills, we took ourselves on a self-guided walking tour of downtown Porto. We bought books at the famous Livaria Lello, the inspiration for the wand shop in Harry Potter. I went begrudgingly, thinking that it would be touristy and overrated. But inside the architecture was incredibly cool, centered around a staircase adorned with hand-carved designs from top to bottom. Pro tip: make a “reservation” online to avoid the line that wraps around the block.
After inhaling a famous “Francesinha” sandwich (ham, sausage, bread, cheese, and a fried egg covered in a beer-based gravy), I already needed some more port. We ventured across the bridge (you can walk or take a water taxi) to the area of Porto containing “wine caves”. To be honest, I thought the smaller, local wineries on our Douro tour were superior to the commercial spots like Taylors.
For sunset, a local told us that we had to go sit in the park at the end of the bridge. People gathered there en mass, set up in lines in the grass that faced the water. Groups alternated their spots as to avoid obstructing the view of those sitting behind them. It was subtly thoughtful, like a well-oiled machine. A man played songs on a guitar while locals clapped and passed him coins. The sun turned the sky into a pink and orange mass, and we lingered for a while after the crowds had dissipated to see the city lights shine across the water.
Our final dinner in Porto may have been my favorite of the whole trip. It was nearly 10pm, a time at home when I would have already been asleep (35 is old…). But the locals here eat late, and restaurants were still packed to the brim at that time. Our dinner spot was on a skinny side street with tables balanced on uneven cobblestones. I had a whole Seabream fish in fresh butter with tiny potatoes and a tangy chopped slaw on the side. Katie had shrimp simmered in a spicy, crimson-colored sauce with a scent that hits you in the nose when it’s placed on the table (think slow roasted garlic and spiced oil). My fish was as light as a cloud, like a puff of sweet butter. Simple and perfect. I’ve never had fish like that before.
The day we left Porto, I lingered for a minute to watch the sunshine beaming outside our window. On that morning it shimmered over the water like it was raining diamonds. I felt grateful to be alive to see it, and to have a moment of stillness.