Letter from Portugal: Oporto Mio
By Mary Alice Kellogg
It’s difficult to fall in love with a city at first sight, but Oporto was an exception for me. A UNESCO Heritage site, it is one of the oldest cities in Europe, developing on the northern bank of the Douro River in the Middle Ages. And Oporto’s most famous export ain’t bad, either.
Made rich by the port wine lodges (headquarters/cellars) still lining one the river – Calem, Croft, Taylor’s, Cockburn’s et al., all with tasting rooms and tours — Oporto is filled with grand structures, banks and mansions reflecting its prosperous past, as well as historic working-class districts of narrow landmarked houses dating from the 15th century. But this personable small city also has a contemporary vibe. A stroll on Sta. Catarina Street, with its cutting-edge boutiques and Belle Epoque Majestic Café (still filled with writers and artists as in days of yore), the vibrant clubs, discos, design cafes and lounges on Candido dos Reis, Miguel Bombarda and Galeria de Paris streets, which showcase a young, design-savvy energy with art galleries, bookstores and Portuguese retro-cool, all echo spirit of place.
Even a visit to a small summer street market shows the Oporto spirit. On impulse, I bought a gigantic bunch of fresh lavender (Portuguese lavender which, like its wonderful olive oil, is fragrant, distinct and unheralded). The central casting old-market-woman smiled, then chased after me with a large branch of lemon balm, swatting me gently on my forearm with the gift. As I left with my fragrant freebie, a passing family who also had some swatted me as well, and I swatted back. Thus perfumed, we all laughed and went our separate ways. Playful = Oporto.
As in Lisbon, it’s necessary to rest up, as nobody in Portugal seems to sleep and revels continue practically until sunrise. Laid-back ifestyle is everything here yet history never far behind, as a visit to the S. Bento train station – built in 1916 and featuring a soaring atrium with 20,000 tiles designed by Jorge Colaco featuring the city’s most important historical moments – will attest. Lunch on the outdoor riverside terrace of D. Tonho – fresh fish in olive oil and garlic, a grilled octopus dish of which I still dream, chilled white port as the de riguer aperitif – had traditional culinary flair with a modern twist. Inside the 15th century building all is contemporary chic within hallowed stone walls, a non-pretentious, delicious oasis that is pure Oporto.
The newest entry in the local hotel sweepstakes is The Yeatman, a port-themed (of course; its owner also owns Taylor’s) hilltop hostelry where every room has a Portuguese wine sponsor for décor, a private balcony with dramatic views across the river to the historic center of Oporto, and glam to spare. The views would be enough, but what’s worth a visit is the restaurant, where Michelin-starred Chef Ricardo Costa creates a sophisticated seasonal locavore menu in a spanking-new dining room incorporating traditional Oporto architectural touches. The food and the amazing local wines were a fitting end to my visit.
Did I mention the view from the dining room – the port wine lodges below, the river, and the magical old city of Oporto on the opposite bank – also incorporated an Impressionist sunset? Now I did. That night, snug in my sleek Sheraton Oporto suite with views of city, river and sea beyond, I had no idea that my next destination would result in yet another Portuguese love affair.
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Mary Alice Kellogg, a New York-based writer and editor, is a recipient of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award for Consumer Reporting. A contributor to many national publications, including Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Bon Appetit and GQ, she has reported from 120 countries and five of the seven seas to date… and counting.Visit MaryAlicekellogg.com