Guide books are always banging on about what good fun it is to get “lost” amongst winding streets of medieval cities – but I can tell you from hard experience that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. At least, it isn’t a good idea to go the wrong way under the glare of the mid-day sun in the dauntingly hilly city of Porto.
It hadn’t been my intention to lose my bearings. It’s just that the steep, chaotic streets are beyond the capabilities of 2D paper maps and GPS alike. Some paths over-layer other paths. Some paths disappear underground. Some wind up the kind of staircases that would make experienced Alpinists shudder. All career in crazy directions. There’s also something about the way the city is folded into a high and undulating riverside bluff that sends Google Maps nuts. At one point I was following a blue dot half a mile from my actual location.
That’s the excuse I gave to my long-suffering wife, anyway, as I dragged her up entirely the wrong hill. We were looking for Taylor’s port house, but when I arrived at the summit, a sweating, panting, swearing mess, I found myself on the edge of a public park.
Still, there were compensations. When we turned around to try to figure out where I had gone wrong, we were greeted by the most astonishing view. Below us (worryingly far below us) were the long red-tiled roofs of the port houses, and below them the broad languorous curve of the Douro. On the opposite bank, I could make out groups of kids jumping off the old stone steps of the quayside, and frolicking in the tea-brown waters. It was easy to imagine that similarly sun-bronzed urchins must have been doing the same thing for centuries. Meanwhile, behind them there arose the glorious great jumble of the old city centre, with its spires, domes, and steep banks of houses; their white and ochre paint offset by bright washing pouring from their high windows.
It was a sight invigorating enough to give us the strength to carry on walking – although I won’t deny that I was relieved to finally reach Taylor’s port house and step into the shade of its reception room. A cold glass of white Chip Port was pressed into our hands and our navigational failures began to seem funny rather than frustrating. Soon we were happily wandering around the room, taking in the huge fat leather books that held company logs dating back to the eighteenth century and reading about how the ground we were standing on became a field hospital for Wellington’s Army in 1810, during the Peninsular War. But the real thrill came when we were ushered through to the long cool halls filled with giant barrels (made, I learned, from specially selected oaks from the South of France). There we were told in suitably reverent tones about the wine’s journey to maturation: from the nurture of its grapes in the hot strong winds of the Douro valley, to its long years idling happily in these gigantic barrels. Barrels, incidentally, that smelled wonderful; of grapes and wood and sawdust and rich fermentation.
There were a few good surprises too. One wall was adorned with pictures of no less a man than Fidel Castro enjoying a few glasses of the good stuff. About this red nectar, our guide was a fount of knowledge, relaying us with tips about how best to drink it (as often as possible seemed to be his general recommendation), the best vintages to invest in (2003, 1993, 1992 and 1985 are the current leaders) and how best to store your precious supplies (leave it aging in a bottle for 15 to 20 years and keep it sideways so the wine is in contact with the cork and no air can get in).
Sadly, there was no information about what Castro drunk, but I’m assuming that the bearded man of the people didn’t go for Scion. Not unless he wanted to blow a considerable portion of his country’s GDP. You have to lay down a cool 100 Euros for the privilege of a single tasting glass of this rare and precious wine. A bottle costs as much as a small car. Why? Well, partly because it tastes so very good (wine writer Neil Martin on erobertparker.com gave it a full 100 points on the famous Parker point scale). But the real excitement comes from the fact that it’s 156 years old. The wine was made in 1855 by men who completed their span on earth before the First World War broke out. It was also – wine buffs take note – made before Phylloxera devastated most European grapes and root stocks were changed for ever. It tastes like history. Supplies, I’m told, are running down. Which is another good reason to hot foot it to Porto.
But there is a drawback to tucking into a good bottle of vintage port. You generally only have 48 hours to drink it before it starts turning into expensive red vinegar. That’s part of the reason that port is most often shared at large dinner parties where you can be confident that none will be wasted. It’s also why, if you aren’t travelling in a large group, I’d advise booking into a nice quiet spa hotel away from the overwhelming centre of Porto.
I stayed in the Sheraton. It’s a few minutes away from the middle of town on the efficient pre-austerity metro system. (So quiet, and so efficient in fact, that you can’t help wondering how much it must have added to Portugal’s national debt.) Alternatively, it’s an exciting half hour on Porto’s uniquely challenging road system. Either way, once you get there, all travails are quickly forgotten.
There’s nothing particularly fancy or striking about the place (with the exception of the spa – more on that later). Here the watchwords are quiet efficiency. Polished glass turbo-charged lifts whisk you to your room. Your room is clean and airy and unobtrusively comfortable. And should you require anything the front desk will supply it with the minimum of fuss. Along with my wife, I was travelling with my three-year-old daughter. Both of them are excellent at testing a hotel staff’s capabilities. Forgotten to pack nappies? No problem, housekeeping can supply. Got a craving for Raspberry ice cream? It’s on the way. Fancy a mojito? It’s cold, strong, mixed with fresh mint and in your hand in an instant. (That last one was for my wife, I should stress.)
But the best thing about the service at the Porto Sheraton is that it isn’t there if you don’t want it. It’s not one of those places where the staff are so obsequiously attentive that you begin to worry that they may be about to follow you to the toilet. Should you be enduring the kind of morning that requires wearing of dark glasses inside and conversation that goes no further than a request for a glass of cold water, no one will get in your way.
There’s also the aforementioned spa to help set you right. Here there are all the usual hammams and steam paths and saunas. There’s also something called an “herbal steam bath” and another called a “zen studio”, but I couldn’t tell you about those. My stomach refused the former and my head the latter. I’m no fan of whale song and I wasn’t sure I would be strong enough to resist rearranging the feng-shui of all those carefully arranged pebbles. I fearlessly sampled the elaborate jacuzzi, however, and can report back that it was definitely quite nice. There were a number of different types of water jets. One blasted you under the feet. You lay back on another and bubbles crashed into your back. One got you from the front. And there was a super-hard shower to hit you at the end. Why? Who knows, but it felt good.
By the end, the aching feet of the day before were but a memory. I also felt strong enough to swim a few lengths of the pool and so work up an appetite for the caviar and vino spumante breakfast. That’s right. Caviar and sparkling wine for breakfast. They may be deep into the age of austerity, but the Portuguese still know how to indulge you. By the time I left, the bottles of port in my luggage clinking merrily, I felt like a new man.