There’s more to Oporto (and the Douro) besides Port
BY NEVILLE BLECH
Following on Gary’s blog on a weekend in Oporto, I spent a little time in the area myself, primarily to attend a wedding but also took the opportunity to look at the surroundings in more detail.
Oporto in July is busy with tourists – apart from the obvious wine and Port connotations, there are fine churches and museums to visit as well as a bustling market where all sorts of local produce and goods can be found at very reasonable prices. There are plenty of tourist guides to point these out as well as getting information from the Tourist Board as well as the local knowledge we received from our hosts at the Oporto Loft hotel below.
Hotels abound from the simple to the luxurious, but we were intrigued by a boutique hotel called Oporto Loft Art Hotel. It’s pretty centrally located in the Rua Don Manuel II, near to the Crystal Palace, but what was somewhat astonishing was the unprepossessing entrance which effectively looked like the entrance to a private house. And it is a converted private house. José and Graça run this 5 bedroomed boutique hotel, each bedroom being differently decorated, in a kind of early 20th century way, as is the whole house and one gets the feeling that one is, in fact, staying as a guest in somebody’s house. The difference here, however, to an Air BnB type stay is the bar and the breakfast room, where the nightly price does include a delicious home-made continental breakfast with freshly squeezed orange juice and home made pastries. There are plenty of “extras” in the bedrooms – big robes as well as big towels, slippers, a well stocked mini bar, wine and a flat screen TV. Graça and her daughter are generally on hand to deal with any request you have, whether it is finding a good restaurant or touring in general. There is a large private garden, too, where you can laze about drinking some of the wines they have on hand, or just enjoying the sunshine. The usp of this place is the aura of being a quiet oasis, far away in conception from any hustle and bustle of the commercial hotels. At €129 a night for a double room and breakfast it’s not cheap, but there is an appealing price/quality ratio.
Apart from Gary’s recommended restaurant, Casa Agricola, which I will come to later, Graça gave us some recommendations, too. With both Sonia and I being fans of Fado music, it was a must finding a Fado restaurant for our first night there. She recommended the Taberna de Cais das Pedras in the Massaroles area of Porto, not far from the river Duoro where we had some really local food to accompany our enjoyment of the Fado performers. The menu consisted of many small tapas dishes and of course, we ordered far more than we could eat but the standard was good, particularly the mixed sausages, the bacalhau (cod fish cake) and above all, the local açorda – a bread, herb and fish stew The cost, with a bottle of local Fragulho Douro Tinto (their best wine at €11) came to €51 for the two of us – excellent value considering the musical entertainment as well.
Graça also pointed us in the direction of the market – a bustling area where all sorts of artisanal products can be bought as well as local foods, of course. Near the market is a very famous restaurant called the Majestic Café, which of course, we felt we had to try. There was a very limited menu and as we were not very hungry we decided to have one each of the only two tapas they were offering, a bacalhau and a cheese one. They were OK but nothing special and the bill for these two tapas plus a couple of small beers came to €37.50, dreadfully overpriced when you compare it to the price we paid for the 9 tapas and a bottle of wine we had at Cais das Pedras. The interior is a belle-epoque masterpiece of carved wood all around but it’s not the wood that you are eating. It was very crowded with tourists and this is obviously a prime example of a tourist trap resting very much on its laurels.
Finding a decent restaurant open on a Sunday night is always a challenge and after two disappointments we settled on a renowned seafood restaurant – Esplanada Marisquiera “A Antiga” inn the Matosinhos district of Oporto. We started off with two soups – a seafood soup and a fish soup – with the fish soup definitely the better of the two for concentration of flavour – in fact the seafood soup was really a bit insipid (€6 each). We then shared a Parrillada of seafood, clams, lobster, langoustines, prawns (€85) which was hard work dissecting all the shells but worth it. This was washed down with a half bottle of an excellent aromatic Vinho Verde Loureiro from Quinta Ameal at €9 – a steal. A rather boring egg-cased sponge dessert finished our meal but all in all for a total of €114.20 for two, it was pretty good value and pretty enjoyable.
Our last big meal in Oporto was at Gary’s recommended Casa Agricola – another brasserie type restaurant looking straight out of the mid 20th century. We kicked off with two absolutely delightful starters – some poached foie gras with honey (€9.90) and grilled wild mushrooms (€7.80) both excellent value, but both our main courses disappointed – Sonia’s veal escalope and my Alheira de Caça (traditional game sausage) both suffered from being overcooked and dry. The bottle of Vallado rosé wine we had with all this was refreshing without displaying a great deal of complexity – but fine for lunchtime quaffing! A couple of nice desserts finished off the lunch and a total bill of €73.40 for the two of us, was on the whole good value for money.
Away from Oporto and in the hinterland, there is a good base for exploring the Douro area at a small town called Vila Real. There is a decent commercial hotel there called Miracorgo where you can get a decently sized bedroom for between €76 and €100 a night including a somewhat industrial breakfast. But the views from the hotel are stunning and has large comfortable lounge areas. We didn’t eat there but the are a number of small tapas bars in the town centre to provide adequate nourishment.
Some of the Port and wine estates along the Douro are now turning to hospitality and none so much as the Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo, situated on the northern side of the Douro river about one and a half hours drive from Oporto and about half an hour from Vila Real. My assessment of the wines and the estate are shown as a new entry in Wine behind the label which is ahead of the 11th edition of the guide and shortly to be made available to our Club behind the label members on the membership pages of our website. Although we didn’t stay there, there are 11 luxury bedrooms starting from around €220 a night, all with every creature comfort and fantastic views over the Douro valley and vineyards. There is also a restaurant called O Conceitus which we did sample their 3 course degustation menus at €46 with matching wines for an extra €26. These were well prepared and the wines accompanying included their top Mirabilis red and white cuvées.
Another estate open to visitors is the Quinta do Bonfim in the Upper Douro valley, owned by the Symington family and is the birthplace of the Dow Port brand. The Symingtons are also owners of the Graham’s Cockburn’s and Warre’s brands and own or are involved with Quinta do Vesuvio, Altano, Prats and Symimgton and Quinta do Aíde, so a visit to the estate and museum here will give you a pretty good impression of what the Douro Port and wine business is all about. Visits are by appointment only and you can make your bookings on http://www.symington.com/visit-us/douro_quinta_do_bomfim
There are many other interesting places to visit – you can even take a cruise along the Douro for an hour, a day or a week with many operators offering cruises for the adventurous and the serious wine buff. There’s good advice from http://blog.winetourismportugal.com/the-best-cruise-in-the-douro-river where you can pick out the kind of cruise you want.
Porto Tourism Office – Centre
Oporto Loft Art Hotel★★★✩ £D
Address: R. de Dom Manuel II 178, 4050-343 Porto, Portugal
Phone: +351 917 523 243
Hotel Mira Corgo★★★ £C
Address: Avenida 1 de Maio, 76 A 78, 5000-651 Vila Real, Portugal
Phone: +351 259 325 001
Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo Hotel★★★★ £H
Address: Quinta Nova, 5085-222 Covas do Douro, Portugal
Phone: +351 254 730 430
Taberna Cais das Pedras ★ £A
Address: Rua de Monchique 66/68 Miragaia, Porto, Portugal
Phone: +351 91 316 4584
Esplanada Marisquiera “A Antiga” ★★★ £E
Address: Rua Roberto Ivens 628, 4450-019 Matosinhos, Portugal
Phone: +351 22 938 0660
Casa Agricola ★★ £C
Address: Rua do Bom Successo 241, 4150-150 Porto, Portugal
Phone: +351 22 605 3350
Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo O Conceitas ★★★★ £F
Address: Quinta Nova, 5085-222 Covas do Douro, Portugal
Phone: +351 254 730 430
FOR THE EXPLANATION OF RATINGS – GO TO https://www.winebehindthelabel.org/gastro-touring/