One of the things I am most thankful for – especially living in Europe – is the rise of the budget airline. For £40 you can be whisked off to another country for a weekend of culture, food and entertainment that just wasn’t available 20 years ago. Gone are the days of a one week package holiday to Spain (thank god!) and instead we are living in an era of exploration and adventure. It is with this in mind that I put forward one of my favourite gift ideas – a weekend mini-break. In modern society it can often be challenging to organise time to spend with people so why not combine a cheap flight and a present into a trip to spend with someone. That is exactly what I often do come Christmas and birthdays and so this was why I arrive late on a Saturday afternoon to the airport for a weekend trip to Porto with my dad and Gillian.
Usually I would always fly late Friday night or early Saturday morning to maximise the weekend but Ryanair only flies on Saturday and Tuesday evening so my hands were tied. After some prosecco in the airport we boarded on time and arrived into the modern newly built airport of Porto. I had arranged a transfer through our hotel given it was late (metro access is available and is simple to use) so within 25 minutes of landing we were checked into our gorgeous apartment at MyStay Porto Balhao. Given it’s fantastic location within 5 minutes we were in a main square thronging with people on a Saturday night. We wanted to try the famous Francescinha @ Café Santiago but when we arrived it proved as popular as ever with an hour wait for food. Our rumbling stomachs could not hack this so we opted for nearby Casa Ribeiro which had a table available. We all chose considerably different options; with Gillian going for a mushroom and truffle pizza which was good but not spectacular, my dad getting a version of the Francescinha which was just not the real thing and me opting for a grilled octopus tentacle with potatoes and salad. Given I was ravenous my option definitely wasn’t the most filling but it was by far the best. It arrived sizzling and perfectly cooked with potatoes and a side salad and was the highlight of the meal. We washed it all done with the local wine and beer before heading back for an early-ish night.
After a fantastic nights sleep in our cosy beds we were up early to head out for our first full day of the trip. Usually, I would always spend the first day in a city wandering and getting to know the place but given that it was a Sunday (when everything is closed), we opted instead to make the most of the day by heading out to the Douro Valley for a fully day wine and port tour. We had went all out and booked a tour with Douro Exclusive who picked us up on time in their spacious vehicle. We had one more pick-up in Porto before making the beautiful journey out to the Douro Valley. It was a 2 hour drive but the views were spectacular and the time passed really quickly. We made a quick stop at a view point to get some photographs and wander around some vines to see the steep slopes the grapes are grown upon before heading to the beautifully quaint village of Pinhao. This was the starting point for the boat tours through the valleys but given we had yet to eat and could marvel the vistas without being on the river we headed instead to a small wine bar in town called Wine House Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo (the one that looks like a wine shop with a couple of barrels as tables) for some ginormous roast pork sandwiches and some small tapas such as cod fritters and non-spicy meat samosas. We washed it all down with some local red wine before meandering through the few shops that were open back down to the river.
The sun was shining and it was hot so we sat in the sun sipping some more beautiful wine at LBV 79 as we waited on the others to return from their boat tour. One of the best parts about the tour we had picked is that they take you to small scales producers that you perhaps wouldn’t find on your own. This certainly held true for Velha Geracao our first stop of the day. The family owned winery is set atop a hill with spectacular views over the Douro Valley which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the oldest demarcated wine regions in the entire world. We were met by the son who took us on an initial tour of their small olive oil and wine making process explaining the historical processes as well as the modern way at the D’origem press museum. The method of production has not changed much with the introduction of modern machinery at many wineries, the scale here still allows handpicking. After a very informative tour we entered the tasting room which was set on a balcony in the sun. Not only do the winery make wine they also produce olive oil. It was delicious dipping the bread into the rich spicy oil whilst tasting our way through gorgeous fruity whites, punchy roses and some truly delicious hearty reds. The white (a blend of Malvasia fina, Viosinho and Gouveio grapes) was a particular favourite and we purchased some to bring home as well as some to enjoy the next morning for breakfast and some of the full-bodied classic reds. They were delicious.
After the winery we headed back down to Pinhao for a huge lunch feast. The restaurant was almost at the same location as LBV 79 but just slightly further up the meandering street. We sat upstairs and ate our weight in fresh sardines, pork stew, rice, salad and a whole host of other delicious treats all washed down with some local wines. It was nice to sit with the whole group and get to know each other a bit better, there was a French family and a lady from Hong Kong on the tour so we made an eclectic international bunch. After stuffing our faces with goodies we headed back to the van along the river and headed off to our final port stop. Again the journey up the steep grape-laden valleys was stunning and we arrived a little early at Quinta do Tedo giving us time to hang out with the friendly dogs and sit in the sun taking in some phenomenal views of the surrounding valleys. Whereas the wine tour had been small enough to cater just for our group, the port house was slightly larger and so we again took a tour around the small scale producer and the areas where they stored the port. One of the interesting things about Port is that it is always a blend of wines that add up to the average age on the bottle, so just because you buy a 20year bottle does not mean all of the wines are this old. It could be a variety of different years which on average end up at 20. After learning about the production we headed for the highlight – the tasting room. We tried rose (an absolute delight with strong rose and floral notes), tawny (a heavier port aged in oak using older wine up to 10/20/30 years) and ruby (younger, fruitier port usually aged for only 3 years and in bottle). Again we were blown away by the quality of the produce and purchased a variety of products before heading back to the van for our trip back to Porto.
It was around 7 when we arrived back and so after dropping our purchases we headed down to the river and the famous bridge over it. The sun was just beginning to set as we wandered over the top of the bridge to Gaia – the home of port production. The city of Porto is on one side (where the old town and much of the interesting architecture is located) and Gaia is across the river (the home of the Port houses that make the city so famous). There never used to be a bridge across the river until the marvel of the Dom Luis bridge in 1886 was erected connecting the 2 rival cities, much to the dismay of the rich Gaia residents. Gustav Eiffel was involved in the construction project although it was his disciple who did most of the work, with him just turning up to the inauguration ceremony to gain the credit. It is a massive structure and the views of both riversides are fantastic for those brave enough to take on the heights. We wandered over to Gaia which was immediately much quieter than busy Porto and after checking in with our trusted Lonely Planet chose to dine at busy Taberninha do Manel. There was a queue when we arrived but my dad went to buy beers while we waited and we were immediately offered an inside table next to the bar. The waiter was one of the best we had and he suggested we try a huge assortment of food from cod stew, Iberian pork sausage, crusty bread and some melt in the mouth morcilla to name but a few. We definitely ordered way too much food but it was frankly delicious and in a great setting. I wanted to try some of the local cheeses to which he provided us with a specialty cheese board with one of the best white sweet ports I have ever had. It was frankly sublime. We wandered back to our apartments via the bottom level of the bridge meaning we had to climb the hill back to our apartment – not advisable on a full stomach. We did manage multiple bar-hopping stops en-route however, which made up for the hike. What a day! I was shattered and fell straight asleep excited for what the next day had in store.