Day 2 |
May 04, 2011

Porto, Portugal – City of Culture and Port Wine

By Ray Carson Russell, Cultural Historian

Weather: Sunny and cool
Air Temperature: 62 F

The day dawned beautifully, and the weather remained pleasant during our stay in Porto, the first docking of our Vintage Europe expedition on the Silver Explorer. Our morning began with two informative presentations by Historian Lucy Hallman Russell and Wine Expert Bruce Hunter. Lucy captivated us with her photo show on “Azulejos”, the traditional glazed tiles of Portugal and Spain, while Bruce whetted our taste buds with his talk on the history and distinctions of the four types of Port Wine. After a light, tasty luncheon buffet, we headed out on our excursion.

The rural landscape around Porto is as pristine and beautiful as is the grand architecture of the city itself. Also on offer in the city are rich cultural traditions: museums, theaters, music, cuisine and, of course, Port wine. Porto’s statue as a cultural city was recognized by UNESCO when it bestowed the title of World Cultural Heritage Site on the old city center. Further recognition came in 2001 when the city was declared the Cultural Capital of Europe.

Since Roman times Porto has been involved with trade. From 718 until 868 it was under the control of the Islamic Moors from North Africa. The 15th century was a golden age in Porto, as much wealth flowed in from the colonies. Churches were adorned with Brazilian gold and tropical woodwork. Traders invested in paintings and azulejos, the beautifully decorated glazed tiles, a legacy from the Islamic Moors.

The Douro River flows through the city of Porto and enters the Atlantic, and it was from here that the great era of discovery began in the early 15th century. It was on the banks of the Douro that Henry the Navigator, patron of the early Portuguese explorers, was born.

Our bus trip from the port of Leixoes into the city took roughly 30 minutes during which time our excellent guides regaled us with the history of the country and of Porto, pointing out important landmarks along the way. The ornate Church of St. Francis was our first stop. Begun in the 14th century, the church was decorated in the 18th century with elaborate wood carvings adorned with some 200 kilos of gold. The high point of these impressive wood carvings is the Tree of Jesse with life-sized figures. Nowadays, St. Francis is used as a museum and for conferences.

Upon leaving St. Francis, we walked down to the Old Town, where we enjoyed free time to discover this medieval quarter with houses dating from the 14th and 15th centuries. The narrow streets were lined with shops and restaurants as well as private dwellings, and the scents coming from the restaurants tempted us to stop for a second lunch. From the Old Town we walked back to the buses and drove across the river to Ferreira winery in the opposite city of Vila Nova de Gaia for our tour and tasting of three exceptional Port wines, including a Vintage Port.

En route, we saw the famous two-story Ponte de Dom Luis I, Porto’s most famous bridge, built by an assistant of Gustave Eiffel in 1886. Our guides at Ferreira, a family-owned business producing port wine since 1751, were informative and congenial and extremely well spoken. We learned that English traders had actually “invented” port wine when they fortified it with brandy so that it could withstand transportation more easily. Then they found that the stronger and sweeter the wine, the better the taste. Still today, much of the Port wine trade is in the hands of the British. We learned that a good vintage ages at least 15 years, but one can enjoy younger Port wines as well.

Later we boarded our buses again for a ride through other parts of the city. We passed through a quarter dating from the 18th centuries with building after building decorated with azulejos in various colors. We drove by the magnificent City Hall and on to the part of town dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries, admiring the black and white designs on the sidewalk pavement made from basalt and limestone. Leaving Porto we drove back to the Silver Explorer, content and in good spirits.

A perfect end to a most enjoyable day was the Captain’s Welcome Cocktail in The Theatre followed by an elegant dinner. Captain Peter Stahlberg shared with us some photos of the Silver Explorer in dry dock at Setubal, making us realize the tremendous efforts made at refreshing the ship from the propeller to the carpets, mattresses and air conditioning.