Days #11,190: Having successfully completed our first Portuguese road trip, our band of six graduated to the next level: an overnight trip into the Porto region of the country.
After Lisbon, Porto is perhaps the most famous region in Portugal, as it’s the birthplace of Port wine, that syrupy sweet moonshine listed at the bottom of dessert menus everywhere.
We crammed into the clown car Honda Civic and were off towards points North.
Step One: Eat Goat… All of It. When our tummies started growling, we decided to stop in the medieval-turned-college town of Coimbra.
When Brother B found a place in our guidebook famous for offering up the regional specialty of goat stew, and- much more importantly- said place was named O Bizarro, lunch was promptly decided. While the O Bizarro goat stew generally seemed to get favorable reviews (your herbivorous protagonist was left with a lunch of coffee & bread… repeat the chorus with me: Portugal doesn’t do vegetarian), Mr. M soon found that he had what looked to be a whole goat’s ear in his soup bowl. Oh… bizarro…
Although I was intrigued and wanted to do a tableside dissection of the organ, a stewed ear is apparently where Mr. M draws his carnivore line in the sand: he declared lunch to be over.
Step Two: Find the Port. For reasons unbeknownst to Extreme Planner Me, we somehow never had in our possession a real, live, useful map of any city in Portugal. It almost became a challenge: could we find our way to [fill in the blank] without benefit of map?
Sure! Lisbon said. Not a problem! our last roadtrip to Evora proclaimed.
No, Porto declared, with its spiderweb of cobblestoned roads built into the hillside. Absolutely No.
Mr. M nearly burned through our manual transmission (sorry, Hertz) chugging up and down steep, one-way alleys searching for port houses. Or porteries, as I think they should be called and aren’t.
We made a dizzying number of go-arounds on the same traffic circle. (For style, of course.) We almost knocked off our side view mirrors down streets thisclose to being too narrow for our van.
Just as we were beginning to regret our devil-may-care approach to navigation, we saw the pearly gates of Taylor Ladgate, the biggest portery in the land.
Step Three: Understand Your Drink. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not big on wine. Its complexities are lost on me, and while I’ve absorbed enough descriptors from visiting wineries to fake it (“Mmm… oaky undertones…” or “What a light, almost grassy flavor…”), the only genuine analysis I can offer up after tasting a new varietal is a thumbs up or a yechh face denoting my displeasure.
Now port– all dessert wines, really- I like. Perhaps because port production is a lot less technical (producers don’t have to catch the grapes at that perfect time because the wine is fortified with sugar later on), it’s a lot less intimidating and, therefore, enjoyable.
Or, let’s be real, maybe it’s just the fact that port is super, sugary sweet.
Step Four: Bottom’s Up. I Mean, Sip. Like a Lady. Taylor’s offered up three port tastings: a white port (rubbish… see below), a tawny, and a vintage. Somewhere between the tawny and the vintage, we got out of hand.
Although the steep one-way streets made it seem otherwise, almost all the porteries are within walking distance of each other and the banks of the very scenic Douro River.
We also visited one of the smaller porteries, which- different than Taylor’s full-blown tour- felt more like an intimate lounge… we even got chocolates to complement our port.
Step Five: Seek Refuge. But You Must Actually SEEK It. Beyond just alcohol (I swear I’m not the lush Portugal makes me seem), we were really excited to reach our home for the night, a restored Portuguese palace converted into a hotel. Portugal is known for these pousadas: renovated castles, monasteries, or palaces that are now luxury lodgings… people have been known to craft a whole trip out of driving from pousada to pousada through the countryside.
The Googlemap we consulted that morning suggested our pousada was just across the river. Ah, to be young and naïve again.
We couldn’t even escape the parking garage, which stretched vertically into the hillside. Circling somewhere between floors 11 and 12, I started feeling nauseous. When our van finally popped out the top, we realized that the only garage pay station was… of course… back down at the bottom.
After a short-lived and premature we-escaped-the-parking-garage victory dance, our sunshine van somehow ended up driving down a cliffside, pedestrian walkway. And then into a junkyard. And then going about a mile the wrong way on a one-way street, while a very pissed old woman stood in the street yelling at us in Portuguese and gesticulating wildly.
One convoluted set of directions later, we finally made it to the Palacio do Freixo (more on this when I post about the following day).
Whether for port or palace, with something that good, you’ve gotta work for it.
Details of the Day:
More About the Pour: While I’ve always been good at drinking port, I didn’t really understand the distinction between different varieties until this trip. Here’s a cheat sheet, in case you have the same issue:
*While it’s generally sipped as an aperitif (unlike other ports, which- like me- come to life around dessert time), White port is the ugly stepchild port: a less exciting, less complex version of white wine. Meh.
*As the youngest & sweetest, Ruby is the cherry-cheeked Cindy Brady of the port family.
*Tawny ports spend a bit more time aging in their wooden casks before being bottled and are a tad bit less sweet (and more brown in color). If you generally find port to be too sweet, you might prefer a sassy tawny.
*While both Ruby and Tawny (I feel like I’m referring to strippers) are meant to be sipped as soon as you buy the bottle, Vintage ports, which are made from grapes of all one year (or vintage), only get better as the bottles age for up to 100 years on your shelf at home. Which is why Mr. M knew that our souvenir from Portugal had to be a 1998 vintage port, for the year that we started dating.
Portery Visits: Taylor Ladgate’s is a large portery (again, not a real word… don’t embarrass yourself on account of my self-made slang) that offers a great overview on the port-making process. It’s helpful to start your journey here before moving on to the smaller houses, which offer more of a tasting rather than an education.