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Porto is the name known around the world as the place where Port comes from. However, the Port Lodges are actually across the Douro River from Porto, in a predominately industrial area called Vila Nova de Gaia. As a sweet, after dinner dessert wine, Port is familiar to virtually everyone. Port is, however, so much more than that.
Having spent the third night of the trip at the forested Bussaco Palace Hotel, we once again headed north the next morning, a short drive of only 65 miles to our destination. Porto (also known as Oporto) resides at the mouth of the Douro River as it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The Douro River has a total length of over 550 miles, most of it in northern Spain. Called the Duero in Spain, the River actually forms about 70 miles of the Portuguese/Spanish border before turning to flow almost directly west through northern Portugal. The heart of the Douro River Valley in Portugal is from the small town of Pinhão for the final 80 miles of its journey to Porto and the Atlantic Ocean. Pinhão, and several other small towns, are located along the River in the upper Douro Valley, where all of the Quintas (Vineyard Estates) are located. The Quintas grow the grapes that later make their way down river to Porto for barrel aging, bottling and shipping.
Douro River and Dom Luis Bridge
Arriving mid-afternoon at our second Pousada, the Palacio do Freixo in Porto, I was anxious to get checked in and proceed across the Douro River to partake in a little Port tasting. Porto is Portugal’s second largest city, with a population of around 1.5 million people in its general metropolitan area. Porto’s existence dates back, as do an amazing number of locales throughout the European Continent, to Roman times, when it was a frontier outpost. Although my general proclivity is to avoid large cities as much as possible, I understandably wanted to do some port tasting, and this was the place. Although I have driven in giant metropolitan areas (Paris, Istanbul, Barcelona – each of them being an interesting adventure with a tale to tell after the experience), my travels have taught me that it is preferable to leave the automobile at the hotel, and utilize some other mode of transportation when sightseeing within the city.
The Douro River, at this point almost to the end of its journey to the Atlantic Ocean, ambled its way leisurely past one side of the Palacio do Freixo. After check-in and depositing the luggage in the room, a taxi was called to pick us up at the front door of the Palacio. I had intentionally chosen the location of the Palacio for its proximity to the Port Lodges. Although there are some accommodations to be found in Vila Nova de Gaia, I knew that the Pousada would fit our desired lodging profile. Although not as characterful as the Castle at Obidos and several of the other historical Pousada’s visited later in the trip, the location could not have been better.
The taxi was helmed by a sixty something Portuguese fellow, on the plump side, his visage well-worn by life’s experiences. Our Palacio doorman issued instructions to the driver, but undoubtedly the vast majority of the tourist taxi rides from the Pousada had the Port Lodges as a destination. Ah, but which Port Lodge!
Graham's Tasting Room
The Palacio, as it happened, had a networking relationship with Graham’s Port Lodge across the River in Vila Nova de Gaia. A short ride of no more than two miles took us to the double decked, metal arched Dom Luis Bridge, which at the time of its construction in the first half of the 1880’s was the longest bridge of its type in the world. Once across the River, a right turn leads almost immediately to an Avenue lined with Port Lodges on one side and a quai along the Douro River on the other side. Names such as Ramos Pinto, Sandeman, Quinta do Noval, and Calém, both familiar and unknown to me, identified the purveyors.
The taxi driver spoke no English, and I spoke no Portuguese that was of assistance to me at that moment. Nevertheless, I said “Graham’s”, a name that was instantly recognizable to him, but which did not please him. I was aware that Graham’s was not along the Avenida, but a little farther on, and up a rather steep hill. As we conversed unintelligibly with one another, it became clear that our driver was of a mind to deposit us along the river side “strip” where the bulk of the Lodges and tourists were located. I held fast for Graham’s.
Our taxi driver reluctantly accommodated, complaining in Portuguese the entire additional five minutes it took to reach Graham’s. The basis for his objection remains a mystery, as the taxi was equipped with the ubiquitous meter reflecting the fare, so I was unable to ascertain what difference it made to him. While he called to mind Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs, it was simply another travel adventure to me and I recall it with amusement rather than as a negative experience. His crusty demeanor probably had more to do with his occupation than his nationality, as the overwhelming majority of Portuguese encountered on the trip were exceedingly pleasant.
Graham’s was indeed located up a very steep hill, and we arrived after negotiating a series of winding streets. While the Graham’s Lodge was constructed in 1890, it was completely renovated and re-inaugurated by the President of Portugal in 2013. The Graham’s tasting room promotional flyer stamped and initialed by my hotel concierge magically opened doors and was reminiscent of an E ticket ride at Disneyland in the 60’s. Upon arriving at the reception desk and exhibiting our special admission credential, we were privately escorted around the parties awaiting tours, into and through the general tasting room, and seated in an exclusive elevated area with upholstered arm chairs instead of tasting room stools, immediately in front of a giant picture window with an incredible view looking directly at the Douro River and the Dom Luis Bridge we had just crossed.
Tasting at Graham's Port Lodge
Our personal hostess then poured our tasting samples of four year old Ruby Port, ten year old Tawny Port, and twenty year old Tawny Port, accompanied with educational information on each. This, as the idiom goes, is as good as it gets – a couple of comfortable hours tasting Port samples in a beautiful tasting room, in a private area devoid of other visitors, gazing at the magnificent view of the Douro River in southern Europe on a sunny September afternoon, soaking up the international ambience.
In our next segment, we will explore the Port tasting experience, a little history of Port, and offer up a special treat - an audio link of Graham’s Vintage Room host, Vasco, providing us with a tutorial on the differences between Ruby, Tawny, and Vintage Ports, and the special qualities of each.
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