Wed, Apr 04, 2007 - Page 13 News List

The heady wine of Oporto

Along the waterfront in Vila Nova da Gaia, the rows of old port warehouses offer tastings of their traditional wines...

By Andrew Ferren  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Tasting port at the Offley cellars in Vila Nova da Gaia in Oporto, Portugal.


Mention Oporto, and one tends to think of well-fed British gents puffing postprandial cigars as they sip garnet-colored wine and solve the world's problems before rejoining the ladies in the drawing room. But what that word — the name of Portugal's second-largest city — ought to conjure is an almost impossibly picturesque town of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings cascading down a steep gorge to the banks of the Douro River just before its waters reach the blue Atlantic.

Six stunning bridges — including two designed by Gustave Eiffel and one of his students, and each a marvel of engineering — loom hundreds of feet above. No wonder UNESCO declared the whole city center a World Heritage Site in 1996.

Thanks to the likes of Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse, however, Oporto has been overshadowed by its principal export, port wine. Wines have been traveling downriver from the Douro Valley almost since the Romans founded the town of Portus Cale. A millennium later, the English developed such a taste for the stuff that they bought up most of the wineries — hence names like Graham's and Sandeman — and, after expelling Napoleon's army, had to be evicted from the city themselves.

But sweet wine does not a modern city make, and Oporto has been keeping itself busy of late. There are the new concert hall by Rem Koolhaas, an outstanding contemporary art museum and a thriving gallery scene, not to mention a whole riverfront of lively bars and restaurants.

Things are even changing in the fabled vineyards upriver as younger generations of winegrowers update their staid family businesses with an emphasis on lighter varietal wines that want to be uncorked today rather than in 40 years. The traditional flat-bottomed rabelo sailboats that once brought the wine casks downriver continue to ply the waters, though now they haul tourists who come to bask in the city's glow of intensely saturated colors and crystal-clear light, which can be just as intoxicating as any vintage port.

Assuming you've got a good pair of walking shoes in which to trek up and down the steep hills of the historic center, most of Oporto's major monuments can be reached on foot. Presiding over the whole scene is the Se Catedral, with its Gothic cloister and gorgeous 18th-century tiles, which dates back to the 12th century. Next door is the Bishop's Palace, a white grand Baroque facade punctuated by gray curlicue stone window frames. It almost takes precedence over the church itself.

Before taking the inland route down the hill, step out onto the upper level — now used for pedestrians and the city's metro — of the Dom Luis I Bridge, built by one of Eiffel's disciples, to get a bird's-eye view back to the hilltop medieval city and the remnants of its 14th-century fortifications.

The streets that fan out behind the cathedral are home to many of its best-known shops, including the Lello Bookstore, in a marvelous neo-Gothic building. Brace yourself with a coffee at the grand Art Nouveau Cafe Majestic before tackling the 225 steps of the Torre dos Clerigos for yet another breathtaking view of the city and river.

Also not to be missed is the vestibule of the Sao Bento train station, a monument to the Portuguese love affair with painted tiles (there are 20,000 of them there). Farther downhill is the Igreja de Sao Francisco, in which someone appears to have detonated an explosion of carved and gilt Baroque ornament inside a decidedly more austere — but no less impressive — 14th-century Gothic church.

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