Porto lies on the mouth of the Douro River which stretches almost 900km from its source in Northern Spain to where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Porto lies on one side of the river – on the opposite (south) side is Vila Nova de Gaia (more about that later). Several bridges cross the river, but the largest and most famous is the Dom Luís I Bridge, a double-deck metal arch bridge that when constructed in 1886 was the longest (at 172 metres) of its type in the world.
Dom Luís I Bridge was designed by Théophile Seyrig, a German engineer who previously had founded Eiffel and Company with Gustave Eiffel. Seyrig, now working with a different company beat out Eiffel to win a competition to build the Dom Luís I Bridge. It’s a double level bridge, with cars on the lower level and trains on the top level. Pedestrians can access either level. Dom Luís I, in case you were wondering, was the King of Portugal from 1861 to 1889.
We opted to walk across the top level. I’m here to tell you it is very high – if you suffer from vertigo, don’t look down! It’s not a difficult walk, as long as you keep an eye out for trains, and the views of the historic waterfront of Porto, and the port wine lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia are second to none.
Vila Nova de Gaia (or just Gaia), on the south side of the bridge, is the home of port wine. Port wine or “vinho do Porto“, is a Portuguese fortified wine produced with distilled grape spirits exclusively in the Douro Valley in the northern provinces of Portugal. There are fortified wines made elsewhere, but they are not allowed to be called “port”. The grapes are grown, pressed and bottled in the valley, then shipped downstream to Gaia in traditional boats called barcos rabelos to age in “lodges” or cellars on the cool riverbank. Nowadays the shipping is mostly done by tankers, but otherwise not much has changed in centuries.
Touring the port lodges is the number one tourist activity in this city. We chose to visit Taylor’s, which is one of the oldest port houses. It’s also one of the highest, sitting at the top of a steep hill. A tip for the uninitiated – Porto and Lisbon are very hilly cities, and google maps walking directions do not take steepness into account. We found that out the hard way! But we did enjoy a lovely invigorating walk through the narrow lanes of Gaia.
Taylor’s was established in 1692, and is very well set up for visitors, with a self-paced audio-guide explaining the history of Taylor’s, the port making process and the different varieties available. It ends with a port tasting – the first of many on this trip. By the time we finished we were quite worn out. It was a long day after an overnight flight, so we opted to Uber back to our Airbnb. It was fun to drive across the lower level of the Dom Luís I Bridge.