Across the river from Porto

Jack Montgomery , 06 September, 2017
Jack Montgomery explores Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto and home to the Douro’s world-famous wine lodges, scattered among a warren of atmospheric streets...

The last thing I expected when taking to the back streets of Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto's famous port-producing district, was to come face-to-face with a building-sized rabbit made from bits of metal and discarded rubbish. Before anyone asks, this is before any fortified wine has passed my lips.

It might sound an odd thing to say, given the fact that a visit to one of Porto's port cellars is on the itinerary of just about everyone who visits the grand old dame of a city, but there's a feeling Vila Nova de Gaia remains a bit of an unexplored secret. Most visitors bus in, learn about the port industry, sample a few tipples, and bus out again. When I come face-to-face with the giant bunny there are no other tourists, only a quartet of stalls selling clothes and hats and a couple of locals going about their business.

I reach Vila Nova de Gaia by strolling across the lower deck of the Dom Luis I Bridge, a 395-metre-long forged iron work of architectural art constructed in 1886 which leaves me with slight neck ache. Its wrought iron curve, claimed to be the largest of its kind in the world, acts like a magnet for my eyes, drawing them upwards, and leading to serious neck craning the closer I am to the bridge.

Once on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the bridge my fickle eyes reject the intricate ironwork in favour of the fleet of rabelo  boats which add splashes of colour to the riverside scene. At one time hundreds of these picturesque craft sailed the river, transporting wine casks from the upper Douro Valley to the port warehouses which give this side of the river its personality. The rabelos  are pretty and practical; a flat bottom designed to skim over shallow stretches, the slim girth for squeezing through narrow gorges, and a long oar essential for maximum manoeuvrability when negotiating rapids. The sail is for the return journey upriver.

Ironically the bridge, which combined with the boats makes for a uniquely Porto photograph opportunity, is partly the reason for the rabelo's redundancy. The development of rail and road links with the upper valley made the potentially dangerous river transport unnecessary.

After fawning over the boats for a while I tear myself away from the riverside and head into the warren of streets running parallel to the Douro. When the production of Port was at its zenith the lanes behind the warehouses were home to carpenters, locksmiths and other trades associated with the industry. Away from the river there's still the air of a district relatively untouched by tourism.

This is a more tranquil side of the river, and there are curios alongside the old shops and cafés. Stairs in an unassuming alley are illustrated with mini workmen painting the façades of houses, mirroring the area's ongoing renovation. A photographic exhibition chronicles life in the past on the Douro, there's the giant metal rabbit, and the historic cloisters of the Monastery of St Domingos feature a row of heads on stone poles; contemporary art... at least I hope that's what it is.

Constant companions as I wander are signs for the port cellars, many nostalgically familiar. Cockburn's and Sandeman evoke thoughts of Yuletide, thanks to TV adverts, whilst Graham's, Croft and Taylor's are additional reminders that Porto's port industry evolved and thrived thanks to the entrepreneurial skills of British merchants.

The more I get to know Vila Nova de Gaia, the more it reveals the depth of its character. The cellars have become a major tourist attraction but they're more than that. They still produce port in much the same way they always have done. They're a working link to the past, keeping history and tradition alive on the left bank of the Douro river.

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