Sydney Paulden speaks on behalf of a group visit hosted by Tiara HotelsWe arrived at the Tiara Park Atlantic Hotel in Porto on Thursday just in time for dinner – and we arrived back home in England just in time for a Sunday lunch. The structure of this 3-night Fam Trip was food, followed by fun, then more food, more fun – but it was interspersed with site inspections of a range of fascinating and different types of venue and visitor attractions.
Porto is located in Portugal at the point where the River Douro meets the sea. The Douro Valley is one of Europe’s most picturesque landscapes and quite properly designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its hills sweeping down to the river are terraced vineyards and were the first to be declared a protected wine designation. Because they have been created and tended as narrow strips of land over centuries they are unsuitable for mechanisation, so the grapes are tended by hand, collected by hand and crushed by foot, maintaining a sense in the whole region of tradition, culture and character that has no equal. It is hard for the locals, but remarkably attractive to visiting groups.
Not only the valley of vineyards, but also the old city of Porto where the port wine is blended, aged and shipped is an unforgettably picturesque UNESCO site, so cameras (almost synonymous nowadays with mobile phones) are seriously overworked in the hands of delegates. The broad Douro was constantly maintained as a navigable waterway so that the barrels of wine could be sailed down from the Quintas (wine estates). Motorways now make that aspect of the business more mechanised, with huge tankers moving it by road, so the original small sailing ships, moored alongside the port wine lodges downtown, serve very much as beautiful monuments to the old days.
City’s Harry Potter connections
We became very familiar with the city by means of a team competition. We had to find our way around the busy streets and answer questions on many of its key sights. These included the Livraria Lello, said to be the world’s most beautiful bookshop. We didn’t argue this claim when we saw its carved wooden double staircase, its ornate stained glass ceilings and its bold use of bright red carpet. The general comment was ‘Very Harry Potter’ and it was evident that some of the decor in that series of books is heavily influenced by what Joanne Rowling saw during the many months she spent in Porto as a teacher of English.
Our competitive searches took us to Porto’s old covered market and into picturesque coffee bars and restaurants and along its street of goldsmiths.
Among the venues inspected were the Moorish Hall of the Palacio da Bolsa with its unforgettably elaborate designs and, at the other end of the scale, the ultra-modern, even futuristic, Casa da Musica, all asymmetrical metallic silver and glass.
Two of the impressive steel bridges that link the opposite sides of the city across the river have links with Gustave Eiffel who went on to construct his iconic tower in Paris. The busy clusters of streets on the hill on one side contrast with the port wine lodges on the other. Here are establishments with names such as Sandeman, Taylors, Graham, Dow, Fonseca where port wine was first blended and is still a mainstay of the Portuguese economy.
The Brits had a big role in the industry for historical reasons. The superb wine from the Douro Valley used to be shipped to England across the Bay of Biscay and often arrived tasting of vinegar because of the rough passage. The British traders discovered that if it was blended with brandy, it not only travelled well but tasted great.
An important local establishment that is not of British origin is Calem. It was founded over 150 years ago by a Portuguese family. This was the lodge that invited our group on a tour of its premises, where we learned a great deal of how the port wine is blended and aged. We were introduced, in fascinating detail, to tawny, ruby and white port and, now, rosé. We were then hosted in one of the lodge’s beautiful function rooms where not only did we savour a different port with each dish, but we all developed a taste for ‘port and tonic’ as an aperitif. This could well be the next big thing at cocktail parties round the world.
The lodges, such as Calem, offer themselves for meetings, corporate hospitality, gala dinners and incentive tours.
We dined that evening in 44 Restaurant in what had been an old warehouse in the harbour, where there are many eateries specialising in seafood. For those interested, the high profile football match between F C Porto and Benfica (of Lisbon) was projected on a high white wall.
Douro Valley is a UNESCO site
After a second night in the strategically located Tiara Park Atlantic Hotel, we went by coach deep into the Douro Valley. ‘Douro’ derives from the Latin meaning ‘of gold’ and was named when the occupying Romans discovered gold in the river. Now the valley’s treasure is in its terraced vineyards that earned the region the world’s first ever wine appellation in 1756.
En route for lunch on a quinta (wine estate) we stopped off at the town of Amarante. This is a stop worth including in any leisure or incentive programme, as it is a town dating from the 4thC, reached by a beautiful bridge over the River Tamega, a tributary of the Douro.
The focal point of a visit here is the Church of San Goncalo, named in honour of the saint who lived here in the 12thC. He is particularly revered for his services to womanhood, because in an age when women could find little support or comfort during times of personal trouble, he was always ready to receive them and give them assistance. One of the main problems facing women was barren-ness, as they got the blame if children did not ensue after marriage. San Concalo gained a reputation for assisting women in praying for children and that belief appears to exist strongly today. In fact, a statue of a male with a phallus had to be relocated to a high shelf out of reach of visitors, because it was being damaged by women anxious to pray to become pregnant.
A folk belief of this intensity is naturally a great source of tourism income and local bakeries are amongst those that cash in. They sell long sturdy loaves of bread decorated with icing, combined with two bread rolls more than reminiscent of a rampant phallus. Once again food and lots of fun were combined on our trip, this time for an outlay of only 3 euros.
We were hosted to a great lunch at the Quinta da Pacheca, which is a successful vineyard but which has also invested in first class function rooms and events services. The journey from Porto to this area of the Douro Valley can be achieved by any combination of coach, train or boat. The river is navigable all the way from Porto and a slow boat can be a great way to travel to see the panoramic views – with a rapid return on the motorway.
Another memorable option is to travel either way or both ways by the single-track railway, on which whole carriages can be reserved for groups. It can be pulled by diesel or steam engine and its route takes in 26 tunnels and 30 bridges, with views of the river most of the time. The vineyard has brought 350 people to an event by train.
Quinta da Pacheco has been producing wine for over 100 years and has an output of a quarter of a million bottles. It has also, in more recent times, immersed itself in the incentive travel and meetings business. Depending on the harvest and the time of the year, groups can actually take off shoes and socks and trample the juice out of the crops in huge stone vats. The estate has also added a hotel with 15 deluxe guestrooms.
The Porto and the River Douro have a lot to offer. It is not difficult to concoct a programme from a bevy of different experiences, each unique to the region, all adding up to a memorable visit. We were very sure of that after only three nights.
Quinta, the word for a vineyard or other type of agricultural estate in Portugal, derives from the days when tenants paid landowners a ‘fifth’ (a ‘quinta’) of their income, in the way that British tenants used to pay a tithe (tenth) to the church in the Middle Ages.
The Tiara Park Atlantic Porto
Tiara Park Atlantic Hotel, our base for three nights, is centrally located in Porto on the Avenida Boa Vista. It is one of the Tiara Group’s 5-star properties, offering high quality at modest prices. Its Poivron Rouge (Red Pepper) restaurant delighted us with its innovative cuisine, especially when we learned that its chef is only 23 years old. The conference rooms all have natural daylight and the ballroom, divisible into two, can seat up to 400 delegates. Tiara is represented in the UK by Ellicis Hotels Representation and its two founders, sisters Kate Norris and Jo Till, accompanied the group of UK MICE buyers on the visit. TAP (Air Portugal) flies direct to Porto from Luton in just over two hours and a big advantage is that Portugal is on the same time as the UK, so there is no re-adjustment required for a time differential.