Luxury and Portugal didn’t seem to me like very compatible bedfellows, but I was wrong. What bliss there is to be discovered here! Luxury; discreet, surprising, original, charming.
Here’s the paradox about the high life. It can feel so extremely impersonal. It can make you feel low. It can make you feel like an imposter, even if the cheque is in your name. It can be so unwelcoming, so rude, so bitchy… despite the lure being one of absolute comfort, pleasure, and “exclusivity”: an ugly word meaning special, separated from the ordinary world, separated from ordinary problems. Buying luxury is buying the promise of a little happiness. I guess that’s why it can be so disappointing when it doesn’t deliver.
But they’ll be none of that here. Instead there will be too many superlatives.
We arrive in Porto at the dream barn car park of the Palácio do Freixo. Porsche, Porsche, Ferrari, S-Class, Maserati, 1987 Mercedes diesel estate with some trim missing, Porsche. I’ve never seen people posing for photos in a car park before, so that’s got to mean we’re in Portugal. Not up ourselves.
Visible as you enter Porto from the Freixo bridge, Palácio do Freixo is a baroque architectural classic by Nasoni and typifies the completely gorgeous perfection that 18th century Portuguese architecture rose to. It’s a cupcake fairytale of a building with a few original public salons that haven’t been ruined by over zealous restoration. The rooms themselves, all set in a modern annex, aren’t bedazzling but the pool and bar on the river’s edge was an excellent way to introduce our very special guests to a week’s worth of Douro decadence.
That night we ate at the Yeatman Hotel, one of the two Michelin-starred restaurants in the north of Portugal. Frankly I was a bit worried, and tested, as they had all gone Michelin the night before in Spain, with mixed reviews. It became a bit FC Porto vs Real Madrid.
The Yeatman is pretty new and like the Freixo, the location alone is worth a million bucks. High on the hill of Vila Nova de Gaia, the panoramic view of Porto stretching from Ponte Dom Luis I to Massachusetts, a million little lights cascading down into the river, and then the moon rising over the Mosteiro do Sierra do Pilar, well…golly gosh.
And then the food. You can only rarely expect that the intricate, elaborate miniature artworks that these kitchens create will also possess an alchemy of surprise and flavour and delight, that elevate a meal into an experience. It really was extraordinary.
Mercifully, despite the nonsense formality and ritual, the service was also charming, with the young staff not being quite as serious as the atmosphere intended.
(The hotel itself looks ghastly btw, Modern American Plantation in primary colours. Half expected Julia Roberts in a hoop skirt).
Day two started frighteningly hungover and then it got worse. I had researched Douro boat trips for a month in an attempt to avoid what I suspected could be a really nasty crowded smelly tedious loud and trashy experience. The company I booked with was Rent Douro but all the boats are in collaboration and we got sold on, cheaply. Despite promises and photographs to the contrary, we became stuck on a boat for 5 hours with 200 too many people, bad food, bad music, bad fashion and the Zumba. It was horrendous. The Douro isn’t even pretty until the last hour before Peso da Régua, so it’s just a complete waste of time. For god’s sake, take the train. The stations on the Douro are the cutest in the universe.
All of this was forgotten once we walked through the doors of the Aquapura Hotel. Everything about the Aquapura is perfect. Architecturally it is designed to draw the outdoors in and you feel swamped by the beauty of the Douro Valley. It might be disconcertingly dimly lit, but around each corner is an enormous picture window framing the lines and colour of vineyards and the spectacular light. Actually the presence of the outside is so strong that the interior design makes little impact at all, except perhaps for that lovely big green bath in the centre of our room. It was an enormously relaxing place, and although we did venture out to Lamego and some wineries, we were all pretty keen to come back and do nothing much, except be there.
Sadly, after a couple of days, we had another really nice place to go to. About 10 minutes up the road, across the river, there’s Quinta do Vallado, a family-owned working vineyard with a few rooms in the manor house and a bunch more in a very nicely designed modern wing. Massively tasteful and understated, more intimate, characterful and altogether a different kind of thing than Aquapura but still holding us there in with comfort and quietness. And good food.
I felt we were risking unhealthy levels of languid contentment so we set off on a adventure finding Quinta do Passadouro, tucked into one of the Douro’s deep clefts. Our destination lay in a chasm between two cars and two generations of GPS. As we locals know, GPS don’t differentiate well between new tar and centuries old donkey track with 50 degree gradient and hairpin turns unsuitable for E-class Mercedes hire cars and vertiginous types. Great wines once we got there though. We loaded up the trunks.
Perhaps a good point to mention, if you are planning a quick trip to prop up the Portuguese economy, deep Douro country is not the place to be caught short. Banks here are not agreeable in exchanging obscure Antipodean currencies and while the multibanco system (ATM) is excellent in many respects, providing a customer with voluminous wads of cash is not really its forte. The plastic was fine in fancy-land but hopeless on the street. Our jetsetters were well prepared, however, and one international money transfer at a pre-ordained favourable exchange rate kept the palms greased and wheels oily or whatever the metaphor.
Now we left the Douro proper and headed for Amarante, via the lovely Casa Mateus, just to show I really knew something about quality wines. At Amarante there was the Casa da Calçada, a large posh place of the pompous kind, all heavy drapes and aristocratic imagery. The kids took the presidential suite, because they could. We were there for the food at Largo da Paço, the other Michelin star of the north. I wonder now if after 5 days we had fortune fatigue as while the meal was astonishing, we couldn’t help comparing it to that first night at the Yeatman. Sigh.
Our return to Porto proved we were not jaded. The Hotel Infante Sagres is as gay as a Mardi Gras. It’s Portuguese 18th century meets Versace. High camp, colour, magic and glamour. It looks like a party. I love it. So we dressed up and romped off to the Ribeira, where the promise of real food with the people waited to be found. Just some perfect treasure of a place I had to find… in the Ribeira.
VIP Mario and I hit the waterfront while the others watered their fronts. You know that waterfront, with the menus in several languages and the touts – I was just hoping there might be one shiny place I’d missed…we went upstairs, we went behind. Then we went to my favourite backstreet behind the Pestana where I’ve had many a real meal. Dodgy. Full. Maybe. Flags on menu. Empty. Too rustic. Then that was the end of the options. Regarding our prospects, I was thinking Holy Shit. BUT THEN I saw lights on in a teenie weenie building straight ahead, and despite being wildly discreet, I could smell ambiance.
The sign on the closed door said, “if you are in a hurry, go somewhere else”. We were hooked. It was a slow food place. We had hit the jackpot. I had to negotiate our way in, however, promising on scout’s honour that we would not want anything before 10pm.
“But you can serve us drinks, right?”
“Hmmm. OK, drinks only. But really no food, no bread, no menus, nothing before 10. I won’t look at you before 10.” He said. He was a feisty opponent this restaurant security guard host person. Earnest. Stubborn. Serious. This was all good.
“But after 10, we will be absolutely there for you. But it will be slow! You must be patient!”
I don’t know what sort of people he was used to dealing with but I knew we were the perfect customers. Dammed happy to be left alone with a fine wine of his choosing, and then another while our anticipation lifted elegantly like puffs of smoke from a Cuban cigar.
A tiny place, in the stone cellar style of the Riberia and we were in the back room with walls of wine boxes and candles. Linen. Reidel. This was restaurante ODE. We already knew it was going to be great.
He chose all the wines that night, our host, we trusted him so well. It was a wonderful meal, and a delicious end to a beautiful week.
Very special thanks to The Prez, Mrs Prez, Mars Prez and Dra Rob Prez. Lots of love.