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How to experience the wow factor in Porto

Opening new tourist attractions in the middle of a pandemic may prove to be an inspired move, as Sarah Marshall reports from Portugal

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Porto

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Porto

If you're ever offered port in a 2,000-year-old Roman cup, the trick is to hold it firmly, advises Adrian Bridge. The CEO of long-established family business Taylor's Port admits he's killed the mood of many dinner parties by whipping out the antique drinking vessels from his private collection.

"Everyone goes all terribly serious and they're not quite sure how to pick it up," he sighs.

Fortunately, the historic receptacles have now found a safe home behind glass in The Bridge Collection, which opens on July 31 as part of an ambitious €106m museum, bar and restaurant development in Porto's historic Vila Nova de Gaia district.

Using chalices, jars and antique stemware to tell the story of humanity through the ages, it's the only museum of its kind in the world.

But even more remarkable is the pluck to open a tourist attraction in the aftermath of a pandemic. Although it could also be considered a clever move.

With Portugal touted as one of the likely candidates to form an 'air bridge' with the UK and Ireland, the popular city and beach break destination could be a viable option for a summer holiday. It's also been celebrated as one of the 'safest' countries in Europe, with far fewer deaths from Covid-19 than elsewhere.

Bridge, who is also CEO of The Fladgate Partnership, the holding company thatstarted with the port business and has since extended its interests to the tourism industry, originally came up with the idea for WOW - World Of Wine - seven years ago. The five-star wine hotel, The Yeatman, and its Michelin-starred restaurant had already proved there was an appetite for food and wine tourism in Portugal's northern, Unesco-credited city.

Housed in converted port cellars on the southern bank of the Douro River, below the Dom Luis I Bridge, six interactive museum experiences (including The Bridge Collection) will be accompanied by a wine school, temporary exhibition space and nine restaurants, bars and cafes.

Some structural changes, such as the inclusion of more automatic doors, have been made to comply with new social distancing guidelines. But the concept remains the same.

In the Wine Experience, visitors can gain a greater understanding of wine production around the world; while Planet Cork tracks Portugal's role in the cork industry right back to its oak tree roots, and looks at how the material popularised by wine stoppers has also made its way into the aerospace industry and onto catwalks.

But wine is just the starting point; there's also a museum dedicated to the history of chocolate, and another space focused on Portuguese fabrics and fashion.

Across all attractions, there's one common theme: to teach people something interesting and new.

"You can't teach the world everything, but we certainly hope that all of our experiences do give people a 'wow' moment," says Bridge. "If visitors can go away with their eyes opened a little bit, then I hope it will be beneficial to them."

The history of colour, for example, forms a fascinating section in the Porto Fashion & Fabric Museum. From the Egyptians, who created shades of blue for their tombs by making glass and reducing it to powder, to Roman emperors, whose purple cloaks were dyed with pigment from 200,000 sea snails, there's pub quiz trivia galore.

Far from trivial, however, is the reality of coronavirus. As international travel slowly returns, people are likely to opt for remote beauty spots rather than busy cities. But Bridge is unperturbed.

"Portugal has had a good crisis, if you can call it that. Our healthcare system didn't struggle. Our people have been extremely compliant."

He hopes others will see the opening of WOW as a display of confidence, putting Porto "on the map on a greater, global scale".

"Travel has an important role to play; it's good for people to explore and understand other cultures. Maybe there'll be a slowdown. But we're a 328-year-old business; we understand long-term. For now, let's do our best."

Sunvil can tailor-make a gastronomic four-night Alentejo Food & Wine holiday from £496pp, including flights from Manchester. Departures available until November 4. Visit sunvil.co.uk or call 020 8568 4499.

1. THE SUSTAINABLE OPTION

If you prefer to explore as part of an organised tour, try Intrepid's four-day Portugal Retreat: Porto & the Douro Valley, part of the leading sustainable operator's new collection of closer-to-home adventures. Designed to benefit local communities, the itinerary includes port tasting in Porto, dining in seaside fishing town Matosinhos and a visit to small wineries in the Douro Valley. Intrepid will also 100% carbon offset the trip on your behalf. From £790pp including most meals (flights extra). The first tour departs July 31, pending FCO guidance, with regular trips until October. Visit intrepidtravel.com or call 0808 274 5111.

2. THE ACTIVE ADVENTURE

The Algarve is famous for its golden sand beaches, but inland, its time-warped, hilltop villages and fragrant orange tree groves are just as appealing. Combine it all with a self-guided walking holiday, using a converted quinta (farmhouse) as your base. Inntravel offer a seven-night Algarve's Coast & Hills itinerary from £675pp, including car hire (flights extra). Departures are available throughout the year; autumn temperatures are ideal for daytime hikes, and still warm enough for a paddle in the sea. Visit inntravel.co.uk or call 01653 617 001.

3. THE GASTRONOMIC CHOICE

Along with the Douro Valley, the vast Alentejo, which sits north of the Algarve, is Portugal's bread basket; expect to find rustic dishes, peppery olive oil and almost half of Portugal's wine production. Remote, white-washed villages are dotted between pine and cork forests, and the country's oldest city, Evora, charms with fine buildings and fountains in a tangle of narrow streets.

Belfast Telegraph