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Scenery in Porto is as intoxicating as its world class wines

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Porto, Portugal

Porto, Portugal

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Porto, Portugal

Wines have always been a key part of Portuguese life. The Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians and Carthaginians all imported wines from the country. And the appellation system for wine production was in operation in the Douro valley 200 years before France.

To celebrate such a rich heritage, a 'World of Wine' experience will open in Porto in March (for details see wow.pt). An £85million investment, it will showcase Portuguese wines in a museum with restaurants and bars. And it will attract visitors from around the globe.

I sit in one of the city's port producing houses: Graham's (established 1820), looking down on one of the most beautiful sights in all Europe. At a restaurant on the terrace with a glass of their product close by, I watch as a little boat, carved in the shape of an old rabelo, chugs gently upstream against the early evening tide. The slipping sun's rays illuminate the dazzling array of colours.

These small, flat-bottomed boats have been used for centuries to move goods and people along Portugal's great river. You like beautiful locations and stunning views? You won't do better than this. As for history, the hills either side of the Douro river have been worked by mankind since the time of Jesus. Today, this area is so special it has been designated a Unesco world heritage site.

Porto is one of Europe's gems. And its history tells a tale that relates to 2020 and Brexit.

In 1703, with France at war with England, few French wines were exported to England. It didn't take long for the thirsty English to discover a replacement source. Portugal. The 'Port Wine Treaty' was signed, with Portuguese wines imported into England subjected to a third less duty than the French wines.

Trade with France fell off a cliff and the Portuguese took advantage. Maybe a lesson to remember for the UK and EU negotiators as they try to agree a trade deal this year.

Porto is a visitor's delight. The Douro splits the city in two - Villa Nova de Gaia, where the big port houses are based, is over the bridge from the old town. And you can either walk across the bridge or get a ferry for €1.50.

On the city side, a hotchpotch of small streets from the Sao Bento railway station, with its interior rich in the famous blue and white tiles, go tumbling down to the river. Their charm is that they are mainly private, individual shops, restaurants and little cafes. It is fascinating to explore them and don't miss the pasteis de nata, Portuguese custard tarts. They are delicious and more-ish.

You'll find Porto great value for eating and drinking. Restaurant and bar prices are very acceptable.

Overlooking the river, stands the elegant Hotel Pestana Vintage Porto. It is probably the finest in the city. It comprises a set of properties which was originally nine separate buildings on the waterfront. The architectural transformation into a single, 48-bedroom hotel, has been stunning. I loved the innovation, the way the architect designed cosy little corners, bars and small relaxing areas for guests' use. The 16th and 17th century exterior is unaltered but what you find inside is a triumph of creative design, luxury and elegance.

Hotel manager Bruno Ribeiro says "This company's aim is to create the atmosphere for a personalised way of greeting people and of serving them". They certainly achieve that.

And Ribeiro offers more good news. "We are completely open to special deals for all our guests."

In other words, if you don't ask you won't get. The hotel is not cheap. But it is well worth treating yourself. It offers a fabulous experience. And their Rib, Beef and Wine restaurant is superb.

But one thing has long mystified me about short city breaks. Most people would fly to Porto, then fly home. I've done it myself. So this time I made it a two cities break. I caught the express train from Porto to the capital, Lisbon, a two hour 45 minutes ride in much comfort.

And it's reasonable. Second class single tickets on the Alfa Pendular high speed train go from €29 to €51. Concessions are less. The express inter-city train is a little cheaper.

Lisbon is huge, sprawling, extensive and a complete contrast to the intimacy of Porto. Lisbon has been one of Europe's great trading ports down the centuries and the elegant public buildings reflect that.

I tried two more Pestana group hotels: the Pestana Palace, built in the late 1800s. It is some distance out in the suburbs and perfect for a retreat, a complete rest, with its sauna, pool and fitness centre. But in the heart of the city is the Pousada hotel, ideally situated for business visitors and tourists. It stands little more than 100 yards from the Tagus river.

A new Lisbon was built from 1755 following a disastrous earthquake. Close by the waterfront are some mighty buildings, impressive in magnitude. But board the No. 28 tram in the city centre and you will enjoy a fascinating 45-minute rumble through the heart of old Lisbon. It twists, turns and ascends inclines, some of the streets so narrow you end up peering into private houses as you clank your way past.

The Chiado district is a good, central area for small restaurants offering a variety of cuisines. Here, you'll also find luxury shopping, historic landmarks plus theatres and museums. And in all the restaurants and most bars, you will be proudly offered a glass (or bottle) of the many Portuguese wines. The choice is at times overwhelming so ask your waiter for a good recommendation. You're unlikely to be disappointed. Lisbon is more buzzy, noisy and bigger than Porto. That is one reason why a second airport is being built. But then, that is the attraction of a twin-city trip. A feast of contrasts.

Travel factfile

Hotel Pestana Vintage Porto. Tel: 00351 223402300

Pestana Pousada Hotel Lisbon. Tel: 00351 218442001

Pestana Palace Hotel Lisbon. Tel: 00351 213615600

www.pestanacollection.com

easyJet fly from Belfast to Porto and Lisbon, with a stop at London Gatwick. Dublin to Lisbon is direct on Aer Lingus, TAP and Ryanair.

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