Well hello, I hope you had a lovely bank holiday weekend. As you know we spent ours in the sunshine with Gillian and Stephen who started off as Midlifechic readers (well perhaps not Stephen) but have now become firm friends. With disrupted travel it’s been a hectic week since we got home so I’m inviting you to join us for what will have to be a whistlestop tour of our midlife weekend in Porto.
A midlife weekend in Porto – arrival
As Gilly and Stephen are based in Scotland we travelled out separately. Our flight was one of those horribly early ones that mean you leaving home at 3am but the great thing about Porto of course is that it’s a short flight to the same time zone so by 10am we’d already dropped our bags off at the hotel. As the others weren’t due in until late that evening Mal and I strolled out, blinking in the surprise of sunshine and realising how little of it we’ve felt on our skin this summer.
We’d booked a TukTuk tour of the city but at the last minute were told that the TukTuk had broken down so there was nothing for it but to relax over our first Portuguese lunch with a glass of vinho verde. We ate at Solar Moinho de Vento, a very traditional local restaurant that was a lucky find serving fresh fish with ‘brothy rice’. As you can see it’s in a lovely sunny square but the cosy interior would also feel special on a cooler day – I’d highly recommend it. We then mooched happily around Porto until it was time to check into our room.
We’d booked into Hotel Tipografia da Conto in the Cedofeita district which is a fifteen minute walk from the old town. It’s a former typography centre which was heaven for my font geek of a husband.
Everywhere you look there are passages on graphic design and art criticism from international authors, all meticulously set into concrete in low relief.
We were feeling a bit fuzzy headed from the lack of sleep by this point so we spent the afternoon there and when we heard that Gilly and Stephen’s evening flight was delayed, headed off early to our comfortable bed.
A midlife weekend in Porto – Friday
The next morning we met up for breakfast. This has been a year of celebration for our buddies partly because Gilly’s had a well deserved promotion that takes her from a national to a global position. This will make her blush but I want to fly her flag for being an inspiration to us all as someone who’s really geared up in midlife. She pulled her career back while her boys were little but kept things turning over and didn’t lose sight of her ambition. As they grew, she threw herself back into it and now she’s achieving everything she’d hoped for. Hopefully it shows that the workplace is starting to recognise the value that midlife women bring. To be a great leader you don’t have to be a ballbreaker (or a man). A great human being like Gilly with her blend of warmth, intelligence and intuition is far more likely to get results.
Gilly and Stephen have both been celebrating their 50th birthdays this year too. It’s difficult to know what to buy for people our age who tend to have everything they want or need so we booked a surprise for them – a food tour of Porto. It was led by this lovely chap Manu who by night is a theatre lighting specialist. By day however he continues the passion of his history loving father by leading these food tours which take you off the beaten track to the places the locals love. I confess that I lost count of the number of stops we had, each with a little taste of a particular speciality, all of them wonderful.
Here we were in the Mercado do Bolhao which is an incredible place, filled with individual traders all specialising in specific wares. It was completely renovated after lockdown and so it’s probably the cleanest, freshest trading market you’ve ever experienced. Manu told us all about Portuguese wine…
… sardines of course and you can see some of the beautiful packaging behind Gillian…
… cheese and more wine…
… and bacalhau (salted cod). I love this picture, it sums up the mischief that goes on when these two get together. It isn’t often that you meet a new friend as I did with Gilly and then discover that your husbands have an equal rapport. There are moments when I think Mal and Stephen were separated at birth!
Anyway the tour of the market continued with charcuterie and then moved on to a pasteleria specialising in freshly baked pastel de nata…
… sprinkled with cinnamon and served with shots of coffee.
My favourite stop was Conga, the locals’ equivalent of fast food where people queue for bifanas, tiny soft white rolls filled with pulled pork in a peri peri sauce. Don’t miss it, even now I can’t get the flavour out of my head.
We were in a lovely group of eight: us, a young couple form Boston and a Kiwi mum and son. They were great company and here Manu had taken us through an ordinary looking grocery store to a secret garden cafe at the back. Apparently places like this are relics from the days of Portugal’s dictatorship, spots where people could gather away from the scouring eyes of the state.
(Gillian’s dress, mine Boden SS23)
And our tour ended in an old grocery shop from the colonial era with our first taste of tawny port. It was served with walnut halves slotted into dried figs – such a simple idea but the perfect pairing. You can find the tour we did here and for me, it was the absolute highlight of our brilliant trip.
After all of that food we agreed we needed a restorative nap so we headed back to the hotel for a couple of hours until it was time to get changed and go out for the evening.
Gillian’s dress – River Island SS23; cardigan, Me – Mango dress SS23; Massimo Dutti sandals SS23
Gillian had managed to get us a late table at Rua which serves fantastic tapas and has live Bossa Nova style music.
It was a great end to an absolutely brilliant day.
A midlife weekend in Porto – Saturday
On Saturday we spent another lazy morning at the hotel and then headed out for a different experience. We started with lunch besides the Dom Luis bridge which stretches over the River Douro. You can just see the cafe here, it’s a great spot but as with all touristy places like this, probably better for a quick drink than for food. However we’d been told to line our stomachs because we were crossing over to the port district of Gaia for some serious port tasting.
You can visit the port houses individually for their in-house tastings but we were looking for independent, unbiased learning. We’d decided to book a tour of three different places so that we could compare the large houses with the small. We started off here with one of the biggest ones – Kopke and Burmester which unusually were founded by the Germans rather than the British.
I’m sure you’ll know the history of port – in a nutshell we were told that it was created by the British when we were at war with France in the 1200s and the French stopped supplying us with wine. At the time we had a strong alliance with Portugal so we looked to them to keep the wine flowing but the very fresh styles of Portuguese wine didn’t travel well. However we Brits were not easily discouraged and soon discovered that if we stopped the grapes’ fermentation early by adding brandy to the process, it ‘fortified’ it and the longer it was left in the cask or the bottle, the better it tasted.
To this day the banks of the Douro are emblazoned with English names – Crofts, Sandeman, Taylor’s, Graham’s, Cockburn’s etc. It felt similar to the sherry industry in Jerez although I have to say that the thing that raises Jerez above Porto for me is that the locals truly have a passion for their produce. We were told that port is mostly produced for export and the locals rarely drink it. The industry is busy trying to push a new rosé port along with ‘porto-tonico’ as a concept in the hope that it will open up more of a domestic market but neither option tasted great to me.
Anyway yet again we had a good guide who was enthusiastic about his subject.
And we listened carefully as he explained about blends versus single harvests and vintage versus LBV.
With some of us swotting up…
… and others simply enjoying the experience!
Twas ever thus – and even more so when he has a partner in crime!
Yet again it was an tour I’d recommend. The port we all really loved came from Quevedo, the tiniest port house, a small and relatively new company that’s sweeping up awards across the board so we were glad we found it. We’d have completely missed it without this tour. You can find details of our tour here …
…and take the advice about lining your stomach first seriously, it’s a lot of port to drink in one afternoon! So, we went back to the hotel for a break and a hundred glasses of water, got changed…
…and headed out for food but forgot to take any photos other than these. Our evening ended in a disco bar with us dancing as if nobody was watching (although they probably were and rolling their eyes). Always a joy!
Gillian: Mint Velvet top, Zara trousers : me – dress (gifted SS23); sandals and bag past season
A midlife weekend in Porto – Sunday
One of the many good things about being with Gilly and Stephen is that we have an easy understanding of each other. I’ve joked about Mal and Stephen being twin-like but actually it’s Stephen and I who share a fundamental personality type. If you’ve ever worked in a business that uses Myers-Briggs trait scoring as we all have, it will make sense when I say that he and I are both INTJ; Mal is ENTJ and Gillian is ENFJ. And if you’re into Myers-Briggs, it’s particularly interesting because they’re three of the rarest trait combinations – I guess that makes us oddbods and perhaps that’s why we all get on so well! Anyway, the key thing is the I which stands for introvert and means that although we’re both very outgoing, Stephen and I need to withdraw every so often to recharge.
With that in mind, we’d decided in advance that we’d have a couples’ day on the Sunday and go off in our own directions. Mal and I were keen to spend a day at the beach which isn’t Gillian and Stephen’s idea of fun so it made even more sense. Mal had researched the perfect place for us beforehand but when we mentioned we were looking forward to some fresh fish, the staff at the hotel told us that we had to go to Matosinhos instead. So, we jumped in an Uber (Ubers are incredibly cheap in Porto – about 8 Euros for a 20 minute journey) and looked forward to our day. When we got there though it was a run down little town based around an old oil refinery and a very industrial working port.
We looked hard to find an element of shabby charm but the promenade was lined with endless blocks of 1970s concrete apartment buildings. It didn’t help that the wind was beyond ferocious with blasts that actually knocked me off my feet at one point. However, being northern we’re used to that – we’d come to sunbathe so sunbathe we did, lying on the beach in the dust storm. It’s a good job we’d taken this photo beforehand because when we stood up, we were like walking sand sculptures!
At lunchtime we headed to the streets where the fish restaurants are. It wasn’t the pretty seafront set-up we’d hoped for – everyone was sheltering in plexiglass boxes. The food looked great but every single place was rammed.
So, we wandered around for a while and came across this stunning depiction of wives waiting for the fishermen to return. We lingered at a fast food beach café and then headed back to the restaurants only to find they’d all closed for the day! So there was nothing for it but to go back to the seafront where we ordered a couple of cocktails and found we couldn’t stop laughing at how things had turned out…
… especially when Gilly and Stephen shared photos of their trip out on a luxurious catamaran, sailing in style towards the sunset!
It was lucky that we’d got the giggles because when we went out that evening, things continued to go wrong (although looking at the bright side you can see how well exfoliated our faces were after our sandblasting!)
I was keen to go back to the Gaia side of the river because the restaurants had looked so pretty when we left the port tasting…
… which just shows what ‘port goggles’ can do for you – they were tacky tourist traps. We walked for ages to try and find a good spot until I was so desperate for the loo that we popped into the market where we found the toilets ankle deep in ordure. Sometimes though when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go and I won’t elaborate on the outcome for my long, loose trousers and sandals! By this point we were hungry, cold and smelly and so there was nothing for it but to stop at the next place we found and order a big bowl of cheap pasta. As we did a busker started up with vocals reminiscent of the worst karaoke bars that we pass on a Saturday night in Newcastle. It was a ridiculous end to a ridiculous day but actually it didn’t matter because we laughed more than we have for ages. Not every day’s the dream you imagine, it just is what you make of it.
A midlife weekend in Porto – Monday
Back with our (better organised) friends, we’d all left the following day free so we chatted over breakfast about what we should do and decided to visit the new WOW cultural district. It’s over in Gaia and it centres on the World of Wine which as you’ll have guessed aims to educate you about Portuguese wine. By this point we weren’t feeling up to another tasting experience but there’s also a cork museum, a chocolate museum, a stunningly restored arcade of art and design shops and the Atkinson museum which was holding a kinetic exhibition curated by The Tate. The strange thing was that we were almost the only people in the whole complex which is a shame – a lot of investment has clearly gone into it but it needs some serious marketing.
After all of that it was time for a late lunch in the sunshine with a spectacular view across the river to Porto.
Boden dress (SS22)
We’d heard the news about all flights in and out of the UK being cancelled and Gillian and Stephen had a middle of the night departure ahead so we just sat and relaxed…
… concluding that if we were stuck for a few more days it wouldn’t be too bad.
Back at the hotel these two had been itching to do this all weekend…
We’d had plenty to eat for one day so we walked out through Porto for one last sunset at a cool bar we’d spotted to take Gilly and Stephen’s minds off the looming flight chaos.
We stopped off for one last photo…
Gilian – dress (now in the sale); Me – Me+Em dress (SS22)
… and before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye. It was back to being just the two of us – our flight wasn’t until the following evening so we had one more free day ahead.
Me+Em cashmere cardigan (SS22)
A midlife weekend in Porto – Tuesday
So, we decided to do a few of the things we’d missed but first we popped back to Conga for another barrafina.
Being a railway station nerd I was keen to see Porto’s famous tiled ticket office…
… and we went to the home of Claus Porto soaps to see the displays of their beautiful packaging over the centuries.
Then we jumped onto one of the lovely old trams and headed out to the coast to see if Mal had been right about the perfect spot for our seaside day.
To his satisfaction it turned out that we should have trusted his judgement all along. We had the perfect afternoon we’d hoped for at Praia da Luz in Foz where there’s a pretty (and sheltered) sandy cove with a groovy beach bar attached.
After a fish lunch it was time to go home.
So, that was our midlife weekend in Porto and even though we all left feeling tired, we were tired but happy. As Gilly said, our cups of joy were filled to the brim and that’s what you hope for from time away with friends isn’t it? I’ll leave you with our top midlife weekend in Porto recommendations and I’ll be back next Friday with some early thoughts about the season ahead. We need to get our style ducks in a row before we start being distracted by everything new.
A midlife weekend in Porto – top tips
- Solar Moinho de Vento
- Rua (go for an earlier sitting, the music finished at 10.30pm)
- Conga (barafinas – be prepared to queue for a table)
- Pip – over in the WOW complex. Superb pizzas and a great view over the river to the city
- Matosinhos – if you’re a lover of simple fish go early on a Sunday to get a table. It isn’t picturesque but it’s a great way to experience local Portuguese life and the fish offering looks superb at every place you pass.
- Aduela – our absolute favourite, a traditional buzzy bar with great wine
- Candelabro – a great place to sit outside in the evenings and the start of the buzzy nightlife area
- Champanheria de Baixa – for fizz lovers (next door to Candelabro)
- Base – for watching the sunset, a sophisticated younger scene with good music (outdoor)
- Foz – walk along until you get to the Praia da Luz
Disclosure: ‘A midlife weekend in Porto’ is not a sponsored post
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