I’m just back from my latest family-friendly adventure… a city break to Porto with my two young children.
October saw our very first half-term. We are now locked into the school holiday schedule for the next 20 years. We needed to mark this auspicious occasion with wine. Thus, my husband and our two little ones (aged five and 15 months) embarked on another first – our first trip to Portugal!
We adored the country: great food and wine, friendly and helpful locals, unrivalled landscapes around the Douro Valley, and above all, great value.
Our adventure began in Porto, a historic and hilly city built along the Douro River estuary and founded by the Romans; its Latin name, Portus Cale, is said to have given rise to the word Portugal.
We stayed at 6Only for our first night. It’s a charming little 6-room B&B with equally charming owners, Mariana and Pedro, who can’t do enough for you. Completely renovated from a near derelict building, 6Only retains massive stone windows and doorframes and its original staircase, but is otherwise now coolly contemporary and uncluttered.
After our welcome glass of port we set forth to explore (6Only is just outside the historic centre, so everything’s within walking distance). Cobbles and strollers don’t make for the perfect match, but nothing daunted us and we strolled up, down and along, under arches, across viaducts, over tramlines, in parks, along the river, under bridges, and, at the day’s end, onto a funicular (max entertainment value for both kids).
Porto’s late medieval/baroque centre, the Ribeira, is now a UNESCO-listed World Heritage site that twists and tumbles through a maze of alleys and streets to the Douro River below. From the Romanesque cathedral, which impressed with its Gothic cloisters and tiling (the treasury of gruesome saints’ relics and gold-encrusted reliquaries did it for our daughter), we drank in the sight of the famous port lodges on the opposite bank.
Along the Douro we watched traditional port barges ply their (now touristy) trade, listened to an old accordion player, and ran after our toddler, whose newfound walking skills kept leading inexorably to the river.
Next, our adventure took us to the Douro Valley wine region, currently being marketed as the ‘next Tuscany’. This moniker seemed inaccurate given the difference both in physical geography (the Douro is characterised by steep vine terraces covering its hills and valleys) and in fermented grape juice output (port wine is still the Douro’s major export). Undeniably, though, the region is undergoing a Renaissance, whether Italian or not, as the Portuguese (and lucky folk such as ourselves) discover this rural idyll’s gastronomic bounty.
We stayed in the beautiful Quinta do Vallado, a family-run winery on the River Corgo. Eight years ago, they opened up their 18th-century manor house to guests – an instant success. Capitalising on the growth in wine tourism, a chic new slate and glass wing with an additional eight rooms followed last year.
We loved it here. Our room was supremely comfortable, and we all piled into the slate bath en famille! The food was simple yet sophisticated, and very particular to the region (those sausages will live long in the memory), while the breakfast buffet pulled off a rare trick by being both dainty and extensive.
You can have a massage – as we did – in the treatment room beside the vegetable gardens, or wallow in a pool framed by orange orchards (though it’s unheated; our daughter stood in the shallow end waiting for her feet to adjust in vain). There’s also a library for board games, plus a pool table. And all rooms have a balcony to better savour the long views across and down the valley; the slopes were drenched in russet autumnal hues during our visit.
We took a tour of the state-of-the-art steel winery, and plucked olives straight from the trees as an experiment (vile!). A highlight was a tranquil boat trip up the Douro, where we encountered cormorants and hawks, and gazed up at the port lodges perched above.
For our final night back in Porto, we splashed out at swanky The Yeatman, which has an unrivalled setting cascading down the hillside of the Vila Nova de Gaia district. Wine rules here, too: it has an outdoor infinity pool shaped like a decanter, as well as an indoor pool, terraces, a spa offering grape-infused treatments, and wide corridors with informative displays on wine production which we read while our offspring chased each other.
The hotel was also perfect for the kids, who loved the well-stocked playroom, colouring books, DVDs, candy and rides on the luggage trolley. And they were tickled pink by our bed in a wine barrel!
Best of all was the restaurant featuring a Michelin-starred chef – yes, we booked a babysitter for a wonderfully romantic dinner overlooking the Douro and the lights of the historic Ribeira district opposite.
We shall return to Portugal – a super family-friendly destination.