STAIRCASE TO HEAVEN: The Lello bookstore said to have inspired JK Rowling and the River Douro
Northern Portugal offers a snapshot of the country in miniature – the excitement of a coastal city combined with lovely landscapes, picturesque towns and mountain ranges.
Porto has such a laid-back vibe, it’s positively horizontal.
It’s a delight to spend hours wandering the backstreets with fabulously tiled houses that tumble down to the banks of the Douro river.
I stayed at the Hotel Infante Sagres in the centre of the city – Porto’s first five-star hotel, which has reopened this year following a major refurbishment.
Dark bedrooms have been updated with white walls and splashes of bright, Mediterranean colours offering contemporary luxury.
There’s also a stylish new Vogue magazine café.
Despite the different appearance, service remains warm and friendly, making it an ideal place to kick off your shoes after plodding Porto’s streets.
One surprise there was the Lello bookstore, built in 1906 in Gothic style with a sweeping staircase and fan-vaulted roof, that was said to have inspired Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who taught English in the city, to create the look of Hogwarts school in the famous books.
Elsewhere in Porto is the Clérigos Tower, a baroque monument which takes 240 steps to get up, and the São Bento railway station, decorated with blue-and-white hand-painted tiles showing the history of Portugal.
Visitors can cross the Douru river to Porto’s sister city, Gaia
Another must is to cross the Douro on the ferry to the sister city of Gaia to take a tour of the port wine lodges.
Just outside the city, around 35 miles away, is the medieval city of Guimarães, a Unesco world heritage site with a big part in the country’s history.
Portugal’s first king, Afonso, was born here, and you can see the church where he was baptised in front of the medieval castle.
The grand palace of the Dukes of Braganza shows the power this family held.
Guimarães has lots of well-preserved medieval buildings at its heart, with picture-perfect cobbled streets where you can shop for embroidered textiles or the delicate, filigree Viana jewellery that’s a speciality of the area.
A couple of miles from Guimarães are two lovely Pousadas – hotels in buildings of special historic interest.
Pousada Mosteiro de Guimarães is a 12th-century Augustinian convent converted into a hotel with simple, elegant rooms, beautiful mountain views and a lovely garden, with a modern pool and its own nature trail.
I stayed at the second hotel, the Pousada de Amares, a 12th-century Cistercian monastery which had fallen into disrepair after Portugal closed down all its religious orders in 1834.
BOLT FROM THE BLUE: The external wall of Santa Catarina church decorated with azulejos
Reincarnated as a luxury hotel, the sense of peace is still very much present from the moment you walk through an avenue of orange trees to take in the view of rolling green mountains from the hotel terrace, from whose pond some amorous frogs were making noisy mating calls – the only thing which interrupted the silence as I sipped a glass of slightly sparkling vinho verde, the area’s speciality young, green wine. Bedrooms are far from monastic.
Although they’re white walls and blond wood, with the tiny window seats the monks would sit on and contemplate the outside world, the bathrooms are huge and sleek, and the minibar is ingeniously hidden in the wall behind a painting.
What would the original inhabitants think? The town of Ponte de Lima makes for a laid-back stop-off.
Named after the crossing that’s been there since Roman times, there’s a relaxing riverfront walk with a famously lively market, the Feira Quinzenal, taking place every other Monday.
I lunched at the Manuel Padeiro, just behind the riverfront, and ate a veritable jigsaw of pork – a pigsaw, if you will.
Every conceivable part of the animal was used in a dish of pork, sausages, black pudding and rice cooked in pig’s blood, and for those with vaguely adventurous tastes, made a hearty change from the fish for which Portugal is so famous.
Close to Ponte de Lima is another relaxing hotel.
Walking into the reception area of Carmo’s Boutique feels like walking into the home of a friend, albeit one with infuriatingly good taste in interior decoration.
Minimal white walls are the background to squishy sofas, upright pianos, family photos, tasteful knickknacks and hundreds of books.
Drink and eat in Guimarães colourful city square
The reason it feels so homely yet tasteful is that owner Raquel has filled her hotel with many family pieces selected by her interior designer mother, and their eclectic taste continues in the bedrooms.
Mine had grey walls, some groovy 1970s chairs and lovely artwork; this, plus a high, queen-size four poster (with a mirror on the ceiling…), and sliding doors opening on to a jasmine-filled terrace; it’s the very definition of a modern, romantic hotel.
The hotel also has a small spa with the feel of a Turkish hammam, which offers treatments such as the Cleopatra bath in 280 litres of goats’ milk, perhaps from the goats which live in the mountainous, nearby Peneda-Gerês National Park, laced with hiking trails that range from gentle to challenging.
I opted for an easy route, enjoying views of lakes and waterfalls at a leisurely pace.
The north of Portugal had lowered my blood pressure so well that I couldn’t bear all that adrenaline.