Northern Portugal really is a year-round tourist destination.
A trip that begins in Bordeaux and ends in Oporto, such as ours over Christmas and New Year, is bound to have a strong wine connection.
But, putting wine to one side for a moment, these two cities share a common challenge: how to make the most of their appeal to wine tourists and to ensure that the quality of everything – the cooking, the welcome, the overall sense of hospitality on offer – rises to meet growing expectations?
Bordeaux has most obviously taken massive steps, cleaning up the entire city, installing an effective tram network, dramatically upgrading the range of bars and restaurants on offer. And at one end of the quayside it commissioned the renowned architectural firm of XTU architects to design La Cité du Vin, a towering edifice that has already attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors on tours, to tastings and to buy wine from its wine shop.
But just to prove that, as the Preston Sturges film of 1955 was entitled, The French they are a funny race (a box office flop, incidentally), the organisers of our dinner there decided to serve a meal that could be conceived of only in France. This was a five-course affair, with changes of cutlery at each course, and a bloody pigeon main course served at 10.30 pm.
That night we were to spend in the Vatel Hotel, a training hotel, the kind of establishment that I have long maintained is lacking in the UK. Here, hotel students come face to face with customers and can learn so much. The Hotel Icon in Hong Kong is an excellent example of how this works well, with students provided from the nearby Polytechnic.
Sadly, the students in Bordeaux would not last long in the Icon, nor in fact in any real-life situation. There seemed a genuine lack of urgency about the staff's approach. Wifi didn't work? Ah well. Our breakfast, which we had to order the night before even though it was taken in the breakfast room, was not very pleasant. How difficult can an order for bread, butter, jam and coffee be? But the worst was the staff's smoking. Most of the smokers seemed to be young female students who were allowed to gather right opposite the main entrance. Not a very appealing advertisement for anyone arriving or leaving the hotel.
The pace to embrace the growing number of tourists who flock to Oporto has been set by Adrian Bridge, CEO of the Fladgate Partnership that owns Taylor's, Fonseca and Croft. With something approaching a sixth sense, he laid the foundations for the Yeatman Hotel over a decade ago and, although its interior and breakfast offer could be made more relevant to what customers are looking for today, this is unlikely to happen, given constant demand for the rooms. (Their dining room, The Restaurant, and the wine offer there are excellent and the subject of my article next week.)
Three massive cranes stood below the hotel in Gaia on the precarious slope that leads down to the atmospheric banks of the river Douro and these too are busy with Bridge's vision. Rising from a combination of the old and the new is WOW, the World of Wine, that will to all intents and purposes be an Oporto answer to Bordeaux's Cité du Vin when it opens in 2020. (The name City of Wine was apparently rejected in this Anglophone city because its initials would have spelt COW.)
WOW will presumably place much greater emphasis than La Cité du Vin on port, the magical drink made from grapes grown on the steep vineyards of the Douro Valley, a region that was even 10 years ago pretty much a backwater. And although many of the roads around Regua and Pinhão cannot be widened as they hug the narrow strip of level ground between the river and the vineyards, it is today far easier and quicker to travel from Porto to the heart of port country by efficient, EU-subsidised motorways in no more than 90 minutes.
That is how long it took us to travel from the airport to the village of Folgosa on the left bank of the Douro in between Regua and Pinhão, for lunch at DOC, a restaurant that belongs to the talented chef Rui Paula. This restaurant, which describes itself as a 'window over the Douro', is just that: built of glass, with plenty of outdoor seating, this is a place where one could just sit and take in the extraordinary views such as those shown reflected in the restaurant's windows above right. And eat and drink extremely well.
Paula's menu is extremely broad and intelligent, offering dishes such as an oxtail consommé, which a chef finishes off with some sliced black truffles, and goat, albeit slightly on the dry side, as well as a variety of vegetarian dishes and even an entire vegan tasting menu. His most spectacular dish, however, is his carabineiro, the deep red seawater prawn, served on a bed of rice. The waitress cleverly decapitates the prawn and mixes the resultant juice with the carefully flavoured rice. DOC offers an extensive wine list and intelligent service although it is closed from Monday until the end of January for its annual holiday.
Through the town of Pinhão, in which the unlovely service station unquestionably takes pride of place (the whole place needs dragging into the twenty-first century), one comes to Quinta de la Rosa, home to the admirable Sophia Bergqvist. Her approach is like that of Adrian Bridge, totally focused on hospitality (Jorge Moreira is responsible for the estate's very good table wine and port, available from Berry Bros & Rudd) and she has converted many of the winery's former outbuildings into comfortable bedrooms. Eighteen months ago she added a restaurant named Cozinha da Clara, or Claire's Kitchen, after her greedy grandmother.
And in the process Bergqvist has hired a talented chef in Pedro Cardoso. In his early 30s, bearded and speaking as little English as I do Portuguese, Cardoso lets his cooking do the talking. We began with small pieces of confit pigeon, followed this with Cardoso's interpretation of seafood rice, in which all the fish including some delightful small shrimps as well as larger pieces of sea bass, were cooked with the same precision as had been paid to the slight spicing of the sauce, to a dish of well-judged goat with potatoes, and slightly superfluous cherry tomatoes. A typically sweet sponge pudding together with some excellent yoghurt ice cream provided an excellent, and very traditional, finish.
The remoteness of the Douro is today not an obstacle. At DOC customers included tourists from Spain, France and even Brazil as well as the growing number of Portuguese who eat out regularly. Next to us was a table of 24 of them, all treated to a complimentary glass of Graham's 20 Year Old tawny port to celebrate the new year.
Bergqvist claims to be inspired by the wineries in South Africa that, via a combination of hospitality, good food and excellent wine, have attracted a huge number of extra tourists. Make the place good enough and they will come!
Quinta de la Rosa www.quintadelarosa.com