They say: ‘if you’re going to take a city break, go somewhere that will relax, inspire and intrigue you’. Okay, the ‘they’ may be myself and Mr Smith, but that’s exactly the advice we now dish out after a glorious two nights at Porto’s Vinha Boutique Hotel.
Our trip came straight off the back of a chaotic Milan Fashion Week, after which I just wanted to go home to my own bed. Luckily, Mr Smith was waiting at Bergamo Airport whispering chanting Elsa of Arendelle’s life motto (‘Let it go, let it gooo…’), and three hours later Vinha’s front-desk staff offered the most serene welcome I could have wished for.
When you rock up to a hotel already knackered the stakes are higher when it comes to first impressions. It’s no exaggeration to say that I seemed to forget I was tired the minute we swung down the driveway. That may have had something to do with the driver the hotel sent to pick us up. As a Londoner I delighted in the immediate rapport we struck up, akin to the best of black-taxi drivers back home, with him extracting my life story from me in five minutes and equipping us with key Portuguese lingo: ‘olá’ (hello); ‘obrigado’ (thank you); and, on my special request, ‘onde posso conseguir pastéis de nata?’ (where can I get one of your yummy custard tarts?)
After a speedy check-in (never underestimate this in a hotel) we were shown to our room. I closed the door behind us and – with no grace at all – face-planted onto the bed. Oh, that bed. Not only did it do that sink-into thing that makes you feel like you’ve landed on a cloud in slow motion, but it came with a pillow menu that gave options for hypoallergenic, osteopathic support and snore-free sleep. I made up the last one, but that was the gist of it. I could have nominated Vinha for a world’s-most-attentive-hotel prize (I think I gave some kind of half-cognisant speech to that effect), but Mr Smith wisely suggested that I take a disco nap, a suggestion which had me at: ‘why don’t you…’. We found our room to be every inch as luxurious as the Christian Lacroix aesthetic that inspired it (each room takes its cue from the codes of a certain fashion house, including Kenzo, Missoni and Hermès). Thick velvet curtains served as decadent room dividers, and inside the walk-in wardrobe was a bath tub big enough for two.
After a rainforest shower, where I lathered up in luxurious Bulgari body-wash, I was a new woman. I wandered onto our balcony to join Mr Smith enjoying a Super Bock, and we marvelled at panoramic views of the Douro River below, quiet and captivating as moonlight bounced off the water. We smiled at each other knowingly – we were onto a winner here.
Peckish, we smartened ourselves up and went down to the bar in pursuit of patatas bravas and vinho verde. Our delightful waiter and mixologist Bernardo was straight on the scene to take our order and deliver excellent tips on what to eat – and see – during our stay. First off: a Franceshina, Porto’s famous sandwich involving multiple layers of bread and meats, served beneath melted cheese and topped off with a fried egg, in a tomato and beer sauce. The secret to the best, he noted seriously, is finding somewhere that makes a blindingly good sauce, and he helpfully pointed us in the direction of two of the city’s favourites: Brasão Cervejaria and Santiago da Praça.
Vinha’s on the Gaia side of the Douro, so the hotel offers a free private transfer to the city by boat (another perk not to underestimate when extras like this can add up) which we promptly booked for the following morning. After a quick breakfast of coffee and pastéis de nata (I was on an all-I-can-eat mission) we boarded at the jetty. The morning was sunny and crisp with the scent of early autumn in the air, and from the deck we watched the hotel disappear into the distance – thoughts of the previous week’s Milano madness vanishing with it.
In Porto we rode the funicular up to the top of the old town rather than pause for wine and port tastings. Call it lazy or smart, we figured we should start at the top and walk down, rather than attempt to walk up (note, it is steep). We poked our heads into Café Guarany for coffee (and to gaze at the floor tiles) and found historic bookstore Livraria Lello, which we admired from the outside rather than join its mile-long queue. Blessed with blue skies and sunshine, we meandered through buzzing streets, picking up recycled-cork coasters, handpainted tiles, and a funicular-shaped fridge magnet as souvenirs.
Then something magical happened. After a wrong turn, I was squinting at my phone’s directions, before looking up to see Tasquinha São João Novo, another notable Franceshina joint run by two ladies – Maria and Maria – with a gift for cooking the classics. It was early, so we were the first to take up one of their four tables, ordering the bacalhau à Braga for me and Porto’s finest sandwich for Mr Smith, with a terracotta jug of homemade vinho to share. After several wide-eyed ‘mmms’ and ‘ahhs’ both plates were licked clean. On leaving, I asked to take Maria and Maria’s picture and used Google Translate to thank them for the most special experience; in turn, they gave me a hand-printed tote bag as a gift (just when I thought I couldn’t love the place any more).
We returned to the hotel in a taxi as I had a Zoom with a client (seamlessly done with top-notch WiFi); but as soon as I hit ‘leave meeting’, Mr Smith and I were in our robes and headed to the Sisley Spa and pool. Sadly, I hadn’t left time for a treatment, but the pool, saunas and high-pressure Jacuzzi were all I really wanted to indulge in, anyway (note: the hotel charges €5 a swim-cap, which are compulsory, so try to BYO).
Back in our room, we took sundowners on the terrace before getting dressed for dinner at the magnificent Vinha Restaurant, where two-Michelin-star-holding chef Henrique Sá Pessoa has devised the menu. We kicked things off with fresh raisin bread and parsley butter, before prawn tartare with curry and coconut tapioca; salted cod loin with kale; and pork and aubergine dishes that looked like works of art and practically exploded with flavour. For dessert, how could we pass up ‘the most famous Portuguese pudding’, a crème caramel-style dish we devoured with two spoons. A perfect balance of attentiveness and privacy given, it was actually us who bent the waiters’ ears about the origins of where the name vinho verde comes from, the best sparkling wines from the Douro region, and what dessert they recommended. They answered with stories of such wit and charm that you really must ask them yourselves when you visit.
With an early flight awaiting us the following morning, this was the perfect finale to a 48-hour trip that relaxed, inspired and intrigued us from start to finish – just as we wished – with Porto proving a very worthy contender for ‘best short European city break’ and Vinha Boutique Hotel the ideal place to experience it all from.
When she’s not roving and reporting on fashion around the world, freelance scribe and regular contributor to Wallpaper*, Vogue, The Observer Magazine, The Guardian, 10 Magazine, CNN, and other noteworthy publications, Scarlett Conlon can be found exploring the hidden corners of Italy, where she’s now based.