The northern Portuguese city offers warmth, charm and plenty of opportunities to sample port, its famous fortified wine

Porto was our destination, because my boyfriend likes port wine. It's a salty, gritty little town at the mouth of the Duoro river and the Atlantic. Crumbly buildings, built along steep cliffs that seem to spill nearly into the river.

The main tourist area is called the Ribeira, where colorful cafes line the river, facing the magnificent Ponte de Dom Luis, a two-level bridge designed by Eiffel. You know, the guy who designed the Eiffel Tower.

Across the bridge is Vila Nova de Gaia, where the port cellars are. Needless to say, this is where we spent most of our time.

Port, like champagne or cognac, is place specific. It can only be called port if it is made in the demarcated region of Alto Duoro. It's really just wine with some brandy mixed into it. Port wine was born during the Napoleonic Wars when Brits denied themselves the pleasure of French wine and thus stepped up imports from Portugal. After a few spoilt shipments, someone came up with the idea - the Scots, the English, and the Portuguese all take credit - of pouring some brandy into the casks to preserve the wine. Hence fortified wine - or port.

Searching for the perfect glass of port, we realized we could get drunk practically for free just hopping from one port cellar to the next. Most cellars only charged a two-euro tour fee. We tried Sandeman's, Ferreira, and Graham's, which all offer a free tour, since you have to walk up a hill to get there.

The tours do not vary much from one to the next. They all give you the basics… white port is to be chilled and drunk as an aperitif, while the rubies and tawnies are digestives. Vintage port is the only blend designed to keep ageing after it is bottled, and can continue ageing for up to a hundred years. The Port Institute decides which years are to be "vintage" years.

After a few tours the very polite presentations became like ritualized foreplay before we reached the best part of the tour - tasting the port.

Our best orientation was at Vino Logia, a wine tasting bar, (Rua Sao Joao 46, www.vinologia.eu.com), which carries over 500 different kinds of port.

Vino Logia is run and owned by the father-and-son team of Jean Philippe and Gustavo Devesas. Since they aren't promoting one brand over another, they present a more balanced view. We ordered a guided tasting of three Late Bottled Vintages (LBVs). An LBV is derived from a single harvest and must mature four-to-six years in the bottle. Gustavo treated us to three alternative Portuguese producers, brands that are difficult to find in your local Tesco's or wine shop.

Gustavo also threw in a taste of vintage port, São Pedro das Águias Vintage 2000, a spicy ruby-crimson variety. We benefited from the rule that you must drink a vintage within two days of it being opened. Retailing at 146 euros per bottle, it is not like the syrupy sweet ports you find on your grandmother's shelf. The vintages are marked with a greater smoothness and purity. Though our favorite was the Quinta da Prelada LBV 2000 (bottled 2004), which had more character with its distinctively fruity aftertaste, unusual in port.

Alongside our port research was our quest for the best restaurant. Although the highly lauded D'Tohno offers a slinky filmset atmosphere, with a romantic view over the river, our favorite place was Casa Adao (Avenida Ramos Pinto, 252), an authentic mom-and-pop bistro in Vila Nova de Gaia. There, a plump Portuguese mama poured olive oil over each plate of food before it passed through the kitchen window, whilst shouting in Portuguese. Her husband, the waiter, laid down a plate of several different types of white flakey fish, covered in lemony olive oil and garlic. It was perfectly accompanied by a bottle of Quinto de Aveleda, from the Vinho Verde wine region north of Porto. Vinho Verde, characterized by a green apple crispness, is enjoyed young and fresh.

On the Porto side of the bridge, we could take a newly built funicular to the top of the ravine, but we elected to climb up a stairway leading to a steep, cobbled lane. I looked up at the clay tiled roofs of the homes and asked my partner if he thought it'd be expensive to buy a little place here.

"Oh yeah," he answered, out of breath. "Sure it would. This is a slum!"

I looked around and saw barefoot children skipping, and tattered laundry hanging out of busted up windows. I hadn't noticed how rundown it was because I was so enchanted by the view of the river. It reminded me of Prague 15 years ago, before it became a museum.

There's no question that Porto needs a face lift, but that's part of its charm. There's an authenticity, and a friendliness here.

And after all, somebody's got to drink the port. We learned that the Portuguese don't really drink port, they only export it.

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