Sitting on top of a pre-Roman fortified hamlet and the former Roman settlement of Cale, it was given town status in 1255 by King Afonso III and then bequeathed to the aristocracy in order to counteract the power of the bishops of neighbouring Porto, who were charging unreasonably high shipping tolls at the time.
Best approached on foot across the impressive Dom Luís I bridge, Vila Nova de Gaia isn’t a suburb but more of a transpontine extension of Porto woven into the city’s fabric, a town almost solely dedicated to the blending, maturing and bottling of Portugal’s much-celebrated port wine before its eventual distribution to all four corners of the planet.
Once used for transporting the port for long distances downriver from the Douro Valley vineyards where the wine is made, the traditional flat-bottomed rabelo sailing boats tied up along the quayside are mostly for show nowadays, but some have been fully restored to cater for the increasing demand for river cruises during the summer months.
An iron bridge of striking visual effect, the iconic two-tiered Dom Luís I bridge built between 1881 and 1885 spans the River Douro in a single arch over 170 metres wide, depositing pedestrians onto a very inviting riverside promenade that comes to life on warm summer evenings due a vast assortment of alfresco bars and restaurants.
Huddled together among Vila Nova de Gaia’s warren of twisting cobbled lanes stand dozens of wine lodges where the ageing and blending of most of the world’s supply of port wine takes place beneath a sea of red roofs.
In the long galleries of these old cellars the wines sleeps, gains strength and matures in huge vats, many made of old Russian oak. Like the sherry-makers of Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain, the lodges are very hospitable establishments that have been welcoming visitors for centuries.
One of the best-organised of the lodges is Sandeman, founded in 1790 and housed in a former 16th-century convent housing a small port wine museum. Taylor’s, one of the last privately-owned English wine companies, offers a lively, informative tour of the premises and impressive views from its spacious outdoor terrace.
High on a hill overlooking the wine lodges stands the 16th-century Augustinian monastery of Serra do Pilar whose main features include an exquisite circular cloister and the best panoramic views of Porto and the River Douro. From the church’s terrace, the future Duke of Wellington planned his surprise attack on the French in 1809 during the Peninsular War.
At Grijó, a small town located a few kilometres south of Vila Nova de Gaia, stands the Augustinian monastery of São Salvador commenced in 1574 from the designs of Francisco Velasques, a building most notable for its lovely two-storey cloister completed in 1593.