Over the past thirteen years I have continued to grow fonder of Portugal having visited the country many times. It is more than a fondness actually; it has become my home away from home. It is the place where I am most comfortable with the culture, the people, sights, sounds and flavors. Hopefully one day soon, I will even be able to add the Portuguese language to that list, as I slowly pick up words on each and every trip and understand more of what I hear as well.
During my most recent visit a couple of weeks ago, I learned of a significant change that has been planned for the city of Vila Nova de Gaia. Gaia of course, is the home to the many historic Port Lodges that have resided there for centuries. It is where the majority of Port wine is aged, stored and shipped to markets around the world. When one thinks of Vila Nova de Gaia it is synonymous with the tradition and culture that is, Vinho do Porto.
Sadly like so many cities within the United States and elsewhere, sometimes municipalities see “old” and think “new” as if changing from one to the other will always result in a positive outcome. More often than not, local governments see financial boom times ahead, without fully considering what may be lost in the process. The city of Vila Nova de Gaia is soon going to become a much more modern city and on the surface that might not be a bad thing. At least three new upscale hotels are already well into the planning stages. Actually, that is a welcome change as currently; Gaia needs more enticing places to stay. However, in addition to just a few new hotels, the powers that be in the Gaia government have decided to make significant changes to the face of the city.
That includes major housing projects on both ends of Gaia. It also will mean that some of the current Port Lodges will be razed because of the traffic they inadvertently cause as well as the inability of large tanker trucks and other large vehicles to navigate some of the barriers which have been put in place already, with more to come in the future. Access to many of the charismatic yet extraordinarily narrow cobblestone streets where the Lodges exist today, will become a thing of the past, just a memory once the planning board has its way. They view these streets as anachronistic if not a downright impediment to Gaia’s future. The Lodges along Gaia’s waterfront will continue to exist, as they are protected as World Heritage Sites. Fortunately, a few of the Lodges that are further away from the quay will also still maintain visitor centers, but many won’t. They will simply pick up their historic tanks, pipas (Port casks), ancient Port paraphernalia and tasting areas and move their operations up to the Douro.
Gentrification (or urban renewal) is often seen as a panacea for whatever is wrong with the current lay of the land. In some cities the plan actually works. But with Port Lodges that are the traditional raison d’etre of Vila Nova de Gaia, from its essential business core and tourist draw today, to its storied past as the key wine center of the entire country … I am not so sure that I am going to like the “new” Vila Nova de Gaia. The jury is still out.
For those of you that share the passion for Port please believe that the plan to renovate Gaia’s cityscape is not conjecture, it is a fact. In reality, it is going to happen quite quickly over the next half decade. My suggestion is to plan your pilgrimage over there in the next couple of years as afterwards you may no longer recognize it as the center of Port’s universe anymore. Take lots of pictures too!
Of course with all the movement up river, hopefully the Douro’s infrastructure can and will be expanded in time to handle the inevitable growth. Will the Douro turn into the Disney-esque wine destination spot that Napa has become over the past fifteen years? Let’s hope not, but that is fodder for an entirely different discussion.
I hate to sound curmudgeonly but at least I can look forward to one thing. No matter where Port companies eventually reside, whether it be their tourist attracting tasting rooms up in the Douro or their entire operations for that matter) the beverage we know as Port wine, will exist long after we leave this planet.