• Northern charm: MICE facilities in Portugal

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    The north of Portugal offers a stunning backdrop for corporate retreats and international events of any kind. Molly Dyson explores Porto and the Douro Valley

    Porto’s history stretches back thousands of years, with major events throughout the centuries carving out a rich heritage of hard work and pride in the region. In fact, the Portuguese say their country was born in the north and grew south down to the Algarve. The city’s legacy of port wine producers has turned it and the surrounding areas into a prime location for both business and leisure tourism.

    The city is nestled on the northern coast of Portugal and boasts an international airport that serves 60 direct routes, as well as two main train stations with connections to the rest of Portugal and other European cities. When I visit I fly with British Airways direct from Gatwick – a trip that only takes about two and a half hours. BA has put my group up in style in Club class, where a table in place of a middle seat gives you plenty of room to breathe and the meal choices are mouth-watering. In top BA form, the service is impeccable and we even get to take a cheeky photo in the captain’s chair after we land in Porto.

    Just a quick drive and we’re in the city checking in to the super luxurious five-star Crowne Plaza, located just a few minutes from the town centre and the coast. We’re greeted by warm smiles and a welcoming glass of the region’s famous export – port wine. My Superior room is located on the top floor of the building, which offers me stunning views that stretch all the way to the sea.

    Dinner tonight is at the restaurant Os Lusíadas, a local favourite on the coast that specialises in fresh fish and seafood – including an odd yet incredibly tasty local delicacy called percebes in Portuguese, which we know as goose barnacles. Yes that’s right, barnacles, and yes you can eat them. This first meal also gives us a taste of Portugal’s famous desserts, which are typical a sweet mixture of sugar and eggs formed into a multitude of cakes and treats.

    Day two starts with a tour of the Crowne Plaza’s impressive conference spaces, the largest of which can accommodate up to 600 delegates. At 1100 total square feet spread over nine rooms, it’s one of the largest venues in Porto, which when combined with the hotel’s 232 bedrooms makes for a convenient and stylish option for companies looking to host an event abroad.

    Next up is the Porto Palácio Congress Hotel & Spa, which features several event spaces and a dedicated congress centre complete with its own entrance. It can accommodate up to 600 and provides a large stage with four translation booths. Here you’ll also find one of the most impressive spa entrances I’ve ever seen – a gently sloping ramp with dim lighting and a soothing indoor stream leading right to the treatment rooms. Delegates attending business events can book in a treat for themselves after a busy day or visit the VIP terrace for drinks to soak in breath-taking views of the city.

    Just up the road is one of Porto’s newest landmarks, Casa da Música. It was intended to be a commemoration of Porto’s designation as the European Culture Capital in 2001, but was completed in 2005 by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. The supremely beautiful concert hall features a large 1300-seat auditorium that stands out as an achievement of modern ingenuity thanks to its curvaceous glass walls and ample sunlight – something one doesn’t normally see in a venue designed for acoustic harmony. There’s also a smaller auditorium for up to 650 people, several swish bars, and nearly every space in the building can be utilised for meetings and events.

    For those looking for a bit more history, head down to the banks of the Rio Duoro, where you’ll find Alfândega Porto Congress Centre. Originally built as the main customs house utilised in the export of port wine, the structure fell into disrepair until 1992, when it was turned into one of Porto’s largest conference centres. Through careful restoration, the building maintains many of its charming original features – massive doors, soaring arches and the rail track used to push mammoth carts full of goods from one area to another. It’s a behemoth of a venue featuring 36,000 square metres and 22 multifunctional spaces. It’s a complete blank canvas. When we visit it’s busy with workers racing against the clock to set up an exhibition for Porto Fashion Week.

    To celebrate the city’s carefree atmosphere, we hop into classic Volkswagen cars courtesy of Clássico Porto for a jaunt across the river to Graham’s, one of the most famous wine cellars in the region. Here we learn all about the Douro Valley’s rich history of vineyards and merchants followed by a quick lesson in how age changes the colour and flavour of port; it’s an interactive tasting session, which of course gets high marks in my book. We stop for lunch here at Vinium restaurant, where I sample my first white port and tonic cocktail – refreshing on this warm afternoon as I soak in magnificent views of the Rio Douro and Port beyond.

    Our last venue tour of the day takes us to Palácio da Bolsa, home of the city’s chamber of commerce. It’s easy to see from the stunning entrance courtyard why the building took 68 years to complete. Every façade features painstakingly intricate details and each room within is uniquely designed to a different style. It’s usually filled with tourists during the day, but several rooms can be hired for private meetings and events, including the famous Arab Room, which really must be seen to be believed.

    Our afternoon leaves plenty of time to explore the city, so we visit the exquisite Lello, rumoured to be the most beautiful book shop in Europe, where JK Rowling took her inspiration for the illustrious features of Hogwarts. It’s still a functioning book shop to this day, but entry is now by ticket only for crowd control. Trust me – it’s worth the couple of euros it costs to get in.

    Dinner on night two is at DOP, Portuguese celebrity chef Rui Paula’s restaurant located in the Palace of the Arts. Paula’s creative flare shines here, where traditional dishes are given an international twist – think delicious fish concoctions, succulent cuts of beef and the finest desserts on offer in Porto. True to a promise made to us early in the day, we don’t leave hungry after a six-course menu.

    Before we leave Porto the next morning, we walk over to the Sheraton Hotel & Spa, which offers the perfect companion to the Crowne Plaza’s spaces. It features 266 guest rooms (perfect if you’re hosting a large conference at the other hotel and need more beds for your delegates), as well as 1750 square metres of meeting space. There are also eight suites on the 12th floor that can be converted to board rooms for those looking for a wow factor.

    We hop on our coach for an hour-long journey into the heart of the Douro Valley (taking in the incredible scenery of suspended vineyards built on sloping hills), where we visit Quinta da Pacheca for an authentic wine experience. The team gives us exclusive t-shirts designed especially for the 2016 harvest, as well as straw hats and red handkerchiefs to keep the sun off our necks as we pile onto the back of a truck destined for the vineyard. It’s our turn to pick the grapes that will eventually be turned into the various types of wine produced by Pacheca. Afterward we don shorts to partake in the traditional method of winemaking – the treading of the grapes. Barefoot and excited, we step into a large vat filled with fruit ready to stomp and dance in order to bring out the juices. A band plays lively Portuguese folk songs to get us moving and soon we’re laughing so hard our faces hurt, knowing that some day the juice we’re playing in will be turned into flavourful red wine and port. We sample some of Pacheca’s finest wares during lunch as we sit back and let the views of the Douro Valley calm our minds. It’s the perfect way to treat your clients and delegates to some fun while they’re in the area for business.

    After a few hours lazing in the Portuguese sun we travel to Six Senses Douro Valley. If you’re looking for an absolute haven of serenity for your retreat, this is the place to be. At its heart it’s a romantic spa destination, but the 19th-century manor house has been fully restored and kitted out with state-of-the-art meeting facilities. Add activities to round out your stay, including trips to local wineries, or challenge your colleagues to a climbing race up the hotel’s 100-year-old palm tree, which now stands at hundreds of feet tall.

    Our final dinner comes again courtesy of Rui Paula, this time at DOC, his first venture, situated on the Rio Douro in Folgosa. Rui’s wife Ana runs a tight ship here, keeping the service to an incredibly high standard while ensuring food leaves the kitchen on time and looking impeccable. While the food is obviously the main draw here, the beautiful performance of waiters and waitresses in crisp uniforms presenting dishes to the backdrop of the river is a sight to see.

    We spend the night at the four-star Vila Galé Douro, where the rooms are huge and luxurious, all overlooking the river. The next morning we head for the Monverde Wine Experience Hotel for our last tour. Here you’ll find 29 rooms and suites alongside a selection of meeting and conference spaces, as well as a large wine cellar that can be hired for private dinners and parties of up to 90 people. The hotel has been designed to blend into the landscape of the surrounding vineyards, with tones of green and brown throughout, as well as eco-friendly materials. The restaurant serves fresh local cuisine, while the spa offers a quiet escape from a busy day of work.

    I’m sad to leave Porto and the north after such a short time, but my experience has left a lasting impression in my mind – not only as a place I’d like to return to for leisure, but as a region I can wholeheartedly recommend as a first-class business destination.

    Getting there
    I flew with British Airways from London Gatwick’s North Terminal direct to Porto International Airport. Flights run throughout the year, starting from £35 each way for economy-class tickets. britishairways.com

    Special thanks to Porto and the North Tourism Board for organising this familiarisation trip. If you’re in need of ideas or help when organising corporate events in the region, visit uk.visitportoandnorth.travel

  • AUTHOR

    Molly Dyson

    Editor – PA Life

    All stories by: Molly Dyson