D is for Douro

Rio Douro- the river of gold

This post is entirely aspirational.  I have long wanted to visit Porto and to cruise the Douro Valley.  So far we haven’t found a convenient flight from the UK and it’s quite a way north from the Algarve.  So permit me to dream a little.

Upper Douro by Gustavo Motta for Wikipedia

The River Douro rises in Spain and flows 897 km till it reaches the Atlantic at Porto.  Over 100 of these kilometres form the border with Spain in a series of narrow canyons- an effective barrier between two often warring nations.   The third largest river on the Iberian Peninsula, in recent times the river has been tamed by a series of locks and dams, making it navigable for all of its Portuguese length.  Looking down from the sky I always try to fathom whereabouts on the Douro we are crossing as we make our way back to Northern Europe.

Peso de Regua, by Husond for Wikipedia

The Douro is blessed with a microclimate which creates exceptional conditions for the cultivation of almonds, olives and grapes- in particular the variety of grape used in the production of port wine.  It’s no secret that I love to sit by the banks of a river with a glass or two of port.  Hopefully one day that river will be the Douro.   The region around Pinhao and Sao Joao de Pesquiera is known as vinhateiro, the centre of this liquid gold, and the quintas lining the riverbanks testify to the success of the enterprise.

Barco rabelo by Thomas Seibel for Wikipedia

Traditionally the wine was transported down the river in flat-bottomed sailboats called barcos rabelos , some of which can still be seen today at the quayside in Vila Nova de Gaia, opposite Porto.  It was stored in oak barrels to mature in the cellars of numerous wine lodges.  After blending it would be bottled then stored again till reaching the level of maturation for that particular brand.  Names like Sandemans, Cockburns and Taylors are familiar friends.

A story goes that port was originally discovered by two English gentlemen, staying at a monastery in the Upper Douro.  They found that by adding a little brandy to the local sweet wine it would be better fortified to withstand the long sea journey home.  More probably, following a period of exceptionally warm weather in 1820 unusually sweet grapes were produced which was much to the taste of the British.  In order to capitalise on the British market the wine companies added aguardente or brandy to stop fermentation and fix the sugar content.

Vinhateiro

How am I going to get around so that I see the Douro from every angle?  There seem to be lots of choices.  One thing’s for sure, I will be visiting Sao Bento railway station in Porto, not just to see its magnificent azulejo tiles but to travel up the valley.  If I’m lucky I may even catch the Saturday steam train (May to October).  I know that the colour of the vines in Autumn is a spectacular red-gold, and that white blossom clothes the valley in Spring.

Blossom time in the Douro

The Dom Luis 1 Bridge leads over the river and into Vila Nova de Gaia and from here you can take a 50 minute trip beneath the bridges to admire Porto’s skyline.  This is just a taster.  The true beauty of the Douro reveals itself on a lengthier cruise up river.  How far you choose to go depends on how long you have available, and your tolerance for messing about in boats.  Mine is infinite, but if you’ve just come for peace and quiet you’ll be perfectly happy with a good book and the gentle slap of the water.

Vila Nova da Gaia,seen from Porto,by Jonik for Wikipedia

My impression is that the further you go up the river the wilder the scenery becomes, east of Pinhao with its beautiful railway station, the most spectacular.  I’m looking forward to the deep locks that have calmed the raging rapids.  You can combine a cruise with train journey for the best of all possible worlds, or to help shorten your trip. Peso de Regua is the collection point for the wine and from which it used to be shipped down river.  Less romantically these days transport is by tanker, but you can still see the sailboats in action at Porto on 24th June, the festival of Sao Joao.

The Douro, near Miranda, from Wikipedia

You can drive up the valley for fine views but this is never much fun for the driver.  The train runs beside the Douro from Regua out towards the Spanish border, passing Pinhao and then crossing to the opposite bank all the way to Barca de Alva at the Spanish border.

Of course, you can also do the 5 star cruise from Porto all the way across into Spain, and take in the historic city of Salamanca.  This isn’t really my way (too easy! says husband Michael- and certainly not cheap).  I just know I’d want to linger somewhere that the boat didn’t, but I did say that I could dream and Salamanca does sound tempting.  Maybe for a special birthday?

http://www.portugaltravelguide.com/en/pinhao.htm will give you a flavour of the area.  Be sure to check out Amarante and Mesao Frio as well as Regua and Pinhao.

www.cp.pt/StaticFiles/CP/Imagens/PDF/Passageiros/horarios/regional/porto_regua_pocinho.pdf  provides basic rail information but you need to seek further for the steam train.  Now I’ve completed this I can’t wait to book!

My previous A-Z s of Portugal are:

a-is-for-alte/

b-is-for-beaches/

c-is-for-cacela-velha/

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36 comments

  1. Wow! They look like very pretty and interesting places to visit, having never been to Portugal I imagine that there are hundreds of pretty, interesting places. There is a downside to following travel blogs, I now have a list of places to visit that would rival the dictionary, a slight exaggeration, but I really don’t now how I’m going to fit them all in and now I have to add the Douro Valley to the list as well :-)

    1. Thanks Sam. I’m getting so excited now. I have hotels booked for the first 4 nights, and the last 2, back in Porto, don’t matter so much. Although I plan and scheme and want to go EVERYWHERE, it often doesn’t work out quite that way. But that’s ok too. Once I’m there I just absorb everything I can and love it. The one certain guarantee is we’ll get to the Algarve with tired legs. Beach time!

  2. Hi Jo! I accompanied my husband on a business trip to Porto last summer for one night. Loved the place but next time I want to travel up the Douro too. The flights from Faro were ridiculously cheap with Ryanair but from the north of England are virtually impossible! Please can a budget airline make a route there? For a short stay, a trip on the open top bus is the best way to get your bearings before setting off to explore. Hope you manage to get there soon… Cath x

    1. Hiya Cath! Lovely of you to comment. I have 6 nights in the area from 27th Sept before flying down to the Algarve. It seemed plenty when I booked it but now I wish I had more time. It’s looking like 2 nights in Porto, 2 at Regua so I can cruise to the Spanish border and train back, then 2 more in Porto. There are some beautiful quintas, but often a bit out of the way and we will just be using train so I’m a bit restricted. I was hoping to do Guimaraes too but will have to see how it works out.

      I’ve seen the Yellow Bus website and had thought of doing that. (and the wine tour, of course!) Thanks a lot.

      1. I hope you have a wonderful time – sounds quite exciting. I used the train from Lisbon to Albufeira and back in the summer, it was the best way to travel! There is so much action on the train, never mind the scenery! Pets and travellers all having a great time, picnicking and chatting away, it was lovely… Cath

  3. You seem to really like to explore “out of the beaten track”, today I’ve bought a book called “Slow Roads-Beautiful Drives Through Portugal for Cars & Motocycles”, Jorge Serpa, Adamastor Travel, it’s in english. I’ve bought it at a bookstore in Lisboa “Palavra de Viajante”. Tour 11 is all about the Douro, from Porto to Barca d’Alva, then in what it’s called the “International Douro” from Barca d’Alva to Miranda do Douro.

    1. It’s funny you should post this, Fernanda. I’m only weeks away from visiting Porto and the Douro and am getting quite excited. I’ll certainly look out for the book. It sounds like my kind of read.

  4. Posts like this always make me feel even prouder of my country… I am really lucky because I get to see this kind of landscape often and take part in the initiative to promote this region… Check out my website!

  5. Hi Jo,

    Just saw your facebook post on this and loved your blog post! I work for specialist travel company Inntravel here in the UK, but this isn’t a hard sell, I promise!

    We call ourselves the ‘Slow Holiday People’ and our self-guided inn-to-inn walking itinerary in The Douro (‘Valley of Gold’) is one of the most unique & highly rated holidays we offer (and we offer over 100 routes for walking holidays alone!). You’re absolutely right when you say that “the further you go up the river the wilder the scenery becomes”! In fact, after a couple of nights in Porto, the ‘walking’ element of our holiday begins after a gorgeous train ride beyond Pinhao, where you get off at a tiny stop called Vesuvio, and are taken across the ‘River of Gold’ by a man in a tiny boat to your first hotel – almost literally in the middle of nowhere! From there, it gets even better, as you stay in wonderful quintas and Portuguese manor houses, and walk at your own pace from one to the other while enjoying the amazing scenery – not to mention some gorgeous food & wine :)

    We were very lucky in having a ‘neighbour’ (near our North Yorkshire offices) from the famous Symington port family offer to literally ‘open a few doors’ for us over in the Douro…

    I can vouch for all this first-hand as I did the whole trip with my friend Jason a couple of years ago. You can probably tell that I love recounting the memories!

    Anyway, if you have time, why don’t you look at our holiday webpage and let me know what you think?

    http://www.inntravel.co.uk/holidays/walking-holidays/Portugal/Valley-of-Gold

    Maybe we could help you out in doing the trip sometime, as it’s a wonderful part of the world to write about – as you’ve already proved without even having been there yet!

    Cheers & very best wishes,

    Steve
    (Inntravel)

    1. Hi Steve

      Thanks for reading. I subscribe to your website already and you have a great travel company. It’s awfully tempting- I look at lots of your hols. Off to the Algarve today but will be planning again when I get back.

  6. I hope you manage to find a way to do the Douro, Jo. Some friends of mine hired a boat for a week last summer and sailed (? not sure if they motored, actually but I think they sailed) a stretch of it; they had a wonderful time and lots of wine.

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