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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: