Lisbon might be the country’s capital, but Portugal’s second city, Porto, is very definitely not second best. Dramatically situated at the mouth of the Rio Douro, it’s a massively atmospheric place that’s well worth a couple of days of your time – more if you plan to make a serious assault on the famous port wine lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, located just across the river. For a convenient trip to the seaside, the pretty town of Vila do Conde, 45 minutes to the north, offers a taste of what’s to come as you head up the coast towards the Minho. East of Porto, meanwhile, the N15 or much faster A4 motorway runs inland to the vinho verde-producing towns of Penafiel and Amarante, the latter perhaps the single most attractive town in the region, set on the lazy Rio Tâmega.
Inevitably, however, it’s the Rio Douro (“River of Gold”) that defines the region, winding for over 200km from the Spanish border to the sea, with port wine lodges and tiny villages dotted above intricately terraced hillsides. It was once a wild and unpredictable river, though after the port-producing area was first demarcated in the eighteenth century, engineering works soon tamed the worst of the rapids and opened up the Douro for trade. The railway reached the Spanish border by the end of the nineteenth century, while the building of hydroelectric dams and locks along the river’s length in the 1970s and 1980s turned the Douro into a series of navigable ribbon lakes.
It’s possible to cruise all the way from Porto to Barca d’Alva on the Spanish border, while the drive along the Douro also makes for an unforgettable journey. But take the train at least part of the way if you can, since the main Douro train line is no slouch for scenery – particularly once you’ve reached the rough halfway point, marked by the port wine town and cruise centre of Peso da Régua. Just to the south of Régua, a slight detour takes in the delightful Baroque pilgrimage town of Lamego and the fascinating churches and historic buildings of its little-explored surroundings. Beyond Régua, the main stop is the idyllically set wine-town of Pinhão, and the train line continues to hug the river as far as its terminus at Pocinho, though the Douro itself still has a way to go, winding on to the border at Barca d’Alva. However, following the uppermost reaches of the Douro is impossible by road beyond Pinhão, with the N222 finally veering south of the river to reach the extraordinary collection of paleolithic rock engravings near Vila Nova de Foz Côa.