Portugal’s second city, Porto, is dramatically situated at the mouth of the Rio Douro, its old quarters scrambling up the rocky north bank in tangled tiers. It’s the de facto capital of the north, and a massively atmospheric place, almost Dickensian in parts, that’s well worth a couple of days of your time – more if you plan to make a serious assault on the port wine lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river. For a convenient trip to the coast, the pretty town of Vila do Conde, 45 minutes to the north, offers a taste of what’s to come as you head into the Minho. East of Porto, 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 dominates 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. The old narrow-gauge branch lines (to Amarante, Vila Real and Mirandela) are sadly no longer operational, but the main Douro train line itself 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. 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 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.Read More
Along the Douro
Along the Douro
The Douro river route is one of the great European journeys, a careering 200-kilometre ride or stately cruise from Porto to the Spanish border. The full river journey there and back is in a class of its own, and pricey, all-inclusive cruises can take as long as a week, though short tours from Porto or Peso da Régua give you a flavour of the river. In many ways the train is best, though you’ll have a lot more scope in a car to visit wineries, stay in rural quintas en route and hang around at the majestic dams to watch the boats come through the locks. Be warned that the roads are very winding and often fairly precipitous, though they are all in good condition. It can also take much longer than you think to get from A to B, so give yourself plenty of time.
You can drive all the way from Porto, following the N108, though in reality the first 40km or so is nothing special. Things pick up at Entre-os-Rios (“between the rivers”), 12km south of Penafiel, which is the point at which the Douro and Tâmega rivers meet. Stick to the N108 along the north bank and the road is set a fair way inland of the river for much of the route, though you’ll get some stunning views at times before finally descending to Peso da Régua, 80km and a good couple of hours later.
If you cross the bridge at Entre-os-Rios to the south bank of the Douro, you’re in for a treat of a drive along the increasingly picturesque N222. It’s undoubtedly one of those “best in Portugal” routes, with the most compelling section the 40km or so between Cinfães and Peso da Régua, where the road hugs the terraced hills high above the glinting river. There’s the occasional panoramic café, and iron gates at intervals announcing venerable quintas tucked into the hillside folds, while at the sleepy spa town of Caldas de Aregos, where the Douro has been dammed, there’s a whiff of sulphur in the air, a quayside marina and an outdoor café. The settlements beyond nearly all boast a Romanesque church, the most significant being Santa Maria de Carquere, a twisting 5km above the small town of Resende. Part of a convent dating back as early as 1099, this is now set amid family vineyards, with extensive views across the rolling hills beyond. The N222 eventually descends to Peso da Régua (though you can also cut south over the hills on the N226 to reach Lamego) and then embarks on its straightest but most river-hugging section, the relatively quick 25km to Pinhão.
Beyond Pinhão, roads on either side climb away from the river and as far as following the Douro is concerned it’s trains only, on to the halts of Tua and Pocinho.
The Linha do Douro – Portugal’s best train ride
The Linha do Douro – Portugal’s best train ride
A true engineering marvel when it opened in 1887, the Linha do Douro (Douro Line; wwww.cp.pt) still thrills passengers today. In its heyday it crossed the border to Spain (for a through service to Salamanca and Madrid) and sprouted some stunning valley branch lines, but even though these elements are no more, it’s still some ride – 160km of river-hugging track from Porto to Pocinho, via more than 20 tunnels, 30 bridges and 34 stations.
There are regular daily departures from Porto (São Bento and Campanhã) and you change on to the smaller Douro Line trains at Peso da Régua (just “Régua” on timetables). Régua also marks the point at which the Douro Line turns from a good route into a great one, sticking closely to the river from then on, cutting into the rock face and crisscrossing the water on rickety bridges. Some of the stations are no more than a shelter on a platform, used by the local wine quintas, though there are useful stops at Pinhão (a pretty port-producing town), Tua (a cruise halt with a good restaurant) and finally Pocinho (for Vila Nova de Foz Câo and its rock art).
The port wine story
The port wine story
If ever a drink was synonymous with a country it’s port – the fortified wine from Portugal’s Douro region. For three centuries wine has been shipped down the Douro River to Vila Nova de Gaia, whose famous wine lodges (Sandeman, Graham’s, Cockburn, Taylor’s) reflect the early British influence on its production. A cellar tour here forms an integral part of any visit to Porto, while you can also follow the wine trail right along the Douro by train, car or cruise boat. To find out more, the country’s port wine institute, the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto (w www.ivdp.pt), has a useful English-language website, while the Rota do Vinho do Porto (w www.rvp.pt) details the region’s wine estates, attractions and events.
Developing a taste – the early days
The clear distinction between port wine (vinho do porto) and other Portuguese wines wasn’t made until the beginning of the eighteenth century, when Britain prohibited the import of French wines during the War of the Spanish Succession. Portuguese wines quickly filled the void and, following the Methuen Treaty (1703), the wine trade became so profitable that adulterated inferior wines were soon being passed off as the genuine article. This led to the creation of a regulatory body in 1756, the Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro, and, the following year, the declaration of the world’s oldest demarcated wine region (where port wine could now only legitimately be produced). Yet it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that it began to resemble today’s fortified wine, when the addition of brandy to stop fermentation became widespread, enabling the wines to be transported over even longer distances.
The Douro wine route
The port wine grapes are grown in a 600,000-acre demarcated region along both banks of the Rio Douro, stretching from Mesão Frio (near Peso da Régua) to the Spanish border. Sheltered by the Marão and Montemuro ranges, around fifteen percent of the region is under vines which benefit from cold winters and hot, dry summers. The characteristic terraces can be seen along the length of the Douro, and they form a particularly beautiful backdrop to the small town of Pinhão, which is now the main centre for quality ports. The grapes are harvested at the quintas (vineyard estates) from September to October and crushed. After a few days fermentation is arrested by the addition of brandy – exactly when this is done determines the wine’s sweetness – with the wine subsequently stored in casks until the following March. The final stage in the wine route is the transportation downstream to the shippers’ lodges, where the wine is blended and matures.
What’s in the bottle?
Port wine is either Ruby (ie deep red) in style, Tawny (made from a blend of differently aged wines) or white – the first two are generally drunk at the end of a meal, or with cheese or dessert, the last served chilled as an aperitif. The finest reds are known as Vintages, wines from a single year that are bottled two to three years after harvest and left to mature. A vintage is only declared in certain years (just fourteen times between 1901 and 1999), and the wine is only ready to drink at least ten to fifteen years after bottling, when the flavours are at their most complex, the wine deep purple and full-bodied. Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) is not of vintage quality, but is still good enough to mature in bottles, to which it’s transferred after four to six years in the cask. All other ports are blended and are kept in the cask for between two and seven or more years, with the colour developing into various shades of Tawny – they are ready to drink when bottled. Of these, a Colheita (“Harvest”) is a Tawny port made from grapes from a specific year and aged at least seven years in the cask; other fine wines are superior Tawnies dated 10, 20, 30 or 40 years old (the average age of the wines in the blend), while Reserve ports (both Tawny and Ruby) are decent blended wines, the best being the Tawny Reserve ports which have to spend at least seven years in the cask.