“ Country: Portugal / World Region: Europe „
With fantastic views, nice weather, excellent food and friendly locals - this is the place to visit if you want to discover traditional Portugal. With just over an hour drive from Porto airport, this is a place you can get to quite quickly. There are excellent rail networks from the City of Porto into the valley, but if you want to get the most of the Douro I would advise renting a car as the further in you go, the less public transport there is (especially if you want to see the high mountain views, which are spectacular). Plenty of Hotels are around (and bed and breakfasts) and there is plenty to see and do. A ride along the Douro River is a must, which will give you a river view of all the vineyards. Weather here can get very hot, especially June through to August.
Take advantage now of this beautiful European paradise as it is quickly becoming a tourist hot spot!
Famous for its its port and unfortified red wines the Douro Valley is one of the world's prettiest wine regions, with its undulating river, immaculately sculptured terraces and unruly hills that roll out as far as the eye can see. From its source in Spain, the river wanders 200 kilometres across the north of Portugal to its final destination, its estuary in Porto. The river makes its way through deep ravines, past hillsides made of granite and farmhouses painted white with red tiled roofs. Famous port names dominate the landscape, in white letters amongst the trailing vines. Farms and vineyards tumble down precipitous slopes along the central river, while more vines and small villages sit snugly in the tributaries. Man has tamed this wild, unruly countryside, with miles and miles of dry stoned terraces and opened up this delightful area to visitors.
The higher part of the Douro Valley has been named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the region that was once only visited by a handful of hardy tourists and wine traders, is now becoming a very smart destination. Although, I wouldn't say the region is overrun with tourists.
I have noticed that the old manor houses and quintas are being opened up to accommodate tourists; with glistening swimming pools and spectacular views. There are some very trendy hotels and chic restaurants springing up in the area too. Gone are the days when if you went to a restaurant you would be offered a dish of Caldo Verde followed by a stew made form mutton and potatoes. The roads are much easier to travel on although still a bit tricky. Whereas it used to take hours to travel up from Porto you can be there within a couple of hours on the new high speed motorway.
Even the movement of the river has changed. At one time it was tempestuous and you could hear it crashing towards the ocean. A series of dams built in the 19th century have silenced the river and the flat bottomed sail boats (barcos rabelos) no longer sail as frequently as they used to. Now the river is home to shiny cruisers who meander down the river for pleasure and speedboats that chase around to check the yearly gape harvest.
For tourists who love to be out and about there are castles and many an archaelogical site. Watersports and fishing is very popular and the river's tributaries are safe and gentle enough for swimming. Hill climbers will enjoy the terrain in the east as it is wilder, rockier and also a haven for bird watchers. This part of the Douro gets incredibly hot and vines trail and tumble all over the countryside. There is no escape.
That's my overview of the area and here's some information of 'things to do' in the Douro.
Having driven to this region of Portugal from the Algarve and also sailed in my parent's boat from the Algarve also, I would say that public transport is probably a better option unless you have your own private jet. Driving is tiring as it seems to take ages to get anywhere in this valley. The roads are extremely steep and wind round and round so if you suffer from travel sickness going by car is not a good choice. Lorries are all over the place and you either meet them head on and have to duck or they trail behind you for miles which is infuriating.
Cruising along the river itself is wonderful and very romantic but to sail from the Algarve takes a while and is fine if you are on a long trip but when we did the journey it seemed to take too long. Impatient as ever, I know.
Buses are a practical option and seem to travel far and wide throughout the valley and the other romantic and one of the most beautiful ways to travel is by train. I will tell you more in a while about this mode of transport.
My entrance to the Douro is usually from the motorway at Vila Real. This university town has mountains as its backdrop and in the foreground, a canyon. Real means Royal in Portuguese and this royal town is certainly majestic with its beautiful surrounding vineyards and grove after grove of orange and lemon trees. The citrus trees are a dominant feature of the Corgo valley which is the western part of the wine region and much easier to tend than the rugged eastern slopes because of its lush fertile hills.
The city itself is slightly industrial with an old centre that features some fine architectural gems from the 16th to the 18th century. Mainly picturesque houses and baroque churches. Vila real is a good starting point from which to explore the Natural Park of Alvao and a great centre for transport connections. Trains and buses travel the whole of the Douro Valley from this spot and also go to Coimbra and further up north to the Tras-os-Montes.
If you venture east from Vila Real there is a very special house worth visiting and it is situated in the village of Mateus. Its name is Casa de Mateus - House of Mateus.
When you come face to face with this famous house you will probably realise that you have seen it before on labels of bottles of Mateus Rose wine. However, the wine was never made in these grounds. After the Second World War, the producers of Mateus wine, Sogrape, thought the house would look good on the label of their wine.
As royalties the wine company offered the owners of the grand house a one-off payment or bottles of wine during their lifetime.
Not a bad deal, I would say, for living in such fantastic surroundings.
The magnificent house was built in 1740 for Antonio Jose Botelho Mourao, an ancestor of the current occupiers. The building is baroque and symmetrical in style and casts beautiful mirror images in the lake in front of the building.
Mirrors adorn the walls everywhere inside, reflecting carved furniture and paintings of fine art. Not all the rooms are open to the public - only ten and a vast library of historical books.
The library covers a large area in the north wing of the house. A very mellow room with dark oak bookcases covering every one of the surrounding walls. Beams of golden light shine through the dome shaped roof giving the room a warm and relaxed feel. Most of the books are antique and cover the lives and times of previous owners of the house and estate. Important and rare documents are also on display and there is a famous edition of Os Luisadas which was written by the famous Portuguese poet Luis Vaz de Camoes (1524 -1580).
The formal gardens are open for visitors which feature box designs and some amazing topiary, including a huge, 35 metre long cedar tunnel which was built in 1941. The aroma of the musky pine is divine. I have to admire the gardener who stands on special curved ladders to trim these trees.
The gardens are surrounded by fields, apple orchards and vineyards. Some of the grapes are made into a single vineyard Mateus wine which is sold in the shops in the region and also on site..
The site shop is open to sell postcards, jams and compotes, wine and books.
Close by is a barn where throughout the summer months a programme of concerts take place including classical, jazz and opera. They do start quite late - around 9pm or sometimes even 10pm.
The beginning of the wine region starts at the fortified village of Mesao Frio. The stretch of river here is really pretty and if you go a little up river you will come across Peso Da Regua which overlooks the wide valley of the Baixo Corgo and is at the confluence of both rivers, Corgo and Douro. The town isn't that pretty in itself but it is worth a visit just to see the sail boats (barcos rabelos) glide up and down the river. Look out for the port warehouses - they are interesting; long and somewhat dumpy.
I think my favourite town in the Douro has to be Lamego. The town has two hills and perched on one is a castle and on the other is an exquisite church. The Igreja de Nossa Senhora dos Remedios is one of the most beautiful in Portugal - well I think so. I love everything about it; its hilltop situation, the way 611 steps form the most amazing double staircase that zigs and zags to the top featuring terraces adorned with statues, fountains and hand-painted tiles. If walking up so many steps is a problem, you can drive to the top but having taken this approach also, I think it isn't as exciting as walking the steps but the views of the main street from the top are magnificent.
During August and September pilgrims come from all over in their thousands to ascend the steps of this church on their knees, hoping for miracle cures. I have only ever witnessed this once here in Lamego and I found the whole thing remarkable if a little distressing. As it is festival time during these weeks from the last Thursday in August to mid-September, there are other things going on throughout Lamego like live folk music, fireworks, dancing (the battle of the flowers), processions of horses and ox-driven carts, and a fairground with many a reveller.
The small town of Pinhao which is on the riverside is probably known as the heart of the port industry but I wouldn't say it was an attractive town. Its situation is one of great beauty, facing south where the two rivers cross; Pinhao and Douro. Apart from harvesting time the town is rather sleepy. The thing that attracts me to this town is the railway sation. It is covered from top to bottom in hand painted tiles (azulejos). The scenes depicted are of grape harvesting in the old days and scenes of the Douro river before it was dammed. Many of the popular port quintas are scattered above the town which I think look untidy and cluttered on the hilltops.
Visiting these towns can be hard work trailing up the steep roads and it is
a good idea to have as many breaks as possible. The small village of Provesende is a pretty place to break the journey up into the hills north from Pinhao to Sabrosa. Sabrosa's claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Fernao de Magahaes (Ferdinand Magellan), who was a very keen sailor and one of the first people to lead in round the world sailing. Some of the manor houses here are from the 15th century and are very attractive, as is the countryside around. You will notice the dusty leaves of olive trees mingled in with the citrus trees and vines.
The further east you travel olives and almonds slowly take over from vines although last time I was in the east I noticed a few new vineyards in the process of being planted. One of the most stunning views of this area is the almond blossom in Spring. It is like one long magical cloud of brilliant white mingled with dusty pink - so very pretty.
You don't have to go on an endurance test to see all the delights of the Douro you can take a boat trip, sit back, relax and just enjoy the beauty that the river and hills have to offer. Boat trips up the river leave from the quay in the Ribeira district of Porto or from (Peso da Regua), even from Pinhao.
You can choose from a short outing, day trips, or five, six or seven day cruises. These luxury cruises leave from Porto and travel to the border with Spain and back. There are times when you can hop off the boats and go ashore to visit the wine quintas, restaurants and other attractions. If you like the thought of travelling in one of the old sailing boats that port used to be shipped in, you can, except that these days they are power engined. So you don't have to worry about the wind patterns or the currents - you can just relax.
If you want to know more information about the trips - check this link -www.douroacima.pt - this is regarding the Barco Rabelo trips.
Other leisure cruises - www.douroazul.com
Now for a train journey - one of the most exciting trips I have been on. This journey is on a 175 kilometre track between Porto and Pochino which is near the Spanish border. For nearly half of the trip it runs right alongside the winding river, passing through 26 tunnels and crossing over 30 bridges. The most scenic section is from Pinhao to Tua. Many of the stations are really lovely as they are decorated with painted tiles. If you need to stop en-route to pop into one of the quinta's for a bottle of port or an overnight stay then look for platform signs that say - Vargelas or Vesuvio.
More info on the train journeys is available from the Portuguese Rail Company. www.cp.pt
So many types of accommodation ranging from wine lodge's, vintage houses, wine quinta's, manor houses. prices range from around 50 euros per night to 350 euros+ per night.
My recommendation is Quinta do Vale Dona Maria. This used to be a vineyard workers' dormitory and has now been renovated to a very high standard by the owners of the quinta. It is about 15 minutes from Pinhao and stands above the River Tito. There is a pretty patio filld with flowers, you can buy wine from the winery and take your own food to cook. If you haven't anything breakfast the owners will provide ingredients. A 3 night stay is the minimum and the cost is approx 100 euros for that duration.
Very rustic, pretty and the wine is top notch!
Some excellent restaurants can be found in the Douro and they are not all expensive. Terra da Montanha is one of my favourites, located in the old centre of Vila Real. This little restaurant is a gem, full of atmosphere and a little bit kitsch. Cosy tables for two are nestled inside huge varnished wine vats. Quirky but nice. Cuisine is regional, well cooked and tasty and
a great selection of lesser known wines are on sale. Meals are around 17 euros including a glass or two of wine.
For 11 euros you can buy a plate of estufado (stew) or risotto made from wild boar, hare, partridge or venison depending on the season, and sit down in a wooden pre-fabricated building right next to the Tua railway station. Not the Ritz but a super restaurant overlooking the River Douro. What makes this restaurant pleasant apart from the food and views is the staff - young, approachable and good fun.
So that about covers the Douro for now. It is a charming region and quite wild in places. The meandering river is magical and colourful as it winds it's way through locks and past dams - a hive of leisure and working activities. A wine lovers dream - definitely - but - a wonderful place for nature lovers and railway enthusiasts. Check some of those stations out - the tile work is amazing. Recommended.
If there's a better place in Europe to wait for a train than Pinhao, I'm yet to discover it. This is not a comment on the town, which is a bit on the scruffy side, but you don't much notice the town from the railway station. Your eyes are drawn to the neatly-kept flowerbeds set into the platform and the murals formed of blue-and-white azulejo tiles that decorate the ticket office, depicting every stage in the growing and transporting of grapes for port wine. Looking around, you see some of the scenes replicated in reality, with vineyards climbing the slopes on either bank of the Douro, while the river winds away among them on its journey to the sea, a journey taken in the past by fleets of rabelos, the flat-bottomed barges designed to navigate the rapids with their barrels of wine.
Eventually, a hoot sounds in the distance and the train appears around the curve of the northern bank, right on time. From here it is just an hour's ride up to the railhead at the even scruffier town of Pocinho, but the point of the journey is the travelling and the river views along the way, not the arrival. The river views have much to recommend them - the water sometimes turbulent, sometimes mirror-still; the banks sometimes steep and rocky, sometimes wooded, sometimes orderly with vines. The human settlements are sparse - tiny towns and villages, isolated homesteads in between. And at 2.90Euro (£2.60) return fare for each of us (a concessionary senior rate, admittedly), it was hardly an expensive outing.
* Exploring the Douro Valley - ways and means *
My wife and I had toyed with the idea of taking the train for the whole of our tour of the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. We are rather railway devotees, and the journey is perfectly practicable by rail, supplemented with judicious use of buses for side-trips to sites of interest off the track. We also toyed with the idea of a river cruise, of which a number are available, of various durations and degrees of luxury. Ultimately, though, we settled for hiring a car, for the sheer flexibility it allowed for varying our route at a whim and scheduling our stops to suit ourselves, not someone else's timetable.
Meanwhile, we told ourselves, we could always take a couple of trips by train and boat during the course of our journey. In the event, neither of these supplementary options quite worked out as intended. The best railway ride looked on paper to be that along the narrow-gauge track up the side-valley of the River Tua to Mirandela. However, paper is now the only terrain on which it runs. The line is closed following a series of accidents, "temporarily", but no date has been set for its re-opening. Dark rumours ascribe the accidents to sabotage, allegedly perpetrated by those who wish to dam the Tua for hydro-electricity, the prospective flooding of the track having been one of the objections to such schemes.
As for the boat-trip, we had been advised that a daily cruiser ran from Pinhao to Peso da Régua at 11.00 a.m., but there was no onshore booking office at Pinhao to confirm this, and we turned up at the stated time to no avail. Later, we returned to the wharf to find a cruiser moored there and were told that it sailed at 4.00 in the afternoon, too late for us to be able to return to our hotel in time for the dinner we had booked, even by train. Available for private hire were a few boats of the traditional rabelo design, but they generally work on the basis of waiting for a minimum number of passengers to appear before setting sail. Being very early in the season, we couldn't find enough fellow-tourists around to press-gang into a quorum.
So we missed the boat trip, which would have been a welcome extra, and by train we only had the one jaunt up to Pocinho. But essentially our experience convinced us that the decision to tour around by car was the right one. Without it, we wouldn't, in the time available, have seen half of what we saw, and there is plenty worth seeing in the upper Douro valley.
* The Douro *
The River Douro rises in the Spanish foothills of the Pyrenees, and flows west for nearly 900 kilometres before reaching the sea at Porto. For over a hundred of these kilometres it forms the border between Spain and Portugal, running mainly through a canyon; this stretch has now been designated as the International Douro Natural Park, administered jointly by both nations. Towards its southern end, the canyon is crossed by a disused railway bridge, which can be attempted on foot by those of sufficient daring (the Rough Guide warns: "beware of rotten sleepers and snakes!"). I regret - well, sort of regret - that we didn't go far enough upstream to put this to the test. Now that trains no longer run beyond Pocinho, the canyon is fairly inaccessible in any case, since the road reaches it only at infrequent intervals.
The main stretch of interest to the visitor is that within thirty kilometres or so to either side of Pinhao. This area is relatively accessible, picturesque and the centre for the production of port wine. Below it, the river runs on scenically enough towards Porto - and if you are driving it is worth hugging the banks insofar as you can rather than taking the motorway that runs parallel to the north - but, attractive though it is, there is little to entice you to linger much on your way. It is the middle stretch, therefore, the port-growing area, that is the focus of this review.
* Wine *
The official centre, and main museum, for the port wine industry is the Casa do Douro at Peso da Régua (known locally simply as Régua). Among the exhibits here you can see some fine stained glass windows illustrating the various stages of production, and the impressive map engraved by Joseph John Forrester in the early 19th century that delineated the wine-growing estates along the Douro. Forrester was an interesting character; a British-born nephew of the Offley port-shipping family, he went to work as a lad in the family firm and ended up being made a Baron in the Portuguese nobility for his role in reforming and regulating the entire industry.
A glance at the map will tell you what the landscape will confirm - that port is the lifeblood of the region. Every hillside is terraced with lines of vines, ranked like lateral corrugations around the contours; every other cluster of buildings seems to be a Quinta, the name given to the vineyard headquarters where the crop is harvested, pressed and stored.
Many of the quintas are open to public, and my wife and I visited two contrasting examples during our short stay in the area. The first, the Quinta do Panascal, is one of the main estates owned by the Fonseca company, a big port producer. Attractively located on a hillside above the valley of the Távora River, a tributary of the Douro, it is extremely professionally run. You tour the estate self-guided with the aid of an audio-phone commentary in your own language before being offered a tasting in the well-appointed reception room. The tour is free, and no great sales pressure is put on the visitor, the absence of which helped persuade us to buy a couple of bottles as gifts for friends.
The second was the small, privately-owned Quinta de la Rosa. Here a notice on the door said that it was open for visits at 11.00 daily. When we turned up at the appointed time the place seemed deserted, but eventually a very pretty young senhorina appeared and conducted us briefly round in a charming albeit desultory manner. It was rather early in the day for an extended tasting, but I did try their white port, which was really rather good; however, I failed to buy any because, apart from the tasting bottle, they had none in stock. Not the best-organised visit, but likeable enough, and also free.
As with the wine lodges of Porto, one could happily spend a day (or several) visiting the quintas of the upper Douro and find memorable things to enjoy in all of them, though whether one would actually remember them is another question.
* Towns in the area *
It's hard to wax lyrical about the towns of the Douro valley, though they are not without character. Régua, the traditional capital of the port industry, has a rather run-down air and not much to detain the visitor other than the museum and the rabelos moored along the riverfront.
Pinhao, the other main port-producing town, I have already described as scruffy, which it is, though its setting (and railway station!) are superb, and the quayside quite pleasant for a stroll, or to sit and sip a glass of the local speciality. As an experience, I must also mention the butcher's shop/smokery on the high street, into which we went to buy ingredients for a picnic. We found three or four local customers already in there, and seemingly set for a long session, as they sampled an enormous spread of sausages and smoked meats laid out on the counter, washed down with wine poured into tin cups from an unlabelled bottle. As they did so, they seemed to be placing large orders, albeit in a leisurely way. Just as we were resigning ourselves to a long wait to be served, we found ourselves also handed tin cups of the wine and offered samples of the foodstuffs. By the time we'd finished we'd eaten far more than the 200 grams or so of ham we'd come to buy and barely needed the picnic, though we didn't quite have the chutzpah to withdraw the order.
The pick of local towns for sight-seeing we found to be Lamego, which lies south of the Douro and strictly speaking in the next province, but well worth the detour. This has an attractive renaissance cathedral with cloisters, an ancient citadel on a hill crowned by a little castelo, and a well-stocked museum. The outstanding feature, however, is the many-tiered ornamental stairway that leads up from the town's main avenue to the shrine of Nossa Senhora dos Rémedios, a sort of local Lourdes to which devout pilgrims flock in the hope of cure for their ills, the most masochistic of them mounting the 700 steps on their knees. Much as one may dismiss this stuff as so much mumbo-jumbo, one can't deny that it inspires some fine architecture.
Less impressive, but good for a brief look round are Cinfães (charming church, lovely little park/playground with fountains squirting up from the pavement), Tabuaço (attractive plaza and side-streets, plus a hilltop park with fine views) and Sabrosa (no outstanding features, just a pleasant town). Sao João de Pesqueira is also said to be worth a visit, but alas we never reached it.
As for stately homes, these barely exist in the area, although some of the bigger quintas are of noble manor-house proportions. The nearest really fine example is the Casa de Mateus, not far off route to the north but outside the Douro Valley, as can be readily inferred from the fact that it produces rosé rather than port wine.
* Leisure activities *
The Douro Valley is not, I'm glad to say, highly-developed and those looking for theme parks or aquatic sports centres should look elsewhere. In fact, for a major river, it seems remarkably short of water sports facilities of any kind. We were, of course, there in April, early in the season and perhaps they simply hadn't opened yet, but I didn't see any places along the banks for hiring canoes or rowing-boats, and few if any pleasure craft were out on the water. This may be because the river is dammed in several places, but there are locks through which the cruise-boats pass and one would have thought the ribbon-lakes formed by the dams might be ideal for sailing, motor boats or water-skiing.
Horses and cycles can certainly be hired for riding in the hills, which look like good terrain for either, with plenty of panoramic views. Personally, I'm more of a walker, and my wife and I enjoyed a couple of good walks of a few kilometres from our hotel. I wouldn't want to undertake a long trek, though, especially not in the heat of summer, since so much of the countryside is given over to vineyards, with scant shade. The predominance of highly-cultivated vines also means that the hill-side landscapes can look a bit bare and brown, though they are in places interspersed with the greenery of olive, almond and citrus groves, or little clumps of woodland. We were told that, as spring progressed into summer, the vines would grow more leafy tendrils, thereby rendering the vineyards greener. Perhaps. In the meantime, we had to console ourselves with wild flowers, of which my wife was able to point out an abundance - fragrant lavender, honeysuckle, cystus, borage - with the invigorating country air and the unfolding undulations of the hills.
* Where to stay *
It may seem over-confident of me to make recommendations on where to stay on the basis of just four nights' sojourn, all in the same place, but I do so unhesitatingly and unreservedly. If you're ever in this region try to make a point of staying at the Casa do Visconde, at Chanceleiros, near Pinhao. It's one of the best hotels I've ever stayed in, and will form the subject of a separate, forthcoming review.
Failing that, we looked at two other options nearby. The Vintage House Hotel in Pinhao itself is well-appointed and well-situated beside the river, but gave the overwhelming impression of being too pleased with itself and stiff with formality. We had a snack lunch on the terrace, and didn't feel we really needed the separate attentions of head waiter, under-waiter and wine waiter - all in dinner jackets - for a couple of salads, a glass of beer and a bottle of mineral water.
The Quinta de la Rosa - see above - also lets out rooms, and during our visit we bumped into an English couple who were staying there, who spoke well of it. At 85Euro per night for a standard double room with breakfast, it was less expensive than either of the other two and if I found the Casa do Visconde full any time, I wouldn't hesitate to give it a try instead.
I've no doubt you could find cheaper places, hostels or rooms to let in private houses, around the area.
* When to go *
Winter in these hills can be pretty chilly, and summer scorching hot. Best to go in Spring or Autumn. May might have been better than April with the benefit of hindsight; the earlier you go the more likely you are to encounter showers, which we did (the rain in Spain falls mainly in Portugal, perhaps, or words to that effect). In Autumn, you'd miss the Spring flowers, but you'd have the advantage of seeing the grapes being harvested. We'd aim at late September/early October if we went another time.
* How to get there *
As suggested in my recent review of Porto, it probably makes most sense to go by air. The Douro Valley is a natural extension to a Porto city break, or part of a wider tour of the region. You can fly direct to Porto's smart new airport by TAP Portuguese Airways from Gatwick or Heathrow, or by Ryanair from Stansted, Birmingham, Bristol or Liverpool. We went Ryanair from Stansted - £76 each return, including all the taxes and extras they insist on adding to the basic fare. From Porto, hire a car, hop on a train or book a cruise, as discussed above.
* Recommendation *
The Douro Valley wouldn't suit everyone. It wouldn't much suit families with young children, since there is little for them to do. It wouldn't much suit those who like to fill their days with man-made entertainment. It wouldn't even suit those who seek magnificent man-made monuments - castles, cathedrals and stately homes - since these are few and far between.
For a short exploration of somewhere a little out of the ordinary, though, it suited us very well. It probably helped that we found an excellent place to stay, but even without that I think we would have enjoyed discovering the local ambiance in the towns and villages, taking the train up-valley and seeing the river views, tasting the wine and walking in the hills. On this basis, I'd recommend it, especially if combined with a visit to Porto and other parts of northern Portugal.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2009
For a review of the city of Porto, see:
For a review of a great place to stay in the Douro valley, see:
The Douro is one of the major rivers of the Iberian Peninsula and flows through Spain and Portugal to Porto on the Portuguese coast.