Douro Valley | The Sunday Times Travel Magazine
The Sunday Times Travel magazine | June 2012
Instant Escape: Douro Valley for wine lovers
Intoxicating views, fruity wines, as much port as you can drink... Portugal's ripe for a boozy weekend, says Laura Ivill.
Ever tasted Douro wine? You'll recall instantly just how deliciously smooth it is. The grapes for this fruity number are grown on the slopes of the Douro River Valley, running upriver inland east of Porto — one of the most scenic viticultural areas in the world for a long weekend. It feels like Tuscany before the crowds: a tranquil agricultural land, with other sensory pleasures to savour, too.
What to see & do
Without doubt, the first thing you will want to do in the old city of Porto, with its jumble of red-tiled roofs sloping down to the river, is stroll along the Douro’s promenade, ice cream in hand. Across the central iron bridge on the south side, where all the port is aged in Vila Nova de Gaia, a line of traditional wooden boats, rabelos, invite you to jump aboard. The Manos do Douro hour-long river tour (€10) includes a visit afterwards to the Croft port wine lodge of 1588, a ten-minute hike uphill, with its cobbled floor and lanterns, where the port-and-truffle-tasting combo is sensational (http://manosdodouro.net).
Music and culture is thriving in Porto. Hop in a cab (around €10, 10 minutes from the centre) to Serralves (Rua D. João de Castro 210, 4150-417 Porto; www.serralves.pt). The contemporary art museum has changing exhibitions - Luc Tuymans has had several exhibitions here of his bare-palette figurative work - and the parkland is popular on light, balmy July evenings for jazz. Dave Douglas is a name to look out for – his six-piece includes three trumpeters, sparking off each other to a backdrop of thick, leafy trees rustling in the early evening breeze (€10).
Next morning, as you drive up the valley, an hour from Porto you’ll reach the wine-growing region. Stop off at the 18th-century palace Casa de Mateus, near Vila Real, a showpiece of the Baroque, which also has vineyards (00 351 259 323 121, www.casademateus.com). Wander the knot gardens, warm woody scents on the air, topiary and white and pink roses all around. The house contains weird and wonderful antiques – in one curiosity, a baby Jesus sits in a small tabletop box among mirrors and plaster flowers; and, fascinatingly, an ornate, 18th-century gentleman’s shoe is displayed alongside his wooden litter, which needed four men to carry it just to keep the gent’s outfits out of the mud.
Turn south just past Vila Real and in another 20 minutes’ or so you reach Régua, the main town of the wine-growing region. A good place to get a sense of the area’s history is at the Museu do Douro (€5). It has lots of vintage agricultural tools on display, and old photographs show workers stooping among the terraces at harvest time (it’s still all done by hand). Stick your head in the huge, old vat on display and smell the aromas of stewed fruit (www.museudodouro.pt).
Follow the Douro east to the quiet riverside village of Pinhão, 15 minutes from Régua, for a flavour of old Portugal. Its train station’s white-picket-fence stretches all along the tracks and the ticket office is covered in huge 19th-century illustrated tiles, depicting agricultural life in the vineyards. Park near the station and walk over to the riverbank, where one or two small ferryboats are waiting from May to September. You will hardly hear their engines as you glide up along a shady, glassy green tributary of the Douro for a 20-minute trip (around €10pp) to Quinta do Panascal, the air filled with birdsong, butterflies and the scent of olive trees.
The Quinta do Panascal winery, owned by the top-quality port brand Fonseca, has hundred-year-old vines. Nothing disturbs their growing year up here except a few visitors and a lone dog barking as you walk up the steep slopes from the river. The tasting is free, and the 20-year-old tawny, with its rich stewed-fruit taste, is the one to really swill around your tongue. An in-depth audio tour about port-making takes you on a trail of the vineyards; pause to pick one or two black grapes bursting with sweetness as you scuff through the dusty soil (www.fonseca.pt).
The 2009 contemporary Sandeman winery, Quinta do Seixo (www.sandeman.eu), has been designed by architects to be darkly lit, modern and streamlined - inside it could pass for a Bond villain’s lair. At the end of the tour (from €5), the tasting room looks out onto the wide, sun-baked vista of the valley, all the more dazzling in contrast. Open every day from March to October, on a hot day you might choose to sip a refreshing white-port and lemon-sorbet cocktail in the library bar. Heavenly.
If you come in September, when the beating sun has abated a little, you’ll see the Douro at its busiest best. The harvest draws pickers from miles around (machines can’t cope with the steep slopes), and you can join in by treading the grapes at Quinta da Pacheca (Cambres, 5100-424 Lamego; 00 351 254 331 229, www.quintadapacheca.com). The white-washed winery is alive with the sounds of machinery and workers in shorts singing as they tred. Don’t miss the restaurant that punches above its weight with dishes such as slow-cooked pork cheek, shallots, puree potato with lime, and tender green beans.
Where to stay
Quinta do Vallado (Vilarinho dos Freires, 5050-364 Peso da Régua; 00 351 254 323 147,www.quintadovallado.com). Take an afternoon relaxing on the lawn, by the outdoor swimming pool – a sun-trap overlooking a Douro tributary. It’s famed as one of the oldest port-producing quintas, from 1716, where the estate’s younger generation is making table wines and ports of international class, such as the dry, round and fruity Quinta do Vallado Douro Reserva. Meals are cooked in the family’s own kitchen, just five rooms are in the main house but eight are newly built this year. Doubles from €95, B&B.
Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros (5085-201 Pinhão; 00 351 254 730 190,www.chanceleiros.com). You’ll be surprised arriving at his roomy manor house - all flagstone floors, pottery, blue-and-white tiles, thick white bedspreads and copper pans hanging above the kitchen range. The maze of gardens, orange and lemon trees and pool have tremendous views over the valley, and family activities are free – tennis, table tennis, indoor squash, mountain bikes, boules, Jacuzzi and even a sauna that’s been carved from a wine vat. It’s warmly inviting and great value. Doubles from €100, B&B.
Casa das Pipas (Quinta do Portal, EN 323, Celeirós do Douro, 5060-909, Sabrosa; 00 351 259 937 000, www.quintadoportal.com). The winery here is clad in cork tiles, with a green roof, with aromas of fruit and caves as you look around. At the hotel next door, take in the panoramic views of the pool, sundeck and vineyards from the modern picture windows of the sitting room with large comfy sofas and Portugese pottery. In the main house, with its great walls in the local layered granite, schist, 12 rooms are newly decorated, whereas, in the dusty grounds smelling of lavender and eucalyptus, an apartment sleeping 12 still has the original olive press in its own room. Doubles from €120, B&B.
Quinta Nova (5085-222 Covas do Douro; 00 351 254 730 430, www.quintanova.com). It’ll be baking hot in summer up here on the high slopes, but in October it’s the ‘fire time’, like fall in the US. There’s plenty to do if you wish - olive-oil tasting, orange picking, swimming, walking trails, biking, canoeing … otherwise just flop by the pool, listening to the birds softly chattering. You’re encouraged to take off your shoes and feel at home in this 11-room renovated farmhouse, from 1764). Rooms have vintage furniture that belonged to previous owners, including the sleigh and four-poster beds. Wine tours and tastings are free. Much fresher than it seems from the website. Doubles from €121, B&B.
Aquapura Douro Valley (Quinta Vale de Abraão, 5100-758 Lamego, Douro; 00 351 254 66 06 00,www.aquapurahotels.com). From the ashes of a grand 19th-century manor house, this contemporary hotel of 71 rooms, suites and self-contained villas has floor-to-ceiling windows to make the most of the river valley’s sweeping drama. Stroll through the moody, streamlined interiors, take breakfast in the courtyard overlooking its landscaped gardens, then relax by the pool and in the lavish spa. It all adds up to the international traveller’s home-from-home. Doubles from €250, B&B.
The Yeatman (Rua do Choupelo, 4400-088 Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto; 00 351 220 133 100,www.theyeatman.com). This is for wine-lovers through and through. On the Gaia side of the Douro, overlooking Porto, the newly built rooms have terraces to take in the stunning views over the old Unesco-protected city. You’ll be amused by the interior design touches, such as the large decanter-shaped outdoor pool, plus there’s a spacious Vinothérapy spa, Michelin-star wine dinners and a cellar of 25,000 bottles. Stunning. Doubles from €305, B&B.
Where to eat
Café Astoria (Intercontinental Palacio das Cardosas, Praça da la Liberdade N25, 4000-322, Porto; 00 351 220 035 600, www.intercontinental.com). The elegantly restored late 18th-century Intercontinental hotel is bang in the centre of town. After a morning’s port tasting go for lunch at Café Astoria, with its ceiling of intricate fresh white plasterwork and modern furnishings in zingy lime. Sit outside for people-watching. Mains, such as steak, fries and egg, are just under a tenner – the three-course kids’ menu is only £6.50.
Don Tonho (Cais de Ribeira 13-15, 4050-509 Porto; 00 351 222 004 307, www.dtonho.com). Where everyone strolls along the Porto promenade, this spacious bar and restaurant has one of the best spots in town on the elevated part of the street, right by the iron bridge. For lunch sit on the terrace. The traditional dishes, such as Iberian pork tenderloins with clams, are hearty. Mains around €15.
Shis (Praia do Ourigo, Esplanada do Castelo, Foz, 4150-000 Porto; 00 351 226 189 593;www.shisrestaurante.com). The cool place to impress your dinner guest, Shis overlooks the ocean a short taxi ride from central Porto. From the terrace or the deck you hear the pounding surf. Dishes, such as Chateaubriand with green pepper, eggplant tempura, ginger and spicy sauce, come with an oriental twist and sushi is prepared by a master. Extensive wine list. Mains around €18.
Largo do Paço (Casa da Calçada, Largo do Paço 6, 4600-017 Amarante; 00 351 255 410 830). The Douro Valley is not without its Michelin stars. On your drive up the valley stop off for a leisurely lunch at this early 19th-century palace. Chef Vitor Matos serves a tasting menu of seven courses (from €60) with Portuguese wines. Traditional dishes are given complexity: sardines preserved in olive oil and garlic with gazpacho, tomato stuffed with basil pesto, and tomato-water foam. Mains around €35.
DOC (Estrada Nacional 222, Folgosa, 5110-204 Armamar; 00 351 910 014 040, www.ruipaula.com). In the heart of the Douro Valley, celebrated chef Rui Paula opened DOC to great acclaim on the riverbank in a solitary, streamlined building with a large terrace. Dine by candlelight and hear the fish jump while enjoying dishes such as smoked duck breast with requeijão cheese - traditional recipes with a lightly modern twist. The sister restaurant, DOP, is in Porto. Mains around €25.
Castas e Pratos (Rua José Vasques Osório, 5050-280 Peso da Régua; 00 351 254 323 290,www.castasepratos.com). Housed in a converted freight-train warehouse, this trendy wine bar and restaurant in Régua is a post-industrial eaterie with a gourmet menu, such as salt cod in a cornbread crust with olives and mashed chickpeas, and a whole book of mainly Portuguese wines. Popular with winemakers. Mains around €15.
Where to shop
Graham’s (Quinta do Agro, Rua Rei Ramiro, 4400-281, Gaia; 00 351 223 776 484,www.grahamsportlodge.com). As well as extensive port-tasting options at this lodge in Gaia, the shop sells quality bottles for you to ship home. It’s one of the grand vintage port houses, founded by two Scottish brothers in 1820, and is still entirely family owned by the legendary Symingtons.
By the roadside on the Avenue of Norway, near the centre of Vila Real, you can buy the traditional, localhandmade pottery called barro negro de Bisalhães, with its distinctive black patina. Moss and earth are smothered all over the clay, then rubbed with river stones. Village craftsmen design it in all shapes and sizes, throwing decorative jugs and country bowls.
Ask the local
Francisco Ferreira is one of the owners and is in charge of wine production at Quinta do Vallado. He is the sixth generation of his family to be producing wine in the Douro.
‘Most of the people who live in Oporto are from Oporto – so it’s like a family, people are very friendly. I especially love the old city, the river and the sea. To eat, I go to Cafeína (www.cafeina.pt) and Terra (00 351 226 177 339) both in Foz, they are fashionable and serve really great food. In the Douro we have the quintas, the wines and the views. I like Cais da Villa in Vila Real (www.caisdavilla.com) which belongs to the same owners as Castas e Pratos – it’s also in a train station. For traditional Portuguese food, such as ham and lamb, the Museu dos Presuntos is good value (Avenida Cidade de Orense 43, 5000-434 Vila Real; 00 351 259 326 017). In Poiares, 10 minutes from us at Vallado, we have A Repentina – it’s amazing – serving lamb cooked in a wood oven (00 351 254 906 145).’
Get me there
EasyJet and TAP fly Gatwick to Porto: EasyJet from £23.99 (www.easyjet.com); TAP, from £56 (www.flytap.com). Ryanair flies Stansted to Porto, from £22.99 (www.ryanair.com). All fares are one-way, including taxes.
Arblaster and Clarke offers six-night walking tours of the Douro Valley from £1,799pp based on two sharing, including some meals, excluding flights (01730 263111, www.arblasterandclarke.com). Grape Escapes has flexible wine-tasting tours for groups and individuals. A three-night package to Porto and the Douro, transfers in the Douro, tours, tastings and one lunch, excluding flights, costs from £369pp based on two sharing (www.grapeescapes.net). The Yeatman three-night wine package costs from €2,438 for two, and includes a six-course tasting menu with wine, one 60-minute spa treatment, a trip to the Douro to Quinta do Panascal, or in September for the harvest at Quinta Nova where you will be invited to participate.
Self-drive along the signed Port wine route of the Douro Valley, Rota do Vinho do Porto (www.rvp.pt). From the airport Budget (0844 544 3439, www.budget.co.uk) has four-day hire car from £64.80, or Avis (0844 581 8181, www.avis.co.uk) has seven-day hire from £109.17. Or try Europcar. Or hire a car with a local driver-guide with Top Travel private tours (00 351 917 253 333, email@example.com), around €220 per day.
Details on port and Douro Valley wines at www.discovertheorigin.co.uk, Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto (www.ivdp.pt), www.visitportugal.com. The Food and Wine Lover’s Guide to Portugal, by Charles Metcalfe & Kathryn McWhirter (Inn House Publishing, £16.95).