Most visitors are drawn to Portugal for its sun, sea and sand, along with Lisbon’s historical sites. But the country offers an astonishing variety of landscapes for its size, with none more memorable than the Douro, a verdant valley 300km north of the capital, that cuts across northern Portugal from the Spanish border to the Atlantic Ocean. Its kilometres of stunning terraced vineyards were designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in December 2001, prompting a flurry of tourism investment that is now paying off handsomely.
visits to northern Portugal start in Oporto (known to locals as Porto), the
country's second-largest city. Known for its art and fashion scenes and buzzing
nightlife, Porto’s main claim to fame is as a hub for the port wine industry. Warehouses
emblazoned with company names that recall British and other foreign founders line
the south bank of the Douro River, and most have guided tours and tastings. The
nearby rabelo sailboats, which once ferried in barrels of wine from vineyards
upstream, now offer short trips, usually accompanied by a glass of port, a
fortified tipple that may be served as an aperitif or at dessert, or by one of the new cocktails that are updating
the wine’s once crusty image, such as the Porto Flip, made with red port,
brandy and an egg yolk.
fully experience the Douro Valley, however, head upstream to the Alto Douro (Upper Douro) wine region.
Visitors can choose between a three-hour dash by chopper to Mesão Frio, on
the western edge of the wine-growing area, or a leisurely cruise upstream on
one of the river’s many hotel boats, some of which have a
pool and a sundeck. Alternatively (and more cheaply) take the Douro rail line
to Pêso da Régua (usually known as Régua), a river port through which most of
the region’s wine has been shipped for centuries. If you opt to drive the hour
or so from Porto, consider taking at least a short boat trip from Régua or
further upstream at Pinhão. It is only when gliding along midstream that you can
fully appreciate the grandeur around you.
grapes for port – or rather, for the wine that is then fortified with aguardente
(Portuguese brandy) to make port – are grown in these upper reaches of the
river valley. Curve after curve of hills unfold along the river, lined with terraces
carved out from the slatey soil.
Alto Douro is the world's oldest formally demarcated wine region; its limits
were defined in 1756 by the reforming minister known to posterity as the
Marquess of Pombal. Some of the original stone markers can still seen at the
prize-winning winery Quinta Nova da Nossa Senhora do Carmo,
one of dozens of local quintas (estates) where you can dine or stay in charming
and authentic surroundings.
the port wine industry remains strong, local grapes are now also being used to
make fine red and white table wines that are attracting much foreign
interest. One of the Douro Boys, a group of winemakers that drove this
change, welcomes visitors for table wine tastings at Quinta do Crasto.Contact quintas
directly to book visits, with lunch or dinner, or ask the Port Wine Route
to put together an itinerary for you. At harvest time you can help pick grapes or
even tread them alongside locals.
As tourism to the Douro Valley has grown, a handful of gourmet restaurants and
ultra-modern boutique hotels have opened to complement the area’s traditional
family-run estates. On a hilltop site across the river from Régua, the Aquapura
Douro Valley resort has a slick design, a well-equipped spa, cookery
classes and cycling tours. The nearby town of Lamego is full of fine baroque
buildings and the hilltop shrine to Nossa Senhora dos Remédios is approached via
an imposing granite staircase lined with azulejos (enamel tiles), a
Armamar, local fare gets an update at DOC, a glass-walled box on the
river. Here local lad Rui Paula combines childhood memories with his gourmet
training to reproduce hearty dishes in a lighter, more modern form. He uses prime
regional ingredients such as bísaro
pork (meat from pigs fed only on chestnuts), cured sausages and wild mushrooms,
but even this far inland, traditional dishes include roast octopus.
main showcase for the region’s cultural revolution is the Museu do Douro, which opened in Régua in 2008 and is located in the restored
former home of the royal port wine company. It has changing exhibitions on
local history, featuring the wine trade front and centre. An exhibition on the
life of the formidable Antónia Adelaide Ferreira, who defied mid-19th-century
Portuguese conventions to ably run one of the biggest local wine companies after
the death of her British husband, is running until May. A museum offshoot around
the corner – in a delightfully smelly former wine warehouse – hosts a permanent
exhibition on wine-making.
the summer, steam trains complement regular services from Régua along the river
to Tua. All stop at Pinhão, whose station is lined with beautiful azulejo panels
depicting rural life. There’s also a shop, called Wine House, that sells books
and other wine-related paraphernalia, and former rail workers’ cottages that contain
fascinating displays of the traditional equipment used in wine-making. The
riverfront CS Vintage House hotel has a fine restaurant and organises wine