Today we have an early departure from the hotel for our small group tour of the Douro Valley, the region of Portugal where the grapes for fortified wine known as Port are grown. Because we will miss the standard breakfast time, the hotel set out a lighter breakfast for us in the restaurant. It was wonderful and so much more than standard. We were downstairs to meet our guide Sylvia on time.
There are 7 guests on today’s tour. We were the first picked up so Boris took the shotgun seat and I am in the first row of the van. Like on tour in Lisbon, all the other participants were far younger than us. There was a young married couple from London, Hugo and Ruth (although she is originally from Edinburgh, Scotland). He is a lawyer and she is a dance instructor. There were two girls from Taiwan, one a journalist and the other an event planner. Rounding out the group was Bianca from New York City, also a journalist. She was scheduled to come with a friend who backed out on the trip; I was proud of her for not missing the opportunity.
Our guide Sylvia was a lot of fun. She lives in Porto now, but is originally from the area we will be visiting. She told us a little about the rent in Porto. With all the renovation going on (particularly in the Ribeira section where we are staying) and the increased tourism in Porto, rents have really gone up. So much so, that many people who work in the city can no longer afford to rent there. Typical rent is now 600 euros a month for a small one-bedroom apartment. That is more than most of the residents make in one month.
As we headed out of the city I was impressed with the state of the art highway system and the cool tunnels and bridges. I clocked one tunnel at a minute and 50 seconds. There were markers all along the way showing your progress and location. Unlike many long tunnels I have been in, there was cell service/reception anywhere in the tunnel.
The first stop Sylvia made was in the small city of Amarante. It was wonderfully charming with the one lane stone bridge leading to the church. On the way in she told us about the patron saint, São Gonçalo, whose tomb is in the church.
San Goncalo is said to help young women who want to marry. It was a custom in the town for the young women to dance before the image of the saint. A trickster would raise the priestly robe of the saint. I thought this a strange story to tell until we reached the church and a local baker had out treats to sell. She sold baked goods fashioned as a large penis in honor of the saint. The“bolos de São Gonçalo”, a sweet pastry and fertility symbol, are exchanged on the Feast of San Goncalo, the first weekend of June. Boris bought a different shaped cake.This stop was perfect for everyone. You could tour the church; hike up through the town or across the bridge, sit down for a coffee in the square, feed the ducks in the river, or just take a lot of pictures. You can probably guess what option Natasha chose. Boris grabbed a coffee to go with his cake.
The town was fairytale like and I enjoyed just wandering around. You could easily spend half a day there or extend your visit with a little hiking or cycling in the area. A new paved bike trail passing vineyards and forests, including a crossover of the River Tamega, was opened in 2013. It is the same route as the old Linha do Tâmega railway. line
After our break it was back to the van to head to Sabrosa, the birthplace of Magellan and the location of the small independent vineyard and winery we will be visiting. In case your history is escaping you, “Ferdinand Magellan was a Portuguese explorer who organized the Spanish expedition to the East Indies that result[ed] in the first circumnavigation of the Earth.”
The town was preparing for a festival when we arrived on Friday morning. Crews were setting up wooden booths. We were early for our tour and lunch so we wandered around the older section of this small city. Magellan’s birthplace is a private home, but Boris found it right behind Casa dos Barros, the beautiful home (now an inn) and event space we will be visiting.
When it opened we walked through Casa dos Barros lobby area to the courtyard, past the event space, and ended up at the outdoor pool overlooking the vineyards. What gorgeous views. The inn might be a wonderful place to spend a few days or as a travel base for the region.
When they called us in, we enjoyed a tour of the traditional wine-making vats and a tasting. We had a stop in the chapel-rarely opened for visitors-before walking into the wine storage area for a taste of 10, 20, and 30-year port. I like the 10 and 30 yr varieties. Oddly, I didn’t like the taste of the 20. Port is a mix of a variety of grapes that changes each year to maintain the consistency of the taste of that “brand”. For the 100 year port, you had to pony up more than 300 euros for a taste or purchase one of the few remaining bottles for 3,000 + euros.
Next was a wonderful lunch under the shade trees by the pool and overlooking the vineyards. Our tour group sat together and got to know each other. I enjoy this part of traveling with small groups. You had a choice of fish or beef with risotto. Of course the bread was terrific as was the dessert. There was plenty of red or white wine on the table, but oddly no port.
After lunch we had a short time to do some shopping. Having told Boris my preferences, I was curious to see what he would buy. All of our group made a purchase at this vineyard. Boris got all three (10, 20, and 30). Nobody went for the 100 year.
Next we set out for Pinhao in the heart of the Douro Valley and right on the river. In town, our first stop will be a large producer, Croft. I have seen one of their cellars in Gaia across the river from our hotel room in Porto.
Croft has a big operation right on the Douro River in Pinhao. There is a nice tasting room with a wonderful deck and small private patio/dining area overlooking the Douro. Great views. We started the tour on the deck and then went into the vineyard. We were paired with another tour group. There was a fig tree just beside the grapevines and one of the Australian visitors decided to pull until he got a fig. He broke one of the large branches. After the guests left the area, the guide had to chop off the entire branch. It was beyond saving. I was embarrassed by the casual attitude the guest took to harming the tree. Hugo, Ruth, and I stayed behind and Hugo carefully got me a fig. It was the absolute best fig I had ever tasted.
From the vineyard we went into the production facilities. Croft still presses their grapes by having people stomp on them. Since harvest is less than two weeks away, we were invited back as unpaid labor. After the tour of the production facilities, we went back to the tasting room.
Several of the large producers are now pushing their “pink” port; it is not really made to be drank straight, but chilled and as a cocktail mixer. We had it room temperature and straight. Yuk. We were also offered three other varieties. I didn’t care of any of them. Neither did Boris. As it turned out, although we all bought something at the last venue no one in our group made a purchase at Croft.
Leaving Croft, it was time for our last stop. We are taking a short boat trip on the River Douro. We are traveling in a replica craft from those that transported barrels of port from the valley along the Douro to the cellars in Gaia, across the river from Porto. Today, the barrels are transported by quicker means, but the boats have found a new use, ferrying tourists.
The planting was extremely labor intensive. These terraced rows were planted and harvested by hand. Some of the new plantings have been set so some machinery can be used, but much of the work on the established vines is still done by hand.
From Pinhao, we went back to Porto enjoying a music mix prepared by Sylvia. Some selections were Fado, but others were just based on the themes of the day. I discovered a new singer. Mariza, whose music I really liked. She is a well known Fado artist in Portugal, just new to me.
We had a dinner reservation outside the Ribeira district and both of us were too tired to hunt down a cab and make the trek there and back. We cancelled our reservations and got a couple of pizzas and just enjoyed the sunset from our room. Tomorrow we plan to see more of Porto and then visit some of the port wine cellars in Gaia.