The Douro, fragrant cradle of Pôrt wine
It flows between the vineyards, which seem to tumble straight down into its glittering water. It is the privileged witness to all of the secrets of making port wine, which has been known and exported for centuries. It distils a romantic and nostalgic life style surrounded by untamed nature, wafted by the scent of oranges and flowering mimosa. In the very south of Europe, the Douro, the golden river, tells a very beautiful tale of the love of man and the vine to the strains of the fado.
The vineyards are the major attraction of the Douro valley. It has taken twenty centuries, since the time of the Romans, to construct this architecture of terraces and steps and plant vines hanging on to hillsides, some of which have a gradient of up to 70%. Generations of wine makers have constructed thousands of kilometres of supporting walls, which climb up to 700 m above sea level.
Pôrt wine, since the 13th century
The rewards for this effort is port wine, which the English have been mad about since the 17th century. The "quintas", wine properties that we see here and as far as Barca d'Alva close to the Spanish border, are beautiful, immaculate residences which light up the vineyards where the grapes are often still harvested "the old fashioned way".
The Port Wine appellation appeared in 1675. History tells us that the formula for port was perfected by a monk who poured a few measures of brandy into a vat in order to arrest the fermentation of the grapes while they were being shipped by boat. But it was decades before the wine was obtained that we know today, a mixture of fifteen mature vintages of varying quality.
The Douro region is the oldest region of appellation of controlled origin in the world. It includes almost 30,000 hectares of vines, divided between 26,000 wine makers.
For a long time, the barrels of wine loaded aboard the "barcos rabelos" or "boats with a tail", these vessels with a Phoenician appearance, were transported to Porto by river. These days, these coloured boats are but a tourist attraction in the port city, which invites you to taste its heady wine in the cellars at Vila Nova de Gaia on the other bank.
Life in the pink
This gourmet interlude will show you life in the pink. Pink like the roofs of the port city which has given its name to the wine. Explore it by mingling with its daily life in the maze of stairways and narrow streets hung with washing. The market halls bustling with people. The walls enhanced by the light of the "azulejos", these typical frescos in blue porcelain tiles which, particularly in the Ribeira district, recount its life, its past, its beliefs.
The Clerics' Tower, a bell tower more than 76 m high, built in the 18th century, offers a panoramic view over Porto and its historic centre classed as a world heritage site by UNESCO.
The second largest city in Portugal, pounded by the swell of the Atlantic Ocean, is a metropolis of 350,000 inhabitants and intense traffic. Three bridges facilitate the economic life of the region. The one constructed by Gustave Eiffel at the end of the 19th century crosses the 150 m of the Douro valley in a single span.
Tamed by five dams
Another life, hidden far upstream on the Douro, awaits the tourist. The more rugged yet more welcoming life of untamed nature. Between a guard of honour of vines of almost 200 km between Porto and the Spanish border, the river of gold steps into the limelight. 850 km long, it rises in Spain at a height above sea level of 2,250 m and seems a peaceable river as it crosses Castille. Five dams, which are also one of the river's attractions, calm its course: Crestuma, Carrapatello, the highest in Europe at 35 m, Régua, Valeria and Pocinho punctuate the river's course. It also has a number of powerful hydroelectricity stations.
A few cultural and poetic ports of call are a must: the tour of Vila Real, known for its religious architecture and the "Solar Mateus" manor.
Further on, Pinhao and Barca d'Alva guarantee an intoxicating sensual experience in the heart of a country which has long lived shut off from the rest of the world.