A gauzy veil of early morning mist hovers over Porto’s Ribeira pier when we board the Tomaz de Douro for a daylong cruise to the birthplace of the celebrated Vinho do Porto. The prized liquid gold of Portugal may be coming of age right across the river, in the Gaia cellars of world-renowned Port producers, but it is some 60 kilometers (40 miles) upriver, in the famed vineyards of the Douro Valley that it all begins.
A Cruise Back in Time
Leaving behind the bustle of the piers and the soaring bridges of Porto, we meander upstream between the cliff-like banks. Soon the dense mosaic of homes climbing up the hills of historic Porto fades away, gradually replaced by stately haciendas surrounded by lush vegetation. Eventually, just as the sun begins to pierce through the mist, we enter a pristine nature preserve. Herons feed in the shallows and bright kayaks silently slide by on their way downstream.
After days of roaming through the cobbled city streets, it is a treat to settle on the viewing deck and watch villages drift by. By late morning, we reach the first of the two locks on our itinerary, a reminder that the Douro was not always the serene river we enjoy today. Until it was tamed by a series of dams in the 20th century, it was a turbulent stream coming from the high sierras of northwestern Spain. Starting in the 1960’s, dams and locks were built to normalize traffic along the river.
Shortly after we enter the lock of the Crestuma-Lever Dam, lunch is announced in the glassed-in dining room on the lower deck. It is a formally served meal of traditional local fare, preceded by an appetizer of assorted bacalhau (dry, salted cod), vegetable and cheese fritters paired with glass of lovely white Port aperitif. By the end of the meal, we pass through the lock of the Carrapatelo Dam and landscape changes. The wild slopes turn into socalcos, terraced vineyards hewn into the riverbanks. They follow the sinuous contours of the valley to mold a unique landscape with its own microclimate. It is this product of two millennia of human labor that has earned the Douro vineyards their UNESCO World Heritage status in 2001.
Two Millenia of Human Labor
Harvest time came early this year, and in the fading days of summer the sprawling whitewashed quintas (country estates) and the yellowing rows of gnarled vines that surround them are a surprisingly silent place. Suddenly, a familiar black silhouette materializes among the ripple of terraces. It’s the world famous Sandeman Don (or Sir) draped in his traditional Portuguese student’s cape and wide Spanish hat, growing to gigantesque proportions as we draw nearer. We definitely are in the heart of Port country.
The Tomaz de Douro pulls into the sleepy little town of Peso da Régua, where Pedro Batista, the friendly English-speaking guide who has been with us throughout the cruise, shepherds us to the tiny train station a short walk away from the dock for the two-hour ride back to Porto. “The best views are on the left side,” he hints as we board.
Whilst serious oenophiles may want to extend their time of the area with visits of some of the famous quintas, I find this daylong cruise to be a comprehensive introduction to the spectacular Douro Valley. And the slow, cliff-hugging ride back to Porto on a train of another century offers yet another perspective of the unique landscapes of one of the oldest wine-growing regions in Europe.
Westward to the Sea
Although the city of Porto is located inland from the Atlantic, the Douro’s estuary is just an easy ninety-minute walk from the Ribeira waterfront, following the right bank of the river to the sea. Along the way, we pass through the colorful medieval neighborhood of Miragaia. Located outside of the old city walls, this arrabalde (suburb), it is where the Jews and Armenians of Porto used to live.
In Miragia, houses are constructed below the level of the Douro, on an ancient beach where the boats of the Discoveries Era were built to carry explorers headed for the Cape of Good Hope and settlers bound for outposts of the empire. Nowadays the houses are protected by a wall, their upper floors built over arches that give that give the whole neighborhood a unique atmosphere. We keeep going and pass the small fishing village of Afurada before reaching the seaside resort town of Foz do Douro. Its lovely 19th century Passeio Alegre Garden with its grove of palm trees overlooking the ocean was designed by German landscape architect Emille David (of Crystal Palace Gardens fame).
It’s another hour-long walk along the shore to Matosinhos. Today, the town’s long fishing tradition is most noticeable by the large charcoal grills in front of its many seafood restaurants. A variety of fish, from sardines and sea bass to cod and shad are roasting in the open air. The restaurants are packed with locals. We join them for a bountiful meal of fresh grilled fish and boiled potatoes drizzled with olive oil, washed down with a glass of refreshing Vinho Verde (green wine, which in this case refer to the young age of the wine rather than its color). It’s the perfect way to cap the long morning walk by the sea.
Good to Know
- Getting there – To the sea. If you prefer not to walk, or for the return trip to the city, the most scenic bus line route in Porto (bus 500), departs from the center of the city (at Aveniad dos Allados). It crosses the historic center and follows the coast to end at the Matosinhos central market. You can catch the bus at any stop along the way in either direction and purchase a ticket from the conductor (€1,70 at the time of my visit). To the Douro Vineyards. There are a number of companies with varied boat types offering cruises from Porto the Douro vineyards. At the recommendation of a local acquaintance, I opted for the Tomaz do Douro, with offices at Praça da Ribeira 5, 4050-513 Porto. Contact: tel. +351 222 081 935, e-mail. email@example.com.
- Best avoided unless you yearn for a bygone era transportation experience. A rickety tram (line 1) outfitted with old leather seats and wood paneling departs half-hourly (more or less) from Praca do Infante Square where tourists jostle for position in an unruly waiting line. It follows the river non-stop to Esplanada do Castelo on the Foz de Douro waterfront. The ride takes about 25 minutes and cost €2.50. The tram is usually packed, so chances are that you will be too busy trying to keep your balance as it rocks along to enjoy any of the scenery.