Portugal’s golden waterway
Following the Douro River deep into the real Portugal
In a restaurant on the banks of the Douro River, in the tiny hamlet of Pochino, I am lunching with my new best friend, the mayor. There are only four tables and no menu, which is fine because Julinha — proprietor, chef, waitress and raconteur — seems to know exactly what I want the moment I step through the door. Plates of oily olives arrive, slices of salami, a basket of rough country bread, a bowl of arroz de feijao (rice and beans), and finally a platter of grilled veal, as soft as butter. The mayor is at the next table. A gregarious sort with a toupee like a dead cat, he sends over some doces conventuais, a sensual eggy confection originally made by nuns.
The Douro is famous for its wines and, as the mayor and I chat, I try to keep my end up discussing the great issues of the river valley — foot tramping and vertical planting, oak barrels and the formidable Dona Antonia Ferreira, the 19th-century doyen of Douro winemaking, whose crumbling mansion stands on the far bank of the river. Suddenly the mayor stops mid-sentence. I wonder if he has sensed I have been bluffing about grape varietals. “But why have you come to the Douro?” he asks.
I tell him I am following the river, to see where it will take me. He stands up, excited. Perhaps a toast is in the offing; I charge my glass. “It will take you to Portugal,” he declaims. “The old Portugal of our parents and grandparents.” He leans forward. I think the second bottle is kicking in. “My friend,” he whispers theatrically. “This river will show you the true heart of Portugal.”
The Rio Douro, River of Gold, is one of the most beautiful in Europe, and the journey upriver one of the most scenic routes on the continent. It is also central to the idea of Portugal. It carried explorers bound for the Cape of Good Hope, and Portuguese settlers to outposts of empire. It ferried the Portuguese royal house from Braganca to Lisbon, and Reconquista armies from the sea to the fastness of Tras-os-Montes. And far upriver the Douro defines Portugal’s most critical boundary — its border with Spain.
In the second century BC, the Romans, who personified the river as the god Durius, brought the first vines to its banks. By the sixth century the Visigoths were bingedrinking the wine straight from the barrel. In the 12th century, Portugal was founded in the midst of a family squabble as Afonso Henriques ferried his troops across the Douro to defeat his mother and her man friend at the Battle of Sao Mamede. By the 18th century, the region’s grand families were carving out the first commercial wine estates, and the following century, the Douro vineyards were supplying port to England’s grandest houses and clubs.
Down at the river mouth, at the beginning of the 21st century, the city of Porto is having a moment. There is a stylish new contemporary arts centre, an outbreak of entrepreneurial energy, several smart new hotels, including the wonderful Yeatman, and travellers waking up to what is becoming one of the trendiest cities in southern Europe. Quaint old districts of cobbled lanes and corner bars tumble down to the old docks, and around every corner there seems to be another view of the Douro, sleek as silk, as it slides through the city on its last run to the sea.
But I haven’t come to see charming Porto. I am here to follow the river. I pick up a hire car and take the N108 eastward. It is a fresh resin-scented morning; battalions of clouds ride towards the high ranges of Montemuro. I drive through a landscape of rock and pine with sudden views of the wide river, green as forest gloom. At a sleepy riverside cafe in Melres, two fishermen regale me with stories of their chief catch, the lucioperca, a monster that begins to sound like a sighting on Loch Ness. At Entre-osRios, I stop for coffee and fall in with a jolly octogenarian sporting a natty goatee. He insists I try the white port; it’s as dry as a skeleton, he says, which is a wheeze to get me to stand him a round. A few moments later a nurse arrives to reclaim him for the old people’s home; it seemed he escaped some time after breakfast. He buys her a rose from a flower stall and escorts her gallantly through the town.
Above Cinfaes, the forested slopes are falling away, and the valley begins to stretch its limbs. Orchards of figs, oranges, olives and almonds sprawl along the banks. The mountain heights retreat and the complex geometry of vineyards takes over the slopes. The road rises and falls between old terraces, swinging past the huge iron gates of ancestral quintas, or estates, bearing the great names of the valley — Ferreira, Boavista, Pego, Sandeman. One moment I am at the riverbank beside a grape-coloured river; the next I am high above the water, looking down on the Douro as it curves between banks carved with the linear symmetries of vines.
At Peso da Regua, where swallows are diving across the river’s silver surface, Museu do Douro tells the story of the river and its vineyards. The secret is the microclimate of the valley — Mediterranean rather than Atlantic — and the stony schist soils. The Romans may have introduced vines to the region but it was monks, eager beavers after the Reconquista of Portugal from the Moors, who established the first serious vineyards, shipping their wines downriver in long-oared and long-ruddered rabelo boats.
At Lamego, I strike inland to visit the vast ruins of the 12th-century monastery of Sao Joao de Tarouca, marooned among orchards. In the azulejos tile work I find St Bernard eagerly treading grapes. In a guestbook of the surviving Romanesque church, I find the names of both football legend Luis Figo and Mother Teresa.
From the delightful town of Pinhao, set on a majestic curve of the river, the road leaves the riverbanks to rise across the high country towards Vila Nova de Foz Coa, famous for its prehistoric rock paintings and a splendid modern museum with staggering views down to the Douro. Winding up through pine woods I emerge on the Iberian plateau where vineyards and orchards are spread beneath vast skies. This is frontier country where villages are clustered around castles built in the 11th and 12th centuries against Spanish incursions. At Marialva, the walled citadel contains a ruined village of steep cobbled streets and roofless rooms around a central keep. I patrol the walls with their stunning views across the plateau to distant mountains; defenders would have seen the Spaniards coming 80km away. I climb the old high street from Porta del Sol and sit on the steps of an abandoned well in the tiny piazza where for centuries women would have gathered to complain about their husbands.
Down in the inhabited part of the village, beyond the old walls, they are still complaining. I have lunch at a tiny cafe with the proprietor and her neighbour. “Oh no, my husband was dead against it,” the proprietor says, referring to the cafe, which she opened a year ago. “He said it is bound to fail.” She eyes me suspiciously. “You know what men are like, always so negative.” With a mouth full of pastel de nata, Portugal’s famous custard tart, I can but nod meekly.
I am heading now into the headwaters of the Douro where the river marks the border with Spain in the wild northeast province of Tras-os-Montes, meaning Behind the Mountains. In this remote region, old pre-Roman customs and languages still linger and many of the scattered granite villages bear Roman or Visigothic names. At Miranda do Douro, I find the river beneath the town,
imprisoned in a deep gorge. A few kilometres upstream it curves out of Portugal altogether, meandering away towards Soria in Spain. Then I head across the wild plateau — cut by the Douro’s great tributaries, the Sabor and the Tua — to Braganca astride yet another tributary, the Rio Fervenca.
A pretty whitewashed town with an impressive citadel and a historic centre of curving cobbled lanes, it was home to the Dukes of Braganca, who enjoyed a significant upgrade when they became the Portuguese royal family in the 17th century. I like the town even before I find the wonderful Solar Braganca, a threadbare aristocrat of a restaurant where teetering piles of books and battalions of wine bottles compete for space in elegant wood-panelled rooms. Among the dense foliage of the garden, I dine by candlelight, savouring chestnut soup.
But there is a final stop, beyond Braganca. I follow Rio Fervenca into Parque Natural de Montesinho, a landscape for hiking and riding. Dappled with sunlight, the road winds through chestnut and pine woods, then emerges in meadows of butterflies. Hard up against the Spanish border, at the very end of Portugal, I arrive in the village of Montesinho, population 45. Grass grows between the cobbles in the village lanes. Several dogs are asleep in the square. Vegetable patches run down to a lively stream, one of the many headwaters of the Douro. It is lunchtime but the village bar is closed. A woman in an apron arrives to say they will open soon; they are just having lunch. I sit on a wall in the sun, savouring the sound of the wind in the trees and the slow chomp of a horse grazing in a neighbouring pasture.
Eventually a man appears to open the bar and provide a lunch of toasted bread, salami and cheese, with a jug of local wine. The meal comes to about $5. When I express some surprise at the price, he shrugs. “What do I need money for? Here I have everything I need. Dinner is from the vegetable garden, from the barn, from the woods. Let them chase money in the city, where they need it.” My friend the mayor was right. In Montesinho I have found the true heart of Portugal. • visitportugal.com
In this remote region, old pre-Roman customs and languages linger