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

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