– Anushka Pandkar
Planning a holiday is not easy, but the wheels do get rolling faster once a destination is agreed upon. My husband and I had one too many back and forths while planning our holiday last year.
We both work with wine and share our love for this celebrated beverage. So we sat with a map, swinging between and pointing at the dream wine destinations – France, Italy, Spain, Germany. We had a few pointers to check – a place which is not chockablock with tourists, friendly locals, pleasant weather, heaps of history, and most importantly – good wine! A destination which kept popping up in my mind was Portugal. This country which is the south-westernmost corner of Europe has been topping the charts of the favourite holiday destinations in Britain for a long time now. To be honest, the beautiful Douro Valley was one of the first wine regions that I had set my heart upon to visit. So Portugal it was. Presenting here, excerpts from our travels and a loose guide to discovering the country’s two wine producing regions.
We landed in Lisbon around 8.00 pm on a late-September evening. We rested at a cozy Airbnb for the night, waiting for our early morning flight to Porto, the second largest city in Portugal along the banks of the River Douro. The Romans christened the city as ‘Portus’ in 1st Century BC, a reference to how it served as an important port on Portugal’s western coast. Porto has a rich history dating back almost 2000 years. Thanks to its location near the Atlantic and at the mouth of the Douro, it became a booming center for trade, culture, and politics. And the proof can be seen in Porto’s cityscape and structures.
You can fly to Porto Airport and rent a car to get to the city center. The airport also has a train station conveniently connecting the airport to the city’s rail network. If taking the train, make sure to alight at the Sao Bento station, a 20th Century monument that is lined with typical Portuguese azulejo tiles which beautifully depict Portugal’s history.
There is an abundance of accommodations available in Porto for every budget. You have star hotels with luxurious amenities to many of the guesthouses run by locals. We found a gorgeous studio apartment on a booking website that was directly overlooking the river and Vila Nova de Gaia. I would definitely suggest booking a room with the Douro river view to complete your Porto experience.
WHAT TO SEE?
There are 3 UNESCO Heritage sites in Porto which are a must see – the Historic Centre of Oporto, Ponte de Luis I and Monastery of Serra do Pilar. Located in the historic city center is Igreja de São Francisco (Church of St. Francis), founded in the 13th century, it isthe most prominent Gothic monument in the city and known for its highly ornate Baroque interiors. Situated beside the church is the Palácio Da Bolsa, a Neoclassical palace built in the 19th century by the city’s Commercial Association as a ‘stock exchange’ and a business center to attract European investors.
The Ponte de Luis or Luis I Bridge was built over the river connecting Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. The bridge can be crossed by foot or vehicle. On the other side is the 16th Century Monasteiro Da Serra do Pilar, sitting atop a hill. The round church of the Monastery is a major attraction amongst tourists, as is the vantage point which offers breathtaking views of the city.
Also located across the Luis I bridge is a number of Port lodges of different wineries and major Port brands. Take your pick from the most popular Port wine houses such as Quinta do Noval, Ferreira’s, Croft’s, Taylor’s, Sandeman’s, etc. These wine cellars will usually offer a flight of 4 to 5 different Ports with a brief explanation of each wine. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, Port is a unique wine and part of the enjoyment is getting to know what indigenous grapes and processes went into crafting the wine.
The Douro river flows through the northern Iberian Peninsula, originating at Picos de Urbión in north-central Spain, carving the serpentine Douro Valley along its course in Portugal, and finally meeting the North Atlantic Ocean in the old city of Oporto (Porto). Currently conserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Alto Douro region is one of the first formally demarcated winemaking regions in the world and has been recognized for its distinguished wine style and quality since the 17th Century. The wine was made in the inner parts of the valley, and barrels of finished wine was loaded on boats, sent downstream the river, and unloaded at Porto. It was here that the wine would then rest and mature in the “Port Lodges” or wine cellars before being sold to the rest of the world.
The most striking feature of the Douro Valley is its landscape – the consecutive rows of terraced vineyards sculpted out of the hillside slopes. Most part of the valley is surrounded by hills with very steep slopes and hard schistous soil. Agricultural activities in these hills were almost impossible. But the early inhabitants of the Douro cleverly transformed these rugged hillsides into stairway-like terraces, albeit without any machinery or advanced tools. Even today, machine harvest in many Douro vineyards is a challenge. Skilled manual labour is a valuable resource come harvest time, and these very workers set the tiny villages buzzing during grape picking season.
Going from west to east, the Douro wine region is divided into 3 parts – BaixoCorgo, CimaCorgo and Douro Superior (extending to the Spanish border). The central part of Cima Corgo is considered as the best wine producing area and is also the area where most famous Quintas (vineyards) are located.
To explore the Douro vineyards and wineries, we chose to spend a night at Pinhão, a small town in the CimaCorgo section, named after a tributary which meets the Douro river at this very point. Pinhão is a picture-perfect town in the heart of the valley, perched on a sun-soaked hill. Pinhão is surrounded by well-known Port wine producers and is conveniently connected to Porto by train and boat.
To reach Pinhão, we hopped on to a pre-booked River Cruise from Porto early in the morning. There are multiple River Cruise operators and tours to choose from, their stalls and ticket counters are easily visible in central Porto, mostly on the riverside. The number of tour options available may seem overwhelming at first, so try to have some clarity as to what you want from the cruise experience apart from the picturesque views. The shortest one will be an hour-long boat ride that shows you the 7 popular bridges on the river. Town-to-town tours include rides from Porto to Regua, Pinhão or other towns on the river bank, where at least 1 part of the commute is by Bus/Train and the other by the boat. Breakfast and lunch are served on board for 1-day trips. We opted not to take the journey back with the cruise, as we intended to stay the night in Pinhão. If you’re not a fan of boat rides, take the train which runs along the river’s course or rent a car in Porto.
If you wish to splurge, the Vintage House Hotel is a luxurious property conveniently located a 5-minute walk from the train station and the pier, for train and boat commuters. If you have rented a car to arrive in Pinhão, there are some beautiful properties uphill which offer even better views – Casa de Casal de Loivos and LBV House Hotel. If traveling by car, consider booking a winery tour with Quinta do Crasto, situated between the towns of Pinhão and Regua. Their infinity pool has been a major attraction for tourists and international press in search of enhanced views of the valley. For those on a budget, Hotel Douro is just a hop across the train station, offering clean rooms with uninterrupted views of the Douro.
WHAT TO SEE?
There are a number of ‘Quintas’ or vineyards to choose from – Quinta Da Foz, Quinta Da Roeda, Quinta Das Carvalhas, Quinta do Noval, Sandeman’s Quinta do Seixo among others. We booked an appointment for a winery tour and tasting at Quinta do Bomfim, located close to the pier. After nearly 6 hours of sailing, our boat docked at Pinhão pier and we rushed to Quinta do Bomfim, barely in time for our 4.00 pm appointment. Bomfim, owned by the Symington Family Estates, is a picturesque vineyard property, the tour took us through their state-of-the-art winery and wine cellars. The guide articulately explained to us each winemaking process and concluded the tour with a tasting of 3 “Vintage Port” wines from the Symington Family: 1) Warre’s Quinta Da Cavadinha, 2) Graham’s Quinta Dos Malvedos and 3) Dow’s Quinta Do Bomfim. These were outstanding, high-quality ports of great aromatic complexity that we thoroughly enjoyed. By the time we wrapped up our tasting, it was dark, so we decided to come back the next morning and take up the Vineyard Walk at Bomfim, as suggested by the winery personnel. Dining options may be limited in Pinhão, but a couple of bars and restaurants can be found near the pier. We took a very specific suggestion given by our hotel manager to visit Restaurant Cais da Foz – apparently, a favourite hangout of the vineyard and winery workers. We crossed a small, quiet bridge over the Pinhão tributary. Unlike the rest of the town, the restaurant was highly energetic with the banter of locals grabbing their end-of-day beers and wine. We ordered for some Vinho Verde to go with Roasts of the Day – large portions of local fish and meat, chargrilled to perfection.
The following morning post breakfast, we took a short walk in the bylanes of little Pinhão and headed back to Quinta do Bomfim where at 5 Euros per person, the winery provided us with a map, hats and metal water bottles (made for great souvenirs later) for the Vineyard Walk. The hike uphill was exhausting, but exploring the vines and vineyards at our own pace was an experience like no other. Harvest was on, we could see trucks after trucks filled with grapes passing by from within the property as well as from other vineyards nearby. Standing amidst the vines that provide grapes for the Dow’s Port wine, we couldn’t get enough of the beautiful valley and gleaming river views. There were vineyards as far as the eye could see, on gracefully chiseled terraces beaming with sunlight reflected off the river surface. Another impressive part of the vineyard walk was the Grape Variety Library compiled by the Symington Family – rows of 29 indigenous Portuguese wine grapes such as TourigaNacional, Touriga Franca, Aragonez and others planted in one vineyard for the purpose of education and research for future plantings.
We had light lunch and a pint of Portugal’s very own Super Bock beer, before taking an afternoon train back to Porto, taking in few last glimpses of the Douro from a different perspective.
Alentejo is a large region covering almost the entire south-central part of Portugal. Driving through Alentejo is like going back in time, an unhurried pace of life is constant throughout its interiors, comprised of miles of undulating wheat fields, citrus and olive groves, isolated whitewashed houses and Cork forests. Alentejo is an enormous region so unless you have a good amount of days on hand, it is best to pick one of the major towns and explore around it. We chose to let go of the beaches on the west coast and closed in on spending our time in the capital city of Évora.
What I found in Évora was possibly one of the most charming towns in Portugal. The entire city center is like a museum dotted with monuments big and small. The city’s origins date back to the Roman times and its importance peaked around the 15th Century when it became the home of Portuguese kings. You will find architectural and cultural masterpieces in Évora but with the charm of a leisurely ancient city.
Alentejo tourism is highly disadvantaged because due to the absence of an airport. The closest airports are in Lisbon in the west and Faro in the south. There are train and bus that connects Évora to major cities, but a rent-a-car would be the most convenient way to move between far-flung attractions and wineries.
Évora has a multitude of hotels and apartments available for accommodation. Ibis Évora and Hotel Dom Fernando are close to the city center and offer great value. For a more upscale experience near the city center, check out the Hotel Vila Gale Évora and Évora Olive Hotel.
WHAT TO SEE?
In Évora, choosing which monument to visit next seems like the only challenge. We started our visit with the Church of Saint Francis, a national monument built in the 15th Century with an appealing blend of Gothic and Moorish architecture. Located next to the church’s entrance is the Capela Dos Ossos or Chapel of Bones. A fascinating structure, this chapel’s interior is covered with human bones and skulls in eerily satisfying formations. A short walk away from the Church of Saint Francis, you will find the Praça di Giraldo, Museum of Évora, Cathedral of Évora and ruins of a 1st century Roman Temple among many other historic structures. A good point to start the wine trail is the Convent of Cartuxa, a sprawling monastery built for the Carthusian Order in the 16th century, 2 km away from the city center. The monastery has changed hands several times over the past years, undergone renovations and now includes a winery and olive oil mill with a Wine Tourism center. Tasting wine in these historic settings can be overwhelming, to say the least. To explore more Alentejano wines close to the city, head to Rota dos Vinhos do Alentejo. It is quite literally a wine museum that offers information, maps and records on Alentejo wine, the region and the unique grape varieties that are grown here. The tasting room gives you an opportunity to sample wines from over 60 wineries in Alentejo, with a knowledgeable attendant to guide you through the tasting. The selection is revised every week, probably to represent each winery in a fair manner.
While driving around Alentejo, we could see why Portugal is the largest manufacturer of corks in the world. Vast expanses in the countryside are covered with the QuercusSuber or Cork Oak trees. The trees seem almost sacred, providing a livelihood to many and capable of living for up to 200 years. The thick and rugged bark of the tree is harvested every nine years to be made into wine closures and other items. If you see a tree with a reddish and smooth trunk, it means that the bark was freshly harvested. Year of the harvest is painted on the bare tree trunk, as a nine-year wait for the bark to regrow begins. It is a serene setting to be in, witnessing this beautiful cycle. There are a few local guides who organize treks and walks to Oak forests and cork factories. For a more brief encounter, make a quick stop in the countryside and take a stroll through the open, magnificent Oak forests.
EAT AND DRINK
It goes without saying that when in Portugal, drink Port but there are plenty of other wines produced in the country. If you have had enough of the fortified, high alcohol and slightly sweet Port wines, ask for wines from other wine regions such as Vinho Verde and Dao. Vinho Verde, literally translated to “Green Wine” is a white wine made in northwest Portugal. It is a refreshing, dry wine bursting with acidity, that makes a heavenly pair with salads and local seafood. The Dao region in north-central Portugal produces good quality white and red wines which are dry and well balanced. The Alentejo region in the south makes excellent whites and complex red wines from traditional Portuguese grapes, which are worth trying with the local food.
Port & Tonic is a drink that has lately caught the attention of locals and tourists alike. Much like in Gin & Tonic, tonic water lends itself as a refreshing mixer with Port wine (mostly white Port) in this cocktail. Just what you need on a sweltering afternoon in Portugal. If your one to try local beer favourites of a country, you will find chilled Sagres and Super Bock being sold at every corner possible.
Bacalhau (Cod fish) is a favourite staple throughout the country. Bacalhau A Bras and Pasteis de Bacalhau are traditional Portuguese dishes, made with shredded cod, eggs, and other ingredients, served like fritters. Huge, colourful Sardine shops selling canned Sardines in attractive tin boxes to tourists can be seen at major markets or even at the airports. Try Grilled Sardines at a restaurant or take the decorative tin cans for a seafood lover at home as a souvenir.
Though the Portuguese are obsessed with seafood, their cuisine has a never-ending affair with meats of all kinds. Pork and a variety of sausages are consumed extensively, available as stews and roasts. Offal and Tripe are a delicacy in rural Portugal, so if you’re not into variety meats, make sure you ask the server what part of the animal is used to prepare the dish before ordering.
What is absolutely worth trying is the Francesinha, a popular Portuguese sandwich originally from Porto, made with bread, cured ham, sausages, steak or roast meat, and covered with melted cheese, finished with a hot tomato sauce poured over. Served with French fries, it is a hearty meal in itself.
Don’t forget to get a couple of the famous Pastel de Nata, a small custard tart sold at every corner café and a great accompaniment with a shot of espresso.
WHEN TO GO
The grape harvest is typically done in September and October, making these months the best time to plan a wine trail in Portugal.
1) Exploring by foot is a great idea, but most Portuguese towns have elevated areas that require climbing up and down. So make sure you put on comfortable footwear to help you navigate the inclined streets.
2) Check out the day passes available at local tourist centers or on hotel booking websites which will allow you access to multiple monuments in a day.
3) Portugal is Europe’s sunshine capital, so don’t forget to pack all your sunblock essentials.
4) For train travels, use the Comboios de Portugal website (www.cp.pt) to book your journey tickets in advance.
5) If you are not fond of trains or if there is a train strike (yes, it happened during our trip), the intercity bus system in Portugal is efficient too. There are various websites offering bus ticket bookings.
6) If it is your first time visiting Portugal/Europe, the visa procedure may require you to travel to Goa or Delhi for the personal interview. We had to hurriedly fly down to the Consulate in Goa and back to Mumbai right before the week our trip started.
7) Though a few tasting rooms welcome walk-ins, it is always better to connect with the winery and book your visit in advance.