Monday, July 23, 2012
It’s not often that I’m awed when I travel somewhere new. Over the years, the threshold for a destination to elicit a “wow” feeling from me has steadily risen. But sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised by a place, and the Douro Valley in Portugal was one of them.
When we arrived, I was amazed at the beauty of the landscapes. The Douro River was flanked on both sides by steep slopes covered in terraces. On them, vines were heavy with the grapes that would be made into the region’s famous wines.
Our first stop in the Douro Valley was at Quinta do Panascal, which was owned by Fonseca Port, one of the largest producers in the region. There we did a tasting of several wines and Ports: a rose Port from their Croft label, Fonseca Terra Prima, which was their first organic Port wine, and Taylor’s LBV 2007, one of their best sellers.
After the tasting we enjoyed some sirocco almonds and cod and shrimp fritters before sitting down for an amazing lunch under a wisteria canopy. The regional specialty was kid, and it was delicious as we dined in the afternoon sun.
After lunch we went on a tour of the vineyards. The winery opens daily for visitors, and offers an audioguide tour through the vines as well as a tasting of three Ports for just 3 euros. As with Porto, the Douro Valley impressed me with the great value for money it offered.
I was also impressed with how much infrastructure the region had for visitors. There were hotels, restaurants, tasting rooms, and everything else that was necessary to visit the region and learn about its wines and Ports.
After the tour we hopped on a water taxi and sped down the river in the afternoon sun. It was a great way to travel in the Douro Valley, and before we knew it, we were met down the river by a driver from our hotel.
He took us up the steep hill to our accommodation at Quinta Nova. The hotel had stunning views over the valley and comfortable guest rooms with large bathrooms. The lounge and library area was filled with sumptuous furniture, and outside were plenty of tables and chairs as well as a swimming pool.
Our time at Quinta Nova was spent in diverse ways. There was a sunset walk through the vineyards, a dinner at the hotel’s new restaurant, a guided cellar tour, and—of course—a tasting of a range of the winery’s still wines.
The next day we waved good-bye to Quinta Nova and drove to Quinta do Seixo, the home of Sandeman Port. I wasn’t sure how impressed I would be with such a big-name winery, but I was pleasantly surprised.
The winery stayed true to Sandeman’s brand, with an air of mystery in the steely gray cellars and a sleek, modern tasting room with some of the most beautiful views of vineyards I’ve ever seen.
We tasted a range of Ports at Sandeman, including a white Port, a 20 year old tawny Port, an LBV 2007, and the popular Sandeman Founders Reserve Port. We also tried a cocktail called a Port tonic, which was made with two parts tonic water, one part white Port, a slice of lemon peel, and a mint leaf. It was incredibly refreshing, and perfect for the hot summer weather.
Leaving Sandeman, we drove back down the hill to the river for lunch at a restaurant called DOC. It was one of the best restaurants in the Douro Valley, and for good reason. Our tasting menu wowed us with course after course of excellent food. The highlight for me was the classic Portuguese salt cod with Mozambiquan prawns, crawfish and broccoli cream, and gnocchi.
After lunch we drove to the city of Regua for a special treat: a train ride along the river to Pinao. The 30-minute trip was one of the most beautiful train journeys I’ve ever experienced, what with the train traveling right along the river and offering breathtaking views of the vineyards. If I sound like a broken record in this post, it’s because I can’t stop thinking about the stunning surroundings.
When we arrived at Pinao, we traveled back through Regua by van and made our way to the next hotel on our itinerary: Quinta do Vallado. The building was modern and the rooms spacious and decorated with great style. Outside were gardens and a pool with views over the valley.
Our time at Quinta do Vallado was filled with fun activities, including a vineyard tour in the back of a 4×4, a cellar tour and tasting, and a great dinner of local Portuguese stew with delicious meats. Apparently the chef used to be a housekeeper at the hotel, and one day volunteered to start cooking. I hope she keeps doing so, because her food is amazing.
The next morning we were up early to tour a famous hotel and spa in the Douro Valley called Aquapura. The hotel was housed in what looked like a castle, and the interior and grounds were certainly fit for someone who lived in one.
The huge swimming pool, manicured gardens, and grass tennis courts were beautiful to behold, and the breakfast buffet alone was enough to make me want to stay all day.
But I couldn’t. After our quick visit to Aquapura, we got into the van and traveled back to Porto. As the car wound its way up the hills and through the vineyards, I couldn’t take my eyes off the scenery.
Even after three days in the region, I was still in awe of the landscapes, the food, the wine, and the warm welcome we received. I’m not sure how long it will be until I visit somewhere that impresses me as much as the Douro Valley, but I know that it will take a pretty spectacular place to do so.