Escape to the Enchanted Valley: Visiting Portugal's Douro wine region

Portugal’s Douro Wine Region has been called an “enchanted valley” with good reason. Its lofty terraced vineyards and charming, time-stood-still mountainside settlements above the bucolic Douro River are infused with wine making magic millennia in the making.

Grapes have been harvested in the Douro Valley for more than 2,000 years and this UNESCO World Heritage Site was the first officially designated wine region. The production of what is widely recognized as Portugal’s fi nest wine permeates the area, from majestic cliff-top quinta estates upstream to the famed wine caves of Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city at the river’s Atlantic mouth.

While the Douro Valley produces everything from light, Bordeaux-style clarets to rich, almost Burgundian wines, the region is best known for its fortified port (in Europe, only Portuguese wine may be labeled as “port” or “Porto”). Beginning in April 2017, Emerald Waterways’ all-inclusive Secrets of the Douro river cruise is an eight-day invitation into the landscape and traditions of the region, on a brand new ship and at a pace well suited to its pastoral charms. This Portoto-Porto itinerary includes picturesque riverside villages, working vineyards, wine museums and even a splash of Spain, with stops across the border in historic Vega de Terron and Salamanca.

Sheltered from the coast by mountain ranges, the Douro Valley relies on Porto as its window to the world. The history of this city of nearly 250,000 is inextricably tied to Douro wines, which began arriving on flat sailing boats called barcos rabelos as early as the 13th century for export to England and beyond. Today’s Porto is a fascinating juxtaposition of ancient and modern, where cobbled streets abut contemporary architectural expressions. In Vila Nova de Gaia, to the south, visitors can witness wine being made much as it was over a hundred years ago, and then head to its numerous tasting boutiques to discover why such traditions have held true.

Much of the Douro Valley is sparsely populated, dotted with quaint villages and small towns like Lamego, which is known for its elegant Baroque buildings. Overlooking Lamego is its chief attraction, the Nossa Senhora dos Remedios — Our Lady of Remedies — sanctuary, which is reached by hundreds of decorated, zigzagging stairs shaded by flanking trees.

In the little town of Regua, built upon the remains of a Roman settlement, the Douro Museum is devoted to the area’s agriculture and wine making. Fifteen minutes away, the elaborate gardens and intricate carvings and paintings of the Mateus Palace, in Vila Real, are well worth the drive.

One of Portugal’s best-kept secrets, the sleepy riverside village of Pinhao is recognized for its scenic views and quaintly tiled (yet fully operational) railway station. But during the September grape harvest the place comes alive, offering opportunities for visitors to join in the traditional grape stomping.

Offering a deeper look into Douro history, the Archaeological Park of the Coa Valley boasts engraved rock art dating from 22,000 to 10,000 years BC, some of which is displayed in the fascinating Coa Valley Art and Archaeology Museum. Accessible by excursion from the village of Pocinho, the eastern terminus of the Douro railway line, the park was created after Paleolithic engravings were discovered during the construction of a dam nearby.

On the Spanish stretch of the Douro, the small port town of Vega de Terron serves as the gateway to Salamanca, home to one of Europe’s oldest universities and still a bustling college city. Another World Heritage Site, Salamanca dates back to pre-Roman times, and a walking tour can span centuries of architectural and cultural history, including magnificent cathedrals and expansive public plazas.

 

Paul Rogers, LA Times Custom Publishing Writer

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