Portugal is blessed with wonderfully diverse landscapes, making it a challenge for photographers like us to actually make any forward progress in a timely manner toward our ultimate destination. As we were constantly tempted to divert and explore a photo opportunity. Fortunately, after a time the backroads from Ucanha narrowed. Only teasing us with vistas quickly glimpsed, as if shuffling a deck of cards, between houses hugging the road that snaked down into the Douro River Valley. Whetting our enthusiasm for the days ahead. To our surprise we occasionally passed snowflake signs warning of wintry conditions that sometimes encompass the region. Something we had difficulty reconciling with our sunny view of Portugal, especially since we were experiencing a splendidly warm stretch of fine October weather.
The gate to Casa Vale do Douro slowly swung open to reveal a steep long driveway, which abruptly ended atop the edge of a high retaining wall. It could have been used by Portugal’s Ski Jumping team for practice, if they had one. The view was glorious. Maneul, the charming owner, helped us with the bags to our room. Within minutes we were ensconced in chairs on our balcony. Savoring our glasses of wine and the view. One of the things we appreciate about vacationing in Portugal, during the shoulder seasons, is that it’s still possible to find marvelous accommodations for under €100 a night, that include breakfast. We’d be calling Casa Vale do Douro home for the next three nights.
Incredible scenery attracted us to the Douro region, and we were not dissappointed, especially with the views from our room which faced due east. Brilliant sunrises transitioned to the river valley slowly being filled with fog.
Each morning we watched mesmerized as this ghostly blanket slowly engulfed buildings, vineyards and eventually us as we stood on the balcony. By ten o’clock it had usually burnt off.
The small village of Mesão Frio was a short walk from our guesthouse and as luck would have it, market day. Being mid-October, it was a smaller affair than what we imagined takes place during the high season, but it was still interesting enough, with cheese, meat and vegetable purveyors, along with hardware tents and garden suppliers selling seedlings for fall planting. With a round of Portuguese cheese and jamon secured for a picnic lunch later it was time to enjoy our, “walk a little then café,” break. Afterwards we wandered from one end of the village to the other, along the village’s main lane bordered on one side with a wide plaza and lined with shade trees. At the far end stood the Church of São Nicolau.
Tradition believes that the church was ordered built by Queen d. Mafalda, wife of d. Afonso Henriques in the 12th century, but the thickness of the church’s walls hint that it was constructed in the 14th century. Eighteenth century remodeling left the Baroque and Rococo character that’s visible today. Several ancient stone sarcophagi, trapezoidal in shape, dating from the Medieval era stood under a side portico.
Heading back through the village we entered the Igreja de Santa Cristina, its interior now modestly decorated after it was looted and destroyed by Napoleon’s army during the Peninsula War of the early 1800s. Leaving only one bell tower that still stands today. It’s attached cloister, dating from 1724, was originally dedicated to Franciscan friars until 1834 when all male religious orders were banned from Portugal and their properties confiscated by the state.
Leaving many original stone details in place the building has been wonderfully repurposed as municipal offices. The most interesting detail a “janelas de vinho” or wine window from which wine used to be sold. The Regional Tourism Board located in the cloister has produced a very comprehensive 54-page Douro Tourism Guide that is a great resource and available to download for free. Listing an astonishing 120 major viewpoints, along with wineries, festivals, lodging, restaurants, and activities throughout the valley. There’s enough wonderful information in guide to encourage multiple vacations into the area.
After coffee, we drove leisurely along the north side of the river, stopping frequently to take photos. Driving through Peso da Régua to Covelinhas, where we followed the sinuous road high up into the mountains.
Occasionally passing olive groves and fruit orchards, their novelty highlighted by being oddities in a sea of grapes, until we reached the Miradouro São Leonardo de Galafura. At an elevation of 2100 feet it’s one of the highest viewpoints overlooking the valley.
Hawks circled on the thermal updrafts below us. As far as we could see, waves of undulating vineyards covered the hillsides, their pattern like a stone thrown into a pond. The unbroken views from the miradouro seemed if we were flying.
Highly recommended by our host we dined each evening in Mesão Frio alternately at Tasca do Zéquinha an intimate rustic eatery with a silhouette of a wine cask hanging above the front door. Inside was a small bar packed with regulars. With a smile one pointed us upstairs when he saw our dismay that it was standing room only on the street level. Upstairs we were pleasantly greeted in a small dining room of eight tables. We enjoyed lamb chops, a rare and outrageously expensive menu item in the states, but well priced here and delicious. Fully sated, we were pleasantly pleased with how inexpensive appetizers, a house wine, dinner, dessert, and coffee were. In the Douro Valley the wine choices are infinite, or fathomless and as much as we enjoy wine, we are not knowledgeable oenophiles and are content with most restaurant’s house wines. Which in our experiences have found to be very good.
The next night we ate at Convívio. Honestly, I can’t remember what we ordered, but we thoroughly relished the meal and the house wine. Here the house wine was a bottle of Serro d Asno, which featured a humorous illustration of a donkey’s ass. I’m not sure if the waiter was secretly a radical protesting the invasion of tourists into the Douro Valley or expressing his discontent with something I did not say, ha ha, my mind wanders. The wine was very good. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find it here in the states. For a change of pace we had dessert and coffee at Café Avenida, which features a tantalizing display case full of their divine homemade pastries. Staying open to 12AM, this quiet place is the ultimate experience for nightlife in Mesão Frio.
The waters of the Douro River rise in the mountains of central Spain, north of Madrid and flow of west for 557 miles before meeting the pounding waves of the Atlantic Ocean on the Portuguese coast at Porto. The famous region known for its production of Port, a fortified wine, encompasses 615,000 acres along 75 miles of river valley from the Spanish border to Mesão Frio.
In September 1756 a Portuguese royal charter acknowledged the Douro River Valley as the exclusive region for the production of Port wine. Becoming the world’s first wine region to have a formal demarcation or DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada).
Though renowned for its Port wines, today production is evenly divided with Douro table wines, which are gaining international recognition. Eighty different grape varietals, many native to Portugal, are cultivated in the region, but by far the most popular red grape varieties are Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacio, nal, Tinta Cao, and Tinta Amarela. While Rabigato, Viosinho, Malvasia Fina, Donzelinho, Gouveio, and Codega are the favored white varieties. Used alone to make full-bodied reds or delicate white wines they are also blended to create the beloved Port wines of the region. Interestingly grapes growns for Port wine are planted on rocky schist areas while grapes grown for table wines favor a looser soil. The steep terrain of the narrow-terraced hills along the valley are no match for modern harvesting equipment, dictating that every September into early October the grapes are harvested by hand.
Small hamlets with parish churches of all different sizes are speckled across the landscape of the Douro Region. Picking one out on the map we headed to Cidadelhe for the Igreja de São Vicente. Built in the 1700s the stately baroque-style church is showing its age, with its textured graceful patina along with faded and peeling wood.
The backroads through the Douro Valley offered endless vistas of rolling hills and vineyards beginning to display their fall colors around every bend of the road. Fortunately, in October there were few cars or caravans on the roads and we able to stop often. With 119 official viewpoints in the region there’s and infinite number of photography worthy panoramas available just by pulling over onto the shoulder. The landscapes were endless. The fog intriguing.
We really didn’t have any solid plans for our time in the region. No must to this or that. Instead we chose, often remote miradouros on the map for our morning and afternoon destinations. The journey to reach them an integral part of the adventure.
We just brushed the surface of this alluring Douro Valley region. Hopefully, one day we’ll get a chance to return.
Till next time, Craig & Donna