One Week in the Douro Valley
My itinerary for a three week visit to Portugal began with a week at a 12th century monastery perched in the hills of the upper Douro Valley. My logic or theme for the three weeks was to start by developing an understanding of rural life, understand its rhythms, then approach the two urban centres of the country, relaxedand open to their wonders. Robbie Burns once wrote that ‘the plans of mice and men often go awry’…well in this case my plans unfolded, well, as planned. Here’s the story of that first week.
My wife and I were travelling with a group of friends. After meeting up at the airport in Porto we packed up our rental vehicles and headed east up the Douro Valley. The first part of the road trip was not too different from traveling on Canadian super highways – the route was well marked and the pavement in excellent condition – then it all came to a stop halfway to our destination. It seems the famous ‘Euro’ dollar mega project (i.e. this highway) had suddenly run out of funds, and we ran out of an easy path to the monastery. Welcome to mountain roads and great views! As we traversed the Douro near Regua we started our ascent into the terraced hillsides. We were astounded by the number of carefully planted vineyards and olive groves. Each planting situated on some of the steepest slopes one could imagine – yet somehow still carved into successive terraces, each defined, and supported, by stone walls. The amount of labour required to have built all of these terraces seemed almost incomprehensible! The fact that this practice of agriculture began in Roman times helped to explain the mind-boggling profusion of terraced land. The results of two thousand years of building walls, and cultivating grapes and olives, has created vistas that resemble patch work quilts…as far as the eye can see…quite phenomenal.
As we approached our destination near the town of Tabuaço we experienced some of the windiest roads I’ve ever seen…with sheer drop-offs on one side, and rock faces on the other. It is not a drive for the ‘faint of heart’. However, upon arriving at the monastery, Senhora Do Convento, our nerves soon settled. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the former monastery is also a fully working winery, producing delicious Port and fine table wines. We were greeted by our host, Donald Ziraldo, who is one of Canada’s most important viticultural pioneers and influential wine makers. We soon settled into a routine of long walks and exploratory drives into small villages finding local specialties for the dinner table. One day we walked deep into the valley to find a Roman bridge which looked like it was built a few years ago, not thousands. We picnicked on local salami and cheese with a bottle of the Convento red table wine. Another day saw us in the local bar where a draft beer cost less than a Euro!
We prepared the majority of our meals at the Convento. Fortunately there were fresh eggs from the chicken coop and lots of fruits for juice and nibbling on throughout the day… imagine a place where you can pick pears, oranges, limes, lemons, kiwi fruit, persimmons, figs, quince, etc….making breakfasts a treat. At one dinner my cousin Val cooked up quail with a fig jus reduction and we had salad with the Convento’s olive oil. A number of nights we ate out. If you like cod, you can get it served in a number of ways as each restaurant had their ‘feature’ cod dish. Among our favourite places was the Tábua d’aço Restaurante in the town of Tabuaço. Chef Thomas not only cooks but he also serves. He is an engaging fellow and the complementary port to finish the meal certainly increased our appreciation of the whole experience.
Before heading for Porto and Lisbon we visited a number of superb Port wineries. They were all worth a visit and a tour. Tastings were always included. I’d recommend focusing on wineries near Pinháo, a pretty little village, and take the time to book a short cruise on the Douro River. The day we were there the sun was out and the steep hills were illuminated, highlighting the terraced vineyards and olive groves. Along the main street in Pinháo are a few small cafés where lunch can be had for a pittance. If you want to splurge dine at the Vintage House. The grounds are stunning…just like the prices!
The gastronomic highlight of our week in the Douro Valley was our dinner in the restaurant ‘DOC’. Our host, Don Ziraldo, recommended it highly and we were not disappointed. Chef Rui Paula has four restaurants in Portugal but I bet none of the other three could surpass DOC. It is situated right on the river. I recommend starting with cocktails on the beautifully designed patio built right over the water. Head inside to a glass walled room for one of his tasting menus. The night we were there Chef was offering the ‘Harvest’ and a ‘Signature’ 5-course menu. Each tasting menu included a lovely mix of seafood and meats…and each course was mouthwatering. The prices were reasonable given the professional service, execution of each dish and the wonderful ambience. The night left an indelible mark for the whole week in the upper Douro! All five of our senses were exercised and spoiled during our visit.
Note: To purchase Senhora Do Convento Tawny or Ruby Port visit your local LCBO. For the Table Wine you might be lucky by visiting WineOnLine.ca.
Notes on Porto and Lisbon
When in Porto be sure to visit one of the famous Port Houses – Taylor, Dow, Cockburn, Quinta do Noval, Graham among others. Spend most of your time in the lower town near the river…there are ample bars and restaurants. It is a charming part of the city. And, if you want to party don’t go out until 11 p.m. (an afternoon nap prior to your evening is recommended!)
While visiting in Lisbon, make sure you spend some time on the magnificent boulevards (no traffic) in the Baixo area. Then head up the Elevador de Santa Justa to visit the Bairro Alto with its bistros and down to earth Fado venues…but for Fado that will transport you into another world head for the Alfama district. I first encountered this music in the early 1990’s and immediately fell in love with it. Its origins date back to the 19th century and there are many myths about its roots. I can only describe it as a combination of folk music, opera and theater. My favourite spot is Casa de Linhares…sometimes I dream of flying to Portugal just to visit that Fado House…thankfully the food, museums and sights in Lisbon are also worth the experience!