In a restaurant on the banks of the Douro River, in the tiny hamlet of Pochino, I was lunching with my new best friend, the mayor. There were only four tables and no menu, which was fine because Julinha – proprietor, chef, waitress and raconteur – seemed to know exactly what I wanted the moment I stepped through the door.
Plates of oily olives arrived, slices of salami, a basket of rough country bread, a bowl of arroz de feijao, and finally a platter of grilled veal, as soft as butter.
The mayor was at the next table. A gregarious sort with a toupee like a dead cat, he sent over some doces conventuais, a sensual eggy confection originally made by nuns. It is said to be better than sex, though presumably not by the nuns.
The Douro is famous for its wines, and as the mayor and I chatted, I tried to keep my end up discussing the great issues of the river valley – foot tramping and vertical planting, oak barrels and the formidable Dona Antonia Ferreira, the 19th-century doyen of Douro winemaking, whose crumbling mansion stood on the far bank of the river.
Suddenly the mayor stopped mid-sentence. I wondered if he had sensed I was bluffing about grape varietals.
“But why have you come to the Douro?” he asked.
I told him I was following the river. I said I wanted to see where it would take me.
He stood up, excited. Perhaps a toast was in the offing; I charged my glass.
“It will take you to Portugal,” he declaimed. “The old Portugal of our parents and grandparents.” He leaned forward. I think the second bottle was kicking in. “My friend,” he whispered theatrically. “This river will show you the true heart of Portugal.”
The Rio Douro, the 'River of Gold', is one of the most beautiful rivers in Europe, and the journey upriver one of the most scenic routes on the continent. It is also central to the idea of Portugal.
It carried explorers bound for the Cape of Good Hope, and Portuguese settlers bound for outposts of empire. It ferried the Portuguese royal house from Braganca to Lisbon, and Reconquista armies from the sea to the fastness of Tras-os-Montes. And far upriver the Douro defines Portugal’s most critical boundary – its border with Spain.
In the 2nd century BC the Romans, who personified the river as the God Durius, brought the first vines to its banks. By the 6th century the Visigoths were binge-drinking the wine straight from the barrel. In the 12th century, Portugal was founded in the midst of a family squabble as Afonso Henriques ferried his troops across the Douro to defeat his mother and her man friend at the Battle of Sao Mamede.
By the 18th, the region’s grand families were carving out the first commercial wine estates. And by the 19th century, the Douro vineyards were supplying port to England’s grandest houses and clubs.
Down at the river mouth, at the beginning of the 21st century, the city of Porto is having a moment. There is a stylish new contemporary arts centre, an outbreak of entrepreneurial energy, several smart new hotels including the wonderful Yeatman and travellers waking up to what is becoming one of the trendiest towns in southern Europe.
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Quaint old districts of cobbled lanes and corner bars tumble down to the old docks, and around every corner there seems to be another view of the Douro, sleek as silk, as it slides through the city on its last run to the sea.
But I hadn’t come to see charming Porto. I had come to follow the river. I picked up the hire car and took the N108 eastward. It was a fresh resin-scented morning. Battalions of white clouds rode towards the high ranges of Montemuro. I drove through a landscape of rock and pine with sudden views of the wide river, green as forest gloom.
At a sleepy riverside cafe in Melres, two fishermen regaled me with stories of their chief catch, the lucioperca, a 25-kilogram monster that began to sound like a sighting on Loch Ness. At Entre-os-Rios, I stopped for coffee and I fell in with a jolly octogenarian sporting a natty goatee.
“I am the naughtiest man in the Douro Valley,” he laughed. He insisted I try the white port – dry as a skeleton, he said – a wheeze to get me to stand him a round.
A few moments later a nurse arrived to reclaim him for the old people’s home; it seemed he had escaped some time after breakfast. He bought her a rose from a flower stall and escorted her gallantly through the town.
Above Cinfaes, the forested slopes were falling away, and the valley began to stretch its limbs. Orchards of figs, oranges, olives and almonds sprawled along the banks. The enclosing mountain heights retreated and the complex geometry of vineyards took over the slopes.
The road rose and fell between old terraces, swinging past the huge iron gates of ancestral quintas or estates bearing the great names of the valley – Ferreira, Boavista, Pego, Sandeman.
One moment I was at the riverbank riding along a smooth grape-coloured river. The next I was high above the water, looking down on the Douro as it curved between banks carved with the linear symmetries of vines. A single yacht made its way upstream, its wake a pale swathe on the dark water.
At Peso da Regua, where swallows were diving across the river’s silver surface, the Museu do Douro told the story of the river and its famous vineyards. The secret is the microclimate of the valley – Mediterranean rather than Atlantic – and the stony schist soils.
The Romans may have introduced vines to the region, but it was monks, eager beavers after the Reconquista of Portugal from the Moors, who established the first serious vineyards, shipping their wines downriver in long-oared and long-ruddered rabelo boats.
Beyond Regua, the river sparkled with white caps. At the Lamego, I struck inland to visit the vast ruins of the 12th-century monastery of Sao Joao de Tarouca, marooned among orchards. The shell of the ancient dormitories was the size of St Paul’s.
In the azulejos tile work I found St Bernard eagerly treading grapes. In a guest book of the surviving Romanesque church, I found the names of both football legend Luis Figo and Mother Teresa, possibly the only occasion when they have shared the pages of the same book.
From the delightful town of Pinhao, set on a majestic curve of the river, the road leaves the riverbanks to rise across the high country towards Vila Nova de Foz Coa, famous for its prehistoric rock paintings and its splendid modern museum with staggering views down to the Douro.
Winding up through pine woods I emerged on the Iberian plateau where vineyards and orchards were spread beneath vast skies. This was frontier country where the villages were clustered around castles built in the 11th and 12th centuries against Spanish incursions.
At Marialva, the walled citadel contained a ruined village of steep cobbled streets and roofless rooms clustered around a central keep. I patrolled the walls with their stunning views across the plateau to distant mountains; defenders would have seen the Spaniards coming 100 kilometres away.
I climbed the old high street from Porta del Sol. I sat on the steps of the abandoned well in the tiny piazza where for centuries women had gathered to complain about their husbands.
Down in the inhabited part of the village, beyond the old walls, they were still complaining. I had lunch at a tiny cafe with the proprietor and her neighbour.
“Oh no, my husband was dead against it,” the proprietor said, referring to the cafe which she had opened the previous year. “It will never work. It is bound to fail, he said.” She eyed me suspiciously. “You know what men are like, always so negative.” With a mouth full of pastel de nata – Portugal’s famous custard tart – I nodded, meekly.
I was heading now into the headwaters of the Douro where the river marks the border with Spain in the wild north-eastern province of Tras-os-Montes – the name means 'Behind the Mountains'. In this remote region, old pre-Roman customs and languages still linger and many of the scattered granite villages bear Roman or Visigothic names.
At Miranda do Douro, I found the river beneath the town, imprisoned in a deep gorge. A few kilometres upstream it curves out of Portugal altogether, meandering away towards Soria in Spain. Then I headed across the wild plateau – cut by the Douro’s great tributaries, the Sabor and the Tua – to Braganca astride yet another tributary, the Rio Fervenca.
A pretty whitewashed town with an impressive citadel and a historic centre of curving cobbled lanes, Braganca was home to the Dukes of Braganca who enjoyed a significant upgrade when they became the Portuguese royal family in the 17th century.
I liked the town even before I found the wonderful Solar Braganca, a threadbare aristocrat of a restaurant where teetering piles of books and battalions of wine bottles compete for space in elegant wood-panelled rooms. Among the dense foliage of the garden, I dined by candlelight, savouring the caldo de castanhas – chestnut soup.
But there was a final stop, beyond Braganca. I followed the Rio Fervenca into the Parque Natural de Montesinho, a landscape for hiking and riding. Dappled with sunlight, the road wound through chestnut and pine woods, then emerged in meadows of butterflies.
Hard up against the Spanish border, at the very end of Portugal, I arrived in the tiny village of Montesinho, population 45. Grass grew between the cobbles in the village lanes. Several dogs were asleep in the square. Vegetable patches ran down to a lively stream, one of the many headwaters of the Douro.
It was lunchtime but the village bar was closed. A woman in an apron arrived to say they would open soon – they were just having their lunch. I sat on a wall in the sun, savouring the sound of the wind in the trees and the slow chomp of a horse grazing in a neighbouring pasture.
Eventually a man appeared to open the bar and provide a lunch of toasted bread, salami and cheeses, with a jug of local wine. When I expressed some surprise at the cheap price, he shrugged and said, “What do I need money for? Here I have everything I need. Dinner is from the vegetable garden, from the barn, from the woods. Let them chase money in the city, where they need it.”
My friend the mayor was right. In Montesinho I had found the heartbeat of an older Portugal.
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This article was written by Stanley Stewart from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.