6 Tips for a Douro Valley Wine Vacation
6 Tips for a Douro Valley Wine Vacation
There are many different reasons to visit northern Portugal’s Douro Valley wine region. Above all, it’s a constant visual treat, with picture postcard views of hilly vineyards and a peaceful river.
For many people, a visit to the Douro Valley is just a day trip by boat or train from Porto. But to really experience it, I’d strongly suggest a longer stay. That way, you can fully experience this special region at slower pace.
If people only visit the Douro Valley for a day, they might not know that it’s home to a very special way of life. With larger hill towns, small villages, and wine-producing farm estates dotting the rugged landscape, it’s steeped in rural culture. In fact, UNESCO has listed it because of its wine growing traditions, scenic beauty, and unique heritage.
World’s First Demarcated Wine Region
In 1756, the western part of the Douro Valley became the world’s first demarcated wine growing region. While vintners had long made Port wine there, the government decided to protect (and regulate) this special brand with a royal charter.
Since then, the Douro winemaking region has grown, extending east to the Spanish border. Today, Douro wine estates, many family-owned, produce many different kinds of table wines and specialty blends.
Exploring the Valley: Mateus Palace, Vila Real
As I mentioned in a previous post, a great way to approach the Douro Valley is from lovely Amarante. In just over 30 minutes, you can reach Vila Real and one of the area’s major highlights, the Mateus Palace.
The Italian master architect, Nicolau Nasoni, built the Mateus Palace in 1745. One of this Baroque masterpiece’s most distinctive features is its roof, with many pointy pinnacles. Another grand feature is its ornate, balustraded stairway. All of this is nicely reflected in the large wading pool in front of the mansion, which was added in the 1930s.
Whether you’re into nature, historic houses, or fine wine, you’ll find much to like about this storied property.
It’s a real treat to take a guided tour of interior of the stately mansion. As you walk around, you’ll hear about the history of the family, which has lived in the palace for generations. Plus, you’ll pass through the public rooms of the palace (some are still inhabited by the family). There, you’ll see carved wooden ceilings, antique furniture, paintings of ancestors, and some religious artifacts.
Also, be sure to check out the formal gardens with complex box hedges, mazes, and flowering trees.
Finally, at the end of the tour, wander over to the wine cellar. In addition to learning about the local climate and terroir, you’ll hear about methods for making wine and Port. Not surprisingly, during our visit, we bought several bottles to enjoy back home!
The Nossa Senhora dos Remédios Church, Lamego
Two things drew us to the town of Lamego on the south side of the Douro River.
First, we set out to climb the grand, tile-lined staircase leading up to the well-known church for religious pilgrims. Built in the mid-18th Century, the Nossa Senhora dos Remédios Church has a lovely light blue and white ceiling with a gilded altar.
But more than the church interior, it’s the terraced staircase that commands the site. As we made our way to the top, we lost count. But in fact, there are nine terraces and over 600 steps on the way up.
If you go to Lamego in early September, be prepared for crowds. Thousands of pilgrims make the climb up to the church during a multi-day festival.
One interesting footnote: it wasn’t until we got to Lamego that we connected two dots. The same architect who designed the Mateus Palace, Nicolau Nasoni, also designed this famous staircase in the mid-1700s.
Stay on a Wine Estate – Quinta da Pacheca
The second thing that drew us to Lamego was the chance to stay on a wine estate. There are many such estates throughout the Douro Valley that offer lodging, dinner, vineyard tours, and wine tastings.
As one of the first properties to bottle wine under its own label (1730s), the Quinta da Pacheca has a long history. Today, it’s a very modern place, with sleek rooms and an elegant dining room.
Best of all, the Quinta has amazing paths through its vineyards. In fact, it’s hard to imagine more spectacular views in this part of the valley.
Further east on the north side of the river, there are two spots well worth a visit.
In Pinhão, the main attraction is the tile-covered train station. You probably won’t see anything quite like this anywhere else. Since the station is so small, you can walk around it and admire painted scenes of rural life in the Douro Valley.
Also, there are several wine estates and villages near Pinhão that you can visit and tour. For instance, it’s easy to take the short, scenic drive from Pinhão up to the hill town of Favaios. There, you can buy traditional breads in a local bakery, stop by the wine cooperative, or visit the Bread and Wine Museum.
Quinta de la Rosa
While you’re in Pinhão, try to make time for a meal at the Quinta de la Rosa wine estate. Not only does its gourmet restaurant serve inventive food, but the views from the terrace are stunning.
At the wine estate, you also can sign up for a winery tour and tasting. If you visit Quinta de las Rosa in September and October, you can even sign up to tread some freshly harvested grapes!
Archaeological Park of the Côa Valley
Heading down the Douro River to the east is the UNESCO-listed open-air Archaeological Park of the Côa Valley and its museum. The Park contains thousands of engraved rock drawings, some more than 20,000 years old. In fact, it’s considered to be one of the most important Paleolithic open-air art sites in the world.
Unique Ways to Experience the Douro
As food for thought, here are two other ways to explore the Douro Valley.
First, take the historic steam train that begins in Porto and runs through the beautiful Douro Valley. You’ll get lots of Douro River views along the way. In fact, if you’re already in the Douro Valley, you can pick up the train in Regua and take it to Pinhão and Tua.
Another way to experience the Douro River is to take a cruise. Many cruises, which offer gourmet food and Port wine, begin in Porto or Regua. Or, you can take a ride on an old-fashioned Rabelo boat.
Why the Douro Valley?
There’s no question that the Douro Valley is a great playground. But many people who go there only do a day trip, not a longer visit. In the process, they miss out on a lot.
As I’ve suggested, it’s well worth crisscrossing the Douro River from west to east over several days (or longer). Along the way, you’ll see a lovely winding river bordered by gourmet wine estates with steeply terraced vineyards.
Beyond that, you can visit tiny hill towns and villages, sample local wine, and glimpse rural life. Finally, you can even see a UNESCO-listed open-air park filled with ancient rock drawings.
Put it all together, and the Douro Valley is a great place to relax and enjoy local food, wine, and culture!