A few weeks ago I wrote about port in the Telegraph and promised readers who emailed some pointers on how best to organise a few days’ holiday in the Douro Valley in Portugal. It was never supposed to take so long to answer them all. Sorry….My excuse is that not only was I deluged with emails but life elsewhere has been pretty frenetic too. Here are a few thoughts though, with thanks to all those whose advice I sought and who raided their address books to make a contribution.
The basic plan
Port is made in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. Fly to Oporto and spend a day or two wandering around the port lodges (where port is matured and from where it is shipped) across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia. Many of them offer tastings and tours. Then drive or take the train up into the Douro from Estacion Sao Bento – allow time to gaze at the beautiful traditional blue and white tiles that decorate the station. A perfect Brief Encounter setting.
It’s quite a journey as at times the railway line runs right beside the river, giving spectacular views.
Aim to spend a few days in the Douro.
The guide book
For places to stay and places to eat in both places, as well as a guide to wine and port estates, a good companion is a book written by the very genial and very amusing and very knowledgeable Charles Metcalfe and his wife Kathryn McWhirter – The Wine and Food Lover’s Guide to Portugal. I am assured it has been *very thoroughly* researched. I do not doubt big-eating Charles on this matter.
Restaurants in Porto
Winemaker Dirk Niepoort makes the following suggestions (and by the way it would be a crime not to taste his wines whilst you are in Portugal) “My overall favourite restaurant is called GAVETO in matosinhos (harbourtown) specially for fish , seafood and good winelist. One of the best and my favourite rest is PAPARICO (areosa area in porto) great traditional food and fantastic winelist.”
Pack your walking boots
“Nobody comes to the Douro to go walking, but they should,” says Christian Seely of Quinta do Noval. “The region is criss-crossed by old donkey tracks which are public rights of way, but in any case you are free to walk more or less where you like in Portugal, and as you have seen, it is glorious. There are beautiful walks all over the valley (40,000 hectares of vineyard so there is a lot of it) but it gets wilder and more remote the further toward the Spanish frontier you go. There are a lot of roads that go up to the Spanish frontier and then stop (like the train)! (Because no one could imagine wanting to go to the other side of the border). And so the skies get bigger and you see more eagles the further east you go although in fact we have a pair that regularly circle overhead at Noval. Normally you can get something basic like steak and chips in the village cafe but you will probably not have a great gastronomic experience. I would strongly recommend that walkers provide for themselves and particularly carry a bottle of good Douro red so that at the appropriate moment they can have their picnic and swig a bottle of Cedro for example while looking out over terraced vines of the sort that have produced the wine, preferably under an olive tree on a sunny day with a view of the Douro river or a tributary surrounded by vineyards. I have done this and it works.” Sound advice from a man who knows how to live well.
Staying in a quinta amongst the vineyards
The old estate houses dotted across the Douro’s vertiginous slopes are wonderful places in which to stay and some of them are open to the public. Years ago I stayed at Quinta de la Rosa, near Pinhao, and loved it. We had a slightly less than successful time finding any fine dining nearby – “Meat or fish?” was the menu in the place we rocked up at for dinner, and the wine list, “Wine yes or wine no?” – simplicity is often a great joy. Anyway, look up Quinta de la Rosa (it is run by Sophia Bergqvist whose grandmother was given it as a christening present at the turn of the last century. Those were the days. My godchildren got decanters and newspapers.) They have seven double rooms offering B&B and also two houses, Quinta Amarela and Quinta de Lamelas which can be rented by the week. I’m told that Lamelas is particularly nice, with a sensational view.
Staying in a very beautiful boutique hotel with views to die for (Beware, this place is extraordinary but it may break the bank)
Quinta da Romaneira has a very fine hotel indeed, very upmarket, rather glorious and almost impossibly tasteful, situated right on the banks of the Douro. I haven’t stayed there but did go for a poke around. It’s designed to feel more as if you’re in a beautiful private house, complete with cook and maids – so instead of a restaurant there are various little spots where you can have dinner, or a glass of wine. I see that it’s recommended in the Mr & Mrs Smith guides whose write-up is here. For reasons that escape me when it came to interiors I took a photograph only of a bathroom…which does no justice at all to the understated glamour of this place. There are some more tantalising shots on the hotel’s own website.
Sunny terraces: Lunch at Quinta do Panascal – in the Douro
We had a glorious home-cooked lunch (involving roast kid, which was delicious) at Quinta do Panascal – a Fonseca property owned by Taylor’s. If you book ahead they are happy to organise lunches for parties of 10 or more. If there isn’t a crowd of you and you’d like to drop by I’m told: “Quinta do Panascal is open to the public from 10:00 till 18:00hrs through to 31stOctober. After that, weekdays only. Late summer/autumn visitors can watch the harvest taking place and watch the treading. No need to book a visit. €3 charge to visit, which includes 3 Ports: Siroco Dry White, Bin 27 & 10 Year Old Tawny – all special category Ports.”
On my last visit to Oporto Taylor’s put me up in the Yeatman for one night. This is a brand new and completely over the top hotel that they have built on the site of a former car park. Staying there feels a bit like being in an eighties bonkbuster. My room was so big I kept losing my suitcase, the corridors were wide enough for a game of French cricket and one of the rooms boasts a revolving bed. It’s to do with views, apparently. Though the thought of trying to get back onto it after a porty late dinner makes me a bit panicky. I enjoyed my night of swank but this is not a place on which I would choose to spend my own money, even if I had a lot of it. One for cruise lovers.
I asked a public relations expert who has been visiting the Douro for 15 years for a list of hotels and she very kindly passed on the following list, though I should add that I haven’t stayed in any of them:
Quinta Nova Hotel Rural http://www.quintanova.com
Quinta do Pego http://www.quintadopego.com
Douro Scala http://www.douroscala.aguahotels.pt
Quinta da Pacheca http://www.wonderfulland.com/pacheca/
Quinta do Vallado http://www.wonderfulland.com/vallado/
CS Vintage House Hotel http://hotelvintagehouse-douro.com
Aquapura Hotel http://www.aquapurahotels.com/portugal/hotel-1.aspx
Quinta do Silval http://www.quintadosilval.pt/index.php?lang=en&lingua=en
Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros (Manor House tourism) http://www.chanceleiros.com