A Guide to the Douro Valley, Portugal

Explore one of Europe’s most underrated wine regions.

Porto, Portugal
Strasbourg-based CroisiEurope was founded in 1976 and is one of Europe’s largest river cruise specialists, running trips along the Rhine, the Rhône, the Seine, the Danube, and more. The company is christening a new Douro Valley ship in 2015, decked out with MissoniHome textiles and furnishings and with berths for 132 passengers. The Douro River begins in north-central Spain (where it’s known as the Duero) and flows west through Spain and Portugal before meeting the sea in Porto. The Douro Valley in Portugal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Europe’s most charming but lesser-known wine regions, notable primarily for its production of port. The landscape is characterized by terraced vineyards spread over rolling hills, with plenty of woodland, and the region is dotted with picturesque old towns with exquisite architecture. CroisiEurope’s Douro Valley tours all begin and end in historic Porto, and as well as winetasting and other activities there are optional excursions to towns such as Braga, Vila Réal, and even Spain’s Salamanca, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tours last 6–8 days and prices start at $1,145.
Douro, 3260 Figueiró dos Vinhos, Portugal
I have visited Napa and Sonoma, and have been to Tuscany, and Bordeaux, but no wine region of the world has surprised me with its beauty as much as the Douro. If your find yourself in Porto, it is well worth renting a car (or better yet, hiring a driver) to explore the region. I did a day trip and my favorite stop was Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo, a 300-acre estate with a working vineyard, chapel, and an 18th-century manor house that has been turned into an 11-room hotel. If you stay the night you can follow walking routes that begin at the hotel and explore abandoned pre-phylloxera terraces, and the vegetable garden. There is an on-site pool and of course a cellar and tasting room. But the highlight of the trip was an alfresco lunch from chef Tavares Pinto. Our three-course meal was paired with Quinta Nova wines and was the most memorable of my year. The food was simple and rustic but perfectly executed. We started with a perfectly tender octopus with marinated, shaved fennel and moved on to a juicy pork chop with mango chutney and ended with a chocolate shortbread ice cream sandwich. I often dream of flying back to Portugal just to relive that meal.
Driving along the countryside in northern Portugal near Oporto I saw the spectacular hillside vines of the famous Douro Valley spread out in front of me for miles. The sight was breathtaking. I saw the steep hillsides with the vines on the terraces. The vines were loaded with grapes that in a couple of weeks would be ready for harvest. The vineyards were first established in the 12th century by Cistercian monks. There are numerous Cistercian monasteries in the area. UNESCO declared the Douro Valley a World Heritage Site in 2001. The Douro Valley produces the grapes for port, red, and white wines. Douro tours are available and run from a few hours to a few days. The cruises run from April to October. If you want to see the harvest picking of the grapes plan your tour for September. A drive through the Douro Valley or a cruise down the Douro River is an experience to savor. If you get to northern Portugal, look into a side trip to the Douro. You won’t be disappointed.
Porto is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve had the pleasure to visit. The city is packed with cultural attractions—many of them listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The port wine cellars, Oporto Cathedral, Clérigos Church Tower, and Liberdade Square are all worth exploring, yet a stroll along the Douro and dinner in a riverside cafe are singularly remarkable experiences. The river glows under the city lights at dusk.
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