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Porto and the Douro Valley

Porto and the Douro Valley

A calm forest retreat and two more amazing World Heritage Sites in Northern Portugal are the ingredients in this last chapter from our road trip.

 

Day 5, The scenic forest of Buçaco (a.k.a. Bussaco, Bucaco)

“Measuring 1450m by 950m, the National Forest is surrounded by a wall with several gates scattered around the perimeter, providing access to the leafy woods which surround the church, part of a Carmelite convent, a monumental palace, and several other buildings of a religious nature. Bucaco’s cultural landscape predates this, the only “wilderness” of its kind in Portugal, which was created by the Order of Discalced Carrnelites between 1628 and 1630.”

This is how the forest is described in the application to inscribe it on the World Heritage List. The forest has been on the tentative list since 2004 but arriving here in 2013 we saw no particular reason to why it should not be on that list. To be honest, our criteria were highly non-scientific: It was beautiful.

 

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From the Bussaco forest

 

We Norwegians have an inclination towards hilly scenery and forests. Moving north from Coimbra to Porto on this Portuguese road trip, we had a few hours to spend and Bussaco was more or less en route north.

The national forest may be limited to that walled square kilometre mentioned in the application but the forests and woodlands extend far beyond it. We took great joy in deviating from the main motorway and enjoy the climb on lesser roads into the mountains. We made a couple of stops to enjoy the view of the lowlands to the west, and the smell of eucalyptus.

 

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Holy Cross Convent mosaic of coloured stones, Bussaco

 

The monks in the Bussaco convent were fond of gardening and forest. (They built the wall around their forest to keep local woman away.) We found a pleasant formal garden next to the old convent building. The surrounding forest was splendid; dense, green, a few hidden old buildings and walking paths. This is a famous and popular picnic area for visiting Portuguese.

The modest former convent is actually situated adjacent to a palace with a very rich history. We found the decorations of the palace hotel very rich as well, inside and out. This is a place were tourists are not welcome, at least not to merely peek inside. We asked for lunch and were let into halls and rooms reminding us strongly of the World Heritage palace-museums of Sintra we had enjoyed only a couple of days ago. Unfortunately the hotel would not be able to serve lunch after all, and we had to settle with a rather ordinary place in the nearby town of Luso.

 

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Palace of Bussaco

 

Days 5-6, Porto, the scenic city of Port wine

Mariana Stark wrote this of “Oporto” in 1827 (!): “This City, the largest in Portugal, Lisbon excepted, is watered by the Douro, anciently the Durius, on which river gondolas, like those at Venice, are used. Oporto is supposed to contain 30,000 inhabitants; and has long been famed for its wines, of which it is said to export yearly twenty thousand pipes. The Quays here are magnificent.”

Porto, or Oporto as it used to be called in English, has the unmistakable atmosphere of an historically important city.

You can’t miss this feeling standing on the Gaia side of the river Douro looking across the river to the Ribeira district rising high and steep up to the baroque buildings forming the skyline. Standing up there, looking down across the river to the huge warehouses of the port wine producers in the Gaia, you get the same feeling. Walking the banks on either side of the river, you will get the same impression. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and deservedly so.

 

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The Historic Centre of Porto is a World Heritage Site

 

The urban landscape of Porto dates back a couple of thousand years, but the dominating features the visitors face today are no more than four-five hundred years old. A key element is undoubtedly port wine, somewhat underrated by UNESCO.

The Douro region is the third oldest protected wine region in the world. However the wines have not until recently gained a reputation of being good quality wines. Instead its fame, evolving since the early 1700s, was based on the practice of stopping the wine fermantation process by adding a neutral grape spirit (aguardente). The residual sugar was left in the wine and the alcohol content was enhanced. The process then included aging on barrels, stored in warehouses or caves in Porto – hence the name of port wine.

 

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View of port wine warehouses in Porto’s Gaia district

 

It was the British demand which stimulated the production of port wine. Normal wine did not stand the sea voyages well, and French wine was at times difficult to attain for political reasons. The fortified wine of Portugal was perfect, and consequently a number of British companies set up their business here in Porto, lending their names to the brands we today reckon as among the most famous, like Cockburn, Graham, Offley, Sandeman and Taylor.

 

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Steep streets in Porto

 

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Restaurants and more on Porto river bank

 

We naturally did what most visitors do, visit a wine producer in the Gaia district for a tour and tasting. The Ramos Pinto is not one of the oldest, established in 1880, but undoubtedly with some of the finest posters of them all. Of course, their tawny, ruby and white ports were all very good for the palate.

The city of Porto is certainly about more than port wine. One of the days we went on a hop-on hop-off bus about town. This is a lazy and fine way to get acquainted to a city, and we really enjoyed it. This being a blog, not at tourist guide, I will merely mention of couple of sights not to be missed. (You will have to get off the bus to see them.)

 

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Azulejos in the Porto train station

 

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Porto – Capela das Almas

 

I have in the previous articles from this Portugal road trip mentioned the azulojos. I doubt that any painted, tin-glazed, ceramic tileworks of Portugal (and Brazil) comes anywhere near the fantastic adorning of these two churches in Porto, the Igreja de Santo Ildefonso and in particular the Capela das Almas.

Second, there are a couple of cafes in Porto which are more than worthy a visit. The most famous isCafé Majestic, which was closed on our visit. We did however locate the Café Guarany with its wonderful mix of Amer-Indian and Art Deco (!) interior decoration style. Good food too.

 

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The traditional Porto postcard view

 

Where to stay? If you can afford it, try the Pousada do Porto. This is a splendid place right on the river Douro, a bit upstream, but well inside the reach of the city centre. The pousada is a mix of an elegant old manor and a converted factory. The views are outstanding, the infinity pool is gorgeous, the standard and service is great, and the food exciting.

 

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Front view of the Pousada do Porto

 

Watch this video from Porto:

 

“Historic Centre of Oporto” is no. 755 on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. 

 

Days 7-8, The Douro – a river, valley and region of extraordinary beauty

The river Douro is one of the most important rivers on the Iberian peninsula with the last 215 km running through Portugal, emptying itself into the Atlantic Ocean in Porto. We had decided to skip rail and boat as means of transportation (see the introductory chapter from this road trip). Instead we took our car and followed the advice in our guidebook, at least for the second part of the day. The description below is deliberately detailed and serves as my best advice for others to follow suite.)

 

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Passing tourist boats in the lower reaches of the Douro river

 

In retrospect the first part is best to be avoided. We spent five-six hours on the road before hitting the core of the wine producing region. We should have opted for a couple of hours on the motorway instead of meangering our way upstream along the Rio Douro itself on national road N108, and then atEntre-os-Rios onto the N210 (I think) along the Rio Tâmaga north to Amarante.

Our choice was kind of interesting though, for the scenery is lovely, and we were rewarded with some really nice views of the river, the cruise ships and the surrounding small towns and farmland. We missed the vineyards though.

 

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Casa de Mateus in the Douro region

 

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Driving in the Douro

 

At the town of Amarante we started on the trail that we were looking for. First we took the N15 east towards Candemil and later on Vila Real. Here we fumbled about a bit until we found the N322 east to Solar de Mateus, the building that is featured on all Mateus Rosé wine bottles. Soon we passed Sabrosa, and here, finally, we got into the very core of the Douro wine producing region.

In Sabrosa we turned onto the N323 south to Pinhão. The next fifteen kilometres were stunningly beautiful and well worth waiting for. Driving high up on these side valleys to the Douro itself we were in the midst of, and had superb views of, wine terraces which have taken centuries to make. There would be a quinta here, and perhaps a hamlet there, but not much of this territory is left for other kinds of activity.

 

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Vineyard terraces of the Douro region

 

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Sandeman iconic figure in the Douro Valley

 

Descending hundreds of metres of hillside to Pinhão we yet again hit the river Douro, for we had sinceEntre-os-Rios been driving in the mountains north of the river itself. Pinhão is the centre of the best quality port wine. From here the wine used to be transported downstream to Porto in barcos rabelos, flat-bottomed sailing boats, now only on display along the river banks in Porto.

We continued in a westward direction downstream the Douro, past a set of river locks, until we reached the town of Peso da Régua. We were driving on the southern bank, the railway connecting with Porto was on the other side of the river. Most tourist boats out of Porto only go as far upriver as Peso. The Douro region is a World Heritage Site, but the part west of Peso (where most tourists go) is actually outside.

 

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Grapes in the Douro Valley

 

The previous evening we had booked a room at a luxurious vineyard hotel called Quinta Pacheca at a very favourable price. It is located right across the river from Peso da Régua. This is my Booking.com review: “A wonderful place to relax for a day or more. The quinta has a modern and very tasty design, in combination with traditional surroundings and service. It has a perfect location for excursions in the Douro valley.”

The next morning, after a guided tour and wine tasting (not the driver..) we continued south on the N2 (I think – we tried to follow the roads marked with green, meaning scenic, on Michelin’s road maps) to the town of Lamego, one of the highlights in the Douro region. The Remedios baroque church on top of a very long flight of steps is an amazing sight.

The return home continued south on the large motorways of Portugal so empty of traffic. We made it back to Lisbon, with a stop in Batalha to have a look inside the monastery (it was closed on our way north), and a last night at “our” hotel in Lisbon, the Lutecia.

 

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Lamego – Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios

 

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View of Lamego from top of the steps of Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios

 

This is my video from the Douro region:

 


“Alto Douro Wine Region” is no. 1046 on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. This video takes you from the city of Porto upriver to the beautiful terraced vineyards of the Douro region.
The next day we had a morning flight back to Norway. Normalcy was soon restored after an amazing and intense eight day road trip.

 

Further reading

This series consists of these chapters.

(1) The Plan
(2) Lisbon and Sintra
(3) Évora, Óbidos, Alcobaça, Batalha and Coimbra
(4) Porto and the Douro Valley

View the images from this part of the trip. (Click to expand and browse)

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