Thirty years later, Lesley Russell returns to Portugal with her husband/walking companion Bruce Wolpe for a trek in the Douro Valley, where they are treated to sublime views, the joys of Portuguese tarts (natas), and an invitation to stomp the grapes.
Read the latest instalment in our #CroakeyEXPLORE series.
By Lesley Russell and Bruce Wolpe:
More than thirty years ago we travelled in Portugal and fond memories of a wonderful time had us continually thinking we must return.
In September that time finally arrived; the plan for several days exploring Lisbon and then a week walking in Porto and the Douro Valley seemed like a perfect combination of sightseeing, exploring, physical exercise and the pleasures of food and wine.
We turned to the travel company Lesley always uses, and we received the expert and excellent service from them and their local affiliate we have come to rely on. This was highlighted when, on arrival at our Porto hotel, there was no booking for us – one phone call to the emergency hotline and a great customer response from the hotel, and in forty minutes the problem was solved, with an upgrade as compensation.
Our trip started with three wonderful days exploring Lisbon. It’s hilly and the streets are cobblestone, but it’s a great walking city – good training for what was to come.
We enjoyed exploring the neighbourhoods, and quickly developed a passion for Portuguese tarts (natas), which we consumed in substantial quantities throughout our visit. There are wonderful restaurants and we loved the petiscos (bar snacks) and the great coffee shops. We did not like the graffiti that was ubiquitous in some neighbourhoods.
The people are very friendly and proud of their country. Almost everyone we encountered spoke English very well (they learn it at school, but universally attribute their fluency to the fact that there are no subtitles on English language television and films); some people spoke French. You learn quickly they prefer that you not speak Spanish to them (and you learn that there are lots of bad Portuguese jokes about Spain and Spaniards – and, we assume, vice versa).
It’s a surprise that in the forested areas of Portugal you will see many eucalypts. Initially we delighted in the smell, but then found out they are viewed as a dangerous introduced pest.
Eucalypts were introduced in the 18th century by the English, including Sir Joseph Banks. The plan was that they could help control erosion and drain the swamplands. Later they were used for paper pulp.
Blue gums are now the most abundant tree in Portugal, covering about seven percent of the land with major environmental consequences for birds and wildlife and for wildfires which are increasingly common.
Day 1. To Porto
We travelled from Lisbon to Porto by train. We had not previously been to Porto – a World Heritage city founded by the Romans in the 1st century BC – which we instantly loved (especially because there was no graffiti). It was the port from which Henry the Navigator sailed in in 1415, initiating the Portuguese Age of Discovery.
In the late afternoon there was a briefing from a local expert guide about our trip and we were provided with a GPS device loaded with the maps and details of our self-guided walk. Only then did we realise that we were going to be totally reliant on this GPS device as the trails we would walk along were largely unmarked.
Lesley was very hesitant about this for a variety of reasons (she’s a bit of a Luddite and has always resisted using such devices on previous walks, preferring to look at the scenery; she is used to looking for trail markers; what would this technology do for family comity?) but we discovered it worked surprisingly well with Bruce in charge as the sole navigator.
We were helped because we were also provided with a guidebook that had reasonably detailed maps for each day’s route and some great information (in delightful English translations) about the sights we would see and the villages we would pass through.
Day 2. Porto to Pinhao (by train)
The Sao Bento train station in Porto is famous for its blue and white tile (azulejo) murals of historic and rural scenes. We had time to marvel before we boarded the regional train to Pinhao.
After the first hour the trainline runs along the Douro River and we caught our first glimpses of the terraced vineyards, farms and small villages of the Alto Douro wine region, classified as a World Heritage Site.
The train became steadily more crowded as Pinhao is a major tourist destination. It’s in a very picturesque setting on a bend of the river, with the surrounding hillsides terraced with vines. The Pinhao railway station, built in 1937, is quite small but beautiful, with twenty-five panels of azulejos tiles that depict scenes of Douro Valley life, culture and history.
The small town was bustling with tourists and no taxis were in sight at the station, so we were glad that our wheeled duffle bags were manageable enough for us to drag them the two kilometres to the vineyard where we were staying. And we were glad that after this day our bags would be picked up and transported ahead for us, so we just had to carry a day pack.
Quinta de la Rosa welcomed us with drinks and an invitation to stomp the grapes that night. The harvest was underway in the region.
At Quinta de la Rosa and many other quintas in this region, the grapes are picked by hand and the port wines are made in the traditional way by treading the grapes by foot in tanks known as lagares. There is a method to this that ensures the grapes are thoroughly crushed but the pips are not.
It starts with steady marching as the foreman calls out the rhythm and culminates in music and dancing and singing. We chose not to participate but to watch and to drink the products of the vines in the excellent local restaurant with views out over the river.
Day 3. Pinhao to Sabrosa (16 km)
There was an impressive breakfast spread, including the mandatory natas, and thus fortified, we headed out on our first real day of hiking.
We were somewhat apprehensive as we had been warned that the first few hours were all uphill and you only had to look at the landscape to see how uphill that could be.
Soon we were in the middle of vineyards and olive trees, huffing and puffing as we climbed and climbed, but gasping more at the views than the exercise.
After almost seven kilometres we reached the little hilltop village of Provesende, one of the oldest settlements in Portugal. We gratefully drank cold sodas sitting by the ancient pillory post in the small square and the local café owner kindly came and set up an umbrella for shade.
Then the walk into Sabrosa was easier, although the views remained spectacular. Our charming hotel was opposite the museum to Ferdinand Magellan, who was born here. After exploring the village, we spent the afternoon by the pool in the surrounding gardens.
Day 4. Sabrosa to Alijo (12 km)
After a hearty breakfast that did not include natas (shock!), we headed out along the trail that led down to the Pinhao River, which we crossed via a Roman bridge. By now we were getting the hang of the GPS – just as well as the path was quite overgrown at one point. The walking was relatively flat along the tops of ridges, with terrace upon terrace of vines and olive trees below.
We were very impressed at the dry stonework, both ancient and modern, that we saw everywhere along this walk – in terraces, houses and as walls lining our trail. Some of the tracks we walked along were access routes for trucks and tractors to the vineyards, where workers were busy harvesting the grapes.
There were many cheery greetings exchanged with these workers – “Bom Dia” – but they surely thought we were crazy to be walking for pleasure. We met very few other walkers along the route.
We did have regular encounters on this trip with farm and guard dogs – all large, all threatening and all barking madly. We walked past them as briskly as possible, hoping our poles would not be needed as weapons.
Around lunchtime we came to the hilltop village of Favaios. We quickly found the local bar/café for a coffee and then went in search of the famous local bakeries.
We found one by noting the cars that rolled up outside a nondescript building. Inside we found two women just pulling the last loaves of the day from a wood-fired oven. For one euro we got two small floury loaves, still warm, and were invited to take what we needed from a tub of butter. A great but simple lunch!
Then it was only a few more kilometres to our accommodations at the pousada at Alijo. The restaurants at pousadas specialise in the food and wines of the region and we enjoyed our favourite pre-dinner drink (white port and tonic) on the terrace, followed by a magnificent meal.
Day 5. Alijo to Vale Mendiz (14 km)
We woke to rain and set off in our rain gear. Almost immediately we realised that our GPS was not working properly. The map had us travelling back to Favaios by a different route than that taken yesterday, but we ended up taking the original route, which we could remember, rather than trying to follow the GPS.
At Favaios we stopped again for coffee (a big breakfast meant we didn’t seek out the bakery) and then our luck held – it stopped raining and the GPs decided to behave. (Were the two events connected? We don’t know.)
Today there was easy walking that took us past two large quintas. The opportunity to stop at the many quintas we passed had been touted as a highlight of this trip, but we were not really interested in quaffing wines for morning tea and then trying to follow the GPS, so we observed and photographed and saved our drinking for the end of the day.
The last several kilometres took us downhill to the road leading to the village of Vale Mendiz, and then away from the village to Quinta do Silval where we were staying.
The most treacherous part of the walk turned out to be the steep, cobblestone drive down to the quinta, which was wet and slippery. We were warmly welcomed on arrival – just in time to escape the rainstorm that came in.
Day 6. Vale Mendiz to Pinhao (12 km)
Our last walking day dawned with mists hanging in the valleys and the threat of rain that didn’t eventuate.
We were relieved there was no need to trudge up that slippery drive and we could walk down through the vineyards to Vale Mendiz. Soon we were climbing the bougainvillea-lined streets of the village that clings to the mountainside.
The rain had left sticky red mud to entrap our boots. But after we reached the village of Vilarinho de Cotas and left its barking dogs behind, we found ourselves walking on dry tracks along the ridge top with views that suddenly opened up to reveal the Douro River below.
At Casal de Loivos, a mountain top village we had previously seen from the dining room at Quinta de la Rosa, there was an amazing panorama of the Douro Valley, with Pinhao and the river and miles of terraced vineyards.
And suddenly too there were tourists, driven up from the train station in buses to admire the view – and to look a little askance at us in muddy boots and hiking gear. While they whizzed back down the mountain to the wineries below, we still had several more kilometres to go.
At this point, distracted by the view spread out below us, we forgot to check the GPS at every junction and then realised we were off the set track. But hardly lost – we could see where we were headed – so we just kept going down between the rows of vines, through an orange orchard where oranges lay rotting but fragrant on the ground, and through some backyard vegetable plots until, unexpectedly, there we were back at the Pinhao railway station, surrounded by an international bevy of Sunday tourists.
There was a warm welcome back to Quinta de la Rosa and a glass of wine to celebrate, and then several more glasses at dinner that night as we gazed out at the lights of Casal de Loivos high above.
Day 7. Pinhao to Porto (by river boat)
Natas were back on the breakfast menu, ensuring we started the day well, and then we were picked up and driven to Regua where we boarded a river boat to Porto. This is a lovely way to see the Douro Valley.
A number of dams have been built along the Douro to make it navigation friendly and in passing two of these dams we also went through the associated locks. This is quite an experience, especially when navigating the larger lock at Carrapatoso, which has a water drop of 35 metres.
As we got closer to Porto we were also impressed with the large number of bridges that spanned the river, some of them strikingly elegant.
Arriving by river is definitely the way to see Porto at its best – the medieval Ribeira (riverside) district with narrow cobblestone streets and higher up the elaborate architecture of churches and palaces.
We were intrigued to notice many young people dressed quite elegantly in black capes in the streets (looking rather like students from Hogwarts) and learned that they were university students.
It turns out there is a connection: JK Rowland was inspired by Porto and the uniform at the Coimbra University, the oldest continuously operated university in the world, just south of Porto.
We had a yet another magnificent meal that night to celebrate a wonderful walk and bought some Coimbra pottery to remind us of the great times now we are home.
Day 8. To Lisbon
We caught the train back to Lisbon for the two final days of our holiday. We stayed in the old converted convent where we had stayed on that first trip three decades ago; it was even more lovely than we remembered.
And as we prepared to fly home, there was one final Portuguese surprise – the best natas of the whole trip, freshly baked and still warm, were to be found in the airline lounge at the airport!
We can totally recommend this trip – enough exercise to be satisfying without being excessive and such beautiful countryside. There’s lots of history to learn and people who are delighted to help you do so.
Summer temperatures in Portugal can get quite hot, so we chose September for our walk. The temperatures were around 23 – 25 °C. We did have some rain, but it was more showers than incessant and we were never soaked.
It was relatively easy to purchase food along the way, although we mostly had picnic lunches with bread, cheese, fruit and energy bars. Plenty of water is available too, although we were advised not to drink from the old-fashioned public water pumps.
And finally – don’t be put off by the GPS. We are proof that two Type A people can walk with a GPS and enjoy it!
Stay tuned for more #CroakeyEXPLORE reports: Lesley is off to on a solo walk along the Queen Charlotte Track in the north of the South Island of New Zealand in early December.
And while she will surely use the written notes provided, she has already downloaded the maps from the app on to her phone!
• Read more in the #CroakeyEXPLORE series.