14 Aug - a Douro Day
You can’t spend an afternoon at a Port Lodge without developing an itch to see the fabled Douro River. So we took advantage of the very reasonable marina charges at Leixoes to extend our stay and embarked on a Road Trip.
I’ve always liked Italian cars: I’ve had some very enjoyable Lancias and Alfas over the years and would like to own a Maserati, but I was not prepared for just how awful the Fiat Punto is. Our Hertz model was masquerading as a ‘VW Polo equivalent’. It was powered by a rubber band and the interior was falling off after just two months as a hire car (the fastest car on the road is a hire car, after all). Just one 12v socket which kept ejecting my Tomtom plug and so little oomf that I was being overtaken by lorries on minor hills. Previously in this adventure, we have been well served by a Seat Ibiza – streets ahead in every sense.
That said, the car got us to where we wanted to go. The first stop was the Palacio de Mateus, the home of the quintessential candle holder and a long series of television adverts from the seventies. The trusty guide book said that it was worth a look, so we looked. We looked quite hard for somewhere to park in the first instance, but eventually got inside the walls. We paid €17 to wander round their gardens which, like the house, had a sense of faded glory. The big thing in the garden was the ‘cedar tunnel’, but it was mostly dead. The vineyards surrounding the property were overgrown with weeds. The elegant box hedge borders needed water badly. The house itself looks beautiful: a Portuguese Baroque classic. But the exhibitions were dull, the staff did not engage, the café was uninspiring and the shop empty. We jostled for space with hoards of German tourists (no doubt fans of Liebfraumilch) to photograph resting fountains and tumbleweed and decided to do a runner after half an hour.
The home of Mateus Rose. Great building, shame about the rest.
Twenty minutes later, our spirits were lifted by the climb over the hill and down into the Douro valley. It is simply spectacular: every square foot of hillside in every direction has been sculpted by generations of wine growers into an extraordinary landscape of terraces. Some wide, some at impossible angles, some ancient, some under construction. The soil looks quite poor, the ground is absolutely tinder dry, but the intense strips of green extend as far as the eye can see, almost like a Harris tweed. Utter peace reigns; the odd bird of prey soars high above, whilst at the bottom of your screen there is the river. I always remember the visual impact of seeing the River Nile after hours crossing the Egyptian desert and the stunning statement that it made about the life-giving qualities of water. This is different, but no less impressive. I reflected on the long, long history of wine growing and how this landscape has been transformed by Man’s relationship with the grape. I thought of the turf cutters on Islay and their involvement with whisky – after all, we have been distilling alcohol for millennia too. Here, in the blistering, dry heat, I wondered about the people who built these terraces, who weed and prune the vines, who pick the grapes by hand and then stamp on them in a granite bath to literally kick off the winemaking process.
Almost impossible to capture on film – the Douro landscape
We had lunch by the river in the small town of Pinhau, a key port for shipping the wine down the river to the milder climate of Vila Nova de Gaia. We saw the huge dams that have tamed the river, not just for irrigation of the vines, but also safer transport and, in modern times, for hydroelectric power and the insatiable cruise ship industry. We visited one of the hundreds of ‘quintas’ that marshal the landscape, marking their patches with carefully painted signs, whitewashed walls and terracotta rooves.
Nothing like the terraces at Fratton Park…
Quinta de la Rosa
Quinta de la Rosa is a relatively modern port producer; since the 1800s the Bergqvist family vineyard used to supply the major port houses but in the last twenty years the current generation have taken advantage of some changes in European law to become established producers in their own right. Clearly canny business people, the equipment is an interesting blend of tradition and technology; they produce table wines and olive oil as well as port and the spectacular setting of the quinta offers some rather smart-looking holiday apartments and a restaurant into the bargain.
We have a small connection here: Anna was at school with one of the family and came here for a holiday many years ago. She returned home to Hampshire with a bottle of vintage port, which we have not yet opened – we are waiting for the right occasion. It has now been joined by a bottle of 20 year old Tawny which I’m going to get outside over the next week or so!
Back in the pedal car, we crawled further into the hills, stopping very few yards to wonder at the views, before making it to the town of Alijo and the Pousada de Barao Forrester. He was another canny Scot who was a critical figure in the development of the region and he would have been quite pleased with his smart little hotel (Government-run like the Spanish Paradors). He met his end when he fell in the river and was weighed down by his moneybelt. Note to self… We had a splendid supper there and slept well, despite the best efforts of the organisers of the annual religious festival who woke us at 0700 on Sunday morning with mortar fire. Odd really, since they were all on the go doing the local equivalent of Morris dancing at 0400 when I got up to check the locks.
Air-conditioned wine making at Quinta de la Rosa. A million miles from the Palacio de Mateus!