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A Tale of Two Portuguese Regions: Douro and Serra da Estrela Are Calling

douro Editor’s Note: Invited by the Douro e Estrela – In Tourism  project, our Catavino contributor Sonia Nolasco spent five days in June traveling through the Douro Valley and the Serra da Estrela region’s Beira Interior. Sonia gorged at countless gastronomical feasts, imbibed great quantities of wine, and checked out hunky, shirtless Portuguese men on her trip—all for the sake of bringing you this two-part report. Enjoy!

Imagine traveling about an hour through pitch black darkness, going to sleep not quite sure where you are at the moment—only to find yourself a few hours later waking up to the beauty in the picture above. That’s not likely how I would’ve planned it, but in the end that’s part of what made the whole experience so memorable.

Pulling back the curtain inside my room at the Douro Scala, I was stunned by the magnificent view of terraced vines cascading from steep slopes towards the invigorating Douro River. Manicured by mankind’s ingenuity and creativity, the Douro Valley is a masterpiece that for those at first unfamiliar with its history could be mistaken for the sole workings of Mother Nature. Waking up in the lush green of the Douro Valley is enlivening—I highly recommend it and so does Lonely Planet  as its number one on the Top 10 European destinations for 2013.

The next few days we spent in the Douro Valley were certainly not enough for me, serving mostly to whet my appetite for future explorations. I’m already dreaming of my next visit … The Douro’s wine-producing villages  are incredibly charming. We visited three—Provesende, Salzedes and Ucanha—but there are more …

In Provesende, I couldn’t decide on what I was enjoying the most. Was it the delightful conversation I was having with an artisanal baker, modest about the priceless craft she’s passing down to younger generations? Was it the young man molding clay into the one-of-a-kind black pottery of Bisalhaes? Was it the wine tasting set against the rolling hills of the Douro Valley, complete with port wine-infused cakes, meaty local cherries, smoked sausage-stuffed breads (folar de carne) and much more, all under the bluest sky? Was it the fragrant and fresh, mouth-filling white wine (Meruge Branco) in my glass, made from Viosinho, one of Portugal’s many indigenous grapes? It made me want to roast a red snapper nestled in a bed of sweet herbs … Or, was it the inspiration everywhere; how it slowed my pace, allowing me to soak in this special life and making it as sweet as the grapes used to produce the fortified wines that originally made the Douro famous?

Portuguese wineThinking back, I have decided that what I loved most about the Douro is its people’s respect for their rich wine-producing past—an authentic and romantic Port wine story echoed in each village we visited, proudly recounted by wine families and producers alike, a heritage recorded for every visitor to discover at the inviting Douro Museum—coupled with a burning desire to do more for their region amid this competitive, new world of wines. The oldest demarcated wine region in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Douro is bursting with energy and an eagerness to share the story of what it’s doing today.

Beyond its prized Port wines, the Douro is producing impressive red and white unfortified wines (a.k.a table wines) as well as high-quality espumantes. We learned first-hand about a Douro espumante from the Caves da Murganheira in the wine-producing village of Ucanha. Inspired by the French method of making Champagne, Murganheira’s sparkling wines are produced from some of the finest Portuguese grapes—Malvasia Fina, Gouveio Real, Cerceal as well as international varieties, including Champagne’s signature Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The grapes are harvested manually and the wine bottles stored in cellars that were dug into the blue granite rock that’s so characteristic of this Tavora-Varosa wine region. Founded 50 years ago, the winery welcomes visitors into a modern space with contemporary art on the walls and large windows facing the Douro’s entrancing vines. A laid-back, sophisticated setup—it’s worthy of a visit. (It was kick-ass, too, that our tour guide was a vivacious pregnant woman. She rocked!)

Our second sleeping destination on the trip was the five-star rated Aquapura hotel  near Peso da Regua, the riverside town that played a significant role in Port wine history. Surrounded by centuries-old vines with the Douro River running through it, Aquapura is old-world on the outside but all zen and high-tech on the inside—a bit too techy for my taste. When I’m required to read a map to learn how to turn on the lights and lift the curtains, I’m generally out. However, the scenic vista is too magical to pass up on. As a matter of fact, I suspect shocking me into awe with these Douro Valley views might have been my guide’s strategy all along. Like at Douro Scala, we arrived at Aquapura in the darkness. In the morning, I had the pleasure of waking up to the mouth-dropping views of the Douro Valley—probably some of the best views up there. It’s so lovely that I’m willing to deal with the hotel’s complex interior to experience it all over again.

That morning we hopped on the train from Regua in direction to Pocinho, taking in the terraced slopes from the tracks, and heading south to the Douro Superior region. Where the Douro and Coa rivers converge sits Vila Nova de Foz Coa, home to the Museu do Coa, a starting point for an adventure through Paleolithic rock art. There’s a world of archeological findings to explore in and around the museum, which was built to resemble the area’s schist rocks and fit organically into the landscape. In homage to Coa Valley’s olive groves, almond orchards, vineyards and delicious honey, we were greeted with a buffet featuring all of these natural riches inside the museum’s restaurant, simply decorated by the panoramic view of where the two rivers meet.

douro 2Here, the gradual changes in the landscape were ever-more apparent. And as we began descending farther south, exiting the Douro and entering the Serra da Estrela region into the Beira Interior, the transformation was dramatic. The lush green of the Douro gave way to blends of pale yellow, burnt greens, rust and metallic grays shining off house-sized boulders. Stone cottages, sheep and olive trees dominated fields carpeted by vibrant wildflowers, some of which occasionally forced their way through the cracks of the sun-roasted stones. Still distant from where I have spent several special moments of my life in Portugal, the scene was already so familiar to me that I couldn’t control a sudden explosion of emotion. With my face glued to the bus window, I forgot everything around me and dreamt of the mountain named after a shiny star—Serra da Estrela—and my grandparent’s sleepy village (Bemposta do Campo: never on these trips’ itineraries, but always on mine) in the southern part of the Beira Interior.

We stopped for a rustic lunch at O Lagar in the village of Escalhao. One of my favorite meals on the trip, our lunch was truly authentic Beira cuisine. Smoked sausage with scrambled eggs (this varies, but my ideal combo is with Farinheira), mountain cheeses, smoked hams (presunto) and other Portuguese enchidos, codfish fritters (pataniscas) and fried “green” eggs (ovos verdes), slow-cooked meats and saucy rice (arroz malandro) with mushrooms (including the wild, Miscaros), soup with the area’s signature herb (segurelha) and a Lagarada de Bacalhau made with Portugal’s “faithful friend,” salted and dried cod fish. The wines at O Lagar kicked off our Beira Interior wine discoveries. My highlight at O Lagar was a bottle of Beyra white produced from the local Siria grape (known as Roupeiro in the Alentejo region). Its light, grassy, mineral, melon notes evolved in the glass to offer floral scents and an unexpected depth.

I later found a bottle of Beyra red in Lisbon on a trip to Cantinho do Avillez, a casual-chic resturant in the trendy Chiado district by Michelin-star awarded Portuguese Chef Jose Avillez. Though I was disappointed in my barely seasoned cod fish entrée—generally uncharacteristic of Portuguese food—I was pleased to find such a well-rounded selection of wines (not just Douro and Alentejo, which over the years have done a better job of promoting their wines than some of the other regions in Portugal) and delighted with my appetizers of roasted Nisa cheese with honey, partridge empadas  and a refreshing dessert of tart yogurt infused with Fundao cherries and crumbled cookie. It’s a dessert, but I could eat that for breakfast every day!

But even better than Avillez’s nouveau creations, were the sugar and egg-based convent sweets at O Lagar. Everything from the ubiqutous “Arroz Doce” (rice pudding) sprinkled with cinnamon (customary atop these traditional sweets) to the “Comer e Chorar por Mais” made of almonds, crumbled cookies, sugar and eggs. This dessert literally translates to “To Eat and Weep for More.” Need I say more?

With our bellies bursting at the seams and our souls satisfied, we made our way to the historic village of Castelo Rodrigo where shirtless, local men snapped us from our heat comma as they sped on by squeezed into the back of a pickup, shouting something we just couldn’t make out.

Find out what that testosterone-induced raucous was all about in Part II, follow us farther into the Beira Interior, and as we come full circle back to where we started.

To be continued ….

Cheers,
Sonia Andresson-Nolasco

 The Douro e Estrela - In Tourism project was sponsored by NERGA, AETUR, COMPETE, QREN and Uniao Europeia 

  • Steve Santos

    Spent a day in the Serra de Estrela last summer, would like to go back with more time next time I go to Portugal for sure as it was beautiful. Patiently waiting for part 2.

    About Cantinho de Avillez. my wife had the bacalhau com migas and really enjoyed it, surprised to hear you didn’t like it. I had his take on bife a casa and it was the best I have ever had. We also had the morcela appetizer that had like an apple crumble on the bottom, delicious.

    • snolasco

      Hi Steve, thanks for reading!!
      I too am a big fan of the Serra da Estrela (and Beira Interior region in general) and have been going around there since I was a kid, but still it never seems like enough. I was thrilled to see Beira Interior on this trip’s itinerary and visited some new places, but there’s still lots to explore in the future for sure. Will bring you Part II as soon as I can :)

      About Avillez, it’s not that I didn’t like the cod dish all around, but it wasn’t anything that I would go back for again… That’s usually my test: would I come back for this? Other than the bursting olives, the flavors were too subtle for me–probably because my go-to bacalhau dish is the “a Gomes Sa” which is full of flavor usually because of the caramelized onions and hints of vinegar (when done right!). But I did love my empadas and the dessert–so good–I’m still dreaming of it …. Morcela with apple sounds like a good combo, I can see how that might have worked very well. I’ll have to try his other restaurant Belcanto, too. Have you been to that one?

      • Steve Santos

        I have not been to Belcanto, but I did go to “Aqui há Peixe”. The carabineiros ( I think they are scarlet shrimp) were incredible, I miss the seafood in Portugal so much. Wish I could go every year.

        • snolasco

          I hear you Steve–wish I could go to Portugal every year too! I also miss the seafood big time. The first thing I do when I get back from my vacations there is go to my local supermarket and look for quality whole fish, which sometimes is a challenge, and I butterfly/grill it to try to recreate what I get in Portugal. My favorite spot for butterflied, whole grilled fish is Setubal, especially “Tasca da Fatinha.” And the Carbineiros and clams in Portugal are at the top of my list. Those Scarlet Shrimp are so freaking good! I usually get mine at “Cervejaria Ramiro” in Lisbon. Great spot! I’ll have to check out “Aqui ha Peixe.”

          • Steve Santos

            seems we both hit up Bourdain hot spots :) My wife’s grandparents are in Setubal so its very rare that we eat out in Setubal, but I will have to try to make a point of it, but her grandpa cooks very well, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing.. The fact that they lived in Angola, before 25 de Abril adds another spice to it too :)

          • snolasco

            Bourdain def hit up some good spots on that episode! I totally understand about Setubal … when you have delicious home-cooked meals it’s tough to give that up for sure. I get that in the Beira Baixa. My paternal family is also from Angola, so I know how that spices things up, love the food influences and the music.