A Tale of Two Portuguese Regions: Douro & Serra da Estrela Are Calling Part II
Editor’s Note: In Part I, Sonia visited some of the Douro’s enchanting wine-producing villages, took in prehistoric art at the Coa Museum with wine glass in hand, savored the rustic flavors of the Beira Interior at O Lagar, and was nearly run over by a pickup truck packed with shouting, shirtless men in the historic village of Castelo Rodrigo. Her Douro e Estrela – In Tourism journey continues … and ends with a Portonic.
The itinerary our group had been handed couldn’t have seemed more deceiving at that very moment. In its description of Castelo Rodrigo, it noted the ancient village’s tranquil streets. Perhaps on most days—but certainly not when we visited. The silence was disrupted by a band of shouting, shirtless men packed into the back of a pickup truck. They sped on by, yelling out indecipherable chants. Later, we learned that the ruckus was apparently based on a ritual celebrated by the village men born on the same day. It seems to involve getting the men together in a group—perhaps stripping their shirts is a requirement too—and driving through the streets, shouting until they reach the top of the castle. There was no time to confirm the validity of this revelation, but whatever the case, the mountain village of Castelo Rodrigo in the northern Beira Interior region of the country, where views of the Douro and as far as Spain await visitors, was not only full of history that day but life as well. As our tour guide took us farther into the village and introduced us to its tales of Iberian wars and conquers, I snapped shots of smiling little boys peering at our group from their stone balconies.
From Castelo Rodrigo we continued south to Belmonte, the second village on our Beira Interior trip that’s part of the 10 official historical villages of Portugal—we also visited Sortelha (part of Sabugal), Almeida and Marialva (part of Meda). Belmonte sits at the foothills of the Serra da Estrela, the highest point in continental Portugal and a world unto itself. I have visited the mountain several times given that my family comes from villages not too far from there, and yet like the Douro Valley there seems to always be more to experience. The villages in and around the mountain are full of character, many based on a now diminishing shepherd culture complete with its own breed of Serra da Estrela dogs, creamy mountain cheeses made from Bordaleira sheep’s milk and the wild cardoon flower. Belmonte’s biggest claims to fame: It’s the birthplace of Pedro Alvares Cabral (he discovered Brazil) and it’s the home of the largest Jewish community in the country. Part of Cova da Beira (one of the three Beira Interior DOC wine subregions), the village was host to this year’s Beira Interior wine awards gala held within the walls of its castle.
Following the gala, we rebooted at the Pousada Convento de Belmonte. As the name suggests, it was once a friary dating back to the 13th Century. The rooms are named after friars—I stayed in the “Frei Eurico” room. The Pousada manages to strike a balance between monk-style simplicity and modern-day must-haves, topped with mountain backdrops and a retreated setting a mile from life in the village—a true sanctuary for repose seekers. Back in the village, there are historical sites to see including the Pedro Alvares Cabral monument, the castle, synagogue and museums. My favorite is the olive oil museum, which I have visited on my own (my paternal grandfather was from Belmonte). Don’t miss it and pick up the olive tapenade and olive oil biscuits—so good! There’s also the Jewish museum and the newest addition, Descoberta do Novo Mundo, dedicated to the discovery of Brazil. It’s a fun, interactive travel through Portugal’s discoveries in the new world.
We also paid a visit to local wine producer, Quinta dos Termos, which hosted an afternoon of wine tasting alongside fellow Beira Interior DOC wine producers (such collaboration is always commendable in my book). On a later trip to the Adegga Wine Market tasting in Lisbon, I reconnected with one of these producers—Quinta dos Currais—which disappointingly was the only Beira Interior DOC wine present. “Why,” I asked. I gathered that the region needs to show up more. It sure does … though in all fairness, it’s come a long way. These days, it’s promoting a great deal more both domestically and internationally, yet there’s plenty more to do to showcase what the region has to offer. If producers don’t go out there and tell consumers their stories, making quality wine may not be enough. At the Belmonte tasting, the highlight for me was the Quinta dos Termos’s Fonte Cal. Native (and unique) to the Beira Interior, the Fonte Cal variety generally produces big and fragrant white wines with the capacity to age. The 2011 Fonte Cal revealed floral and mineral notes, body and softened tannins. The grounds around Quinta dos Termos are worth a visit also for walks and bike rides along a paved path surrounded by a sea of vineyards and the Serra da Estrela touching the sky.
That day we lunched Medieval-style in Sortelha, where we were welcomed by the village’s granite, Gothic arched entrance, period musicians and costumes to don. Served on typical earthenware (louca de barro), the area’s gamey meats and smoked sausages were the centerpiece: blood sausage (morcela) … wild boar stew … the softest, creamiest string beans and meatiest, tastiest chick peas I have ever eaten … torn cabbage and garlic chunks drenched in insanely good olive oil with slices of toasted country bread … homemade liqueurs infused with berries and spices … and the region’s traditional Papas de Carolo (a cornmeal dessert) to sweeten up the meal. Coffee was served inside the local restaurant, Dom Sancho I, responsible for the authentic feast. The lunch was a mere taste of the village’s annual, late summer/fall Medieval festival.
If you like military history, then a stop at the fortress town of Almeida is a must. On the Portuguese-Spanish border, Almeida underwent several sieges during the Seven Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars. Its signature hexagon fortress and military museum are testaments to those treacherous times. We were greeted by the mayor, locals and a buffet of cheeses, smoked sausages and shots of Ginjinha—the reason for which I temporarily abandoned the group and dashed into the village guided by Paula (a local), to buy a bottle of that sweet and sour cherry liqueur. Paula, who passed up working in the culturally-vibrant city of Porto after college to stay in Almeida, led me into a tiny and tight tavern where two elderly men sat enjoying their Ginjinha while a younger man washed bottles of it before storing them for sale. I would have liked to linger and learn more about the people of Almeida, their intriguing village and the Ginjinha man, but I had to rejoin the group. I’ll be back I’m sure …
From Almeida, we continued our re-ascent to the northern Beira Interior, towards the city of Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia as our final destination. That evening we had a rustic-chic dinner at Casas do Coro in the Medieval village of Marialva, which among its historical offerings there are Prehistoric and Roman vestiges to explore. Extremely tasteful, Casas do Coro is a rural retreat compromised of refurbished country houses—it is rustic meets refined at its best. The generally, locally-sourced food and on-premise produced wines are topnotch. Our stay was brief, but my house remains firmly planted in my memory. It had a full kitchen first of all—for cooking enthusiasts like yours truly that’s a treasure—luxurious bathrooms and five-star quality bed sheets in stylish rooms setup for a soothing slumber. My only disappointment was not being able to have a Casas do Coro & Cooking Experience, one of 13 experiences available. My “must return” list keeps getting longer …
As we made our way to Vila Nova de Gaia, the excitement of meeting a legend intensified—it’s not every day that you get to visit a Port wine house that dates back to the 1700s like Real Companhia Velha. Situated in the “Ribeirinha” (Riverfront) section of Gaia (across from Porto) where visitors can tour and taste Port wine at the various wine producers’ cellars, we were treated to a tour of the Real Companhia Velha’s wine stash. The rows of stacked barrels and giant wooden vats made me think of Templeton in the cartoon “Charlotte’s Web”—I wasn’t even drinking the tantalizing nectar and I could already imagine myself acting silly, singing, tripping and burping uncontrollably like the animated rat, delirious from the overdose of fair food leftovers. Good thing they didn’t leave me there unsupervised! Part of the Caves do Vinho do Porto circuit, Real Companhia Velha is one of the several traditional aging cellars in Gaia that date back to the start of Port production and exportation. We also visited its Vintage Museum where dusty, cobweb-covered bottles have been resting for centuries, including a 1765 bottle, the oldest Port on display.
With decadent Port still present on our palates, we left Real Companhia Velha and injected ourselves further into Ribeirinha life. With its iconic, arched Dom Luis Bridge in the backdrop, Porto and Gaia’s Ribeirinha pulsates with a vibrant life on any day, but on that particular afternoon, the energy was especially high. Crowds lined the river to watch the annual Rabelo Regatta as the area’s youth engaged in their summer pastime of diving into the river—the tradition has inspired a movie, “Os Meninos do Rio” (The Children of the River), currently in production.
For the annual regatta, the famous Port wine houses dress up rabelos (traditional cargo boats that used to transport Port from the Douro Valley estates to Gaia’s cellars) and sail the river. We were invited to view the charged competition from a VIP cruise ship, where more Port was poured and life was good. It got heated on that ship as young and old alike cheered on their favorite crews—and booed their rivals. In the end, Cockburn’s took the trophy home.
We disembarked near Porto Cruz, a space that interweaves tradition and modernity organically throughout each of its four floors. Porto Cruz offers everything from permanent exhibits and wine tastings to a restaurant and rooftop terrace—the perfect spot to sip a Portonic and snap pictures of Portugal’s twin cities. Porto Cruz is also where my trip came full circle. What I didn’t share in Part I was that before making our nightly trip up into the Douro Valley on Day #1, we had already been to a IVDP (Institute of Douro and Port Wines) welcoming reception (extremely brief for me, thanks to a delayed flight), followed by Porto Cruz where we were treated to a full tour, elaborate Port tastings, dinner and lots of Portonics on the rooftop bar. Unfortunately, it was too much of a whirlwind for me that day as I had just come off a nearly nine-hour flight from New York to Porto via Brussels. No shower, jet lag—you get the picture—I needed a minute … The ideal greeting would’ve simply involved a Portonic and a couple of hours of recovery in a hotel room, before taking in the not-to-miss offerings at Porto Cruz. All in all, a minor misstep in an otherwise truly noteworthy trip.
Last words—It’s Portonic o’clock! Here’s how to recreate at home:
Port Wine and Tonic
*Chilled, white Port
Pour equal parts Port and tonic water into your glass, add ice to your liking, and a sprig of Rosemary—à la the Porto Cruz version I enjoyed so much. However, you can add lemon wedges instead or your preferred garnish. Then, stir and sip away ….
The Douro e Estrela – In Tourism project was sponsored by NERGA, AETUR, COMPETE, QREN and Uniao Europeia
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