Douro: A Gourmet’s Travel Guide
By Ryan Opaz
A trip to northern Portugal just wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Douro Valley. A mere 70kms upstream from Porto, it’s a region with spectacular views, hypnotizing beauty and rustic charm. Pictures just don’t do this region justice, because the sheer magnitude and the Douro’s natural beauty is bound to blow you away. Towering mountains that go on for miles are covered with dizzying rows of vines, running up and down the slopes, and in contoured rows on old stone terraces, known as socalcos, and the more modern version, patamares. Bushy olive trees and beautiful stone houses perched on mountaintops or nestled in valleys are typical sights. Down below, the Douro River cuts through the landscape, meandering from its source in Spain all the way to Porto to meet the Atlantic Ocean.
The Douro is a region known for producing wine, mainly sweet fortified wine but also still wines under the Douro DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) appellation. A wine lover’s paradise, it is a delight to taste your way through the different types of Port wines or enjoy the bold, robust still wines, but the region also abounds with other delicious produce like almonds, chestnuts, cherries, wild mushrooms and regional products like olive oil, honey, sausages, smoked and cured meats (enchidos) of all kinds. The Dourense gastronomy matches that of its wines: big, hearty meals that are mainly meat-based and game, but in true Portuguese fashion, plenty of fish can also be found in these parts.
With its breathtaking views, world-class wines, and feel good comfort food, this part of Portugal is sure to win you over.
Douro Wine 101
A vast region, the hot, dry and infertile soils (schist and granite) have made it the ideal place for grape growing. But also the most difficult terrain to work on. To visit the Douro is to truly understand how viticulture has shaped the land and how it is very much part of the daily life of the people that live here. Stop at any of the cafes in the small villages and the locals chat about how the vines are doing, what’s happening with this year’s harvest, and whose grapes are looking good (or bad). Grape growing is the livelihood of most that live in this beautiful part of Portugal. It’s no wonder then that the Douro was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001; the Alto Douro Wine Region (Alto Douro Vinhateiro) is a testament of the interaction between nature and man (and women) and how winemaking is deeply embedded into the local culture.
Grape growing can be traced back some 2000 years in the Douro, however, wine making flourished in the 17th century when trade wars between the English and the French pushed English wine merchants to source wines from Portugal. The dark and astringent wines of the Douro Valley were shipped to England from Porto on long sea voyages. To ensure that they arrived in good condition, brandy was added to the wine. However, it is said that it was the Cistercian monks from the town of Lamego who were the ones to develop the Port winemaking method used today: adding aguardente (grape spirit) while the wine is still fermenting. This resulted in a sweet and fortified wine that the thirsty Englishmen loved. Port wine shippers, of English and Dutch origin, continued the practice and thus the Port wine industry developed. A visit to any of the Port cellars in Porto or Douro and English and Dutch family names are quite common: Graham’s, Churchills, Croft, Niepoort. Many of the current owners are fifth or sixth generation from the same shippers who began those Port houses.
Port wines has had 300 years of commercial success, but still wines (those non-fortified table wines) have always been made in the Douro Valley for local consumption. These days, there are all styles of wines coming out of the Douro Valley: still, sparkling, fortified of various categories, and aguardente vinica (brandy). And the quality is top-notch. From small family-run wineries, independent projects by a new wave of young winemakers, to large enterprises, the Douro Valley is an exciting place for wine lovers. Consider it your crash-course on wines.
What to Drink in the Douro
There is more than just Port wine to be found in the Douro Valley. Of course, visiting the Douro without trying Port wines is just a shame. This is the only place in all the world where real Port wine can be made and what better than to have a chilled glass of a 20 year old tawny or one of those spectacular Vintage Ports than overlooking the beautiful vineyards whence they come from? I rest my case.
Nevertheless, venturing out is highly recommended. Here are some other delicious wines to entice your palate:
Aged White Ports – White ports are hard to come by since they are not widely produced, and they are completely underrated. Most of the time it’s all about the Rubies and the Tawnies (which are also very good, by the way!). But an aged white Port, anything over 10 years old, is heaven in a glass. Made from a blend of white grapes, its beautiful golden color matches nutty, honey and orange marmalade aromas that just pop out of the glass and the best wines leave a smooth, long finish. Gorgeous!
Moscatel do Douro/Moscatel de Favaios – Also a fortified wine, it is made using only the white Moscatel Galego grape. Like Port wines, these are wines that can age very well and can be found as blends from various vintages or single harvest (Colheita). The sweet and charming village of Favaios is the capital of Moscatel do Douro. The trip alone to this part of the Douro is fabulous. Rolling hills, vineyards, forests and small towns make it so special. It’s definitely worth visiting it or checking out the Favaios Bread and Wine Museum for a taste while enjoying the beautiful landscape.
Douro Sparkling – Douro might seem like the last place to make sparkling wines, but they do! Under the Espumantes Douro DOC appellation there are some pretty good sparkling wines to be found in this hot and arid region. That’s because not all parts of the Douro are that hot. At higher altitude in the Alto Douro (Upper Douro), cooler breezes allow grapes to maintain higher acidity, which is necessary for sparkling wines. By using the native grapes the sparkling wines from the Douro are quite unique.
If you’re coming to Douro, forget the diet and loosen your belt because the Dourense gastronomy is hearty and simply delicious. The Douro cuisine is less about appearance and much more about taste. Using local ingredients, fresh produce, and just about every part of the animal, these Portuguese dishes are home cooking at its finest. Rustic, real and full of flavor.
Snacks and Nibbles
- Olive oil – the precious liquid gold is produced in the Douro. Thick, dark and intense flavors, it’s found on every table and forms part of the Dourense diet. Lavishly poured on all dishes, it is also used to make bread, as well as desserts. In restaurants, they commonly put one or two tastings of olive oil with local bread. A real treat, it’s not always free (part of the couvert cost) but it’s worth every cent.
- Covilhetes – a small puff pastry stuffed with minced meat, typically found around Vila Real.
- Bola de Lamego – a traditional bread made around the city of Lamego, it’s more like a ready-made sandwich since there are various fillings: chouriço, presunto (ham), bacalhau, sardines, and vinha d’alhos (pork or rabbit in a wine and garlic reduction). There are also some variations of bolas in small towns in the Douro that are just amazing.
- Enchidos – smoked meats, hams, chouriço, and an abundance of other types of cured meats are made in the Douro and in Tras-os-Montes region just to the north. Enchidos can be served on charcuterie boards or mixed in various dishes and stews.
- Alheira – a smoked sausage made from poultry, game and a variety of other meat, bread, olive oil, garlic and spices. Sautéed or grilled, Alheira is the perfect balance between a crispy outer layer and dissolving meat inside that is absolutely mouthwatering. Can be served as a starter or as an entrée.
- Moira – similar to morcilla (the Spanish blood sausage), but not quite the same thing, this sausage is made from pork and/or a variety of different meats and seasoned with red wine, garlic, onion, blood and laurel leaf. Rustic but delicious.
- Cabrito Assado no Forno – Baby goat from the Marão and Alvão mountains, wood-fire roasted and served with rice and potatoes. The meat is tender and slightly crispy on the outside, melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness. Although this regional dish is found all over Douro, Armamar has some damn good cabrito.
- Tripas aos Molhos – Perhaps not the sexiest dish to look, let alone to think about, “tripes with sauce” is a traditional dish from Vila Real. Stuffed tripes with presunto and parsley, and lots of gravy to soak up with your rice.
- Bochechas de Porco Bísaro– Pork cheeks, from chestnut-fed pigs, marinated in a beautiful red wine and olive oil reduction, slightly sweet, served with baked potatoes.
- Posta a Mirandesa – the finest pedigree rare breed beef, with DOP designation, from the northern region of Tras-os-Montes, this tender cut is grilled, lightly marinated, and served with roasted potatoes, sauteed grelos or pimentos padrão.
- Arroz de Cabidela – a rice similar to risotto, with chicken or rabbit that is cooked in its own blood with a splash of vinegar. Very intense flavors and simply delicious!
- Rancho – a hearty soup that is typically eaten during harvest, it is made with cabbage, chickpeas, pasta (macaroni type pasta), potatoes, carrots, all kinds of meat and enchidos.
If you’re looking for dishes other than meat, there is plenty of fish coming from the Douro River and its tributaries. Grilled trout is a great choice as is grilled octopus, the classic Bacalhau in its many preparations, and roasted sardines are readily available.
Sweets, Pastries and Desserts
A regional not typically known for its pastries or desserts compared to other Portuguese regions, there are some real treats to look out for:
- Cavacas de Resende– a dense egg-based sponge cake with a sugar coating
- Biscoito da Teixeira – wood-oven baked lemon and cinnamon cake
- Leite Creme – a lemony Portuguese take on creme brulee
- Rebuçados da Regua – small candies made from water, sugar, honey and Port wine. Individually wrapped in white paper like a small gift, very cute!
- Pitos de Santa Luzia – a square pastry stuffed with pumpkin jam, a hint of cinnamon, and the ends folded in like an envelope. Served warm and with vanilla ice cream is pure delight. Traditionally, this pastry was made as a gift between single women to their soon-to-be, the name also has some *ahem* sexual connotations.
Restaurants in the Douro
Choosing where to eat in the Douro is no easy task. Most restaurants offer tasty meals, but finding the very best examples of regional dishes is much more difficult. The bigger cities, such as Peso da Regua (locally known just as Regua), Lamego and Vila Real, are good starting points because they offer a range of dining options that are frequented by locals and tourists alike. Pinhão, the small town on the Douro River with incredible views sees a lot of foot traffic, but unfortunately has very little selection of good restaurants – many cater to very hungry tourists, with dishes that lack a bit of love and are slightly overpriced. There are a few fine-dining restaurants in the region that offer sophisticated twists on regional dishes and carry a diversity of wines, such as the Vintage House Restaurant, Vindouro, Castas e Pratos, Six Senses Restaurant. If Michelin stars are your thing, then be sure to check out DOC for their ‘gastronomic experiences’ by the talented chef, Rui Paula, on the banks of Douro River in Folgosa.
A handful of wineries also have restaurants at their quintas (wine estates), and do wine pairings with each course so it’s a great way to taste their wines. Quinta Nova, Quinta da Pacheca, Quinta da Avessada, and Quinta de la Rosa all have restaurants, but many other wineries offer lunches and picnics that can be arranged with advanced booking.
Finally, if you’re looking for something a bit more traditional, those diamonds in the rough, you’ll need to do some driving to get to those secret spots that locals flock to. Here are some recommendations to get you started: Chaxoila (Vila Real), Tasquinha do Matias (Ucanha), Cêpa Torta (Alijó), O Maleiro (Regua), Toca da Raposa (São João da Pesquiera) but there are many more. Finding those diamonds in the rough is about searching out places that, perhaps from the outside aren’t much to look at it, but they are usually packed with locals and the food is amazing. Another cool thing about dining in the Douro is that at many of the local gems, you may find yourself seated next to winemakers from the nearby wineries. They’re easy to spot because they usually bring many, many bottles of wines with them to the restaurant.
- When to Eat: Lunch is normally served between 12:30 and 3:00pm, but on weekdays, restaurants may close shop closer to 2:00pm. Dinner is served between 8:00 and 10:30pm.
- Nothing Is For Free – Appetizers typically brought out at the beginning of a meal are not free! Even if you didn’t ask for them, if you eat them, you pay. However, the cost is minimal unless you get some kind of seafood (shrimp, octopus salad etc). If you don’t feel like partaking, simply request the waiter take them back at the beginning of the meal.
- Ordering Wine – despite the Douro being a wine-producing region, ordering wine by the glass is either “Tinto ou Branco” (red or white). The house wines aren’t bad but they also aren’t particularly good. For better options, you’ll need to order wine by the bottle. The upside is that you can also take your bottle home with you if you weren’t able to finish it. Or you can BYOB – check with the restaurant first, of course. Normally, there are no corkage fees so it’s great if you’ve bought a wine at a winery.
- Dress Code: Dining out is often a casual affair, even in fine-dining restaurants. Regardless, it’s best to be respectful even in the hot summer months.
Festivals in the Douro
There are various festivals happening year round in the many villages of the Douro. Harvest time of the many crops always brings celebration: olives, cherry, almonds, and of course, grape harvest. Each town puts on some sort of festival to celebrate harvest. However, here are some to look out for:
- Cherry Festival – Happening in the town of Resende in May, cherry lovers can pick cherries and join in on the festivities.
- Grape Harvest Festival – The first days of September in Barcos, the town celebrates the grape harvest with exhibitions, crafts, small markets selling local products and the lagarada (stomping of the grapes).
- Vindouro Pombaline Festival – On the first weekend of September, São João da Pesqueira also celebrates grape harvest. Regional food and wine tastings, concerts, reenactments, parades and lagarada are some of the activities going on.
- Lazarim Carnival in Lamego – in the small town of Lazarim, this a unique experience since it is both pagan and religious. Local artisans make wooden masks and locals dress up in costumes that are usually of the devil. Parades, marching bands and different rituals make for an extraordinary festival. Happens in February.
- Patron Saints of local towns – August is a busy time of year for the small, sleepy towns of the Douro Valley. Immigrants from France, Belgium, and Switzerland return to see their families and celebrate the patron saints of their village. You can expect lots of traffic (in very tiny towns), pilgrimages, religious processions, fireworks, marching bands, dancing and lots of eating and drinking!
- Douro Superior Wine Festival – For wine lovers, Vila Nova de Foz Côa hosts this wine festival at the end of May. Producers from the Douro Superior sub-region offer tastings, workshops, masterclasses, and you can also find stalls with local edibles.
- Douro Half Marathon in Regua – known as the Most Beautiful Run in the World, the Douro Half Marathon happens at the end of May and it’s a perfect opportunity for the sportsman/woman inside of you to run 5k, 10k, or 21kms. The run is along the Douro River with beautiful vineyards views.
- Douro Rock – a newer addition to the many festivals, the Douro Rock happens the first week of August when Portuguese bands, as well as some international bands rock out on the banks of the Douro River in Regua.
Sightseeing in the Douro
Douro is a feast for the eyes, not just the palate. Even though the views from any point in the Douro are beautiful to look at, there are many lookouts that will simply blow you away. The lookout at Sao Leonardo de Galafura is really quite impressive. There is also a restaurant at the lookout, where you can grab a superbock (beer) and watch the sun go down or if you’re lucky, you might even see some javali (wild boar) running about. Another beautiful lookout point is at São Salvador do Mundo, near São João da Pesqueira, a little village that is considered the heart of the Douro wine region. Alto das Vargelas, in the Upper Douro, has some amazing views with a different landscape – drier and rocky mountain surfaces along with vineyards close to the river. Casal de Loivos is also the perfect option when in Pinhão. Not only impressive views, you can also see the vineyards of some of the famous Port houses. Look for signs indicating “miradouro” and it will lead you to somewhere amazing.
Douro has many beautiful villages and towns with some unique architecture. Houses in the Douro were once completely made of the primary material found here: rock. These rock houses, with their granite walls and schist roofs, can be found all over but some of the best examples are in the charming villages of Provesende and São João da Pesqueira. Churches, chapels and sanctuaries are also a common sight but both Vila Real and Lamego have beautiful historic centers and cathedrals. Lamego even has a castle! The Sanctuary of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, with its long stairway – 686 steps! – is beautiful and a great way to burn off the calories after eating the bolas de Lamego. Another beautiful town to visit is Ucanha. The medieval tower and bridge feels right out of a fairytale and is a perfect place for a romantic picnic.
Visiting Douro takes time and there is really tons to see and do. Here are few suggestions to help you plan your visit:
- Take the train for part of the journey – it’s a beautiful way to see the Douro, usually running along the river’s edge, and you can also stop at different train stations to admire the azulejos. The train stations are far from modern and feel like you stepped back in time. If you really do want to step back in time, you can also take the Comboio Historico, the steam-engine train, which only runs on the weekends during the summer months. If you want to sup that up, there is also the Presidential, the restored train that was once used to transport the crème de la crème of Portuguese society. It is a luxurious train ride through Douro, with a gastronomic focus.
- Boat ride to Spain! – there are many options from Porto and Regua, but perhaps the most exciting one is from Pinhão upstream to the Spanish border to see how the landscape changes.
- Try some of the PR hiking trails – many of trails are those once used (and still used) by shepherds and farmers. Beyond the beautiful vineyard views, they take you through tiny towns where you can see the velhinhos )old folk= tending to their crops or animals and makes for quite an intimate experience.
- Olive oil tasting – Not just the one found on your restaurant table, the Olive Oil Museum in Casal de Loivos offers excellent tastings with incredible views of the valley.
- Visit the natural parks – Douro International Natural Park and the Alvao Natural Parks are beautiful, forests, mountains and even small waterfalls, they are hardy known by outsiders.
- Make bread – Favaios is known as the Douro bread basket, and many of the lovely ladies of the village offer lessons or you can watch them make bread the traditional way. Keep in mind, they don’t always speak English.
- Visit wineries – The Douro has an abundance of options for wine tourism. Many wineries offer tours, tastings, and other wine experiences. September is usually the beginning of grape harvesting and the adegas (wineries) are buzzing with excitement, grapes are coming in, locals are stomping in lagares and music and laughter fills the air. It’s the perfect time to visit and participate in some harvest experiences
Hotels are mainly offered around the main cities of the Douro: Regua, Pinhão, Lamego and Vila Real but there are also some B&Bs (Alojamento Local) found in other towns.
- The Wine House Hotel – Quinta da Pacheca is a winery that producers Port and Douro wine, and has a restaurant and hotel on their beautiful property. Accommodation is available in the 15 bedroom traditional house, which is a restored 18th century manor house. They have also recently converted large oak vats into private suites.
- Six Senses Douro Valley – nestled among the Douro vineyards and valley, within a stone’s throw of Regua and Lamego, Six Senses is 5 star hotel with restaurant, spa, wine bar and cellar, lounge and beautiful views all around.
- Morgadio da Calçada – Located in Provesende, Morgadio da Calçada offers an 8 bedroom accommodation in a beautifully restored 17th Century manor house. The intimate setting is ideal for couple who want a romantic getaway. Wine tastings, horse riding and other activities are available.
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