Unconstrained on the banks of the Douro, Penny Haw tries to buy a hotel.
THE only person I know who is more spontaneous about travel than I am is my husband. Adventurers, we may be. Planners, we are not. Our itineraries rarely extend beyond initial destination and dates of departure and return. Conversations with others about forthcoming holidays go as follows:
“Portugal? Lovely. What are you going to do there?” they ask.
“We’ll meet in Porto and decide,” we reply.
So it was we met at The Yeatman Hotel in Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank of the Douro River. (Porto, on the north bank, is Portugal’s second largest city after Lisbon.) Situated high on the embankment, The Yeatman is a swish establishment with views across the river and city so splendidly expansive, they inspired the architect involved to include windows behind windows in the suites. This means you can admire the scenery not only from bed and balcony, but also while you execute ablutions in the bathroom.
We gazed across red-tiled rooftops and the denim-blue river at length and agreed to stay a day or two longer than not planned. A few days later, though we’d moved to another hotel (The Yeatman being fully-booked and also rather pricey for an extended stay), we were still in Porto and in no hurry to leave.
We wandered the narrow, cobbled streets of Gaia, which is where port, transported from the vineyards up river in barcos rabelos (flat boats), has been stored in caves and cellars since the 13th century. With almost every second building on the riverfront offering port tastings these days, our wanderings were slow; slower still when tastings were accompanied by fado (Portuguese folk music) and platters of almonds roasted in olive oil, dried fruit, cheese and olives.
Out on the sunlit street, a young man wearing a skipper’s cap and a striped sailor’s shirt approached politely and offered – in that inimitable “take it or leave it, I won’t push you” Portuguese manner – to show us the six bridges that link Porto to Gaia in his rabelo-styled wooden boat.
“Why not?” we mused. “We have nothing else planned.”
Halfway into the cruise on the deep, lazy river, the captain took the free hand of his sidekick, a young tour guide with a microphone in the other, and placed it on the steering wheel. The skipper walked to the bow, lifted a trap door and, using a plastic bucket, began bailing water from below.
Unperturbed, the guide continued her oration about the bridges. We glanced at the banks of the river gliding by, decided they were within swimming distance and continued listening to her tale. The Maria Pia bridge was the first major work of Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame, while the D Luís I was created by his student Theóphile Seyrig. Designed by Portuguese engineer Edgar Cardoso, the Arrábida bridge spans 270 metres and was, for a while, the world’s longest arch bridge made from reinforced concrete. The São João, also by Cardoso, is named for Porto’s patron saint whose virtues are celebrated in June with two days of dancing, feasting on roasted sardines and, apparently to express affection, hitting one another on the head with toy hammers. Furthest upstream, the Freixo bridge was designed by Professor António Reis and, finally, the youngest bridge, opened in 2002, is named for Infante D Henrique (Prince Henry the Navigator).
Back on shore with only slightly wet feet, we took a bus to the seaside port of Matosinhos, ate bacalhau (cod), sardines and octopus braaied in the street, drank vinho verde and walked about eight kilometres along the beach and river back to the city. We climbed the stairs of the Lello & Irmão Bookstore, which, built in 1906, is said to be where J K Rowling first imagined Harry Potter when she lived and worked in Porto (as an English teacher) in the early 90s. We moseyed around Porto Cathedral and ate Francesinha (not my favourite) at Liberdade Square.
“How about renting a car and driving into the Douro Valley to see the vineyards?” asked my husband on day four.
Good idea, I said. But it was Saturday and there were no rental cars to be had in Porto. Instead, we walked the length of Via Catarina (the main shopping area), drank coffee and ate pastéis de nata at Majestic Café in all its Art Nouveau glory, strolled through several markets, and toured Porto’s historic commercial centre, Palais de la Bourse with its magnificently decorative (some might argue, over-the-top) Arabian room.
Two days later, we hopped into a little silver Peugeot.
“Where are you going?” asked the rental agent as he waved us goodbye.
“That way,” said my husband, pointing upriver.
We headed east with the Douro almost always in sight to our right. For a while, the narrow road wound its way past riverside factories, industriously breathing plumes of smoke into the sky. A short time later, the route became enclosed by dark forest. Then the sky reappeared and the wine lands rolled out before us.
It doesn’t matter how many pictures you’ve seen of them, the vineyards of the Douro Valley – where every square metre of land has been painstakingly shaped, neatly terraced and walled with grey shale, and planted by hand since the 3rd century – will amaze you. Even the steepest slopes and smallest parcels of land have been carved into vinously-compliant steps on both sides of the wide, ever languid-looking river. While some vineyards spread far along hillsides – contained only by the waterway, roads, walls, gorges and hamlets – others are as tiny as the backyards in which they grow. Everyone in the region, it seems, owns a vineyard or at least a vine.
We stopped for the night at Vila do Pinhão, which has what is surely the most beautiful train station in the world with classic blue and white Portuguese tiles depicting life in the region on every wall. So content were we with our accommodation within walking distance of the village at Quinta de la Rosa, we stayed a few days longer.
One morning we hopped on another rabelo (watertight this time) and cruised through the vines and olive groves to Tua and back. We visited the vineyards and cellars of Quinta do Panascal, which offers a genius self-managed audio-tour that allows you to wander through the vines and ‘lagares’ (granite tanks) on your own before tasting the farm’s Fonseca ports.
A few nights later, we booked into the family-run Hotel Rural Flor do Monte in the nearby village of Pombai. At nine o’clock the next morning, after sales pitches in broken English (from daughter and son) and one in Portuguese (we knew the script by then) from mother, I began trying to raise enough money among my Facebook friends to purchase the hotel. Times are tough in Portugal and, vineyards and olive groves included, it was, I thought, a great offer. Regrettably, my friends (and husband, it might be noted) had too many questions and too little money to make it happen.
“Ah,” wrote one friend below my Facebook crowd-sourcing bid. “So you went to Portugal and decided to buy a hotel in the Douro Valley. Does that mean, for once, you have a plan?”
(First published in the Life section of Business Day.)