The bright lights of Porto often overshadow Douro
Also, I’m sure, because they just didn’t have to. For centuries port shippers have packed off their famous fortified wines to age down river near the coast, where they slumber in oak casks at the huge port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia.Gaia is just across the river from Porto, and is geared up for guests, offering plenty of touring and tasting opportunities near the modern international airport, without the rigours of a journey 100km inland to the hot and arid, if spectacular, Douro Valley.
Those that did make the trip often travelled in a creaky old train from Porto’s Sao Bento station to the village of Pinhao, which sits by the river at the heart of the vineyards – a memorable trip with stunning scenery, but slow and rickety, and stifling in summer.
The roads felt arduous, too, up and over the Marao mountain range. And, as one port shipper put it, the drive “could be really hairy” in bad weather. A day or two in the Douro, travelling by car or train, clearly didn’t have much appeal.
That all changed earlier this year with the opening of a six-kilometre tunnel through the Serra do Marao range along a new stretch of the A4 motorway between Amarante and Vila Real. The driving time from Porto to Pinhao has now been cut by about 20 minutes and it is a much smoother journey, too. At the same time, two new visitor centres have opened up in the port heartland of the Upper Douro.
Earlier in the summer I spent an afternoon at Quinta da Roeda, less than a mile from Pinhao. “Quinta” means country estate, and the old barns and stables of the grape farm here have been converted by the Fladgate Partnership port group into a visitor centre with a terrace overlooking the Benedita vineyard, dotted round the edges with century-old olive trees.
Fladgate presides over the Taylor’s, Croft, Fonseca and Krohn ports; you can taste the Croft range at the centre, then head off around the vineyard for a guided tour, and even put your best foot forward and tread the grapes here during harvest-time (though it’s best to book that in advance). The other Fladgate ports can be tasted at the Quinta do Panascal estate, also open to the public, near Pinhao.
The Fladgate Partnership, in particular its chief executive Adrian Bridge, has been key to the development of port tourism in Porto, Gaia and in the Upper Douro. It has also just reopened the Vintage House Hotel on the riverfront in Pinhao, right across the tracks from the pretty little train station.
The hotel, first created from old port warehouses in 1998, has had several incarnations over the years, but this is its smartest, with pale blue and yellow rooms that fill with light from the wide glinting river below, and serene green riverside gardens.
The wine list at the Vintage House restaurant showcases fine labels from all over Portugal. I chose sautéed salt cold with eggs, olives, roast peppers and salsa verde, washed down with a cool glass of Quinta da Romaneira, a crisp local white wine (no, they are not all red and fortified in port country).
The Fladgate Partnership is not the only port company developing tourism here. The Symington Family Estate (which makes Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s, and Cockburn ports among others), last year threw open the doors of Quinta do Bomfim, less than five minutes’ walk from Pinhao.
This visitor centre is notable for its museum containing old winemaking and vineyard equipment with 19th and early 20th-century photographs of the Douro. You can take a vineyard tour here, too, enjoy a tasting and, during vintage, watch the various stages of winemaking. They even provide picnics, complete with wine.
The two visitor centres could be seen as rivals (as might the two port houses that own them), but with several decent hotels now open, there is no reason not to stay in Pinhao and see both. And once there, the most appealing way to travel up and down the Douro, seeing the various quintas, is by traditional rabelo boat.
Flat, wide, wooden barcos rabelos were used for centuries to transport port barrels down river to their resting places in the lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia. Today the old cargo boats still float outside the port lodges of Gaia by the city, and are spruced up for the annual rabelos port shippers’ race on June 24, St John’s Day.
Back in the Douro Valley, you can jump into one outside the Vintage House and be taken for a more peaceful hour afloat.
Once back in Porto, with a night to spare before the flight home, I stayed at the five-star Yeatman hotel in Gaia, with its astonishing views, a swoop of city scenery that takes in a steely-grey expanse of river, stunning high bridges across to Porto and a mosaic of ancient buildings in white, orange and tan across the river.
Surprisingly, until the hotel was built in 2010, this site was unused. The Yeatman is now a seriously swish hotel. It has a fabulous spa, so vast I got lost in it, what with all the Roman baths, tepidarium, hammam, saunas, and Caudalie Vinotherapie treatment rooms (which use grape products in their body wraps, exfoliants and creams).
The hotel’s wine cellar, presided over by the youthful and dynamic Beatriz Machado, can deliver 83 wines by the glass and 1,300 by the bottle to the restaurant which is also known for inventive port cocktails and delectable seafood.
The Yeatman is also owned by the unstoppable and acquisitive Fladgate Partnership, which this summer opened a new large-scale Taylor’s port visitor centre next door to the hotel, and has also recently bought the hotel Infante Sagres in the heart of Porto.
Apart from the port trade, there are enticing food shops, busy bars, baroque cafés and seafood restaurants in the city, which is fast becoming a popular place for a short break.
It may be tempting to stay in town for the whole of your trip. But I recommend that you take to the new fast road, drive through that tunnel, or go by train, pitching up for a day or two in port vineyards. The Douro can now be done at more of a dash – and it isn’t going to be quite so mysterious in the future.