Portugal: a contrast of old, new and undiscovered

I had been drawn to Portugal by word of how splendid the area around the Douro is. It is from the banks of the Douro that the sublime city of Oporto rises. It is along the Douro that a disproportionate share of Portugal’s most respected wine producers fuss over their grapes.
And it was my hope that by tracing the river from Oporto toward Spain, I might construct my favourite kind of vacation, one that mingles, within a few days and a few hours of driving,some time in an old, architecturally distinguished city with even more time in gorgeous countryside, all punctuated by big, slow, boozy meals. That’s my Italy, my France, my Spain. I wanted to make it my Portugal, too.
In fact Portugal has advantages over its more celebrated neighbours. It is appreciably less expensive, especially now, given its economic woes, which sometimes earn it mention in the same paragraph, or even sentence, as Greece. Those troubles make its outreach to tourists more ardent than ever, an effort manifest in new hotels and a fancier class of restaurants throughout the area around the Douro, where a growing tourism infrastructure has been spurred by closer international attention to Douro wines and wine makers.
I first connected with the Douro in Oporto. If you’ve never been to this city and haven’t read up on it, you know it mainly as the tipsy mother lode of its namesake product, port, exported to any and every country with an appreciation of fortified wine. You’re reminded of this by the gigantic signs in Vila Nova de Gaia, on the opposite side of the Douro from Oporto, that advertise some of the most prolific local producers.
But you can be indifferent to port and still thrill to Oporto, with its high bridges, its tall hills and the succinct labyrinth of narrow, cobbled streets in its scruffy old heart, snug against the river.
It’s a city of bold, sudden architectural contrasts, in which two or three blocks collapse two or three centuries. On my first afternoon there, near the summit of the city, I traced the edges of Praca da Liberdade, marvelling over the way its beaux-arts flourishes recall Paris at its prettiest. Thirty minutes later and less than a half mile down the sharply graded descent toward the river, I was staring at the rococo facade of the Igreja da Misericordia, which dates to the 16th century. It put me in mind of Rome.
The church is on Rua das Flores, perhaps my favourite street in Oporto: slender, shaded, intimate, many of its low-slung buildings fronted with wrought iron or covered with painted tiles, which were probably garish at the start but have faded to a subtle, exquisite beauty. The Portuguese make lavish use of such tiles. The Sao Bento train station in Oporto has, in its main hall, enormous blue-and-white-tile murals of historic scenes. That station is near one end of Rua das Flores; near the other, on a corner just beyond the Igreja da Misericordia, is a particularly beautiful house with a graceful medley of blue and ochre shades that mesmerized me.
You know that sensation you get – that traveller’s high – when the spot in which you’re standing feels so right that you have to will yourself to budge? In front of that blue and ochre house, on an early April day kissed by sun and a subtle breeze both, I felt that splendid lethargy, and knew there was only one way to complement it. I needed wine. It was past 3 p.m., after all.
My hotel was a good place for a drink, because my hotel was magnificent. Called the Freixo Palace, it’s a renovated 18th-century estate, about a mile and a half from the centre of town, that belongs to a network of Portuguese pousadas, which are old monasteries, manor houses and the like that have been re purposed for travellers.
Portugal’s wine makers grow and use many grape varietals not well-known elsewhere. That alone makes the drinking fun. And drinking was on our minds as Tom and I headed east, toward the Douro wine making region, and Quinta do Vallado, a prominent vineyard there. From Oporto to the city of Vila Real we took the highway, but from there to the city of Peso da Regua we deliberately took a slow, serpentine route, N2, instead. It gave us much better views of all the grapevines, planted on mountainsides sculptured long ago into what look like gargantuan, crop-friendly steps.
We digressed for lunch in Lamego, mainly to see its famous Baroque staircase, which wraps around fountains and patches of garden as it climbs high, high up a hill. A third of the way to the top, we quit, this being a vacation and not “The Biggest Loser.” Then it was on to Quinta do Vallado, where we met its owner, Joao Ferreira Alvares Ribeiro, one of a small posse of ambitious local vintners who have been christened the “Douro boys.”
Ferreira is trying to point his wine making peers toward the kind of savvier hospitality that might make the Douro River valley competitive with, say, Tuscany or Piedmont. About five years ago he created five spacious, handsome guest rooms in an old stone building among his fields, presaging similar development at a few vineyards nearby. In addition to those lodgings, two extraordinarily elegant resorts – Aquapura, where rooms go for more than 238 euros a night, and the Romaneira, where they cost at least 794 euros – are located within a few dozen miles. Ferreira charges only about 100 euros, in the high season, from April through October, for the littlest of his, which aren’t so little. (Take note: From late June to early September, the weather here can be scorchingly hot.)
The next morning, Ferreira drove us to the peak of his property, where the vineyard’s overnight guests can eat lunch at one of several bulky, oddly shaped stone tables with lumpy, rough-hewn stone benches: picnic-henge. We could see dozens of miles in every direction. In terms of topography and sunshine, Tuscany has nothing on the Douro River valley.
Many of my favourite moments were just taking in the scenery, which you can do by foot (if you’re inclined to hike), boat (if the river’s water level isn’t too high), car (if hairpin curves don’t daunt you) or train (if you can bear a glacier’s pace). We went glacial one afternoon, riding the train from Peso da Regua to the end of the line, in Pocinho. The tracks never stray more than about 30 meters from the river. Along some stretches, rocky cliffs rise up right beside you and you get the sense that you’re creeping through a deep canyon. The river itself is narrow, wide, greenish, greyish, roiling, calm and never, in any two places, exactly the same. The four-hour round trip went down easy.
But for sheer spectacle, we did even better by car. A drive between the sleepy towns of Pinhao and Alijo was stunning and mildly terrifying, with steep drops from the side of the road.
But the even more breathtaking drive came the next day, with Celso Pereira, another vintner in this enchanted region of northern Portugal. Pereira, invited us to visit his warehouse on the outskirts of Alijo.
He gave us tastes of his Vertice line of sparkling wines, all nice. We tried his Terra a Terra and Quanta Terra whites and reds, also good. Then he eagerly shepherded us into his truck. What he would show us, he said, we’d never see on our own.
He was right. In no guidebooks did I see instructions on this particular route, and on no maps can I find what I’d need to give exact, unerring guidance about it. But if you head from Alijo in the direction of Favaios, then follow the first signs to Castedo, then turn left at the fountain in the centre of that village onto a narrow, bumpy road sloping sharply down toward Tua, you should have luck. Or you can always double back, try again and have luck the second or third time. It’s a small area. You can’t go too wrong for too long.
And when you go right: Wow soaring, tumbling, majestic land all  around us.

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