How and when to explore the Douro valley
Having recently got better acquainted with port wine in Porto, it seems only fitting to take a look at the region this lovely liquid originates from. The Douro valley has more than just the perfect climate and soil for cultivating grapes. The undulating curves of its hillsides create a beautiful and dramatic landscape which changes with the seasons.
The endless rows of terraced grape vines are nothing more than dark gnarly stumps during the winter but come April and the leaves gradually transform the hills until they are covered with green stripes. By harvest time in September, a warm metallic colour scheme takes over with golds, coppers and bronze tones decorating the slopes. If you want hands on experience of the harvest, this is the time to come. You can pick grapes and even crush them by foot in some vineyards.
The vineyards might not look all that impressive in February and March but the clouds of pink and white almond blossom do. This is a great time of year to visit the Upper Douro and the area around Foz Côa, which gets far too hot in summer to do it justice. If you’re interested in walking or cycling in the Douro, spring or autumn are the best times to come both in terms of colourful scenery and comfortable temperatures.
How to get around the Douro valley
There are three main ways of exploring the Douro valley: by road, rail or river. If you have several hundred euros to spare you can also rent a helicopter but I’ll focus on the cheaper options here, including walking and cycling.
On the Douro
Although I still haven’t been on a Douro cruise beyond Porto, I fully intend to at some point. Boat trips can last from an hour to two or more days with or without meals and vineyard visits. Sailing and canoeing enthusiasts can arrange to get even closer to the water if you want. Many of the tours from Porto combine rail and river so you go one way by boat and return by train. Or vice versa.
Along the Douro
If you do go by train, you can begin your journey at São Bento station in Porto or any of the riverside stations as far as Pocinho. If you get on before Ferradosa, try to get a window seat on the right hand side of the train for the best views of the river, the hills and the wine estates through the rather grubby glass. Once the train crosses the river, you should switch to the left side of the carriage.
In the summer, there’s a special steam train service which runs between Régua and Tua on Saturdays with entertainment and light refreshments plus a little free time at Pinhão so you can stretch your legs and admire the beautiful azulejos that cover the station walls and maybe grab a drink at the riverside café.
One advantage that the train has over driving is that the train tracks pretty much hug the riverbanks. So close, in fact, that you can see people fishing. In places, the water is so calm you can see a mirror image of the striped curves of the hills. The scenery changes the further along the Douro you get and after a while, the quinta (wine estate) signs become further apart and the landscape more barren but still impressive.
Driving around the Douro valley
If you choose to explore the Douro by car, especially if you head up into the hills, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of the valley from above. Unless, of course, you’re the one behind the wheel, in which case you’ll need to keep your eyes firmly on the windy narrow road. Don’t let that put you off as you can always park up and admire the scenery from one of several viewpoints (miradouros) such as the Miradouro de Assumadouro or Miradouro de São Leonardo da Galafura.
If you have a car, you’ll also be able to pop into wine estates for tours and tastings, although you’ll need to be very careful not to actually drink much if you’re the driver. There are several themed routes, such as an olive oil route and a Cisterian route you can follow or mix and match the highlights to suit yourselves.
The three port wine routes explore the vineyards, viewpoints and monuments in the different wine regions of the Douro valley, namely Baixa Corgo (below the Corgo river), Cima Corgo (above the Corgo) and Douro Superior (Upper Douro). I’ll be covering the wine villages route in more detail in a future post so watch this space.
Walking in the Douro
There are plenty of walking trails within the Douro valley, some planned and marked out by the local councils, others provided by the wine estates themselves. There are also several tour companies offering self-guided or guided walks in the area. Do bear in mind the weather conditions if you’re thinking of walking in the Douro valley or the Alvão and International Douro national parks. In summer, it really isn’t advisable or pleasant because of the extreme temperatures and lack of shade and winter can be quite grim.
Cycling in the Douro
If you’re staying at one of the quintas (wine estates) in the area, they may have bikes for rent and be able to suggest suitable routes for you, or include a bike tour as part of their package. Otherwise, you can easily find a tour company which caters to cyclists with or without their own bikes.
Practicalities and more information
I can only find a Portuguese version of the Douro Tourism Guide online but it contains useful maps of the region and the various routes and viewpoints (p. 34-65). It’s also got the dates of local saint’s days and festivals (p.24-25) and listings for shops, restaurants, hotels and tour companies.
This website has lots of information about the Douro Valley in English.
The Turismo do Douro website is only in Portuguese but this page has links to all the websites you’re likely to need for tours, car rentals, river cruises and tourist information offices. Having said that, their link to Cenários, one of the major providers of Douro river cruises and tours is broken – this is the correct link.