Porto and the Douro Valley
After our long week cycling in Alentejo, our taxi came to the farmhouse to take us to the train for the next leg of our trip, up to Porto, Portugal’s second city and the home of Port wine.
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We changed trains in Lisbon then boarded the fast train to Porto. We found Portugal’s train system efficient and easy to use, and we were able to book all our tickets and find schedules using their mobile app. There are a lot of stations in Lisbon, so the only challenge at times was to make sure we were booking our trip to/through the right one.
We arrived in Porto in the early afternoon, at the historic São Bento train station in the middle of town. The station opened in 1916 and is decorated with beautiful painted panels of azulejo tile, making it a tourist attraction in itself. Even though there was some construction going on in the building, tourists were coming inside to take pictures.
Emerging from the station, we hit some of the biggest crowds we had seen so far on our trip. The downtown area was packed with tourists. Porto is an easy getaway from the rest of Europe and we were there on the weekend, with perfect warm weather. Our B&B was down the street from the station and tucked away in a quiet little courtyard off the busy street.
In Patio Guest House
A friend recommended the In Patio Guest House and we were so happy they had rooms available. It’s in an original Porto historic building but remodeled completely to the highest standard. Olga and Fernando were the most amazing, gracious hosts. Every morning we had a freshly prepared breakfast with local delicacies, and for my birthday they presented me with a chocolate cake then stored it in our room’s refrigerator for us while we were out for the day.
After we checked in we ventured out and decided to walk to our restaurant for our dinner reservation. We took our time strolling along the Douro river waterfront, well past the throng of tourists and the packed conference for electric cars that was just starting at the local convention center.
Once we got out of the main town, it was really pleasant along the waterfront, with mostly locals going about their day. We stopped for a beer and a snack at a little cafe and we saw a spectacular sunset on the river, looking out to where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean at the Arrábida Bridge.
It took us a while to find our restaurant, ONZE, tucked away up on a hillside just off the main road. It was a very elegant and modern place, much different than the restaurants we’d tried in Portugal thus far. Plenty of hip and well-dressed people of all ages kept streaming in to eat and sit at the bar long after we were seated. The food was definitely a different, more modern take on Portuguese flavors and a nice change of pace after all the rustic, hearty food of Alentejo.
Vila Nova de Gaia and the Port Houses
The next day we planned to visit one of the area’s best known attractions, the historic Port houses. I hadn’t planned well for this and when I spent some time online looking for places to taste, I was surprised to see most of the name brands fully-booked. But we decided to venture out anyway and explore the town.
The Port houses are in Vila Nova de Gaia, which is just across the river from Porto’s waterfront. To get there, we took a short walk over the historic Dom Luís I Bridge, a late 19th century double decker bridge that carries both cars and pedestrians. It was under construction the day we visited but still fun to walk over and see the view.
The shoreline across the Douro was probably the most touristy area we visited during our entire trip. There were market stands selling all sorts of things made from cork, paintings and other gifts, and a crowded street of very unappealing restaurants with menus in multiple languages. There were large groups of drinkers as well as families with kids and strollers all enjoying a day out in the perfect weather.
After strolling for a bit we found the Ramos Pinto Port lodge and decided to see if we could get a tour. We were fortunate that they were just about to start one in English, so we paid quickly and joined the small group in the lobby.
We were really happy with our choice. It’s actually a bit younger than some of the other Port houses, established in 1880 by Adriano Ramos Pinto and built into a world famous brand with the help of his brother Antonio. This was unusual, since most of the port lodges were managed by the English, who started importing fortified Douro wine in the late 1600s.
The most fascinating part of the tour was the well-preserved original offices and the collection of posters and other artifacts. The brothers were definitely innovators in marketing and we were fascinated by the stories and the beautiful artwork on display. We had definitely recognized many of the vintage posters and you would too – today you can even buy a framed art deco Ramos Pinto poster at Amazon and Walmart.
We were not allowed to take pictures in the museum itself, which was fine, but it was great to see the offices and artifacts so well preserved. They even kept the owner’s office and conference room intact, where he hosted his best customers and distributors.
After we toured the museum, we went downstairs to the Port lodge itself, where the huge barrels are stored and aged. Pictures were allowed there.
After our tour, it was time for the main event – the tasting. Tasting came with our tour and I upgraded myself so I could try a ruby, tawny and white port. I’ve tried plenty of different tawny and reds before but it was my first time trying a white. They were all good, different in their own way but I still like tawny ports the best.
The biggest surprise was the large pours. If you’ve never tried Port wine, it’s definitely sweeter and has a lot more alcohol than regular wine, since it’s fortified with brandy. They gave me three generous, wine-sized glasses for the tasting. I can’t imagine how anyone could visit more than one port house in a day and still walk back to their accommodations.
After our tasting, the hostess at Ramos Pinto recommended we check out the Mercado Beira-Rio for lunch and we’re so glad she did. The food market is a modern, clean market with all kinds of delicious food and drinks to eat there or take home. We especially loved that it was filled with locals and not just tourists. We grabbed the first table we saw and got two Portuguese pizzas from one of the stalls, just before they closed (and ran out of food!) The market also had lots of fresh cheeses, meats, fish and sweet treats, definitely a fun place to dine and explore.
Wine Tasting in the Douro Valley
The next day, after another amazing breakfast prepared by Olga for us, Alfredo picked us up for our private tour of the Douro Valley, the wine growing region east of Porto along the Douro river. It was an amazing day exploring the region and learning more about the history and culture.
During our tour, Alfredo took us to two different quintas (wineries) that gave us a really different perspective of the wines, the region and the growth of the industry.
First we stopped at Casa do Romezal, where brother and sister Luís and Margarida carry on their family’s winemaking tradition and host guests at their bed & breakfast. Luís had a huge spread of wines and snacks for us to sample and told us the story of Gueda wines, that started with his twelfth great-grandfather who harvested wines from the terraced vineyards in the 13th century.
From Luís, we learned how they harvest the grapes and how they are grown in a “field blend” – all the grapes grown and harvested together rather than in a single varietal vineyard like we’re accustomed to in California.
While their family used to only harvest and sell the port grapes to other producers, in 2010 they started making their own Douro wines. Now they have a full lot of wines including a white and tawny port, as well as dry red and white wines and olive oil from their trees on the property.
After we feasted and tasted, Luís gave us a preview of their new rooms for the bed and breakfast, complete with a private pool and a sweeping view of the valley. We’d love to come back and stay someday, assuming we could actually drive up the winding, single-lane road by ourselves.
The next winery couldn’t have been more different, Quinta da Pacheca. This winery was situated on the valley floor rather than in the terraced hills, and felt very much like a traditional Napa Valley estate. Quinta da Pachecha has a four-star hotel on site and a lovely garden for tastings. If you’re so inclined you can even sleep in a large, remodeled wine barrel.
After our tasting we had an incredible lunch at the hotel’s restaurant on the balcony. Each course was fantastic and paired with a different Douro wine. The best entree was the duck rice, an elevated version of the dish we ate during one of our rustic cafe stops on the bike in Alentejo. Since it was our third meal of the day already at 1 p.m. we were pretty stuffed, but we loved the place and the service.
From Quinta da Pacheca, Alfredo took us down to the river where we enjoyed a short, peaceful cruise on the Douro river. We were with a small group of other tourists and we couldn’t have picked a better day for it. The water was calm and the colors were changing in the hills surrounding the river. It was a great way to relax and recover from our huge lunch!
Before we left, Alfredo brought us up to the historic Pinhão train station to see its beautiful blue and white ceramic tiles, depicting the history and steps in the port winemaking process. We then stopped at an overlook so we could see the sweeping views of the entire valley, before we settled in for our trip back to Porto. It was a perfect day and the best way to see the Douro Valley, especially if you only have one day.
We spent three nights in Porto but we definitely didn’t feel like we had enough time to really explore the rest of the city. It had a great energy and was bustling with construction and activity. We’d love to come back and explore more, and hopefully Olga and Fernando will have a room for us when we return.
Read about our next stop: Coimbra