Birthplace of the sweet Port Wine and home to an extraordinary selection of both red and white wines, the Douro valley is foremost synonymous with wine. And with a 2.000-year-old viticultural history, dating back to Roman times, how could it not? But there’s more to the Douro than the Dionysian drink: An epic landscape, moulded by millennia of hard work and nature parks, where rivers still run free and wild.
Learn more about the fascinating history of this, the world’s oldest demarcated wine region, how to get there and where to hike in order to take in the many facets of this enchanting region. And, of course, where to sample some of that fine Port Wine.
Moulded by Millennia
Wine has been produced by traditional landholders in the Alto Douro Region for some 2.000 years. Throughout the centuries, row upon row of terraces have been built according to different techniques, and man’s tireless labours have transformed this vast slate-soiled region into a real agricultural and landscape monument, that the Portuguese poet, Miguel Torga referred to as: “Slopes, volumes, colours and modulations that no sculptor, painter or musician can translate. Expanded horizons beyond the thresholds of vision, a virginal universe, as if it had just been born, and already eternal through harmony, serenity, silence like the river itself dare to break, sometimes disappearing stealthily behind the mountains, sometimes amazed at the bottom to reflect its own astonishment. A geological poem. The absolute beauty.”
The Douro river itself has been emasculated by 15 dams, that regulate the flow of the giant river, that originates at the Spanish side of the border and runs to the west, through the northern region of Portugal before it flows into the Atlantic Ocean outside the city of Porto. But while the Douro itself feels like a lazy giant, it’s energized by 3 large rivers and around 30 smaller rivers, and many of these define the smaller valleys that pour into the Douro and forms part of its landscape.
Every one has their favourite piece of the Douro. For us, the Alto Douro Wine Region is the most spectacular part of the area. That it’s the world’s oldest demarcated wine region just add to its charm. UNESCO seems to agree with us and awarded it a World Heritage designation in 2001.
The Douro is at its most urban as it flows into the Atlantic Ocean at the outskirts of Porto. Going upstream, towards the Spanish border and along the many tributary rivers, the surroundings become wilder, and the nature more intense.
The urban cityscape is exchanged by combed vineyards, orchards and olive groves as you follow the Douro to the west. But when you leave the demarcated wine region of Alto Douro and travel north our south of the Douro, along its feeder rivers, you enter an untamed landscape where the only sounds you hear are the glugging of the river, the cries of the eagles and the humming of insects.
There are many national parks at and around the Douro river. The Douro International Nature Park runs along the Portuguese/Spanish border and is a joint venture of the two countries. It’s dominated by steep rock and dramatic riverscape. The Vale do Tua Regional Nature Park is located around Tua River, a tributary to the Douro, and characterized by a diverse flora. North-west of Vila Real you have the imposing Alvão Nature Park with an altitude of up to 1.339 metres and an altitudinal range of 1.079 metres. This rangy landscape is best observed around the beautiful Fisgas waterfalls; our favourite hike in the park.
Although the Douro is much more than just Port wine, it ought to be an important part of a visit, since it defines this region so much – both historically, culturally and rurally. We visited two different Port Wineries: Quinta Nova and Quinta do Bomfim.
The first offers a guided Wine Tour for 16€ that lasts 45 minutes and includes a detailed explanation of the production process of Port Wine in general and the estate’s wines in particular. It’s possible to book a subsequent tasting from 16€ and up and also enjoy a 3-course lunch or dinner in their Terraçu’s Winery Restaurant. It’s also a Quinta Nova you can take the PR1 SBE – Trilho da Quinta Nova hike around the estate and take in the beauty of the landscape before – or after – you’ve relished in the gastronomical terroir.
Quinta do Bomfim is a historic estate situated on the north bank of the Douro River on the edge of the village of Pinhão. Visitors arriving by car have on-site parking whilst those arriving by train (they have an beautiful train station!) have a five-minute walk to the Quinta. The river marina is ten minutes away by foot if you’re arriving by a river cruise.
The tour begins in a small museum which tells the story of the property, the family and the wines. It continues to the old lodge, built in 1896, one of the most magnificent such structures in the Douro Valley and shows the process of wine making. After appreciating the gorgeous wine barrels and the historical atmosphere, it’s a delight to taste 3 different kinds of the local Port Wine: Dow’s Port. Taste bud bliss!
We visited the region during the Covid-19 pandemic and so our movement was restricted. We did, however, manage to hike in the Alvão Nature Park, the Vale do Tua Regional Nature Park and along the Douro river itself. Here are our Top5 hikes in the area around Vila Real. For other walks in Portugal, we highly recommend the guidebooks from Cicerone, like Walking in Portugal.
PR3 MDB Fisgas de Ermelo – 12,4 KM – 652 VERTICAL METRES
PR1 ALJ Trilho das Fragas Más – 10 KM – 437 VERTICAL METRES
PR2 MUR Trilho de Tinhela – 9,2 KM – 462 VERTICAL METRES
Trilho de São Cristóvão do Douro – 8,3 KM – 430 VERTICAL METRES
PR1 SBE – Trilho da Quinta Nova – 6,55 KM – 294 VERTICAL METRES
How to get there
By Car: This has some obvious advantages, as you can turn down every winding road you fancy, and you can visit different wineries. It’s also essential if you’re going hiking and want to experience the nature away from the tourist trail.
By Train: If you’re arriving from Porto and have limited time – and a desire to taste more wine than your car-driving abilities may afford – a great option is to visit the Douro by train. You can take in the landscape in a much more relaxed manner and get off at Pinhão for a tasting at Quinta do Bomfim and continue along the most beautiful stretch to Pocinho. The train ride from Porto to Pocinho takes 3 hours 40 minutes and costs 13,5€. Same duration and price for the return ride.
You can also take the train to Régua and then go on the Douro Historical Train to Tua and back on an old steam locomotive for 45€.
By Boat: Another way to take in the landscape is to take the trip up (or down) the Douro river by boat. You can opt for the cheap(ish) version of a 1-day cruise that combines a train ride to Régua and cruise back for 72€. Almost every cruise option will include a train or bus ride one of the ways. There are plenty of package options: