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Portugal: River of Sweet Wine

Come, taste the wine, paddle the Douro, and sample the good things of northern Portugal.

Douro Rio at twilight with boats in foreground, image
Photo caption
The day comes to a gorgeous end on the Douro River in Portugal.


One dreams of rivers like this, flowing clear, cool, and gentle through the bright light of a civilized and storied countryside. Our paddles dip in liquid sunshine. We glide close to the banks, were cluster of plump, dark grapes suspend over the water. They burst upon the tongue with the sweet taste of port. Blue herons lift off down the canyon. Palm trees stand at river's edge: pinewoods fringe the heights.

Once this river was fast and narrow: it carried the woodden boats—the barcos rabelos—stacked with casks of port from the great British wine houses down to the sea at Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia.

In recent years the wild waters of the Rio Douro have been stilled by dams, and the river is more like a series of slender lakes. Its perfect for kayaking, for beginers or for lazy longtime paddlers nourishing a streak of hedonism. The scenario, put together by Mountain Travel/Sobek of El Cerrito, is this: Using portable, stable sea kayaks, well spend four days paddling from below the big dam at Pocinho down to the Regua Dam—about 85 km. Along the way, well stop to tour the famed port houses, picnic on the banks, and sleep in grand manors, small hotels and farm inns. We will dine on the fine country cuisine of Portugal, and taste the sweet wines.

Our leader is Olaf Malver, a Danish kayaking guide and jovial connoisseur of the good things. A Portuguese couple, Victor and Catarina, are with us to drive the vans carrying our luggage, smooth hotel arrangements, bring our picnics, interpret. In our party of ten paddlers, five—a group of middle-aged real estate attorneys from Los Angeles—have never been in kayaks before. They admit they're here for the wine.

After spending a couple of days exploring—and tasting—Porto, we board the wooden clack-clack train up the Douro Valley. For a time we move through what looks like a permanent construction zone outside Porto—a city of 1,000,000—then break into the hills, and follow the river valley. Three hours later we disembark at Pocinho.

That night we sleep at a guest farm in isolated cottages perched on narrow terraces. Its like living at the edge of an abyss; a thousand feet below is the town of Moncorvo, with houses clustered up to a 16th century tower. At our door, a mountain spring flows into an old stone fountain, with a ceramic pitcher for sipping. When the roosters crow, a breakfast of farm eggs, fresh bread, and fruit appears at our aerie door.

As we slide our bright red kayaks into the water at the mouth of the Rio Sabor, a string of donkey carts creaks over a nearby bridge. We are, as far as we know, the first group of American kayakers on the Douro.

For the next four days, our small boats bear us through a lovely and remote terrain of Iberian Europe. From the river to the high ridges, the mountainsides are terraced, much like the rice paddies of Bali, the millet fields of Nepal. Mossy rock walls support every square inch of growing surface; some of the narrow terraces have only one short row of vines. We pass one port house after another—names familiar in the better beverage emporia—Calem, Cockburn, Borges. Touring a couple of wineries, we learn about how thee British "discovered" port when they fortified wine with brandy to preserve it for shipment on the high seas.

Flocks of ducks skitter down the water at our approach. The hard granite walls glint under the harsh sun. Sometimes we stop for a cooling swim, or rest in the shadowy places beneath the arches of stone bridges or under the tresses of a weeping willow. In the powerful Iberian light, everything looks pure, intense: a tangle of blue morning glories cascading down an embankment, a row of pumpkins fat on the vine, a black cat racing along a yellow wall.

In just one morning, from the kayaks, we pick ripe peaches, apples, blackberries, rose hips, and mint from abandoned gardens at rivers edge.

Its September, nearing the harvest, and grape baskets are ready at the vineyard gates. Here, some of the crush is still done by human feet. The small towns along the way seem timeless: people washing clothes in spring-fed stone laundries, alleys so narrow you can touch both walls at once, a canary singing from a rooftop, rows of cypress trees slender as spears. In this sunlight, white-washed walls are blinding to the eye.

Each midday, Victor and Catarina appear on the shore with a picnic of hard-crusted oven-warm bread, olives, cheese, cured ham, fruit, tomatoes, and cold white wine. In four days, we see only three other boats and one waterskier.

When we come to the dam at Valeira, we store the kayaks overnight and drive up to the mountain town of Alij, with a tiny blue-tiled church and a plaza where children come to drink from the fountain spring. Gypsies in painted caravans are moving through here—on the run from Bosnia, we are told. A beauty in long flowered skirts flashes her dark eyes at us as she climbs onto a paintted caravan. That night, as we walk to dinner, we hear a trumpet playing the Star Spangled Banner. When we cheer, a boy, giggling, appears at a window to take a bow.

Most of our lodgings are high on the mountainsides, looking down the Douro Valley; most have swimming pools where we can cool off from the effort of the days paddle under a hot sun. At night the river is silvered by the harvest moon. At one of our farm lodgings, all the food on the table is produced on the premises: a juicy casserole of duck and rice; salad of baby lettuce, melon, oranges and tomatoes; pumpkin cake with almonds; garden herbs for tea; honey afloat with hazelnuts.

In the hills above Pinho, we are guests in a 600-year-old family house, the Casal de Loivos. At dinner, in the formal dining room, the gentleman owner, Manuel Pimentel, says, "Here we are in the agricultural center of the port wine country. Our ancestors built these terraces with their hands; we plant the grapes, care for them, harvest them, crush them into wine. Port is our blood." Afterwards he shares 10- and 20-year-old ports from his private cellar. They are like velvet in the throat.

On our last day, we paddle five miles against a stiff up-canyon wind from Pinho to Folgosa. Above the big dam at Rgua, we pull the kayaks from the river and drive up to Lamego, a town of sparkling wine where a religious festival is in full cry. Pilgrims from all over Portugal have come seeking cures from Our Lady of the Remedies, in a sanctuary high on a hill. A Baroque granite staircase, with 670 steps, leads from the town center up to the church. Each landing is decorated with elaborate murals on blue tiles. For the festival, the streets are strung with festive lights and painted wooden arches.

On the drive back to Porto, we stop at the lovely medieval city of Amarante on the Rio Tamega. Overnight the season has turned. Its raining, and cold fingers of mist are reaching into every crease in the mountains. In Amarante's 16th-century church, tapes of Gregorian chants are playing. We dine at a riverside cafe near the graceful arches of the 18th century bridge, looking at the white geese and the rain. Our feast: mountain trout with bacon and olives, veal roulade with creamed spinach, rice with local sausages, and the pale vinho verdes of this region. Desert is a rich confection of egg yolks called Amarantinos, a sweet sendoff for the homeward bound.

Stopover in Porto Sometimes on the way to the river you find a fine city. Porto, at the mouth of the Douro, is such a discovery. It is a serious town of the sea, where seagulls whirl above a crazy-quilt of red tile roofs, and salt breezes play at your curtains. From Porto's shipyards came caravels that carried the early explorers the world around. Henry the Navigator was born here.

The old town is piled on steep hills that run up from the river. Cobblestone alleyways and staircases twist and turn all through town, passing little parks and churches covered with blue tiles.

If you're a sturdy walker, you can see the whole town in a couple of days. Porto is full of museums and churches, including the Romanesque cathedral and the dazzling 13th century Church of San Francisco. Not to be missed: the lavishly decorated old Bolsa (Stock Exchange). In the shops are gold filigree jewelry, fine lace, and bright ceramics.

Along the riverfront, cave-like restaurants serve the legendary seafood dishes and rich caldos of the Portuguese.

The Dom Luis I Bridge crosses the Douro to Vila Nova de Gaia, where the wine boats that once plied the river are tied up in front of the famed port houses, open for tours and tastings. And once you've tasted at the source, you'll never feel the same about port wines again.

Photography courtesy of Wurminister/Wikimedia Commons


This article was first published in March 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.