As a woman submerged in a cosmopolitan city that (mostly) fuses communities and multiple ethnic origins, the concept of a life without cultural diversity feels uninspired and barren. Demographic trends in the UK have come a long way since the 1970s, when my Mum tells me she would have to travel in excess of an hour before she came even close to finding a shop that sold the spices she needed to cook the staples she had grown up with.
Here in London, within just a one mile radius of my home, I can point you towards an Italian deli or a Polish supermarket and I can locate the pandan essence that I bought frantically in a Singapore supermarket, hoping to engage in some Asian-inspired baking without realising it was available minutes away from home in Greenwich.
The truth is, I live in such a multi-ethnic society that it is quite possible to travel the world, metaphorically, without ever owning a passport. I had sampled Parma ham long before I had heard of Italy’s Parma region. I had cravings for dulce de leche long before visiting Argentina and I came to know of Port wine decades earlier than I did Porto, a colourful city in Northern Portugal.
My earliest memory of seeing Port was at primary school, when I recall a my friends’ fathers receiving bottles for Christmas, beautifully encased in oblong wooden caskets.
I didn’t drink then (I was seven after all) though not much has changed even with the acquisition of years, which makes it all the more strange that Pumpkin and I decided to devote one of our precious two and a half days in Porto to head out on a wine tour of the Douro Valley. As the world’s first demarcated wine region, we were promised awe-inspiring views and a memorable day of Port tasting.
So would I recommend it, even to the teetotal among you? I categorically would, as I now believe the UNESCO World Heritage Douro Valley is one of Europe’s best kept secrets.
After an easy morning pick up from our Porto hotel, we joined five fellow travellers and a fresh-faced, highly enthusiastic guide for a one day wine tour of the Douro Valley. Included in our itinerary were two Quinta visits (more on that later), a lunch made up of nothing but traditional Portuguese fare and a romantic boat ride along the valley.
We found ourselves being driven through long open roads framed with stratified lush foliage, etched like brush strokes into the undulating hills sheltering us.
A boat squeezing snugly through a lock provided the only interruption to the hypnotic lime green landscapes and incited enough intrigue among the group to prompt us to step out of the vehicle and form a curious audience.
But before I
start continue gushing about the Douro Valley like a teenager experiencing infatuation for the first time, let me briefly show you Amarante, a dainty town with enchanting waterside views of the Tamega River.
In Amarante, even an ordinary bench impresses with the ornate blue and white Azulejos tile decor so abundant across Porto and Portugal.
Quinta Visits and Port Tasting in Douro Valley, Pinhao
Our Douro Valley wine tour included visits to two, starkly contrasting Quintas in Pinhao but just like I endeavour to avoid jargon at work, I’ll try and do the same here, especially for anyone unsure of what a Quinta is.
Essentially, Quintas are wine-growing country estates, much like vineyards and many of the Portuguese Quintas in Pinhao allow guests to visit for tours of the wine-making process and Por tastings. The first Quinta we visited, Quinta do Tedo, was a cosy, rustic and breathtaking space of warmth and hospitality. The summer blossoms threw splashes of colour into the leaf-laden vistas and the family dog lazily caught rays outside, the envy of the rest of us who could only acquaint ourselves with the place briefly.
Our tour and introduction to the wine making process here was given by an in-house guide, who was spending his summer at the Quinta learning more about the industry, a US citizen of French descent, studying in Portugal – see what I mean about multi-culturalism?!
After exercising our brains, everyone had their eyes firmly on the prize and Pumpkin seemed most unimpressed when I suggested we tell the staff not to bother serving me Port tasters.
It turns out my man was quite confident that he could polish off my Port in addition to his own. And polish off he did, though it must be said, perhaps because of its rich, deep sweet tones, I actually didn’t mind the taste myself and I am informed that I didn’t pull my usual “alcohol face” as I sipped it.
In what turned out to be the most unanticipated of coincidences, just a few weeks after returning from Porto, Pumpkin and I were at the Sake No Hana restaurant in London when the dessert menu was presented to us and I spotted the Port option from this very same Quinta.
Pumpkin couldn’t let the moment pass without ordering it to compare whether the journey over from Douro Valley had done anything to affect the taste 😀
Our second Quinta visit for the day encapsulated an entirely different vibe, much larger in size and whilst the views were even more spectacular, it didn’t have the intimacy of the smaller first Quinta we had visited.
Nevertheless, the Quinta do Bomfim is one of the many Quintas under the ownership of the Symington Family Estates and it was hard not be moved by the way in which the sense of family still pervades proudly through this Port empire despite the centuries that have passed.
And if Symington doesn’t sound too Portuguese a name to you, you’re on the right tracks as the company was originally founded in the late 1800s by the Scottsman, Andrew James Symington, who moved to Porto from Scotland.
Many of the major Port brands you may have heard of, such as Graham’s, Dow’s or Cockburn’s all fall under the Symington family estates umbrella and on the video shown to us at Quinta do Bomfim, the presentation is actually narrated by one of the current family owners of the company
Unfortunately, they accidentally played the Portuguese version of the video so none of us were able to understand that bit but everyone (present company excluded) had consumed far too much Port to get stressed over a little thing like that.
A Boat Ride Through the Douro Valley
We may have taken a break from visiting Quintas for lunch but we certainly didn’t take any breaks from Port – this is a wine tour after all and a round of new Port tastings were offered with the main meal.
The main courses were sizeable and I couldn’t even come close to finishing my Portuguese take on the classic fish and chips combination with thin slivers of crisp, fried potatoes and breaded cod wrapped in ham.
But that was why a harmonious and gentle boat ride in a private electric boat along the valley was so aptly timed. You can snooze on the sofa to digest your Sunday lunch on any old weekend but there are few better locations to do the same thing than on a slouchy beanbag on a boat under the warmth of the June sun in the Douro Valley.
The most idyllic moment of our anniversary weekend in Porto for me was when, half way through the boat ride, the boatman turned the engine off and we floated with the effortless ease of rubber ducks in a bathtub with the hum of the benign waters and the distant singing of birds providing our only soundtrack.
At least half the tour group were snoozing by this point – I guess that’s what a day of wine drinking, warm weather and a heavy lunch will do to you. But I was simply too taken by the panoramas to doze through them.
And that there was where our tour should have drawn to a close – but I did warn you we had an enthusiastic guide and he had one more trick left up his sleeve by surprising us with an unscripted final stop at a small village, where crumbling architecture was cornered by terracotta pots sprouting silky petals.
The only souls in sight were a few locals drinking at the bar inside the chocolate box size pub that we were about to visit, the kind of drinking hole you might expect to find in a dolls’ village.
With low ceilings, wooden panels and a whole host of adorable (and cheeky) paraphernalia made out of old Port bottles, there are no prizes for guessing which drink we were offered again at this last stop – one final locally created Port, produced in-house by the owners of this quirky pub.
Not to mention the bizarre, offbeat nativity scene…
Porto is a bitesize city when you compare it to magnificent beast cities such as Barcelona, Paris or Rome, which means that even with only a short time there, it is quite possible to see the highlights of the city and still make the day trip to Douro Valley. You can do this independently and we certainly met a few couples who had hired a car and were doing their own self-made Quinta tours, although I’m not sure that I want to dwell too much on how people were driving between wineries all day and sipping Port at each stop…
So to avoid any unwise drink driving conundrums, you can book a tour instead. We chose the Living Tours Douro Valley Wine Tour and considering I only booked the trip about 5 days before we were on it, I was really quite impressed that we managed not only to be accommodated but also that the tour was exactly the type we enjoy the most – small group size, relaxed and with flexible, friendly guides who are happy to tailor things accordingg to client wishes.
Needless to say, Pumpkin was feeling rather Ported out by the time we pulled into our hotel after losing count of how much Port he and the rest of the group had drunk on this tour.
Imagine his expression, therefore, when we returned to our room for a couple of hours of relaxation to find this treat left for us so kindly by the hotel staff! Still,once you’ve consumed that much Port in a day, what’s another couple of glasses?! 🙂
Porto wasn’t the first time this teetotaler found herself on an alcohol themed experience during her travels. Have a peep here to find out how I got on as a teetotaler in a German beer house.
Have you ever been to the Douro Valley or gone on a wine-tasting experience elsewhere?