You’re looking at Portugal for your next holiday, grazing through brochures and travel blogs for inspiration. But before your imagination takes you too far, let me suggest my just discovered, favourite place in Europe – somewhere that wasn’t on my bucket list or even in my conscious awareness for a holiday until my recent trip. I urge you to Google the ‘Douro Valley’ and ‘Porto’ and tell me that you aren’t as captivated at first glance as I was.
Sharing the mountainous Iberian Peninsula with Spain and hugged from the west by the Atlantic, Portugal’s landscape is dramatic in many ways, with granite ridges winding through the central highlands, twisting valleys and sheer-sided ravines. As you travel north the topography becomes even more spectacular, with green mountains scattered with vineyards – the vines terraced along the steep sides akin only to China’s paddy fields.
From the moment you fly into Porto – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the scene is breathtaking. A colonial powerhouse up until the 1970s, it’s a melting pot of culture, cuisine and architecture. Split by the Douro River, whitewashed buildings with terracotta roofs climb the banks, surrounded by lush hills. The city is covered in ceramic tiles or ‘azulojos’ – the spectacular train station Sao Bento should make up part of your city ramble with its tiled masterpieces inside. Originally a walled city, the 14th century remnants can still be seen, but the majority of the cityscape is 18th and 19th century, with recent developments lending a vibrant air as you walk through the heart.
You can’t visit Porto without sampling Port. Whether Port is your weekend tipple or you stare gingerly at the bottle produced at Christmas by your great Aunt, banish all preconceptions. Across the river from the main part of the city rise the Port Caves. Not in fact caves, more cavernous cellars with huge, ageing casks of sweet liquor. We visited Graham’s port caves, sampled more than 10 Ports – tawny and ruby, red and white – and had an exquisite meal in the adjoining restaurant, Vinum.
Travelling out of Porto to your villa, Portuguese roads are considered the best in Europe, so whether you’re a self-drive enthusiast or it’s your first time on foreign roads you can be assured the drive is seamless. You should make time to travel the N-222 from Peso da Regua to Pinhaõ. Voted the world’s best driving road by the Avis Driving Index, this amazing route sees 17 miles and 93 bends of remarkable scenery and endless impressive bridges spanning each valley.
Once at Pinhaõ – another UNESCO World Heritage Site – you’ll be in what’s considered by locals as the heart of the Douro Valley. Nestled in the crease of a valley enclosed by mountains, the village is wonderfully picturesque. Although you can take boat trips from Porto, I suggest waiting until you get here. In the middle of wine-producing country your view from below is a unique one, looking up to the vine terraces, farmhouses and mountains.
Speaking of vineyards, let’s talk wine. “Portuguese wine?” I hear you say. You may have heard of a ‘classic’ Vinho Verde or Mateus Rose, but that’s probably it. However, this region has been producing world-class wine for centuries, with many of the 250 grape varieties native to Portugal not grown anywhere else. In fact, many of James Villas’ properties are situated on vineyards where the owner will gladly give you a tour as well as a wine tasting; two of my favourites are Quinta Vale Dona Maria
I haven’t even mentioned the food yet. Bacalhau, or salt cod, is popular in Portugal. They say there is a salt cod recipe for each day of the year! It’s quite a sight in Porto, where traditional food shops have it airing outside. For the more adventurous, one of the local delicacies is Cabidela – rice and either chicken, pork or rabbit cooked with blood. Before you stop reading right there, think black pudding but tastier. If these are too daring, there’s also amazing fish and shellfish. Presunto – dry-cured ham – is another favourite and the cheese is out of this world.
If your idea of holiday bliss requires your feet in the sand and your head in a book then do not despair, you can have a beach holiday here too. The area from the Spanish border in the north down to Porto is known as the Costa Verde, or the ‘Green Coast’. From Atlantic swells for surfers and windsurfers, to azure coves great for children, this coastline has something for everyone. With much of the coast protected from development, it’s beautifully wild with no high-rise developments to dampen your view.
So next time you are in research-mode for an escape to sunnier climes, please delve into this region. I promise you too will come back extolling the virtues of Northern Portugal. I can’t wait to go back – there are many things on my new Douro Valley bucket list. Wolves are native to the area, which you can track at night with a guide, I only scratched the surface of Porto and I’m sure I didn’t manage to try all the Port varieties…