Portugal’s Douro Valley may very well be the next great destination for enotourism. Wine connoisseurs who are very familiar with Napa, Provence and Tuscany are increasingly discovering Portugal’s wine country. The Douro Valley is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world. Famous for the quality of its Porto wines, the region is seeing an increase in the production of full-bodied reds and crisp white wines harvested in the vineyard terraces built on the canyons that line the slopes along the Douro River. The centuries old tradition of viticulture has shaped the cultural landscape of the valley, which has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The sunbaked countryside is most beautiful in spring, when the almond tress bloom, turning the tree canopies white and pink, and the smell of honeysuckle fills the air, or during the early fall when the grapes are harvested and the vines start changing colors in a blanket of sepia, red and orange leaves. Herds of sheep grazing under the watchful eye of shepherds accompanied by guard dogs add to the lazy feel of the pastoral landscape.
There is not much to do here, and that is exactly the attraction. The siesta culture of Northern Portugal is all about long lunches and refreshing afternoon naps, and lends itself to relaxation and contemplation of nature. Scenic riverboat and train rides along the rolling hills are the best way to get to know this corner of the Iberian Peninsula. The landscape is doted with manor houses and quintas (estates) where the traveler can take in the traditional bica (espresso shot) before a lunch of homemade sausages or fresh seafood, while listening to Fado, beautiful Portuguese songs steeped in melancholy and longing.
Our visit is anchored at the Aquapura Hotel, a superbly renovated 19th century manor house that is set high on a hill overlooking the valley and the river below. The clean lines and modern furnishings of the cocoon-like rooms make a great first impression, as do the equally luxurious villas with private swimming pools and gorgeous views of the river. The hotel is located in a historic region that exudes medieval charm.
When not relaxing by the pool surrounded by the sounds of rustling cypresses and olive tress, guests can opt for boat excursions, visits to nearby wineries for personalized wine tastings, golf, degustation of artisanal cheeses and olive oils, or drives through the countryside to picturesque villages and monasteries nearby. The spa at Aquapura boasts 24,000 square feet of privacy and tranquility, a voyage for the body and soul through meditation, yoga, pampering and total relaxation to awaken the senses.
But no visit to the Douro Valley would be complete without experiencing the epicurean delights the area is known for. Here Porto is king, and the wines take center stage in every gastronomic experience. These can be paired with the traditional Portuguese diet of seafood like bacalhau (cod), or octopus served with fresh produce, or blood rice. But as you venture inland from the coastal cities like Oporto, hearty meat and poultry dishes are the norm. Tripas a moda do Porto (tripe with white beans) or cozido a Portuguesa (similar to the French pot au feu or the New England boiled dinner) are available at local restaurants along the valley. After such rich food, a siesta by the pool or inside your own private villa is in order.
The tranquil Douro Valley makes a fantastic vacation away from the noise and bustle of city life. Interestingly, you may be among the first in your circle of friends to discover this ancient corner of Portugal. Do so before it becomes the next trendy destination. ■