It’s a happy fact that many of the world’s finest wine regions are equally easy on the eye, from the cypress-dotted hills of Tuscany to the spectacular mountain backdrop of Stellenbosch. But push wine experts to name the most beautiful vineyard area on the planet and you can bet that Portugal’s Douro Valley will feature heavily in the reckoning. With its combination of the vertiginous terraces to which the vines dizzily cling and the sinuous curves of the graceful river, there is nowhere quite like it.
For centuries, this was a remote place of mountain and wild water, reachable only by river or twisting mountain track, but, just as white water has been tamed by numerous dams, so the distance from civilisation has narrowed: with modern roads, you can reach the heart of the valley from Porto in little more than 90 minutes.
The Douro dominates Porto too, separating it from Vila Nova de Gaia, its twin city on the opposite bank. Porto is a shy city of understated charm that can take a few days to work its magic: numerous churches, narrow alleyways and leafy parks. Across the river, the streets tumbling down to the Gaia riverfront shape a hinterland dominated by the port business, populated by the wine-scented lodges that house the sleeping ranks of maturing casks.
Guided tours are numerous, but two of the better visitor centres are hosted by the famous names of Taylor’s and Graham’s – the latter freshly completed last year and with an excellent adjoining restaurant focused on Portuguese food.
Otherwise, the Ribeira riverfront of Porto, just below the coathanger-like Dom Luís bridge, has numerous restaurants of highly variable quality, although the reliable Dom Tonho is an honourable exception, while Rui Paula’s DOP is another warm recommendation.
The superb Yeatman, a luxury spa/wine hotel developed by the owner of Taylor’s Port, features prominently on the Gaia skyline, while the more diffident Pestana on the Porto side has a quirky layout and a location that’s hard to beat.
If you don’t fancy that 90-minute drive to the Douro, the train is an unforgettable experience. Pausing to admire the stunning azulejos – decorative tiles – at Porto’s São Bento station, you can doze the first stage of the journey away, waking in time for the train’s emergence into the lower reaches of the Douro winelands. Then sit back and gape as the train tracks the river upstream to the towns of Régua and Pinhão, surrounded by the Douro’s most famous quintas, or wine estates.
What was once a tourism wasteland is now punctuated with great places to stay and eat. The CS Vintage House Hotel at Pinhão has been around longer than most, but wine-estate accommodation offers a true Douro immersion: try the mix of old and very new at Quinta do Vallado, just above Régua, the gorgeous Quinta de la Rosa near Pinhão, or the secluded Quinta de São José – best reached by water taxi from Pinhão.
Many hotels and guesthouses also offer food, but check out Ponte Romana in Pinhão for unpretentiously excellent local fare and a good wine list. Also highly recommended is Rui Paula’s Douro outpost, DOC, on a great riverside destination at Folgosa. One common factor unites them all: that dramatic encompassing landscape of river, vineyard terrace and mountainside. Wherever you stay in the Douro, you can guarantee one thing: it’ll be a room with a view.
Richard Woodard writes for Halcyon and Imbibe