Petra Shepherd discovers the charms of Northern Portugal
Portugal was born in the north of the country with five distinct World Heritage UNESCO sites including the Historical Centre of Porto and the Douro Valley, both of which I was lucky enough to visit earlier this month. You can read more about the culinary traditions of Northern Portugal here… and the romantic side of the region here…
Like my fellow About My Generation writers, I too was charmed by the beauty of the rural landscapes, the cultural richness of the region, its unique cuisine and above all the world-famous wines.
Here are a few of my highlights.
Douro River Cruise
A cruise on the Douro River which weaves its way through sun-drenched vineyards is one of those must-do cruises for river cruise aficionados. For a taster, the 2-hour cruise from Pinhao to Tua and back in a traditional rabelo boat was hard to beat. The Douro was the first wine region in the world to be demarcated and regulated in 1756. The wild slopes of the valley have been transformed, through the work of generations, into terraces to plant the vineyards that produce the famous port wine, excellent DOC Douro wines, sparkling wines and Muscat wines. The cruise was a relaxing and peaceful way to enjoy the heart of the Douro Valley’s picturesque wine-growing region, admiring the architecture of the quintas that lined the banks along with plenty of opportunities to photograph the passing iconic rabelo boats. Historically the boats were capable of carrying up to 100 barrels of wine and are instantly recognisable by their long, elegant steering paddle.
Casa De Sezim
Casa de Sezim just oozes history and became the ancestral home of the present family in 1376, that’s an awful lot of generations who have called it home. Located just outside Guimaraes, this pink-walled, manor house hotel is a place to stay in one of the elegantly decorated boutique rooms or to merely visit for the day to marvel at the artefacts and rare French wall-paper from the 19th century (copies of which are now in The White House). The scenes from across the globe including India and America are hand-painted onto sheets of wallpaper with one of the images being used as a colourful, unique wine bottle label. It was here that I enjoyed one the many gourmet lunches of my visit accompanied by Vinho Verde wines from the estate’s vineyard. The Vinho Verde from Casa de Sezim was also appreciated in the Middle Ages – there’s a 1396 document quoting its high quality. A lush, landscaped garden, hammocks strung out along the veranda, an outdoor swimming pool and a tennis court over the vineyard all add to the old world ambience. I love slightly shabby chic, quirky country house hotels, that are also excellent value and Casa de Sezim fitted the bill perfectly.
Quinta Da Aveleda
Quinta da Aveleda is another family-owned house and one of the best wine-producing estates in the Vinho Verde region. However, although the crisp, refreshing wine was definitely a winner, (a bottle or two made their way into my suitcase), it was the gardens here that most impressed, a fairy tale land of follies, ferns and fountains and even a 3 tiered helter-skelter goat tower. Some of the trees on the estate have been in situ for centuries including a Japanese cedar and a Swamp Cypress Tree along with over a 100 varieties of camellias. Although on the day I visited the heavens opened, the rain just served to make the gardens even more lush and botanical and there were certainly no complaints from the resident ducks.
Quinta Da Pacheca
In a few days, we managed to visit several quintas (wine-growing estates) and Quinta Da Pacheca, one of the most prestigious and recognised properties in the region was one my favourites. The history of the vineyard in this property dates back to the XV1 century when it was a collection of vines that belonged to the monasteries of Salzedas and St Joao de Tarouca. I wonder how the monks would feel knowing that guests can now stay the night in a wine barrel (basically oversized barrels) just metres away from the vines. Each 30m suite includes a circular bed, private wardrobe, bathroom with shower and are fully air-conditioned and fitted with wi-fi.
Monverde Wine Experience Hotel and Winemaker
Another unique wine-related experience is an opportunity to be a winemaker for the afternoon, tasting, blending and creating your own vintage which you then get to cork and label up with your own label listing the date and grape varieties. This is a win-win activity for wine enthusiasts and takes place at The Monteverde Wine Experience Hotel located in Teloes-Amarate. The latter on an estate of 30 hectares of which 22 are dedicated to the production of grapes for Quinta da Lixa’s green and sparkling wines. I am somewhat mathematically challenged and chemistry was also never my strong point, so the measurements for blending each wine went rather over my head and my bottle which I labelled “mystery” was in the end just one grape variety. I thought it best to be safe. However, my fellow vintners took it far more seriously and had great fun blending and creating their own special bottle to take home.
Ponte De Lima
My trip wasn’t all quintas and wine tastings and it was good to stretch one’s legs at Ponte de Lima. Ponte de Lima is one of the oldest towns in Portugal and this extensive history is reflected in the assortment of ancient houses, pretty plazas and grand religious buildings found throughout the town. The town sits on the southern banks of the slow-flowing Lima River in the heart of the Minho district. The Lima Valley is the native home of the Loureiro grapes and these are used to produce the region’s light and refreshing Vinho Verde wines. The Vinho Verde Interpretation and Promotion Centre in the heart of the town actively promotes these wines and provides wine tastings. Ponte de Lima is a pretty place to wander around and I hope to return for The Festival Internacional de Jardins when the town is awash with flowers, and sweet floral scents waft from the numerous gardens and parks.
No visit to the region would be complete without some gastronomic treats and we were spoilt with the quality of restaurants visited. The gastronomy from the north is rich and healthy and the wines of the region again unique, aromatic and surprising. However, special mention must go to The DOC Restaurant in Folgosa on the national road (EN) 222 connecting Pinhao and Regua. This 27 km road was considered in 2015 by Avis the best road in the world to drive just for pleasure, a combination of straight road, curves and breath-taking sights. DOC is an acronym for “Degustar, Ousar, Comunicar” (translated: “Taste, Dare, Communicate” ) and Portuguese celebrity and Michelin star chef Rui Paula certainly does this in the dishes he creates, utilising products from the region, combining traditional Portuguese dishes and modern cuisine. Signature dishes include Guinea fowl wings with scallops and Jerusalem artichoke, grilled octopus with an infusion of extra virgin olive oil and garlic and tenderloin local veal with celery and French pearl barley.
Portugal was awarded Europe’s leading destination for a third year in a row at the World Travel Awards and both Lisbon and Porto are the cities on everyone’s lips at the moment which is not surprising when you think of the quality of the food and wine. The same can be said for the entire Douro Valley and Minho region, for a relaxing, gourmet holiday with no shortage of fine wines, they’re hard to beat.
TAP Air Portugal has 2 daily departures from London Gatwick to Porto. Prices start at £89 return including all taxes and surcharges. For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call 0345 601 0932