The Douro Valley, wine, accordions, and a houseboat!

Just a wine barrel waiting it’s turn to head across the very narrow bridge.

From Porto we headed west in to the wine region famous for being the home of Port Wine, and the oldest demarcated wine region. Just as wines from areas outside of Champange, France just sparkle, Port must come from the Douro Valley. But, there is more wine in the region than just the fortified varieties. There is also a lot of olive oil produced here too.

The region is beautiful with a wide, meandering river and terraced hillsides rising up both sides. Early November was well past the harvest this year, but many vines still wore leaves resplendent in their fall colors. We had mild and sunny days for most of our visit.

Just one of many great river views from the train out of Porto. While the river cruise season is winding down, there are still a lot of boats making the trek on the Douro. One night there were three river cruise ships docked near us, but we heard they have as many as seven at a time during high season!

The wine region not only has all of the production and process rules in place for centuries, it is also a UNESCO site which means tradition is very important. So, grapes are harvested by hand by the women and carried out of the vineyards in baskets by the men. This method is also necessary because of the tight rows and steep inclines in many vineyards-known as Quintas. Many of the vineyards still have the stone walled terraces built by the Romans when they first came to the region in the 2nd century BC. The stone walled terraces are not only historic, they reduce erosion, which is a problem in newer vineyards that are not installing them.

The terraced vineyards, and you can see the fall colors!

Another tradition is the stomping of the grapes. Not every vineyard or vintage is done this way, but at Quinta da Foz the charming woman helping us select wine proudly declared their wine was made this way. They had some photos of men stomping the grapes and Dan asked where the photo of her stomping grapes was. She said it was a job for men and their big feet!

A view of Quinta da Foz, more terraced vineyard and a bright tree.

We learned some other stuff about wine too. They use American root stock because it is resistant to a pest that damages European root stock. There is a fungus that will affect the vines that also hits roses, and shows up earlier on the roses. So, some vineyards have rosebushes planted around the grapes so they know if they need to treat for the fungus. Our guide called them the sacrificial lambs for the wine.

These aren’t sacrificial lamb roses, but they are blooming in early November! The bridge behind it was designed by Eiffel-of that tower in Paris fame-and is very narrow, although the number of vehicles willing to make it two lane is surprisingly high.

It takes about 3 years for a vine to get rooted and start producing, then the vine will supply a lot of grapes. As the vine matures the quality increases, but the quantity goes down. Old vines, we have learned on previous winery visits, are highly valued and by old they mean over 30 years. Here in the Douro they have vines which are producing at over 100 years.

The vineyards, especially those which grow grapes primarily for Port wine have the varieties intermingled. The winery tour guide may have explained why, but he was also telling jokes and neither of us can remember the reason. Several of the wines we tasted are blends with 20 or more grape varieties in them.

Storage tanks for the wine.

Olive oil is another major product of the region. The olive trees are often planted at the boundaries of vineyards and, increasingly, in place of vineyards as they require less work and money to maintain and harvest. On a tour of the area we visited an olive oil collective and learned about the old process for pressing the fruit. During that tour we learned the difference between “regular” processed and cold processed oil. Cold process is newer, and a much easier and shorter process, which also results in better oil. Apologies to anyone who runs in to us in real life over the next bit, because the factoids I learned are sure to be brought up in conversation.

Olive trees being prepped for harvest. Mostly the olives get knocked out of the trees onto the netting.
Back in the day, before the cold press process, the olives were crushed into a paste which was spread onto matts, stacked and pressed to extract the juice (oil). There would be bits of skin, pulp, and seed so they would add water and allow the oil to rise to the top.
This press had a McLaren engine. If you’re a car person that will likely impress you, if you’re not, trust me – it’s kinda like the Lamborghini tractor from Leiria.
We learned all about the wine and olive oil making on a wonderful day tour. Our delightful and very knowledgeable guide showed us great views and took us to the village in the region with the very best water – apparently many folks come up here to get water! So glad we took the tour! Added bonus – for us, maybe less for her – we kept running in to our new friend around town during the rest of our stay!

Our home base for exploring the region was Pinhão, but one day we took the train to Pocinho which is the end of the train line. The tracks hug the river and it was well worth the 2 hour round trip. We got off in Tua, the stop just past Pinhão and hiked a trail laid out as a school project during COVID, which was both a feat and perfect assignment given the lock downs and social distancing in 2020.

Yep, that’s a tunnel, yep the tracks go through there, yep, our train did too!
Here’s a view of a river cruise ship as it enters the lock for a dam in the Douro River on the way to Pocinho – that’s a long way down!
A view of the dam on the Tua River from the trail. The release happening gave us a bonus rainbow.
The trail takes you down along the Douro River.
A Viking river cruise ship passes us by as we hike along the Douro in Tua. Remember the ship we saw in the lock from the train? It was very likely the same boat!

On the surprisingly full train from Pocinho, someone broke out an accordion in the car behind us and played some lively music as we rolled along beside the Douro River. They were in the car behind us, but opening the connecting door we could hear the music and even see a bit of the aisle dancing that was going on. This might be Dan’s favorite story of the trip!

Another river cruise ship going down river toward Pinhão and Porto.

When we were planning our trip to Pinhão one of the lodging choices was a houseboat. I was intrigued but would not have booked it left to my own devices. After I mentioned the choice to Dan he was all in! “Of course we should stay on the houseboat! Think of the experience.” So, we spent the week on a really nice, tiny, but nice houseboat. After we adjusted to the realities of a marine toilet and figured out how to get in and out of the bunk beds we settled in and enjoyed the gentle sway of our space.

Our home sweet home on the Pinhão River. Yes, the boat is named for a type of beer, in the middle of the great wine region. No, no one told us why…
The lodging came with breakfast delivered every day. They also had snacks, wine and beer (mini bar style – so we didn’t partake of them – but Homeboat is a nice place to stay if you’re ever here).
The very generous breakfast basket also yielded dinner most evenings! We found several really nice restaurants in town that served great lunches, so a light dinner was all we needed anyway.

Another view of our houseboat!

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