Explore Douro Valley
I read about Douro Valley in Portugal years ago and was intrigued about this ancient place. The home of port wine. When we decided to add Portugal to our Spain tour, the chance to explore Douro Valley was too good to miss.
We found the most stunning terraced vineyards rising steeply from the river. The beautiful river Douro, that gives the valley its name, flowing past countless Quintas (Portuguese wine estates). Small Robelos navigate the river alongside large tourist cruise boats. Robelos are flat, wide boats, that were used for centuries to transport the port wine to Porto, more about that later.
Camping in Douro Valley
We based ourselves in the town of Lamego at Camping Lamego. A terraced site at the top of a hill. This is a small, family run site, with limited tent and campervan spaces. All sites have stunning views of the town and hills. This campsite is a great base to explore Douro Valley. The best part was the super friendly owner, she took the time to suggest some activities the children might like and make sure we got the best out of our stay. When she heard they are doing worldschool and need to complete school work each day, she offered the hotel lounge for them to work in!
The town of Lamego itself has some beautiful churches, but the main site is, Igreja de Nossa Senhora dos Remedios. A stunning 18th Century church and important pilgrimage site. The church is overshadowed by the staircase that leads from the town centre up the hill to the church itself.
More than 600 steps, we counted up, and we counted down, but we’re still none the wiser as to the exact number. Interspersed with terraces, azulejos, gardens, statues and fountains. When you are exhausted and need a break you can pretend to be looking at the pretty flowers before you tackle the next staircase. At the top you can enjoy stunning views over the town, at the bottom you can marvel at the beauty of the staircase and church above.
You can drive to the top if you’re not able to walk this many stairs. But to appreciate all the details of the gardens and in particular the azulejos (Portuguese painted tiles), you need to walk and explore the different levels of the staircase.
Wine tasting in the Douro Valley
You cannot explore Douro valley without visiting a Quinta. There are a huge number of Quintas (wine estates) to visit in the Douro Valley. We chose Quinta do Vallado, it was recommended by the campsite and our guide book. This blog post has a list of 10 recommended Quinta’s in the Douro Valley. Bookings for the tour are essential.
Quinta do Vallado
Quinta do Vallado is one of the oldest wineries in the Douro valley, established in 1716. A new winery and cellar were completed in 2009. A visit to this Quinta is a striking mix of the old and modern in wine making.
The wine tour at Quinta do Vallado turned out to be a great choice, one of the best wine tours we’ve ever been on. We’ve been on quite a few! The incredibly comprehensive tour took us through every step of the wine making and port making process. Starting in the vineyard we were able to visit all parts of the winery. We saw the equipment and heard about state of the art modern practices, as well as traditional ones.
We visited the port cellar with huge barrels that are never emptied. Here S asked the question of the day ‘Do you ever clean these barrels?’ The answer was no, because the barrels are so old, as soon as they are emptied they begin to shrink and would collapse.
The wine tasting concludes the visit and takes half an hour, we tasted so many wines I lost count! Whites, reds, then white port and tawny port. We made some purchases in the shop, our space limitations are always so frustrating! I was lucky enough to pick up some Quinta do Vallado wines in supermarkets during our stay in Portugal. Their Rose was delicious and good value.
Our guide gave us a great tip: Quinta do Vallado White Port makes an excellent cocktail with tonic, lime, orange and ginger.
Engaging tour for adults and children
It was a delight to see the kids engaged during the whole tour. They both asked questions and we studied the science of fermentation. Their concentration and listening was better than that of many adults on the tour. While we were tasting they ate their fill of the complimentary crackers and bread, then went outside to take photos of the vineyard.
At the completion of the tour, the guide told them ‘never stop asking questions’. This was so different to our tour in France, where their questions were ignored.
Worldschool and Wine
In Portugal learning about wine is learning about science, culture, history, geography and more. What does a vine need to grow? How do we use machines to control fermentation? How does sugar turn into alcohol? Where does the wine go after it is bottled? How does it get there? In what way is that different today compared to previous centuries? How was port invented? What is the significance of the location of the Quintas on the river, in the history of winemaking and exporting in the Douro valley? How did the barrels of port wine get to England? What is the connection to what we learned about shipping in San Sebastian? And so on…
More Worldschool in the Douro Valley
This history of the river Douro is interesting. From its source it flows across northern central Spain, into Portugal, through the Douro Valley into the sea at Porto. Historically port wine from the Douro Valley was transported to be stored in cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the river from Porto. It was transported using flat bottomed boats called Rabelos. The journey was perilous and barrels were frequently lost. Some air was always left in the barrels so they would float!
In the 1960s and 70s, the river was dammed and locks built to allow river traffic from Spain through to Porto. The port wine is transported in much less exciting tankers on the road now. These days the Rabelos are used for tourist sightseeing trips.
Worldschool: How does a lock work?
We stopped at one of the locks to watch a boat go through. We saw all the stages as it came into the lock and the doors were closed. Then the chamber filled with water and the boat rose higher and higher towards us. It was a tourist river cruise boat, the kids had fun waving from the bridge to the tourists below. When it was high enough the door on the other side opened and it sailed through onto the next section of river. Locks are another one of those things that someone can explain to you, but once you see it for yourself it makes a lot more sense, especially if you are a visual learner. Later that day L updated his notebook with a diagram of a boat going through a lock.
Some people will probably think this is like watching paint dry but others might find it interesting! Here is a video of the boat going through the lock.
After quite a while watching the lock, we continued up the road alongside the river for about half an hour, until we arrived at Pinhao.
Pinhao is lovely little town nestled on the banks of the river Douro, with the road on one side and train line on the other. There is a bend on the river here so the town is surrounded by views of the valley and the vine covered hills.
Pinhao is where we had one of our biggest foreign language fails of our travels so far!
We arrived around lunchtime with a wine tasting scheduled for the afternoon so we knew we needed to eat. Since we’d been a bit disorganised and it was a Sunday there wasn’t much open. We chose a restaurant with a beautiful terrace and views over the river. Probably a bit fancier than we’d normally go to, but there wasn’t much choice and the people watching location was priceless.
Ordering a ‘glass’ of wine in Portugal
After so much red wine in Spain and on a warm day I fancied a glass of white wine with lunch. My question to the waiter (who spoke fairly good English, certainly much better than my Portuguese), was, “do have white wine by the glass?”
“Certainly, yes we do”, he replied. He lovingly described the qualities of the local white wine they served as their house wine and offered me a tasting. This seemed rather exceptional service for a simple glass of wine, but why not. He bought me a very generous tasting, it was very good. Paul said he would have a glass as well. The waiter replied ‘ok I’ll bring one more glass’.
Now I’m thinking maybe it isn’t such a generous tasting after all, perhaps that was the whole serving! I’m going from happy to disappointed and confused. Then he returns to the table with another glass and a 1 litre carafe of wine. Oh dear… This is even more confusing, maybe he is just going to pour 2 glasses and take the carafe away? No, it appears the whole carafe is for us. Somehow I’ve managed to order a litre of wine!
This is a big problem because Paul is driving and there is no way I can go wine tasting this afternoon after drinking all this wine. We don’t have enough Portuguese to explain the mix up. We have no idea how much it is going to cost. What to do?
The solution comes when I remember the 500ml bottle of water in my hand bag. We encourage the kids to drink loads of water. Then Paul pours large glasses of wine and ‘discreetly’ empties the wine into the water bottle under the table. The waiter must think we are drinking this wine rather rapidly! Mission accomplished the bottle is in my handbag for drinking later.
Then the people next to us somehow managed to order and receive 2 glasses of wine and I’m thinking where did I go wrong? Finally we paid the bill, the price for the whole carafe? Just 8 Euros, about 13 NZD. I’ve paid more than that for a glass of wine in NZ!
Barelo Boat Trip on the Douro River
We rounded out our worldschool education, with another way to explore Douro Valley. We’d learned about the production of wine, the invention of port, shipping to England, and the use of the river to move the port wine barrels to Porto. The next day we returned to Pinhao to experience a Barelo boat ride. The road along the riverside is very scenic but after Pinhao the road turns away from the river and the only way to see the scenery is by train or boat.
Tour companies use the old Barelo boats, previously used to transport the port wine barrels down the river to Porto, for sightseeing trips. 1 hour boat trips are 10 Euro per person, half price for children. There are longer trips but we felt unless you are truly passionate about the scenery, 1 hour was enough. At the end of the trip the kids had a chance to visit the captain’s cabin and try their hand at steering the boat.
In our next post we follow the port wine barrels to Porto, it seems logical to visit the port wine cellars! We also find a special spot for Harry Potter fans.