Portugal… Name three things it is most famous for… The Algarve’s coast and golf courses may be, surfing on the wild west coast definitely and….. of course the Douro Valley and its Port.
Who can go to Portugal and not be enticed into the world of this rich tawny nectar that has a subtle elegance like no other drink? If this your preferred tipple and in fact, even if it is not, why not explore the Douro Valley and its magical energy that will have you submissive to its power! Come with us as we sample just a tiny part of Portugal’s third largest river and its elixir of red loveliness as we take a little detour from our route north, to Pinhão.
Picture Perfect Douro Valley
At 557 miles long (897km) Portugal’s Douro Valley competes with the Tagus and Ebro rivers for supremacy. And with its curvaceous mountains arching above the sparkling blue waters and acres of fertile terraced farms, it may win. Tuscany has its rolling hills and larch trees framing the landscape although the Douro has a canvas with a 3D quality that if it were a book would most certainly jump out at you.
There is nothing flat or bland about this landscape. Carved, chiselled and moulded, these ridged hillsides have been shaped by hand to maximise the soil’s nourishing minerals and the sun’s rays. If there was ever an epitome of man and nature working in harmony, the Douro would be it. Our blessing is the result of this partnership creating the most sensual flavour of Port imaginable.
Whenever you visit, the Douro will offer you something enchanting. In early spring the shade of new terraces being crafted into the hill side create their own vision as the season takes hold for another year. As the summer months approach, new growth begins to alter the view as vines begin to bear fruit and flourish in the Iberian sun. Can you imagine autumn and how the vines change into golden and deep red hews? How incredible this changing tapestry is. Each season a different perspective, each year a new vista as the land shifts to man’s demands. This really is the ultimate living landscape.
With its origins in Spain, the Douro courses its way through the valley until it reaches its final destination at Porto and its paternal Atlantic. And along this entire stretch of waterway, vineyards stand proud as they perch on the ridges high above the water’s edge hoping to attract the sun as it warms the soil and sweetens its fruit. This is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world and the Douro has also made it into the World Heritage list – just two reasons alone for making a visit here.
Douro’s Alchemy – Pinhão
So what of Pinhão? Well it might be small in stature although this gorgeous and typical working town really packs a punch. As you travel up the river or on the N222 east from Peso da Régua, you’ll not miss this thriving heart of the Douro valley. On the northern banks of the river, this town scales the slopes, optimising its position for the passage of the sun.
As we approached it by road we were welcomed by the town as it clings to the sides of the mountain with boats buzzing up and down the river. Its bridge that magnificently arches over the sparkling blue waters, is larger than life. As you cross it, you enter a world of local industry, productivity and pride as the farmers tend to their land, their vines and their produce. There is so little tourism here, despite the three daily cruise boats that moor up overnight waiting for their passengers’ Quinta tours. We spotted only a couple of tourist shops which was so refreshing. I’m sure during the high season this might well change although for early spring it was lovely to walk around the town without that commercial edge.
To make the most of your visit, here are 7 ways to fill your time in this little part of heaven.
1. Drive the N222 from Peso da Régua to Pinhão
Whilst perhaps not specifically ‘What to do in Pinhão’, given that the N222 route east from Régua to Pinhão is one the best routes in Europe, it has to be on your list of ‘must do’s. From Peso da Régua, you take a right turn before the two iconic bridges from where you begin your enchanting journey. Although only 30 minutes driving time, this is one of those roads you need to savour as if it were a divine glass of Port; unlike a chaser that is downed in one, this route demands to be sipped with an awareness of how it affects you. And visually it certainly delivers.
A full view of the Douro is seen at all times as you weave around the architectural mountains that hold such precious secrets. The vista comes alive when we see sailing boats and cruise boats navigating the water looking for their own version of paradise. As you turn left towards Pinhão on N323, your destination is in sight; the allure of Pinhão soon becomes evident as you see this small town clinging to the mountain side offering its magical invitation to sample something so much more than its Port. Your road trip, whilst short, gives you such an amazing introduction to the soul of the Douro and cannot be missed. If you need more convincing, check out our gallery below by clicking the image.
2. Visit the viewpoint of Casal de Loivos
High up in the hills above Pinhão you will find the secret gem of Casal de Loivos. This is an incredible panoramic vista across the Douro mountains and river. Not only will you be breathless from the climb or cycle up there, the scenery will steal your words and your breath. See the river snaking around the natural curves in the valley that it has carved over thousands of years. Observe the iconic sculpting of the land for the vineyards which are more shapely than a buxom lass. This picture perfect view will leave you in no doubt about the Douro’s majesty.
A word of warning. Whilst the viewpoint is only three miles away, it is at least a mile and a half of gruelling almost vertical roads. There is a longer route that you can take by taxi, car or bike, although, if like us you take the short cut, be prepared to either be extremely fit or have your electricity on full power. It was one of the most challenging cycles we’ve done for a long time.
3. Take a Port tasting session at Quinta do Bomfim
Of course a visit to this region would not be complete without a tasting session. And what better a place than the family run and high class Quinta do Bomfim. Run for generations by the Symington family, this stunning Quinta (farm) has poll-position right along the northern shores of the Douro. This traditional estate with its white-washed walls, terracotta roof tiles and wisteria dripping pagodas, is a joy to visit.
You enter the Reception area and are greeted with the warmth of a family member and offered the options. You can have a guided tour, which you must book ahead of time or simply sit out on the terrace with views over the river and enjoy a tasting session. There are a number of tours you can enjoy depending on your time and interest. Starting at €17pp (which includes tasting) you can explore the processing area, see how the vines are nurtured and how the red alchemy is created.
We visited at the end of March and arrived at the Quinta at 1530. There was a tour we could have joined at 1630. Although on this occasion we decided to sit outside and enjoy the spring sunshine. We had a menu of Ports and wines to choose from and together with the team’s insightful descriptions we headed for a 20 year-old Vintage Ruby, Dow’s Tawny and Dow’s 1992 Special Edition Tawny. Each glass was amply filled and you can choose to your palate or your purse. Of course there is a shop should you want to take a bottle or two home. What a lovely place to come and experience the history of Port and how this Quinta conjures up their own special little bit of heaven.
4. Take a trip on a traditional Robelo boat
Walk along the riverside promenade and you see traditional barrel carrying boats – Robelos and less traditional craft waiting to take you for a toodle up the river. There’s no pressurising, no offensive pushy salesmen trying to get your business. You can take a trip for an hour for €10pp or 2 hours for €20pp and a free glass of Port. It’s a lovely way to spend an hour or two and you go east along the river, beyond the passage of the cruise boats. It’s a great perspective to see the valley from the river watch the cormorants and red kites make the most of the Douro river’s treasure.
Check out our short video footage below.
5. Eat traditional Portuguese food
It was my birthday whilst we visited, so we were looking for a nice place to grab some lunch. And there are some bars along the riverside and a hotel up by the bridge. Although our eyes were caught by a lovely riverside establishment – The Writer’s Place. Housed in a traditional Portuguese railway worker’s home, this family-run restaurant pride themselves in home-cooked food, great views across the river and great service. There’s a range of meals available and if you visit you will be satiated without doubt.
6. Pop into the Train Station for a story of the Douro
Who would have thought that a train station could have told such a story? Well Pinhão’s certainly does. Over and above it being a place to take the train to either Porto to the east or Pocinho this station is like a storyboard. Around the entire outside of the station are archetypal blue Portuguese tiles each one depicting an element of life on the river and amongst the vines. It’s beautiful to see and very atmospheric. Oh and whilst you’re there, there is a little Port shop that sells a wide variety of bottles that have a slightly cheaper price tag than perhaps those of the individual Quintas.
7. The Butcher is a must
After Port tasting, you could be forgiven for thinking the gastronomy experience was over. Although no. If you cross the road from the station, you will find the three, red canopies of the local Butcher. Yet he is no ordinary Butcher. This is another place where fine art is practised, the art of smoked meats. Qualifier Quinta das Borracas is a special visit because the minute you walk through the flyscreens, it is as though you have entered an entirely different world. A small counter is filled with meats and goats’ cheese of every dimension and hung around the walls are every shape of smoked sausage you can possibly imagine. Lady Gaga would be proud to be seen in this place for sure.
As you approach the counter you are instantly greeted by Senhor, who brings out a sheet of paper and starts to carve small samples of the cured ham and sausage that he proudly displays in front of you. Then a silver, metal urn appears with two small mugs. And he deftly pours two glasses of white liquor, which is his own apple and honey wine and is as chilled as a winter’s day. It accompanies the meat you are sampling so nicely. And for only €18.50 per kilo for the thinly sliced meat, you are drawn in by the flavour and it is futile to not make a purchase, which will not break the bank. And served with crunchy bread and some cooling melon, you have a wonderful reminder of your visit to this tiny artisanal butcher that you could so easily bypass. Put it on your list and savour the flavours of his artistry. Check out our little gallery below to whet your appetite.
Parking and Staying
If you come to Pinhão by road, do bare in mind that there are not many places to park. It’s a riverside town so space can be at a premium especially during the busy season. There are some places along the water’s edge and also up on the main road.
For campers and motorhomes, we did see some vans parked at the far end of the waterside promenade, although the road down is steep and narrow for vehicles longer than 7.5m. We spent the night around the corner, across the tributary (41.1868, -7.55087), which out of season is fine. Although once the main cruising season begins, the area is swamped with coaches waiting for the hotel boats so they can ship their visitors to their Quinta tours.
If hotels are more your thing, then there are a number of hotels we saw, including the Vintage House Hotel by the main bridge and the LBV House Hotel at the other end of the town. Here is a list that might help you make up your mind.
Our closing thoughts on Pinhão
Pinhão specifically and the Douro as a whole are wonderful places to visit. We so nearly missed it off our list as we journeyed north. And boy are we glad we didn’t. So whether by cruise, by road or by bike, allow the Douro to warm your soul with its poetic hillsides and musical tones as the river carries you through a living and breathing land. Allow the magic of Pinhao to wash over you as you absorb its authentic charm and feel like your life has been blessed with just a little bit of alchemy.
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