Before visiting Portugal, we’d only ever drank Port while spending Christmases at Shelley’s family home. It’s one of her family’s Christmas traditions but brands are very limited in UK supermarkets. We love its deep sweetness and rich aroma so were keen to taste more of the wine-like alcoholic drink. There’s no better place in the world to do this than Portugal’s beautiful Douro Valley. The home of Port Wine. And just a few hours east from Porto, along the Douro River, is Pinhao. The centre of the Douro Valley.
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Port Wine has been produced along the Douro River for 2000 years, making it one of the oldest wine regions in the world! But the Douro Valley has more than just the perfect climate and soil for cultivating grapes. The region is mountainous and the vineyards are planted on terraces which creates a very striking landscape. It brought back memories of terraced rice paddies in Bali and the rolling tea plantations in India.
We’ve not visited many of the world’s wine regions. However, our shortlist includes the alluring Hunter Valley in Australia and the Andes backdropped Mendoza region in Argentina. We can honestly say the Douro Valley trumps both of those in terms of its natural beauty.
When to go to the Douro Valley
The endless rows of terraced grape vines are nothing more than dark stumps during the winter but come April, the leaves gradually transform the hills until they’re covered with bright green stripes. By harvest time in September, the green begins to fade and warm golds and coppers start to take over.
We visited the Douro Valley during September’s harvest season. The colours aren’t so impressive as earlier in the warmest and greenest summer months but the vineyards hang heavy with juicy ripe grapes ready for picking. The area was full of grape production activity. From grape pickers up in the terraces to boats on the Douro River and trucks on the road overflowing with the plump ready to eat fruit. If you want hands-on experience of the harvest, September is the time of year to come. You can pick your own grapes and even crush them the traditional way, by foot.
Getting to the Douro Valley Along the Douro River
To get to the Douro Valley, follow the Douro River eastwards from Porto, Portugal’s up and coming second city. Getting there is half the fun as can be done by boat, road or train. Organised day trips from Porto commonly offer a boat trip out to the Douro Valley and then a train ride to return. Or vice versa.
Any mode of transport is rewarding as the road and train line hugs the mountainside on the edge of the Douro River. This offers fantastic window scenes of the colourful patchwork landscape. We took the train from Porto’s beautiful São Bento train station. The journey was stunning once the train left Porto’s urban surroundings and found the Douro River. Make sure to sit on the right side of the carriage from Porto and left side when returning.
Stay in Pinhao
You can visit the region on a day trip from Porto but to really appreciate the area we recommend staying a few nights. Travelling by train gave us the option to visit any of the Douro River station towns as far as Pocinho. After a bit of research, we chose to spend a few nights in Pinhao. Pinhao is a great little base town to explore the vineyards and everything else the Douro Valley has to offer.
Pinhao is quiet, relaxed and not too touristy. Well not in September anyway. The sleepy town has a small selection of coffee shops, bakeries, restaurants and shops. So there’s plenty of places to browse, drink and eat when you’re not sampling the area’s finest Port Wine. There are even two or three wineries within the town itself so you don’t have to go far!
We loved how Pinhao takes the siesta tradition very seriously. The town almost fully shuts down for a few hours in the afternoon, leaving clueless travellers like us wandering the streets while trying to find somewhere open to eat. Thankfully there’s a relaxing promenade by the Douro River where we killed some time until the siesta was over.
Getting Around the Douro Valley & Pinhao
Aside from the obvious boat trips up and down the Douro River, there are other ways to explore the area.
Hiring a car is the best way to get around the Douro Valley. It gives you the freedom to visit any of the regions wineries and lookout points. There are several themed routes, such as the olive oil route and the Cisterian route. You can follow these mapped routes or mix and match the highlights to suit yourselves. Then there’s the N222 between Pinhao and Regua, voted the World’s Best Drive in 2015!
If you’re staying at one of the quintas (wine estates) in the area, they’ll most likely have bikes for rent. They’ll be able to suggest suitable routes or include a bike tour as part of their package. Otherwise, you can easily find a tour company in Pinhao which caters to cyclists with or without their own bikes.
There are plenty of walking trails within the Douro Valley, many of which are planned and marked out by the local councils, others provided by the wine estates themselves. Ask at the local tourist information office for route leaflets.
Our Pinhao Guesthouse Recommendation
We booked a stunner of a guest house situated about 10 minutes by taxi up the mountain from Pinhao. We don’t always recommend our choice of accommodation but we cannot write this post without mentioning Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros.
The stately Manor House perched on the mountain side is absolutely charming. The main house and other guest buildings offer some of the best vistas in the region. It’s worth paying extra for a room with a balcony view. We were very lucky to get a free room upgrade!
If you’re looking for pure relaxation then there is no need to leave this guesthouse
Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros oozes calm and comfort with peaceful seating areas scattered all over the large landscaped garden. You can take your complimentary bottle of port wine to the pool or jacuzzi. Both of which overlook the never ending rolling mountains. There’s even a sauna inside a giant wine barrel!
The highlight for us was the amazing evening meals cooked in the main house open kitchen. Each night they serve a delicious three-course set meal with three accompanying ports and wines. All guests eat at the same time so it’s a great opportunity to talk with other travellers. If you still need even more wine or any other drinks for that matter, then you can help yourself to the unlimited self-serve bar. Everything you drink at the bar is managed by an honesty system tab which you pay for when checking out.
Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros in Pinhao really did make our Douro Valley experience special. Together with the area’s fantastic port wine and astounding Douro River views, it has to be on everyone’s list of places to visit in Portugal.
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