Hey, ho and away we go! Donkey riding in the Douro
The original choice for our Fall vacation was the Exodus trip Walking the Prosecco Hills, but when we went to book it, they had only one spot left. So we switched to Portugal: Walking and Wine. This was classed as a Premium trip, meaning 4- and 5-star hotels, and was rated a walking level 1, suggesting easier walking than our previous level 2 Exodus trips. We were a bit concerned that October in the Douro region could be somewhat rainy, but we figured we’d just prepare for that possibility and hope for the best.
Day 1: The Canadian invasion
A definite plus for this trip was the direct flights from Toronto to Porto, even though the choices were two budget airlines: Air Transat or Air Canada Rouge. We went with Rouge, as it had a better itinerary.
Though it was (Canadian) Thanksgiving weekend, things went really smoothly at Pearson: Baggage drop, check-in, boarding… We even had time (before boarding) for an unusually good airport meal at Lee’s (as in Chef Susur Lee). The flight itself took off on time and actually arrived early. Rouge does have older planes without back-of-seat screens (there’s an app you can use to watch movies on your tablet), but at least we were in a row of just two seats, on the side, which was nice.
We had a bit of wait until our Exodus transport would show up (timed for the British flight scheduled for a couple hours later), so we had some lunch and picked up a local SIM card: $30 for 5 GB of data, baby! Great service at the Vodaphone booth, as well.
The British flight ended up delayed by an extra hour, but by then the Exodus people were there anyway and agreed to drive us and one other person who’d already arrived to the hotel at the original time. We faced a long, slow lineup to check in at the hotel, but once we got to our room, we found that it was fine.
The group meeting was at 5:00. We met our two guides, Ricardo and Luis, and the rest of the group. We’d been expecting mostly Brits, as on previous tours, but of the other 14, only three were British (one of them currently residing in California, which left her with wicked jet lag). There was an Australian couple. And everybody else was Canadian! 11 strong. Other than the Brits and us, everyone else had been doing other touring around Portugal before joining the walking trip. (We did have an extra two days tacked onto the end.)
No organized dinner this evening, so we walked Porto’s twisty streets and found a small (literally, the width of an aisle) tapas restaurant to eat in. We tried a few different dishes that were all good, especially the goat cheese melt, and each had a glass of white vino verde. Jean also had a bit of port with dessert.
Day 2: Walking in the valley
In the morning after breakfast (breakfast was included with the hotel each day, all of them offering a very nice buffet), we left our hotel for the Meso Frio region, a couple of hours’ drive away. Our first stop was a coffee shop, and then we embarked upon one of the more strenuous hikes of the trip, in terms of elevation change. (In length it was 7 km.) It was still easier than many on the other Exodus trips we’d been on, but a vigorous start to this trip. The day was gorgeous.
The scenery wasn’t super spectacular on this one, but we saw a lot of agriculture products growing (walnuts, kale, lemons, grapes…), and some sheep.
We had a bag lunch on the trail, then after the hike (which was a definite challenge for some in the group), we were driven to our new hotel. It was in a vineyard, and was very fine.
Dinner was at the hotel. The food was palatable but not outstanding. It was becoming clear this would be a fun group, though.
Day 3: Going to market to learn about port
This day’s walk was only about 4 km, and all on winery grounds. It was another beautiful day, and we got some great views of the just astonishing terraces of the Douro region. They are just everywhere, and so elaborate!
Mid-point through the hike, Ricardo said that those who wanted could go off on an extra little jog to see something special. Many on the trip thought he was saying that it was a market we were going to—though that was a bit confusing, as it was in kind of an isolated, rural place that required some climbing: How were people going to get their wares up there?
Then we arrived a rectangular rock. What Ricardo had been actually saying, in his Portuguese accent, was that we were going to see a marker. Basically, a stone signpost demarcating the official Douro wine region. The placement of these–there are some 300 in total–were an important phase in the development of this wine industry. But a lot of the group was in giggles at their thought that we were going to market.
Our lunch at the end of the hike was at a winery called Quinta do Tedo. It was a buffet with cheese, quiche, cod cakes, chutney, and of course, wine.
We then got a tour and a bit of a primer on the port-making process. At this particular, relatively small, winery, they still used foot crushing for the port-destined grapes. (At least, I don’t think he was kidding about that—our guide here definitely was a kidder.) Though it should be noted that they use the same grapes for port as they do for red wine—just process them differently. Tawny port is aged in much smaller barrels than ruby, imparting more of the wood taste into the drink. Vintage ports are made only in exceptional years. They keep aging in the bottle, but must be drunk pretty quickly once opened. The non-vintage do not age after bottling, but once opened, can be kept for up to year without deterioration.
We then tasted the port: A rose (a type I’d never had before), a tawny, and a ruby. All of them were good and smooth, but the rose was the sweetest, and the tawny was my favorite overall.
Our next stop was the Douro museum, dedicated to the history of wine-making in the region. We got an interesting guided tour of it. Wine-making in the past was extremely labour-intensive!
Back at our hotel, we found a bunch of MG’s in the parking lot. Sadly, they weren’t for us. An MG hobby group were holding a meeting here.
For dinner that night, we drove into the nearby (15 minutes) town. Big group dinners are always a challenge, but this restaurant managed it pretty well. Ricardo warned us that the entrees were quite large and best shared. Jean was insistent on having veal stew, while I tend not to eat veal, so I shared a salmon dinner with one of the singles on the trip. It was prepared very nicely, and served with good potatoes and cabbage/carrot mix. Jean did a masterful job on his generous serving of veal stew.
ay 4: Vertigo on a rail line, and death at a funeral
We were moving on again, but a full day of activities before arriving at the new hotel. Today’s hike was the longest of the trip, at 10 km, but was mostly flat: a former rail line. The day was once again gorgeous.
There wasn’t too much drama on this trail, except that to save time, we were encouraged to cross a bridge with openings looking down on a fairly big drop. There was a railing and all, so I thought it would be OK, but once I got on it, the vertigo set in and the heart started racing. I couldn’t get across it fast enough, so every time the group stopped (probably just twice) was kind of torturous. But we all survived it without any obvious panic attacks. (One group member, Carolyn, did so by taking an alternate route down and around the bridge instead, with the second guide.)
After the walk, we were driven to Casa de Mateus, a beautiful property belonging to a member of Portugal’s royal family. Its association with the Mateus bubbly rose wine from Portugal is tenuous: that winery just got permission to use the image of the estate in its branding.
We got a tour of the chapel and the lovely rooms full of art, including the very impressive library, then had some time to wander on our own through the beautiful gardens.
Our next stop was at the waterfalls in Alvao Natural Park, but they really aren’t that impressive this time of year. Not much water falling.
Dinner that night was at our new hotel, which was also lovely, and, it turned out, served some of the best food we had on the trip (goat cheese on croute, sea bass or lamb main, creme brulee… All very well prepared). Making it easier to forgive the sometimes choppy service. One thing we learned on this trip was that vinho verde comes in red and rose as well as white. We shared a bottle of the red with the Australian couple. It’s definitely unusual—tastes kind of like a fresh white, but with extra tannin—but when else are you going to be able to drink it? [Red green wine: very Canadian!]
The group was in great spirits, and one point everyone within proximity was in hysterical laughter over Cheryl’s descriptions of scenes from the movie Death at a Funeral—even though most of us had never seen it. It was just contagious laughter. That only accelerated when her acting out of one scene had her backing into another table. Fortunately, the couple sitting there were good sports about it. (I guess I need to watch Death at Funeral now. It is on Netflix. I was warned to watch the British version, not the American.)
Day 5: Winery, oui oui oui! Octopus, non non non!
Today’s walk was through another winery, Quinta das Escomoeiras, which offered longer and more challenging terrain than our previous winery walk. And it was lovely weather again.
We then got a tour by the winery owner, who purchased the vineyard 24 years ago, after a career as an economist. It required a lot of rehabilitation before becoming a going concern. He explained where the name vinho verdo (green wine) came from. In the early years, they planted the grape vines too close together, and therefore didn’t produce a very good quality product. It was low alcohol and actually had a bit of a green tinge. They improved the process and the product later on, but the name stuck.
As vinho verde is a food wine, instead of a tasting it on its own, we had the opportunity to try the white, rose, and red with a delicious buffet lunch. It was a leisurely meal on the patio, with a distinct feeling amongst the group that we could just stay here all day.
Our favourite wine was the rose, which I considered purchasing, given that I don’t know that we can get anything but white vinho verde back home? (A Google search says that yes, I can.) But ultimately I decided against carting a bottle of wine around for the rest of the trip, and instead bought a small bottle of dried stevia. (Fernando also grew a number of herbs on his property.)
We were eventually convinced to get back into the vans for a ride back to the hotel, with a little stop at a grocery store on the way. We agreed to go into town for dinner this evening. It was a small, family-run restaurant (not a big town, so not sure what else they’d have there), with a somewhat limited menu, but fine for us (and not so much for those who aren’t into fish, seafood, or pork). Jean, I, and Cheryl, sitting next to us all decided to try one of the specialties: octopus in olive oil. It arrived in the form of a large tentacle on the plate (with veggies on the side).
Helen, sitting opposite us, could hardly stand it. She was totally turned off by the look of this food, and was facing three plates of it! (It was actually quite tasty and tender.) Unfortunate, but kind of funny, from our perspective.
I believe that it’s about this point in the trip that we started doing singalongs in the van. (Wine might have played a role in all this.) One song that kept making everyone laugh was “Donkey Riding” (which I think of as a Great Big Sea tune, but it’s actually an old sea shanty). Apparently some people in Alberta used to sing that song in school. “It’s so stupid!” said Cheryl. “Was you ever in Quebec, riding on a donkey? What…? Why did they teach us that?”
Some questions have no answers.
Another one, courtesy Jean, was “Chevalier de la table ronde”, with everyone joining in on the “Oui, oui, oui!” / “Non, non, non!” parts. Kind of an appropos song for this wine-soaked journey.
Day 6: A little rain and a near-death experience in California
The first rain of the trip occurred overnight, but mostly petered out by the time we started the day’s 8 km walk, along a waterway. There are a few tricky bits through some water-covered parts, but nothing we couldn’t manage (though a couple of group members did opt to skip this one, and Helen got a minor injury from slipping on a rock).
Afterward, we drove up to a chapel on a (small) mountain that we’d been able to see from our hotel. Driving up there, on twisty roads near the edge, Caroline rather casually told us about how she’d been on similar roads in California when the bus driver had a massive heart attack and died, causing the bus to lurch over the edge. Thanks to fast action from one passenger, greater disaster was averted, and everyone ultimately managed to evacuate with only minor injuries.
But I can see why Carolyn isn’t so fond of heights and was rather tense during this drive.
In less death-defying news, the clouds had cleared enough by this time so we were able to take in the views from there. (Those who skipped the hike also joined us here.)
Given a choice between the hotel and the octopus restaurant, the group almost unanimously selected the hotel. Jean and I both had a duck with rice dish called arroz de pato that I’d like to find a recipe for. (And also of the caldo verde we had a few times—a kale-based soup that is really nice.)
Day 7: “An air of melancholy has settled over the group”
The morning before leaving, Jean took some lovely photos at our hotel. People were a bit more subdued this day, as the trip was drawing to a close. “An air of melancholy has settled over the group,” Carolyn observed.
We headed back to Porto, and the original hotel. On arrival, we put our luggage in storage, and Ricardo gave us a bit of a city tour: the train station, Cafe Majestic, Se de Porto, Dom Luis bridge… We crossed the bridge and ended up in Vila Nova de Gaia, the sister city.
This is where all the famous port is made: Taylor’s, Graham’s, Offley, Fonseca, Sandeman… Here we got another tour of one of them (not the biggest name), which provided a somewhat clearer explanation of the whole process than we’d received in Quinta do Tedo. (One more tidbit: late vintage ports are those they had thought might become vintage, but then decide aren’t quite good enough, so they stop the aging process by adding alcohol. So they become another that last a good while after opening. And are generally pretty nice ports.) Here they made white port as well as the other types. We warned that extra dry white port—still isn’t what most people would consider a dry wine.
We tasted a white and a tawny here. In this case we preferred the white.
We then had free time til dinner, so Jean and I wandered off in search of lunch. It was very busy in that area, but we did eventually find a recommended place to eat—a bit tricky to locate using Google because it was upstairs. Almost as soon as we sat down, we were offered white port. Sure, why not. The food was also good, a few tapas followed by a dish called Bacalhau à Brás (I think) that is quite popular in these parts—a mix of cod, potato, and egg.
We did some random ambling before checking in to the hotel and meeting the group for dinner, which was at a restaurant across the street. And was kind of a shambles! Orders mixed up. Bills incorrect. Timing way off. We ended up with two mini-bottles of wine after ordering one, and I believe we were over-charged for appetizers. But at least the food tasted OK.
We said our good-byes to everyone at the end, and then we had two days on our own.
Day 8: History, architecture, and a zombie hurricane
To start, we changed hotels, to one that was a little cheaper than the one included in our tour. It turned out very well. The room was a little smaller, but the location somewhat more convenient, and it had bathrobes! (I’m a sucker for getting a free bathrobe.)
We took a little stop at the local McDonald’s, which seems wrong, but this was very attractive one. (Also, the coffee there is pretty good, and I needed the restroom.)
But the Ribeira / Vila Nova de Gaia is a very crowded area of town, so this day we decided to head to the Malagaia area.
We visited the free Museum of Photography which, apart from exhibiting some photographs, also showed photographic equipment from years past, which was quite interesting!
For lunch, we happened upon a Michelin-recommended restaurant that gave us one of the best meals of the trip. Highlights were Jean’s sea bass and my strawberry soup with basil ice cream for dessert.
Jean then agreed to go on a tour of the Casa de Musica, or music hall, that is a fairly recent addition to Porto. No photos, but it’s an architecturally interesting building with all sorts of nooks and crannies to tour—VIP rooms, babysitting area, floating bars in the window, acoustically perfect concert halls… Definitely worth the 8 euros and 1 hour to learn about it.
Rain was predicted for the evening, as Portugal was expecting its first-ever “zombie hurricane” (Hurricane Michael, rising from the dead). The epicentre of high winds wasn’t Porto, but certainly it got heavy rainfall. So we didn’t go too far for dinner. We found a slightly pricey but quite decent restaurant nearby to suit our needs.
Day 9: Potted Potter
In Porto, people line up to get into a bookstore called Lello. One reason they do this is that it’s a gorgeous building. The other is that JK Rowling was inspired by Porto to write Harry Potter. And I expect it’s the latter that really explains the crowds, as Porto has a lot of nice buildings.
We decided to do it. We got there at soon as it opened, at 9:30. There was already a line. You have to buy tickets to get in (credited against any book purchase), so we did that. After about 20 minutes in line, maybe, we were let in.
But it’s crazy in there. It is gorgeous, but so packed with people, it’s hard to appreciate. And forget about calmly perusing for something to read. They tell people not to be too loud in there, to not disrupt people trying to think (or whatever). As if anyone could get lost in thought in here! But at least, now we know.
After that, we decamped to the Museum of Art. It’s not a very big one, but did have some nice works, particularly sculptures. And it wasn’t crowded at all.
After lunch at our new favourite restaurant in Porto, we did a little shopping. I got a purse made of cork (yes!) and a cute top. Jean bought a bag. Then it was a bit more walking, and a final dinner at a restaurant with a Madeira focus, that was quite pleasant.
Day 10: The departure
The flight home, in contrast to our smooth departure one, was rather chaotic, with people lining up all over the place and impossible to hear announcements. And once on, we ended up having to wait an hour while they located and removed the bags of six people who didn’t make it onto the flight, for some reason. But then the flight generally went as well as can be expected, until my luggage didn’t show up.
The Air Canada attendant explained that my suitcase had ended up with the “connecting flight” ones—likely moved during that search for the bags to remove, one supposes. After 2 hours of waiting, it hadn’t make it onto the carousel, so they agreed to have it delivered to me. It did arrive on my doorstep by 6:00 AM the next day. (And that way we did beat the worst of rush hour traffic driving home from the airport, as Jean pointed out.)
A final song to finish, in salute to Carolyn, who seems to have played a rather prominent role in this summary!