At our charity fundraiser for United World Schools we bid for a weekend on a wine estate in the Douro Valley. Vicky and I imagined that we would get the keys to a cottage and be left to fend for ourselves. Instead we had a wonderful weekend in the care of a charming family.
We start our trip staying in the heart of Porto in the charming hotel AS 1849 (above left). Crowds are wandering along the Rua das Flores and drinking outside the little bars in the square. Friends told us that a few years ago this was all very seedy and you were likely to get robbed in the Rua das Flores at night - now it has been transformed, apparently due to Ryan Air who brought the first tourist flights and prompted the regeneration of the city. As well as the friendly people, narrow streets and fine churches we loved the tiling that covers many of the buildings. One of the finest examples is in the main Porto railway station.
After spending Friday morning wandering around the sights of Porto, we head off to drive to the other end of the Douro on the Spanish border. The Douro region has long been one of Portugal's main wine growing areas as well as the source of the wine for the country's Port industry. The quays in Porto are lined with famous names of Port houses - Sandeman, Calem, Ramos Pinto, Graham's and others. Port is made by brewing red wine and then stopping the fermentation part way through by adding brandy. Hence the extra strength and residual sweetness. While much of the Douro's grapes end up as port, there is still a decent quantity of very good red and white wine production. The grape varieties are largely local and usually blended to make some fine wines with complex character.
After taking the motorway for about an hour we head off across country and follow a scenic, windy road through the hills before dropping down for our first view of the Douro river (above). The sloping valleys of the Douro are famous for their micro-climate which favours growing of almonds, olives and notably grapes. Wine estates (quintos) cover the landscape especially around the town of Pinhão where we stop for a rather good lunch at restaurant LBV 79. I later discover that LBV is 'late bottled vintage' - a type of port.
After lunch we press on, following the river for a bit and then driving over the hilltops through the wilder regions of the Douro National Park. Here there is less cultivation and also signs of the fierce fires that spread across the Portuguese countryside during the summer of 2017.
Eventually we reach the strangely named small town of Freixo de Espada à Cinta (ash tree with a sword in its belt). The sat nav takes us to a small square. "Where is the wine estate?" we ask each other. Then our host, Manuel sticks his head over the balcony of a large square town house and greets us. The Gomes Mota family split their time between Lisbon and Freixo de E a C. Most of the large houses in the town appear to belong to relatives, grandfather's statue stares proudly over one of the main squares and mother's fine house is now partly a museum. They don't have an estate house as the vineyards back onto the town. They are however considering building a home among the olives and vines designed by architect brother. After settling in we enjoy a delicious meal - steaks cooked over almond wood in the open hearth, plus generous samples of the delicious Maritavora red and white wines.
On Saturday morning we set off on a tour of the vineyards. The winery is set by the road into town (above left) with olive trees and vines stretching up the hill. We walk along the vines - all organic and some over 100 years old. Manuel mourns a dead vine which did not survive last year's drought. The others look healthy with this year's growth reaching up to the wires. In another field a tractor is breaking the stones between newly planted vines. Once broken up the stones help keep the water in the soil as well as reflecting the summer sun.
Over the rest of the weekend we enjoy another fine dinner with our hosts as well as good meals in the town. We visit an uncle on his fine estate, sample 50 year old ports, enjoy views of rivers, countryside and an old Roman road, explore the old town and its museums and generally have a great time. After lunch on Sunday we thank our wonderful new friends and head back to Porto and home. You can read Vicky's account of our trip here.