Portugal’s second-largest city, Porto, is dramatically situated at the mouth of the Rio Douro, its old quarters scrambling up the rocky north bank in tangled tiers. As the de facto capital of the north, it’s the hub of the region’s road and railway system, and while you can’t quite avoid it on any trip to the north of the country, nor would you want to. It’s a massively atmospheric place, almost Dickensian in parts, well worth a couple of days of your time – more if you plan to make a serious attempt at touring the portwine lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river. The coast north and south of Porto is an acquired taste, more for locals than tourists, but the pretty town of Vila do Conde, 45 minutes to the north, offers a taste of what’s to come as you head into the Minho.
Inevitably, it’s the Rio Douro (“River of Gold”) that dominates almost every aspect of this region, winding for over 200km from the Spanish border to the sea, with port wine lodges and tiny villages dotted above the intricately terraced hillsides. It was once a wild and unpredictable river, though after the portproducing area was first demarcated in the eighteenth century, engineering works soon tamed the worst of the rapids and opened up the Douro for trade. The railway reached the Spanish border by the end of the nineteenth century, with the three narrow-gauge branch lines up the river’s tributaries completed by 1910, while the building of hydroelectric dams and locks along the river’s length in the 1970s and 1980s turned the Douro into a series of navigable ribbon lakes – it’s now possible to cruise all the way from Porto to Barca d’Alva on the Spanish border.
The finest sections of the river are well to the east of Porto and the main route out of the city instead follows the N15 or much faster A4 motorway to the vinho verde-producing towns of Penafiel and Amarante. The latter is perhaps the single most attractive town in the region, set on the lazy tributary of the Rio Tâmega – the first of the Douro’s splendid branch train lines runs up the valley here from the main-line station at Livração, about 60km from Porto. The Douro train line itself shadows the motorway from Porto and passes close to Penafiel, but shortly after Livração the line finally turns south to reach the Rio Douro and then heads upstream. The rough halfway point is marked by the commercial port wine town and cruise centre of Peso da Régua, the capital of Alto Douro (“Upper Douro”) province – it’s also the starting point of the Corgo branch train line to Vila Real in Trás-os-Montes . Just to the south of Régua, a slight detour can take in the delightful Baroque pilgrimage town of Lamego, home of Portugal’s champagne-like wine, Raposeira, and the fascinating churches and historic buildings of its littleexplored surroundings.
Beyond Régua starts the Terra Quente (hot lands) where the landscape becomes more noticeably Mediterranean, and where you begin increasingly to see the characteristic terraced Douro vineyards. They’re seen at their best in August, with the grapes ripening, and in September, when the harvest has begun and leaves take on beautiful shades of gold and red. Régua also marks the point at which the Douro train line turns from a good route into a great one, sticking closely to the river from then on, cutting into the rock face and crisscrossing the water on a series of rickety bridges. It’s one of those journeys that requires no other justification, though the idyllically set port wine town of Pinhão makes a tempting overnight stop, while from the rail junction of Tua, a little further east, carriages toil up the scenic Tua valley branch line to Mirandela in Trás-os-Montes . The main line hugs the river as far as its terminus at Pocinho, though the Douro river still has a way to go in Portugal, winding on to the border at Barca d’Alva. However, following the uppermost reaches of the Portuguese Douro is impossible by road beyond Pinhão, with the N222 finally veering well south of the river to reach the extraordinary collection of outdoor palaeolithic rock engravings near the otherwise unremarkable town of Vila Nova de Foz Côa.