The Douro Valley

The night of 23rd April was spent moored at Régua. After dinner I went on a brisk walk with Sandra, Rex and his wife along the river’s edge to an historic steel rail bridge now used only by pedestrians. Sandra wouldn’t let us return by the same route because we had to skirt around a pack of a dozen or so scary, marauding dogs so we found a road without dogs at a higher level.

This morning at 8:00 am a bus took us to the town of Villa Real where we toured the 18th century Palace of Mateus. Its gardens were inspired by the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. Half of the palace is occupied by the descendants of the founding family which, in the day, were clearly members of the 1%. The other half of the palace was converted to a museum after the creation of a foundation in the 1970s dedicated to the management of the palace and its grounds.

Features of the palace include the grand entrance courtyard where horse drawn coaches once drew up to deliver family members and guests. Beyond, and through an arch, is the coach house and stables fitted with stalls for the horses. The feeding toughs are carved from solid granite. Beyond that, on the left, is the family chapel on a scale comparable to the small churches found in some towns. To the right the gardens spread out with flower beds , immaculately trimmed hedges arranged in geometric patterns and vine arbours supported on sculptured granite columns.

Back in the bus we proceeded through the vineyards of the Douro which have played an important part in the region’s economy since the 18th C. It’s importance is underscored by the fact that there are approximately 25,000 owners and in mid-September to mid-October, the harvest season, the population is swollen by the arrival of many thousands of pickers.

The vineyards extend through the steep sided Douro valley for about 100 km to the Spanish border. The steepness of the terrain necessitates that vineyards be terraced. The effort involved in constructing these, many of which are retained by meticulously maintained dry stone walls, is impressive and ongoing. A local saying says, “God created the Earth and man the Douro”. At the approximate centre of the region is the town of Pinhão where we were pleased to find the boat because it was time for lunch.

Of course, as is the case for all vignerons, they obsess about climate and soil type. The winters are very cold with frequent light snow while the summers are very hot with temperatures in the low 40s. Another local saying is that, “for nine months we freeze and for three months we are in Hell”. Because the river has cut through the rock to create the valley, the land is very stony with granite, shale and slate. They say that the shale surface retains heat during the day and releases it during the night so moderating the temperatures of the vineyards. Indeed, in some vineyards mounds of loose shale had been formed up between the rows of vines.

Of course the principal product of the Douro Valley is port wine. In the past the barrels of port were transported downstream in specially designed flat-bottomed, square rigged craft called barcos rabelos. These were capable of shooting the rapids in the days before the river was tamed with five dams constructed in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.