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The Douro River Valley – A Love Story

The Tunnel of Love

There’s a place, deep in a river valley in northern Portugal, that is rich in natural resources and tended to by humble, dedicated people. It is called the Douro River Valley and is romantic, intoxicating and magnetic. Its fertility, along with a temperate climate, stirs up the perfect recipe for growing grapes. Steep, terraced vineyards rise up from the river grazing the clouds of mist that hang above. Quintas, or wineries, splash the landscape announcing their names on painted rocks, like the sign in the Hollywood hills. Dignified and enduring, the terroir has been producing wine since 2000 B.C.

Quinta Sandeman

I am exploring this river on a Viking Cruise where an outside deck becomes my viewing station for the spectacular scenery I experience. As our ship gently glides along the glassy Douro, the trees and small buildings reflect perfectly, like twins, along the river bank. I feel cozy and tucked in. Ducks emerge from the water ahead and flee upward to escape our approach. Is this the Tunnel of Love?

Twins

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This fertile valley breaths freely without the clutter of freeways, big hotels or Starbucks to distract from its playground. Alluring villages cluster tightly together as if in solidarity to keep their heritage alive. The Douro valley communities share their unique gifts with each other offering specialities of pork, wine, cheese, bread, and olive oil.

United Douro families

White-washed quintas, olive groves, orange and persimmon trees deliver bursts of color amidst the wintery, avocado green landscape. The tranquility is profound, meditative. Only the lullaby of a soft breeze occupies the air. Clouds hang so low in an airbrushed effect that I feel like I’m part of a painting, a collage of all things artistic and beautiful. One cannot help but feel connected to Mother Earth, part of her roots, reaching into her soul.

Hillside collage

Terraced vineyard leading to their quintas.

Lazy dogs fall under her spell and sleep alongside the vines. They must feel the peaceful energy too. Yes, life here in the Douro Valley seems idyllic, although I’m sure the locals feel the same daily pressures we do. It’s just at a slower pace, in an environment that fosters the use of its nature-provided ingredients to serve up exquisite wine and port alongside other things good that present on a tapas plate. I long to return. It’s a love story not yet finished.

What a life!

“What I do, and what I dream include thee, as the wine must taste of its own grapes.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese and Other Poems

Ciao for now!

Mary




A Tease of Portugal

My beautiful, colorful Porto

A new place has touched my heart and her name is Portugal. An old European soul, she remains unspoiled with raw beauty and a depth of cultural influence. I wasn’t surprised as I’d heard so many wonderful things about this country that I had to experience it for myself.

So taken with her old-world charm, an immediate seduction took hold. Like eating a very fine dark chocolate, and the warmth that flows through your body, leaving you craving more. Yes, this place deserves more than the 10 days we would spend in her company.

To get an overview of Portugal, my mom and I chose to take a Viking cruise down the Douro River. We started our exploration in Lisbon, which we just barely touched in a day, then headed to Porto, on the Douro, where our ship was docked. Rio Douro means “river of gold” because its water looks like gold when reflecting the sun. At the mouth of the river, the Douro flows between two Portuguese cities: Porto on one side and Vila Nova de Gaia on the other. Our ship, the Hemming, was actually docked on Gaia, providing spectacular views of Porto, a city that emerged in the 4th century.

I love color!

A musical entertainer on the streets of Porto. Check out his gnomes!

My eyes gazed in wonder at the panorama of Porto, pronounced “Purtu” by the Portuguese. Dots of sunflower yellow, Dutch blue and deep salmon stack up high on the water’s edge, praying to the Douro on which shore they lie. High above peek ancient churches, museums and monuments calling me to step inside the city and indulge my curiosity. I feel like I am entering a fairy tale time warp and about to discover something magical and mystical in this city of old. The feeling is so strong that I am wondering if the locals would be going about their daily activities in 16th century costume.

Church of Saint Ildefonso. Simply stunning!

Tight, winding cobblestone streets weave through the city, showcasing stunning tile work around every corner. The abundance of glazed, ceramic tiles or azulejos, were a main lure for visiting Portugal. I learned that the tile work was influenced by the Moors, who initiated the art form to Spain and Portugal. It quickly took hold as a way to cover up blank walls and provide insulation, not to mention to bring a touch of opulence. Now entire buildings are dressed in the traditional blue and white patterned tiles, interspersed with houses tiled in yellow, green and red azulejos. The entire city looks like one big painting, telling her story with art as her passion.

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Small, local shops sell bacalhau, a Portuguese favorite of dried and salted cod, linens, azulejos, port wine and cork products. I never realized the many products made from cork that come from southern Portugal. The bark from the cork oak tree is carefully removed by certified harvesters then processed to make it soft and spongy. The finished product resembles fine leather. The water-resistant and fire-proof cork “leather” is used to make gorgeous purses, shoes, flooring, wall insulation, fabric, even surfboards! Of course, the main cork production is in cork stoppers. Warm and friendly shop keepers engage me in conversation, their soft accents almost a mixture of French and Spanish.

 

Pretty cork purses

Music is born into Portugal’s blood and Fado is its music of choice. Many bars and cafes offer evenings of Fado, a folk music that is usually melancholy. A singer expresses her laments as a guitar or mandolin accompanies her or him. It is hauntingly beautiful. Here is a song from Trovadores Oportuna, a group we enjoyed listening to: Fado music by Trovadores Oportuna

Always in search of the local eats, I discovered the favorite morning and mid-afternoon pastry. It is Pastel de Natal, an egg yolk based custard baked in a puff pastry crust. The dense three to four bite pastries are sweet and creamy lightened by the crunchy butter crust. They are usually served warm and are particularly tasty with a coffee. The windows of the many sweet shops were bulging with decadent Christmas cakes, fruitcake and even giant meringues. All begging to be taken home to be enjoyed for the holidays.

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I dream of returning; to dig deeper into Portugal’s roots, to feel the uneven cobblestones beneath my feet, to taste the briny shellfish, to engage the people and learn the stories of their lives and mostly to relax into her easy-going pace as I sip an espresso and watch the world go by.

Ciao for now,

Mary

P.S. Just last week I discovered that on Parts Unknown Anthony Bourdain visited Porto. The show aired on June 25, 2017. Take a look if you want to dive deeper into this city of stories, art and history. Here are his field notes and links to his show.  Parts Unknown Porto