08/17/2018 - 08/18/2018
We had finally arrived at the last of the three legendary wine areas of our journey, and the least well known. Few people would name Portugal if asked what European countries are known for their wine, but wine has been produced there for four thousand years and exported as early as the 12th century AD. Those whose familiarity with Portuguese wine begins and ends with port are missing out on some of the most full-bodied and textured reds that Europe has to offer, often at at a fraction of the cost of a similar quality bottle that originated in France or Italy. There are more than a dozen wine regions in Portugal that cover pretty much the entire area of the country. My personal favorite region since our first visit to Portugal is the Alentejo in the south, but the best known wines come from the Dão region around Viseu and from the Douro Valley. In the world of travel, the Douro Valley is the most popular region because of the amazing mountainous landscape and picturesque villages that surround the serpentine Douro River.
We had allotted ourselves less than 24 hours in the valley, which is something of a sacrilege. On the other hand, we're used to making sacrifices in order to become familiar with a wider area on our road trips. We're not done traveling by a long shot, and fortunately there's enough in northern Portugal to make a return visit more than worthwhile. There are no large cities in the Douro Valley and after much consideration I'd decided we would base ourselves in the central town of Lamego for the night. One interesting fact about Lamego is that it is considered to be the place where port wine was invented, not Porto as one might expect. We had little interest in port but Lamego had a couple of interesting sights and placed us in good position for the long list of things we wanted to accomplish in the Douro the next day before returning to Spain.
There weren't many Airbnb's available around Lamego and we ultimately chose a place calling itself Casa do Batista in the tiny village of Britiande, four miles to the south. Once we arrived at the village our GPS took us off the main road and into an area of orchards and vineyards, ultimately depositing us at the wrong house. Google Maps recognized the name but led us to a spot in the same area where there was nothing but a solid stone wall with one rusted iron door and no signs. We inquired at a couple of houses nearby and no one had heard of Casa do Batista. The host didn't respond to messages on the Airbnb app but someone answered to the phone number and we communicated in a broken Spanish/Portuguese hybrid. I tried following his directions a couple of times and got nowhere. Eventually he told me he would meet us in the village at a spot that I recognized. The person on the phone turned out to be the elderly father of our host, which may have explained some of the difficulty in communication. We followed his car back into the orchards and ended up at the exact same spot Google Maps had taken us to. Our host's father went to the rusty iron door, unlocked it, and brought us inside a walled compound.
Our annoyance at having wasted close to an hour for the simple lack of a sign or a doorbell dissipated almost instantly once we got a look at the place where we would be spending the night. It was one of the most unique, idyllic, delightful residences we've ever stayed in all our travels. The only place I could compare it to on Airbnb would be the farm we stayed at in southern Slovakia. In front of the house was a small patio completely roofed by grapevines that would have collapsed from the weight of enormous bunches of unripe wine grapes if there wasn't a trellis supporting them. The yard was an apple orchard where the fruits were also green, but edible to anyone partial to a little sourness. The house was rustic but very modern and comfortable on the interior, with a second floor balcony that had sweeping views over all the farms and orchards in the area. Adjacent the the residence was a tiny winemaking operation that was dormant as harvest season wouldn't begin until late September. It was one of those moments that reminded us why Airbnb's are worth all the minor inconveniences that come with them. No B&B or hotel could have brought us anywhere near as close to the heart and soul of the Douro Valley.
Despite its small size, Lamego has more than its share of attractions for visitors. After settling into our Airbnb we drove directly to Santuario Nossa Senhora dos Remedios. The 18th century rococo church stands atop a steep hill from which a breathtaking 686 step staircase descends to the town. The double staircase has nine landings decorated with beautiful azulejos, intricate columns and friezes, and ornate balustrades. There are so many details in the design and so many angles from which amazing photos can be taken that one could easily spend most of a day meandering up and down the staircase. It was one of the more remarkable sights we had experienced thus far on our journey.
Dusk was falling and we had one more stop to make before dinner. Lamego has a tiny old town on a hill in the center. At the top of the hill is the medieval castle which now consist of just a wall and a short watchtower. The best parts of visiting the castle are the narrow cobblestone streets that lead up to it and the view of the modern town and surrounding countryside from outside the wall.
Normally I don't ask our Airbnb hosts for restaurant recommendations since we've had a few notable disasters with that approach, but something led me to go against my better instincts in Lamego. Their suggestion was o Padrinho on the outskirts of the city which didn't seem particularly well-regarded on TripAdvisor. We went for it anyway and found a huge, casual restaurant at the side of the highway that was practically full. After a short wait we were given a table and provided with one of the longest menus I've ever seen. Not only did they have pretty much every typical Portuguese dish I could have imagined, they had a large selection of exotic meats such as venison, kangaroo, and alligator. Of course these weren't local but we let our curiosity guide our appetites and ordered some of the unusual dishes as well as some typical Portuguese food and pizza for the kids. The food preparation was great and we agreed it was the best restaurant meal of the entire trip. Given the popularity of the restaurant and the quality of the food it was hard to understand why it was halfway to the bottom of the TripAdvisor list, but then again some of the best restaurants in Miami don't chart very high either. It's a good reminder that there's no perfect system for choosing a restaurant in an unfamiliar city.
On the way back home we heard loud music coming from the village and remembered we had seen a stage being set up earlier in the day. Spenser had fallen asleep so Mei Ling decided to stay home with him while I drove the older kids back to town. We found the road through the village lined with parked cars and eventually had to walk several hundred meters to get back to the main square where a huge party was in progress. Most of Britiande and probably half of Lamego were packed into the small square dancing to a live band. We never found out what the occasion was but we had fun checking out the vendors and jumping around to the music until we were exhausted.
Despite our heavy agenda the following day we couldn't bring ourselves to leave the villa in the orchard. Once we were finally done lounging around the patio underneath the grapevines, o Padrinho had opened and we went back for another huge meal. It was one in the afternoon before we got back on the road. Vila Real, about half an hour to the north, was the largest city in the area and had the only daily municipal market I could find. Unfortunately by the time we arrived and found a place to park the only people left were the cleaners that were hosing the place down. Our trip hadn't been for nothing as Vila Real was also the site of the Casa de Mateus, an 18th century rococo palace originally built for a wealthy family and now in the hands of a foundation. In front of the ornate palace is an enormous reflecting pool which was unfortunately brown and murky on the day of our visit.
The exterior of the palace was quite reminiscent of the church and staircase we had seen the previous day. There was also a winemaking operation in a couple of outbuildings, which seems to be a requirement for any freestanding structure in the Douro Valley. The gardens were very elaborate and well-kept, and exploring them was the most enjoyable part of visiting the palace. Neither of us felt that a tour of the interior was likely to be worth the time and the hassle.
I was attempting to coordinate a late arrival in Salamanca but our hosts seemed determined to have us there by eight, which meant we had very little time to see the valley. I set a course for Pinhão which seemed to be the quintessential riverside town. Serpentine roads took us through an amazing landscape of terraced hills and finally deposited us at ground level just where the Pinhão tributary dumps into the much wider Douro River. The town was surrounded by wineries but all were now closed late on a Saturday afternoon, and the last boat cruises on the Douro had returned to shore long ago. It didn't really matter as these were all things we had already done in Bordeaux and Rioja. Instead we used our short time in Pinhão to take the winding road up to the viewpoint above the town at Miradouro de Casal de Loivos. Here we got the classic view of the S-shaped curve in the Douro that features prominently in every guidebook and website.
I had hoped to take a northern route to Salamanca, stopping in the ancient walled town of Mirando do Douro where the river passes through a deep gorge. Unfortunately the only way we would come anywhere close to the eight PM deadline our hosts in Salamanca had set for us was to drive directly along the shortest route to the main highway, and that's what we did. I think we would have had to stay overnight in Miranda to do it justice and it was far from the only part of northern Portugal that we skimped on during this trip. Fortunately, it was clear that we left enough unfinished to justify an entire trip dedicated to northern Portugal and Galicia some time in the future, perhaps during the wine harvest. I could see doing a circle that began and ended in Porto and covered some of the territory we missed on this trip from Ourense to Coimbra. I think we could manage it in a couple of weeks, similar to the road trip we did in Sicily in 2017.
We raced all the way to Salamanca picking up at least one automated speeding ticket to find no answer at the door of our Airbnb. The hosts didn't respond through the app either, and when called them they gave me a keycode for the front door and the location of the room key in the inside mailbox. There was no requirement for any person-to-person interaction whatsoever, and we could have arrived just as easily at any time we wanted. Why they insisted that we arrive by eight instead of just sending us the keycode through the app is something I'll never understand, but it's far from the first time something like that happened in Europe and I'm sure it won't be the last.