Unspoilt, quiet, visitor-friendly, with spectacularly rugged scenery, the Douro Valley is Portugal's port wine- making centre. But you don't have to be a drinker to relax into a lazy, hazy summer retreat down on the `quinta'
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The Independent Culture
THE HEAT reaches saturation point, thick and white, at around 3pm, but the verandah, shaded by orange trees and wisteria, stays cool. My husband Richard has grown restless and, being both mad dog and Englishman, has driven off in our hired car in search of photo opportunities. Our two-year-old daughter Tallulah sleeps (mercifully) in her shuttered bedroom under a mosquito net. The only sounds are the tick-tick-tick of the dining room clock, measuring out the June afternoon, and from across the valley, too distant to be irritating, the wasp-like whine of vine spraying. Then the train hoots, summoning us to make the journey upstream to Tua and Mirandela - but later, later, there's plenty of time...

"Limonada, senhora?"

"Oh, Fatima." I force my eyes slowly open. "Obrigada." Thank you.

By some sixth sense our maid-cum-cook, who comes with the house, seems to know what we need before we know it ourselves. She sets down a tray and looks at the steep hills, striped with terraces which carve out their contours like a relief map, narrowing as they reach the more vertiginous slopes at the top, spreading apart as the hills themselves broaden down towards the valleys. And at their foot, way below, the river.

"Boa," Fatima observes, though she has lived here all her life and must be used to it by now.

"Sim," I agree. "Muita boa." Very beautiful.

The river is the Douro - 92km long - which rises in the Pyrenees and crosses almost the whole of the Iberian peninsular before disgorging into the Atlantic at Oporto. We are staying on a quinta, or farm, above the Portuguese part of it, overlooking the small town of Pinhao.

With one toddler and a baby on the way, we had needed a holiday. We had envisaged somewhere unspoilt yet easily accessible, somewhere with olives and vine-hung trellises with warm swimming pools and cold churches. Jaded by the prospect of Tuscany with its well-known pleasures, northern Portugal seemed ideal. It shares the drama of Tuscany's terraced hills, but has the river as its focus, silver and lake-like, and unlike Tuscany it is virtually untouched by tourism. Nevertheless a new motorway took us all the way from Oporto airport into the heart of this remote region in only two hours.

Like Tuscany, the Douro Valley has strong links with the British, but these have developed not through people buying up cheap farmhouses in the last 20 years, but through historic trading links going back to the eighteenth century. For this is the centre of port-making, and the British have monopolised the export of port almost since it was first made. Cockburns, Symingtons, Taylors: these good old British names still dominate the trade.

Port was - and is - shipped from Oporto, but the grapes are grown upstream on quintas, many of which also belong to the British. Not so much Chiantishire, as Quintashire.

Until as recently as the 1970s, the Douro was considered no place for a woman. Quintas were not comfortable retreats. Hot baths were scarce, the bushes often served as the lavatory, and port - traditionally a man's drink - was tasted and discussed ad nauseam. My own family, who shipped port for centuries, never considered their quinta to be a place for family holidays; my cousin, one of the present owners, didn't even know of its existence until he was 15. Even now, the larger owners do not actually live on their quintas - many of which lie far away from towns and schools - but visit only about once or twice a year, mostly for the vintage in September and October.

Now they have realised that one way of keeping the buildings from tumbling into disrepair is to rent them to foreigners. And to stay in them it is no longer necessary to like port. Personally, I loathe the stuff. But it is impossible to visit the Douro without becoming fascinated by the industry that so dominates both landscape and way of life.

As we drove from Vila Real down towards the Douro, the hills thickened and the road narrowed to become increasingly twisty and perilous. Downstream: steep terraces shored up with dry stone walls over 10ft high, and patamares, the new vine terracing suitable for tractors, which resembled in changing lights first ziggurat towers, then South East Asian rice paddies, then a stack of coins. Upstream: stripey vertical vine planting, and flurries of silvery olive groves. It was a busy view, with almost every surface worked by man and mule - or, increasingly by man and tractor.

From among the terraces rose clusters of whitewashed and red-tiled buildings. I thought of Sri Lankan tea plantations, but the buildings here are less shiny and industrial-looking. NOVAL - one of the most famous quintas - was inscribed in large white letters on one wall, and TAYLORS on another.

Up a drive overhung with peeling eucalyptus to our destination, the Quinta da Eira Velha, one of the oldest and most beautiful. Water splashing in an ornamental fish pond, cool eighteenth-century rooms, a deep old bath and dodgy electrics; not grand like the chateaux of Bordeaux, but elegant.

Immediately around the house lay buildings dedicated to the production of fine wines. Cassiano, the caseiro or foreman (Fatima's father), showed us round the barn-like adega. Here, beneath tiled scenes from the family firm's history, grapes are still trodden by foot in granite lagares. Year after year whole villages descend on the quinta for the vintage, sleeping in dormitories and being fed on bacalhao, dried salt cod, and beans, which are cooked up on an open fire in the kitchen by Cassiano's wife. By day grapes are picked, and by night they are trodden.

Cassiano enviously described one of Cockburn's mechanised quintas, where the caseiro simply presses a button and the grapes are churned steadily into a pulp. He re-enacted this process several times, the caseiro standing back for a chat while all the work was done for him. It's cold in the lagares, he said, despite the accordion and the dancing (thigh deep in fermenting grapes) and despite the regular swigs of brandy.

With tractors replacing workers, the traditional way of life is doomed, and not a moment too soon, Cassiano implied. But the experts maintain that vintage port trodden by foot, not crushed by a machine, simply tastes and looks better.

Dusty cellars housed the barrels - "pipes" and "tunnels" - some big enough to live in if you could survive the alcoholic fumes. In the old days the port was shipped down the Douro to Oporto, a perilous journey through the rapids. Now the river has been dammed, and the port travels by road.

Around these buildings - typical of all quintas - lay the places that most appealed to Tallulah; the turkey coop and duck ponds, the granite washing troughs, the vegetable plots swollen with pumpkins, the apricot and peach trees, the ground strewn with ripe fruit.

It was hard to tear ourselves away to go sight-seeing, and in fact that is one of the joys of the Douro, the lack of sights to see. There are few monuments or buildings of note, no Piero della Francescas demanding to be visited, so we could laze about without feeling guilty. The few beauty spots we did explore were so desecrated by litter that we escaped as quickly as possible.

The only town of interest is the ancient pilgrimage site of Lamego, a pocket of provincial culture tucked - unexpectedly - into the hills. Dominating it is the eighteenth century church of Our Lady of the Remedies, a Baroque masterpiece that hovers right at the top of a seemingly endless flight of tiled steps.

In the medieval cathedral cloisters, two bearded crones were arranging flowers. They wore black, and had woven their grey hair into plaited buns. They smiled toothlessly at us and made fond faces at Tallulah. The highlight of Lamego was the museum in an eighteenth-century Episcopal palace, with cool red tiled floors and dark wooden ceilings. But a festival was planned; the main avenue was filling up with bleeping video games and carts selling inedible ice creams; the humidity level was rising, along with a sense of claustrophobia; by the end of the day I couldn't wait to leave.

Some evenings we drove up and up through quinta after quinta, to red- roofed villages clinging to hilltops, where the churches were locked and black-clothed figures peered from windows to watch us pass. Their houses behind coloured plastic fly screens were mean and cramped, but they had sensational, expansive views.

And we did make that journey from Tua to Mirandela. Tua station resembled that of a frontier town, sleepy in the outback. From here a narrow-gauge train took us up the Tua river, one of the Douro's tributaries, as if penetrating into the heart of nowhere. We clanked through rocky chasms with olive groves clinging precariously to their sides, surely beyond human reach, then past tottering granite pinnacles, often with nothing between our single track and the rapids below but a sheer precipice. Emerging into broader stretches, calmer pools served as watering holes for herds of goats, and their goatherds who waved as we passed. At run-down little stations, scrawled with grafitti, broad-hipped women disembarked to walk several miles to their villages, laden with bags. An eagle wheeled overhead, and a kingfisher darted upstream, a flash of azure.

Two hours later it was a shock to step into civilisation at Mirandela, an unattractive town being bulldozed and rebuilt by the EU and soon to be pierced by the Oporto motorway. We had lunch of beans and innards (tripe, of all things, being a national dish) then caught the train home again.

The humidity was merciless. Our thighs glued themselves to the leatherette seats. Tallulah stripped off her clothes and sprawled across them in naked abandon but this brought her little relief; the air from the windows simply shifted the heat around the carriage in waves.

As always, it was a pleasure to return to the Quinta da Eira Velha's shady verandah, and to the reassuring sounds of someone else - Fatima - preparing the dinner. !

GETTING THERE: TAP Air Portugal (0171 828 0262) flies daily from Heathrow to Oporto. Fares in April and May start at pounds 139 return.

STAYING THERE: Magic of Portugal (0181 741 1181) arranges accommodation in manor houses in the Douro from around pounds 35 per person per night.

CRUISES: Voyages Jules Verne (0171 616 1000) has a hotel ship, the MV Lady May, which cruises the River Douro. One week costs from pounds 795 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights to Oporto and seven nights on the MV Lady May.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Portuguese National Tourist Office (0171 494 1441), 22/25A Sackville Street, London W1X 1DE.