Complete Guide to Port Country

Steep-sided valleys, twisting vines and pine-fringed beaches are among the delights of northern Portugal. Frank Partridge finds beauty, solitude and even a Viking café in the wild west of Europe
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The Independent Travel

Port Country: where is it?

Three beautiful but contrasting regions to the north and east of Porto, the capital of northern Portugal, make up Port Country. Douro and Minho are named after the rivers that flow through steep-sided valleys from the highlands to the sea, creating some of the finest scenery in the Iberian peninsula. The third region, Tras-os-Montes (meaning "behind the mountains"), extends through Vila Real and Braganca to the Spanish border. Shielded from the Atlantic by the high ground, Tras-os-Montes is more rustic, remote and far drier than the others.

Port Country contains an enormous variety of landscapes. It has long, sandy beaches bordered by pine trees; fertile valleys and vine-covered hills; parched, rolling plains; and a lush mountain range with spectacular rock formations, gorges and waterfalls. Portugal's only national park is to be savoured, as well as its historic towns of great beauty and cultural interest, and a substantial, spectacularly sited regional capital that demands a weekend of exploration all to itself.

Outside the city, the pricing policy of the bars and restaurants exists in a happy time-warp: we paid €2.60 (£2.15) for a beer, coffee, tea and sandwich in an up-country pub. Keen to welcome tourists, the locals haven't got the hang of exploiting them.

Where do I start?

The natural starting point is the Douro Valley, renowned not only for its port but its increasingly popular table wines. In fact, port had still to be invented when Douro became the world's first officially demarcated wine region in 1756. Portugal's best-known river is, in fact, four-fifths Spanish, originating deep in the Castilla y Leó*region (where it's known as the Duero), but it achieves its full majesty only after crossing the border into Portugal, whereupon it cuts a deep and lovely gorge through the hills on its way to Porto.

Above the meandering waterway, the wine estates (quintas) proclaim their names on giant signs that preside over densely planted vine terraces, some of them so narrow they cannot be treated by any form of mechanisation.

The river bank, in places, is too steep for a proper road. But a narrow-gauge railway, the Linha do Douro, threads and tunnels through the rock as far as Pocinho, 170km from Porto. This is one of Europe's most scenic rail journeys. It is faster (four hours) and considerably cheaper (single fare: €8.20/£6.80) than the many cruises on the busy waterway between mid-March and November, but a neat way to combine the two in a day is to take a boat upstream from Porto as far as Pinhao, and return by train or bus.

Many UK tour operators offer such excursions as options on their packages; Sunvil Discovery (020-8758 4722; www.sunvil.co.uk) charges £86 for the return trip.

Grape expectations?

To get close to the port process, stay in a quinta in the Douro Valley – a particularly enticing option around the two-week period in September when the grapes are hand-picked and processed. The Quinta Nova estate, near the pretty village of Covas, has converted the main, 18th-century house into a comfortable hotel (00 351 254 730 430 www.quintanova.com), with cosy sitting rooms, an outdoor swimming pool, and panoramic views. You can watch the brew take shape in the modern factory next door. In high season, between May and October, it costs €120 (£100) for a double room, including breakfast.

What else can I see?

Between the Douro and Minho is a third picturesque river, the Lima, which starts u o life in Portugal's only national park, Peneda-Geres, bordering the frontier with Spain. Modern development here is strictly controlled; instead, the highland villages have been upgraded by second home-owners, or left pretty much as they were because of their remoteness.

Lindoso, Brufe and other settlements are notable for their espigueiros: ancient stone granaries on stilts, with apertures to allow the air to circulate and dry maize during the winter. Above the narrow, cobbled lanes, vines are trained on wires slung between the houses, creating a leafy canopy that provides shade in the hot summers.

In September, micro-vineyards produce the flinty, vinho verde wine – another speciality of the north. It isn't green, as the name suggests, but its place of origin certainly is.

In the centre of Lindoso there's a communal clothes-washing area, fed by an ice-cold stream, where black-scarved women beat the life out of clothes on stone slabs worn smooth by centuries of wash-days. Buzzards and harriers wheel over the single-track road as it climbs past meadows full of long-horned cattle to the ochre-roofed village of Ermida, 700m high, set among walled terraces of maize, potatoes and vines.

I need a good walk

This is superb hiking country. Climbing a boulder-strewn mountain above the village of Cutelo, we encounter a herd of wild horses grazing in open country where the view, on the clearest of days, can extend to 200km. Down in the village, a grandmother, mother and daughter lead a herd of cattle from stable to field; the teenager carries a stick and some books, keeping one eye on errant cows, the other on her studies. A tractor pulls up with its wobbly cart overloaded with vegetation from the forest for use as stable bedding. The travelling shop arrives, and the villagers form a queue for their weekly essentials. Among the many waymarked walks in this wild, little-known region, the Eco Via recently opened as a sand-and-gravel track for cyclists and hikers, running for 40km from one isolated community to another.

A handful of UK companies operate organised walking tours. Onfoot Holidays (01722 322652; www.onfootholidays.co.uk) arranges one-week self-guided walking expeditions through the national park, reaching altitudes of 1,500m on paved tracks, footpaths and a Roman road. The trek between Soajo and Santa Maria do Bouro takes six days and covers 110km of spectacular countryside. Walkers are provided with detailed route maps and notes, and their luggage is transferred from one hotel to the next. The cost is £535 per person, flights and transfers not included.

In the Tras-os-Montes region, Ramblers Worldwide Holidays (01707 331133; www.ramblersholidays.co.uk) organises one-week walking holidays based at a two-star hotel in Vila Real. Daily walks to the surrounding mountains are led by experienced guides, with dinner at different hotels around the regional capital. Holidays depart on 27 September and 4 October this year, price £649, including flights between Gatwick and Porto and transfers, based on two people sharing.

Some city life?

A new motorway across the majestic Serra do Marao has brought Vila Real within easy reach of Porto. The two cities are only 85km apart, but the suddenly dry climate and rolling, parched landscape beyond the mountains could easily belong to the interior of Spain. Olive and almond trees grow in profusion; cherries and grapes are sold at the roadside.

Vila Real has the trappings of a city – including a 15th-century Gothic cathedral, an 18th-century church decked with over-the-top Baroque ornateness, some excellent shops and a motor racing circuit, but it has retained its links with the countryside. Its distinctive dishes, notably its hams, sausages and meat-filled bola bread, are unlike anything else in Portugal.

Going west?

Heading coastwards from the national park, the two attractive riverside towns of Ponte da Barca and Ponte de Lima demand a couple of hours' exploration. The main bridge in Ponte da Barca is medieval, in Ponte de Lima Romanesque – and still used by pedestrians. Ponte de Barca also boasts a sizeable community of expatriate Danes, who were entranced by the place when their team was based nearby at the 2004 European football championships. Many have bought properties in the town, and someone has even opened a Viking-themed café.

Every July, Ponte de Lima stages an opera and classical music festival: this year's resident chamber music group is the London Bridge Ensemble. Sharonarts (020-8977 2961; www.sharonarts.eu), a London-based cultural tour group, is organising six-day trips from 16-21 July, with accommodation in a converted mansion near the performance venues. As well as the music, there are sightseeing tours of the region, and a night at the opera in Porto. The price of £940 includes the cost of transfers from the airport, but not flights.

The River Lima finally meets the ocean at Viana do Castelo, where many of Portugal's 16th-century explorers set off on their expeditions to Africa and the New World. In the winding streets and intimate squares of the old town, gold filigree is a speciality, and judging by the spectacular displays in the pastry shops, the locals have a special way with eggs and sugar.

A mile or two inland from the ocean, the land rises steeply to the basilica of Santa Luzia, a place of pilgrimage, which can be reached by a funicular railway.

High above that is the town's palatial pousada, from where the views of the estuary, the Atlantic and Eiffel's double-decker road and rail bridge, are astonishing.

Set among eucalyptus and vines, the Pousada do Monte de Santa Luzia (00 351 258 800 370; www.pousadas.pt) offers double rooms, including breakfast, for €170 (£142).

What does the coast offer?

The combination of wild Atlantic and sometimes hazardous swimming conditions is familiar enough to visitors accustomed to UK resorts: the northern coastline will never lure the factor-30 brigade from the Algarve. It's usually a few degrees cooler here, too, so the long strips of sand that run parallel to the mountains almost all the way to the Spanish border are left mainly to the locals and die-hard windsporters.

Praia do Cabedelo, just south of Viana, is an outstandingly beautiful beach, largely deserted outside August. The coastline is dotted with pine forests and small family resorts, with accommodation in rentable holiday homes rather than hotels. Vacancies are often advertised in local post offices.

How do I get to Port Country?

The Portuguese national airline, TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; www.flytap.com) is the most frequent flyer from the UK to Porto, with two flights from Gatwick and one from Heathrow every day. From October, British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) will also start flying from Gatwick. Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) flies daily from Stansted and three times a week from both Bristol and Liverpool.

Where can I find More information?

You can visit the regional tourist office website: www.visitportoenorte.com, or contact the Portuguese tourist office in London: (0845 3551212; www.visitportugal.com). Landscapes of Northern Portugal (Sunflower Books; £12.99), by British expatriates Paul and Denise Burton, who live in the Lima Valley, is an informative walking guide.

Archaic tipple?

To prevent Portuguese wine turning sour on the long voyage to England, British merchants added brandy to the casks, and were surprised to find that the sweeter, fortified blend improved the taste. They twigged that the alcohol was interrupting the fermentation of the grapes, leaving more natural sugar. Over the years, the timing and quantity of fortification has become a fine art, with many varieties, yet the drink has something of a dowdy image. This is being addressed by the Port Wine Institute, based in Porto, which is developing combinations such as port and tonic, and even rosé.

Many of the warehouses in Porto have museums, tasting rooms and organised tours. Calem (26 Avenida Diogo Leite; 00 351 22 374 6660; www.calem.pt) opens 10am-6pm daily; tours cost €2 (£1.65). Continue research at Vinologia ( www.lamaisondesporto.com) at 46 Rua de Sao Joao (open 2pm-8pm and 9.30pm-midnight, Mon-Sat; 6pm-8pm and 9.30pm-midnight, Sun), a dinky bar where knowledgeable staff will help you pass from "beginner" (three different ports, €6/£5) to "ambassador" (six ports, €12/£10) during the course of an increasingly confused night.

'Oporto' or 'Porto' – why the confusion?

Blame the British. Traders in the 17th century are thought to have added the first 'O' to distinguish it from port wine, the region's principal export, which they shipped home in vast quantities.

The recent prominence of the city's football team, FC Porto, who won the European Champions League in 2004 under local boy Jose Mourinho, has widened international use of the city's original Portuguese name, but its airport abbreviation – OPO – adds to the confusion. Politely drop the offending vowel in mixed company, and the locals will appreciate it.

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