Braganca Douro Valley Europe Norte Region Porto Portugal Vinho Verde Country

Meandering through the Mountains of Portugal

Interior northern Portugal has a lot to offer. Pine forested mountain tops overlook little villages and vinho verde vineyards (“green wine”, a semi sparkling, refreshing white (sometimes red) wine grown and produced in the far north and called such because of the lush, green landscape of this part of Portugal). There are also many natural parks to explore as well.

Pedras Salgadas. We first stayed at Pedras Salgadas Spa in the natural park on a property which was once Portugal’s most popular and finest resort with three hotels for the wealthy to come and recover from “consumption” and digestive issues and soak in the natural hot springs. The royal families of Portugal would come for weeks, entourage in tow, and the spa took a bit a financial hit when the monarchy was ousted and the Republic was formed. The water from the spa is said to have healing powers and is naturally carbonated by subterranean gases which mix with it under the ground from which it is drawn. You can buy Pedras Salgadas bottled water all over Portugal.

When gambling was illegal, the prominently labelled “Casino” was where you could come and gamble incognito, kinda like drinking whiskey in the prohibition era bars of the US, just only tell your friends. The modern accommodations are “eco houses” built to blend in with the forest and some of the original buildings have been restored to their former glory. At night, sitting on our deck, we were entertained by the sounds of grazing sheep behind us and the sights of dive bombing small bats and birds above us as the sun set over the mountains.

The walking trails, old buildings, bike paths and living amidst the trees for a couple of days made for much relaxation after being on the road for a couple of weeks and packing, driving, schlepping bags to a new hotel or apartment,, unpacking, wandering about and discovering a city, repeat. The restaurant is good and the museum about the spa is very interesting with the history of both spa property and the water. And of course I had to check out the playground “for the children” since it was reiterated several times as I checked us in that it was “for the children”.

Vidago. Just up the road, we visited Vidago. This is a very cool and vibrant small village with a large, grand, early 20th century hotel built as a palace but never used by the royal family. We ate lunch on the terrace. The hotel is amazing and it has a golf course on property as well. Not inexpensive, but worth a stop off for lunch or a walk around the gardens, at a minimum. A reservation may be required as they currently have some tight COVID restrictions on how many non-guests can be on the property and for how long, we got lucky but it may be best to call ahead.

Between this hotel and the Pedras Salgadas spa site, it’s easy to imagine what it was like to visit this area in the early 1900s, if you had the means to do so, that is.

Into the heart of Vinho Verde territory. Just southwest of Pedras Salgadas, straddling the Tâmega River sits Amarante. There has been a settlement on this land since the Stone Age and a “city” here since the 4th century BC. Evidence of the Romans is evident here and in the surrounding lands. The city itself is separated by the river with the grand Baroque São Gonçalo Bridge connecting the two parts. The bridge itself has a lot of history. After the original Romanesque bridge was destroyed in a flood, it was rebuilt in 1763. During the Napoleonic invasion of Portugal, the French forces were resisted by the citizens and clergy of the town which held the bridge for 14 days but were eventually defeated. After the Portuguese forces turned the tide on the French, the town was awarded the Order of the Tower and Sword which is displayed on the coat of arms of the town.

We visited the Amadeo De Souza-Cardoso Museum. It has many of his works (he was born here) and those of some other artists, plus some pretty interesting (translation: odd) modern art displays. Those aren’t really our thing, but De Souza-Cardoso’s and some of the other artists’ work was so it was well worth the euro to visit.

Just outside Amarante, stretching up hills, around bends and through backyards are countless miles of Vinho Verde vineyards. We took the Rota dos Vinhos Verde around the area which takes you to some pretty interesting villages, through narrow windy roads and tight corners and between village homes where you think: “surely this is not a two lane road”, until you see another car approaching from the opposite direction. Napa Valley this is not. The one vineyard we found open (despite several advising that they were on the internet) required reservations (we had none) but our hotel was on a vineyard so not all was lost.

Across Portugal’s wine regions there are plenty of vineyards with hotels in them. They blend culinary delights, with lodging and spas nestled inside the rows of grapes, olive trees and other crops. We spent some time at Monverde Wine Hotel outside of Amarante in the middle of the Quinta da Lixa vineyard. These hotels tend to make for a nice relaxing spot to overindulge and overeat delicious food. The property is set adjacent to the small village of Telões surrounded by chestnut and oak trees and eucalyptus groves. The restaurant’s portions are more akin to American-sized than Portuguese-sized (meaning: large) and several laps around the 1.5-2 mile outskirts of the vineyard were necessary daily to attempt to stave off some weight gain. As our waiter said on our first night: “in the north of Portugal, we eat a lot and we drink a lot”. If this hotel experience is our guide, they live up to that reputation. PS: Don’t miss the wine tasting experience.

Return to Douro. As you climb and cross the Serra do Marao mountains and drop into the Douro Valley, the landscape and vineyards immediately transform from stretches of open fields and lush green vines reaching up hillsides to steep, hillside stepped vineyards planted into hard rock shelves. Winding along the river on the Ns 101 and 222 with sparkling blue river waters to one side and hillside vineyards clinging to both, it’s easy to imagine these hills when the grapes were first planted here. The Douro valley’s vineyards are the oldest demarcated vineyards in the world (demarcated meaning: these grapes by mine neighbor, keep yo butt out). In many spots the demarcation is a line of olive trees planted perpendicular to the river and stretching up the hillside.

We first came to the Douro Valley almost three years ago to the day. That time, we took a day trip from Porto to Pinhão to be ushered around on a private Jeep/boat tour by Jorge Miguel Matias of Jorge Barefoot Wine Tours. We swore we’d come back and stay overnight and we have. Pinhão had, seemingly, three things which support it: wine, tourism and wine tourism. When you approach town from the river it is a picturesque little hamlet with river boat cruise ships docked along its piers with hillside vineyards above marked with the name of the quintas on large placards amidst the grapes. As you approach from the road or by train, you can see the evidence of what must have been a crippling impact of COVID and it’s paralysis of two of the three industries of Pinhão (tourism and wine tourism) in force. Many of the storefronts are now closed and available for sale or for rent. Fortunately for Pinhão, the hotel was active and the river bustling with river tours which surely, hopefully, will return things back to the quaint little vila we found three years before.

This time, we stayed a couple of nights visiting Quinta das Carvalhas across the Douro and the in-town shop for Quinta do Noval. But the highlight of our stay was a sunset ride down and up the Douro on the Stella Maris with Paulo from Anima Durius. Well worth it and we had the boat all to ourselves (well, with Paulo). Hang in there, Pinhão, things have got to be getting better.

From Pinhão we traveled to our northernmost point of our trip to Bragança, which I wrote about here.

Return. Turning for home, we traveled south through and past the mountains, meeting up with the Douro and then south to the foot of the Serra da Estrela park along the IP2: the reliable and beautiful IP2. We stayed in Fundão at a great hotel in a converted convent just outside of town. We’d read some good reviews of the town itself from some very reliable sources, but it did nothing for us. We must be missing something or things have changed. That said, the surrounding mountains are beautiful and I did a nice hike from the quaint little vila of Alcaide to the mountain behind it as the rain cleared out in the mid afternoon (this area and hike is popular for its wild mushrooms – hence the somewhat trippy paintings on some of the buildings in Alcaide. I didn’t run into Alice, but had I, I would have asked her if she was ten feet tall).

We visited the Schist village of Castelo Novo in the following day’s morning rain which was like a step back in time. Parking at the Praia Fluvial parking lot and climbing to town transforms you back to Portugal from an earlier time. Schist villages “are called schist villages because this is the stone used in the construction of houses and is abundant in the region. The various shades of this rock, also used for paving the narrow winding streets, mingle seamlessly into the colours of the natural landscape, and it is not always easy to distinguish them.” (source). There are 27 of them near the Serra da Estrela park.

Crossing the Tejo River through the rocky, craggy and rugged mountains near Vila Velha de Ródão we descended from the mountains for Portugal into the rolling golden fields, cow, sheep and goat pastures dotted with boulders, olive and cork trees of Alentejo to turn west for home.

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