Bordeaux and Burgundy might be the classic wine lover meccas, but increasingly the Douro Valley is seen as pilgrimage-worthy. For over 2000 years winegrowers have been carving terraces into the impossibly steep banks of the Douro river which, for this very reason, is now a UNESCO world heritage site. It has a wild, rugged beauty that requires no pretence or advanced wine knowledge. It’s utterly spectacular, yet earthy and humble.
I would recommend staying longer than a day, but a day was all we had time for so we had to make do. So, if you ever find yourself in Portugal with time to spare for a Douro day trip, here’s my cheat sheet:
1. Go by train
Drinking and driving is bad enough, but with the hairpin bends of the Douro, you really don’t want to go this route. Trick a friend into driving, or do what we did – take the train. You can check times from Porto to the last stop in the Douro, Pocinho on https://www.cp.pt/passageiros/en/. Go early, as the train doesn’t run all that regularly, especially on weekends.
2. Enjoy the ride
It’ll take you just under three hours to reach the last stop, Pocinho. It’s worth the ride to go to the end as some of the most spectacular Douro views are between Régua and Pocinho. The train hugs the river pretty much all the way there, and it’s truly breathtaking. It was a relaxing time for us to chat, reflect and enjoy the exquisite scenery.
3. Eat with the locals
There’s not a lot to see at Pocinho, but it has at least three little restaurants where the villagers have lunch. They serve simple yet tasty carb-heavy dishes – and when I say simple I mean simple as. Don’t expect to be presented with a wine list. Our options were ‘red’ or ‘white’, so we ended up with an unlabelled bottle of the red. To our surprise, it was delicious. “You like the wine?” asked one of the men at the table next to ours. He turned out to be the train driver who would bring us back to Porto. Along with a bottle of red, we decided to share olives, soup, bread, fish (most likely cod), lamb and rice. It made us feel cozy inside to fill up on hearty local fare, while less-than-subtly watching families share their Saturday lunch.
4. Bring cash
Even though this is Europe in the 21st century, Douro residents appear to be allergic to card machines and ATMs. Be sure to bring cash and not get stuck in embarrassing situations like we did (fortunately we made friends with the train conductor in the Pocinho restaurant, so he let us off for not having cash to pay for our train fare back).
5. Visit a quinta
Quintas are Portugal’s answer for wineries. We had wanted to visit a few recommended quintas, but as we had run out of cash that made hailing a taxi impossible. On the way back we decided to get off the train at Pinhão, another little Douro town with an exquisitely-tiled train station. Quinta do Bonfim happened to be in walking distance (and they had a card machine!) so we whiled away the rest of the afternoon on their terrace, overlooking the vineyards and sipping on Porto Tonico and elegant white wines.
While a longer trip is always first prize, a Douro day trip from Porto is totally doable. We could’ve lingered for longer and did have to keep an eye on the clock, but we had ample time to enjoy some wine and even have a bit of a stroll through the dormant vineyards. Next time we plan to visit a whole bunch of quintas, with a fistful of cash of course!