With the backdrop of the Tour de France happening in a fellow European nation not too far away, we spend our first morning in the Douro cycling through the vineyards.Moving between vines, we appreciate that not all wine regions are the same.The terraced Douro valley is particularly steep and manual.The only way to strip the vines of their grapes is by hand – no machine can traverse these terraces.We learn stories of people carrying incredibly heavy baskets up and down these hills.We first imagine a peaceful ride through the area, but we soon learn that the slopes and the loose gravel make this morning more of an adventure and less of a stroll.Luckily, the views have us stopping often to rest and take photos.
We seek adventure; however, we don’t always appreciate how much adventure we’re getting ourselves into.We sign up for a three-quarter day canyoning trip near the Douro.We’re picked up from the hotel after breakfast and driven through much of the countryside of Portugal.We arrive at the side of the river and change into our wetsuits, harnesses and helmets, which we believe is more for form than function.However, after only a couple meters into our excursion, we jump off a small cliff into the water.Given my healthy fear of heights, the adrenaline high begins here and doesn’t stop until we arrive back at our car four hours later.In-between, we repel down waterfalls, climb up waterfalls, scramble around rocks, cliff jump into river pools, and use moss-covered rocks as slides.Not for the faint of heart.
As our reward, our guide brings with him a homemade, traditional Portuguese picnic with corn bread, cheese, sausage, and homemade wine, port and grappa.Once we relax, we realize that we are very hungry, and truly enjoy our late afternoon picnic.
After learning more, we can appreciate almost any true craft, and port making is no exception.Which grapes to use, when to stop fermentation using grappa-esque liquor, if and how to age the drink, what to age the drink in, and how long to wait before drinking.
After spending over a week in Portugal, we learn and try many kinds of Port: white, ruby, tawny, vintage, late bottle vintage, and others. One tasting that will not blur with any of the others is from a very small producer in the Douro Valley named S. Leonardo.We climb up through the vines to the top of a hill on a very warm afternoon.Inside a small stone building, there are large barrels carrying carefully crafted vintages of port.Listening to the owner talk about his craft and his port, we are taken to generations past when we taste port that has been aged for 10, 20, 40, 60, and 100 years.
Port that has been aged for many many years takes on new and wonderful characteristics.The 100 year old port had flavors of caramel, chocolate, a little coffee, cherries, woodiness, and nuts.
We are immediately taken by the azulejos, the Portuguese blue tiles that cover the inside and outside walls of so many sites.These tiles are both art and construction material, and they come in the form of realistic stories and geometric patterns.
The most traditional are an incredibly calming blue; however, as we explore further, these ornate tiles are found in many other colors and styles. We even get to try our hands at painting them.
While in Sintra, the tiles might reach their pinnacle in the National Palace, the Park and Palace of Pena, and the Quinta da Regaleira. Especially in the National Palace, each room, each wall greets us with a distinct pattern, color and story.