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.
Portugal’s staple foods are our favorite snack at home or abroad — cheese, bread, charcuterie, and wine.Instead of a true dinner, one night in Lisbon we indulge in only these wonders.From two different wine bars, one in Belem and one in Lisbon, we eat and drink and snack until we’re a little too full and very satisfied.
The cheeses come in all shapes and sizes.There’s the swimming pool of creaminess, a.k.a. Queijo da Serra da Estrela; the pool cover is removed from the top of the cheese and replaced with a spoon to lather the nearest piece of bread.There are harder cheese wedges, softer squares, and a pumpkin marmalade to garnish. The cheese plate at the second bar was too big to even finish.
Then there are the wines and the ports.At 2 to 5 euros a glass, they are cheaper than most beer back home.We start with whites such as Rabigato and Bical.Move on to some of Portugal’s famous reds like Touriga Nacional, Baga, and Castelao.And finally make our way to the ports — white ones, ruby ones, tawny ones, vintage ones.We learn about the port making process, with its fortification, aging, and history.And after sufficient tasting, we learn that we love the white tawny as an aperitif, an aged tawny as a digestif, and that in-between those times, anything goes.