The tawny young woman with the ice green eyes lifted her cape toward the door: “Get off here for Peso de Regua.” I had seen her board the tiny, four-compartment train in Porto that would take me barreling down Portugal’s spectacular Douro River Valley to my vineyard-studded destination. Looked like a local. And if ever there was an antidote to Amtrak, it’s got to be this little, refreshingly inexpensive locomotive that makes exploring the hottest wine country in Europe right now a total snap.
Portugal is a quiet, low-key country and Porto, north of Lisbon, is the second largest city in the land. Arrive in Paris and the place fairly demands that you shower it with praise, whether you feel like it or not; drift into Porto, and you’ll feel an absence of touristic pressure that swiftly becomes an invitation to discover its dreamy charms at your own pace. The south side of the Douro as it flows through Porto is home to the sleepier Vila Nova de Gaia section, with its long stone, red-tile roofed warehouses that store the famous port wine and ship it out to the world. This is also where Porto’s newest-and most compelling-hotel is situated. The Yeatman (winter rates from 154 euros per night) is British-owned but that does nothing to diminish its stature as Portugal’s preeminent luxury wine hotel – indeed, when cool Britannia meets Portuguese warmth the collision is intoxicating. So too are the city views from this place.
Cobblestone lanes beneath it lead to the waterfront where port wine tasting rooms (inside the warehouses) and upbeat restaurants beckon. One such is Bacalhoeiro, where the specialty is bacalao (cod) served more ways than you could dangle a fishing rod at. On the other side of the river, Porto proper, you’ve got more restaurants, many with wide terraces, under the shadow of the emblematic Dom Luis iron bridge. Behind the Postigo do Carvao, a Gothic stone hatch that dates back to 1386, is the Rua da Fonte Taurina, slender, sexy and chock full of little wine bars. If it’s spectacular oceanside dining you hunger for, hop in a cab to Shis restaurant, not so central, but open to sea and sky and very worth it.
Drink up that tawny port, but not so much that you miss out on the rest of Porto’s urban treats. Portuguese guys aren’t afraid to wear hats. Pop into Lobo Taste, a gorgeous contemporary crafts shop, and get yourself an artsy pink fedora. Admire buildings whose sternness is tempered by facades of glistening green and blue ceramic tiles. Revel in how the absence of mass tourism leaves behind, or intact, a seductive charge coursing between the Art Nouveau bookshops, broad plazas and Baroque Torre dos Clerigos tower, and plug into it at will: no currency converter required.
One thing that can’t be missed is the Douro Valley, whether by car or by rail (my recommendation). Not one hour outside Porto, you’ll start seeing vine-covered hills that plunge down to the river more precipitously than Rachel Maddow’s necklines. If the Douro seems untamed, consider that until the 1960s it was barely navigable; it took a series of dams to tame its rapids. The spellbindingly lush scenery continues as you make your way east to Pinhao, the prettiest village along the Portuguese stretch of the river and home of the CS Vintage House, an excellent bet for a bed if you can stay a while.
If you’re only making a day trip, stop in Regua for lunch at Castas Pratos, a chic, high-ceilinged restaurant and wine bar where some of the tables are set literally next to the train tracks. Quinta do Vallado, a wine inn lovingly overseen by Francisco Ferreira Cabral and his two cousins, is a place at which to slow down and enjoy some simply fabulous Portuguese food and wines. The kitchen turns out home-style crispy bacalao pieces breaded with olive oil and garlic and it’s not possible to stop eating them. And the do Vallado’s wines? ExtraDouronary.
The Yeatman Hotel, the-yeatman-hotel.com
TAP Air Portugal, lytap.com
Portugal Tourist Board, visitportugal.com