The Douro River is the third-longest river in the Iberian Peninsula. It flows 897km (557 mi) from its source in Duruelo de la Sierra in Spain westwards to its estuary in Porto. For 112km the river's gorges and steep valley sides create a natural border with Portugal's sole neighbour. These once impassable canyons fashioned a line of defence against marauding armies. Today the torrents have been tamed by damns and the upper Douro region is part of the Douro Internacional Park. Its rustic beauty and environmental importance are now protected by law.
Douro & Vila Real Map - © Delahay&Co
The river is not the only sculptor of this unique valley, the Douro region has also been shaped by the hand of man. The earliest evidence of commerce in the area date back to the ninth century BC when Phoenician merchants arrived and brought the first grape varieties from the Middle East and Carthage. The writings of Strabo, the great geographer of ancient Greece, testifies inhabitants of northwest Iberia were already drinking wine two thousand years ago. Successive cultures brought their own influences, especially the Roman who developed the settlements of Portus (modern-day Porto) and Cale. Starting from Porto the northern frontier of the Roman Provence of Lusitania followed the course of the Douro River. Lusitania was named after Lusus, the son of the Roman god of wine Bacchus. The first terraces were cut in the hillsides date during the Roman occupation from about the 2nd century AD and continued right through Visigoth, Suebi and even the Arab eras.
After the creation of the Portuguese state, vast amounts of territory taken from the Moors were handed over to religious orders. Cistercians monks with roots from the Dukedom of Burgundy were given management of much of the lands in the Douro region. These French monks brought with them new vinicultural techniques. Today the small wine region around Lamego is still referred to as Terras de Cister. It's unknown exactly when fortification techniques appeared, that is stopping the fermentation of wine by adding strong brandy, not only to strengthen a wine but to stabilise it. What is clear is seafarers who carried fortified wines on their ships during Portugal's age of discovery, favoured it because of its durability.
In 1386 the Treaty of Windsor had established a close political, military and commercial alliance between England and Portugal. Under the terms of the treaty, each country gave the merchants of the other the right to reside within its territory and trade tariff-free. Strong and active trading links developed between the two countries and many English merchants settled in Portugal. By the second half of the 15th century a significant amount of Portuguese wine was being exported to England, often in exchange for salt cod known in Portuguese as bacalhau.
The Anglo-Portuguese commercial treaty of 1654 created new opportunities for English and Scottish merchants living in Portugal, allowing them special privileges and preferential customs duties. At that time, the centre of the wine business was not Porto, as it later became, but Viana do Castelo situated further North. The merchants imported commodities such as wool and cotton cloth from England and exported grain, fruit, oil and what was known as ‘red Portugal’, the light, acidic wine produced in the Minho region.
During the 18th century, the process of adding brandy to wine developed resulting in wines that were sweeter, stronger, more aromatic and of greater appeal to the English consumer. In 1756, the Douro Valley became the first demarcated wine region in the world. The popularity of Port wine grew in the 19th century altering the Douro landscape further and more foreign wine merchants, most notably the British, established ever-larger estates in the region. The growth of the Port trade was only hampered temporarily during the Napoleonic wars and the civil war of 1820. Years following this turmoil saw the start of one of the greatest periods of expansion and prosperity of the Port trade.
The Parque Natural do Douro Internacional covers a long strip of land that follows the western bank of the river Douro which forms the border between Spain and Portugal. The area has a special Mediterranean microclimate which has warmer winters than other areas in the Trás os Montes region. This in combination with the sparse human population of the area has led to the survival of a number of animal and plant species that are now extinct in the other regions of Portugal.More About ►
The remoteness and mountainous nature of the landscapes make large urban areas a rarity in the Douro yet the region is dotted with hundreds of old villages which seem to have been stuck in time. From these villages, six were singled out in 2001 and nominated protected “Wine Growing Villages” and awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. The villages chosen are Favaios, Provesende, Barcos, Trevões, Salzedas and Ucanha. The wine-growing village project sets out to restore and maintain the typical architectural and cultural heritage of the region. Visitors are often struck by the beauty of the narrow streets, emblazoned stone houses, mansions and farms, chapels, churches and monasteries. During the grape harvest between August and October, the villages are energised yet at any other time of the year you can find an array of local crafts and cuisine at your disposal.
Favaios is renowned for the sweet Moscatel wines produced here yet the town itself has retained much of the charm of the distant past. The Vilarelho Hill Fort (Castro de Vilarelho) was built during the Iron Age and whose ramparts are relatively well preserved. Along with its distinct wine Favaios and both produce are championed in the Bread and Wine Museum (Museu do Pão e do Vinho). Visit the Favaios Wine Cooperative (Adega Cooperativa de Favaios) to find out how wine is made and taste the much-appreciated Moscatel | Book A Visit. Local cuisine is not only about wine and bread: try the Transmontana bean and meat stew, roast kid, haricot bean stew or skate soup.
Provesende is one of the oldest settlements in Portugal the town, once called San Joanes lies on a high plateau overlooking the north bank of the Douro River and is home to the 5th Century Chapel of Santa Marinha. It was a pagan temple in its first incarnation and since been a mosque before being Christianised. The Ermida de São Domingos north of town is situated within an Iron Age castle A few manor houses in the village is a testament to Provesende's lucrative past. Other noteworthy points of interest are the pillory (1578) and a 1755 granite fountain in the centre of the village.
Barcos lies on a slope above the Távora River and is renowned for its monastery was founded in the Early Middle Ages. Archaeological finds date the village back to the Bronze Age and remains of a wine press built into the rock attest to the Roman occupation.
Salzedas was home to one of Portugal’s most important monasteries founded in Portugal's fledgeling years. The Cistercian Monastery of Santa Maria de Salzedas was built on the orders of Teresa Afonso between 1100-1171 AD. The monks who lived here were the main drivers of the agricultural development of the region. The Monastery of Santa Maria de Salzedas still dominates the village which maintains its medieval character with stone houses and narrow streets.
Ucanha is one of the oldest settlements in the region. Cultivation of the area started by the Romans was later continued and advanced by the Cistercian Monks. The towns most notable feature is a 12th century fortified bridge, with its distinctive toll tower.
When the line first opened in 1887 it was an engineering marvel as it follows the course of the river and up through the dramatic landscapes of the Alto Douro where vineyards are carved into terraces from the living bedrock. Although the branch lines have closed the Linha do Douro is still very impressive and a great way to spend a day. Regular trains leave São Bento and Campanhã and pass 20 tunnels, 30 bridges and 34 stations. The line becomes more dramatic after the town of Régua on to the pretty wine towns of Pinhão (one of the most beautiful railway stations in Portugal), Tua and terminating at Pocinho, (close to the Cão Valley rock art).
A picturesque steam train runs along the Linha do Douro on Saturdays from June to October. The steam locomotive with five historical carriages run the distance between Régua and Tua. You can just buy the Douro Historical Train journey, or you can choose to buy a Combined Package.
Train Timetable | Comboios de Portugal Website
Linha do Douro
Rock Art at Côa Valley
During the construction of a dam in the Côa River valley, close to the frontier with Spain, during the 1990s Prehistoric rock engravings were uncovered. The site was deemed of such great importance work on the dam was cancelled and the site was given protective status. The precious rock art consists of thousands of engraved rock drawings of horses, bison, deer, goats and other creatures, human and abstract pictographs, which date from 22,000 to 10,000 years BC.
The Archaeological Park of the Côa Valley (Parque Arqueológico do Vale do Côa (PAVC)) was created to give access to visitors, preserve and study the engravings. A museum was also constructed here following a major design contest.
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After Lisbon airport Porto International is the second busiest airport in Portugal and has knocked Faro into third place. This is a reflection of Porto's rise to prominence both as a centre for commerce and as a tourist destination. Originally constructed in the 1940's the building has recently been modernised and boasts first class ammenities and transport links.
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Since joining the EU Portugal has seen a vast improvement in it's road network with the addition of fine motorway network which speedily take you from the major cities to the area you want to visit. In 2015, the country's road network was named as being the best in Europe and the second best in the world. For the more adventurous drivers there's plenty of more rural windy yet very scenic roads available such as the N222 which runs from Peso de Regua to Pinhao and has been voted as the top drive in the world.
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Regular trains leave São Bento and Campanhã and passes 20 tunnels, 30 bridges and 34 stations on the beautiful Douro Line. The line becomes more dramatic after the town of Régua on to the pretty wine towns of Pinhão (one of the most beautiful railway stations in Portugal), Tua and terminating at Pocinho, (close to the Cão Valley rock art). Train Timetable | Comboios de Portugal Website
Rede Expressos run services to and from Vila Real from various locations within Portugal.