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O Douro no New York Times

por papinto, em 03.06.10

Portugal Old, New and Undiscovered

“SEE these olive trees?” said Celso Pereira as his pickup truck slalomed down a road flanked by thousands of them, their pale, pointy leaves glistening faintly, their limbs wretched and magnificent with age. “They make the most wonderful olive oil.”

“And those orange trees?” he added, pointing to a small grove. They brimmed with bright, ripening fruit. “The oranges are amazing.”

The tiny restaurant ahead? “Phenomenal,” he said. The dark soil in the vineyard to the left? Incomparable. It wasn’t thickly accented English he spoke so much as the language of local pride — exultant and, truth be told, hyperbolic. I had tasted the olive oil: lovely, not life-changing. And the oranges: perfectly fine.

But there was one soaring superlative with which I couldn’t quibble. “This drive,” he said as the truck dropped like a roller coaster into the valley below. “It is the most beautiful, no?”

Yes. Oh yes. And that heady conviction had only a little to do with the wines that Mr. Pereira, a vintner in this enchanted region of northern Portugal, had just had me sample. All around us mountains undulated into the distance. The slopes in the foreground were a precipitous, mesmerizing patchwork of greens, reds, browns and grays, the earth alternately craggy and lush, terraced and cleanly diagonal, as if some grand hand had fashioned it into a tutorial on all that nature and agriculture can do.

And at the base of those slopes: a ribbon of water, playing peek-a-boo as it twisted into and out of view. This was the Douro River, the cause and compass of my trip.

I had been drawn to Portugal by word of how splendid the area around the Douro is. It is from the banks of the Douro that the sublime city of Oporto rises. It is along the Douro that a disproportionate share of Portugal’s most respected wine producers fuss over their grapes.

And it was my hope that by tracing the river from Oporto toward Spain, I might construct my favorite kind of vacation, one that mingles — within a few days and a few hours of driving — some time in an old, architecturally distinguished city with even more time in gorgeous countryside, all punctuated by big, slow, boozy meals. That’s my Italy, my France, my Spain. I wanted to make it my Portugal, too.

In fact Portugal has advantages over its more celebrated neighbors. It is appreciably less expensive, especially now, given its economic woes, which sometimes earn it mention in the same paragraph, or even sentence, as Greece. Those troubles make its outreach to tourists more ardent than ever, an effort manifest in new hotels and a fancier class of restaurants throughout the area around the Douro, where a growing tourism infrastructure has been spurred by closer international attention to Douro wines and winemakers.

What’s more, you can experience Portugal without excessive buildup and, well, bullying. Tell your friends that you’re bound for Italy and out pour the recommendations, myriad and insistent: you must, you must, you must. Tell them you’re going to Portugal and they are as likely as not stumped. You can discover this country on your own, fashion it for yourself. And in Portugal you encounter a pride of place, like Mr. Pereira’s, that doesn’t bleed into the kind of arrogance it can in a country over which the whole world fawns. Portugal’s self-regard is defensive, pleading, sweet.

I FIRST connected with the Douro in Oporto. If you’ve never been to this city and haven’t read up on it you know it mainly as the tipsy mother lode of its namesake product, port, exported to any and every country with an appreciation of fortified wine. You’re reminded of this by the gigantic signs in Vila Nova de Gaia, on the opposite side of the Douro from Oporto, that advertise some of the most prolific local producers.

But you can be indifferent to port and still thrill to Oporto, with its high bridges, its tall hills and the succinct labyrinth of narrow, cobbled streets in its scruffy old heart, snug against the river.

It’s a city of bold, sudden architectural contrasts, in which two or three blocks collapse two or three centuries. On my first afternoon there, near the summit of the city, I traced the edges of Praça da Liberdade, marveling over the way its Beaux-Arts flourishes recall Paris at its prettiest. Thirty minutes later and less than a half mile down the sharply graded descent toward the river, I was staring at the rococo facade of the Igreja da Misericórdia, which dates to the 16th century. It put me in mind of Rome.

The church is on Rua das Flores, perhaps my favorite street in Oporto: slender, shaded, intimate, many of its low-slung buildings fronted with wrought iron or covered with painted tiles, which were probably garish at the start but have faded to a subtle, exquisite beauty. The Portuguese make lavish use of such tiles. The São Bento train station in Oporto has, in its main hall, enormous blue-and-white-tile murals of historic scenes. That station is near one end of Rua das Flores; near the other, on a corner just beyond the Igreja da Misericórdia, is a particularly beautiful house with a graceful medley of blue and ocher shades that mesmerized me.

You know that sensation you get — that traveler’s high — when the spot in which you’re standing feels so right that you have to will yourself to budge? In front of that blue and ocher house, on an early April day kissed by sun and a subtle breeze both, I felt that splendid lethargy, and knew there was only one way to complement it. I needed wine. It was past 3 p.m., after all.

My hotel was a good place for a drink, because my hotel was magnificent. Called the Freixo Palace, it’s a renovated 18th-century estate, about a mile and a half from the center of town, that belongs to a network of Portuguese pousadas, which are old monasteries, manor houses and the like that have been repurposed for travelers. It opened in October, one of two luxurious new additions to the Oporto hotel scene. Another, the Yeatman, in Vila Nova de Gaia, is scheduled to open in July. The Freixo has grand public rooms with high, frescoed ceilings; manicured grounds that lead to the Douro’s edge; and, on those grounds, a shimmering infinity pool, which supplements another pool indoors.

The price for all of this? My traveling companion, Tom, and I paid $200 a night, in dollars online. That’s Portugal for you. And we paid only 3.50 euros a glass (about $4.50 at $1.21 to the euro) for the lovely Portuguese white wine that we had in those high-ceilinged common rooms, as we luxuriated in their splendor while working up an appetite for dinner.

That first night we headed to Shis, one of several emphatically stylish restaurants that have come along over the last few years to reflect Oporto’s increasingly sophisticated sense of self. Our taxi took a route that hugged the river, in which scattered reflections of light from the city made it appear as if scores of candles were bobbing on the surface. Why, I wondered, do you hear so much about the Arno and the Danube and so little about the Douro? That seemed crazy, and it seemed crazier still when, before us, a view of crashing waves and swaying palms opened up, reminding me that within Oporto’s boundaries — and on top of its other charms — the Douro has a picturesque nexus with the Atlantic.

The taxi turned a corner, drove parallel to the beach for a few minutes, and stopped.

“Here,” the driver said, pointing toward the ocean.

I followed his finger and saw nothing but sand and surf. “Here ... what?” I asked.

“The restaurant,” he said, pointing anew. Then we noticed a little sign for Shis. But where was it?

Below street level, down a flight of stairs, tucked into an oceanfront embankment, perched over the water. The side of the main dining room facing the Atlantic is all glass; the opposite side has mirrors strategically placed so that waves appear to be coming at you from that direction, too.

The food at Shis, though appealing, wasn’t at quite the same level as the setting. In Oporto, I quickly learned, the most satisfying eating isn’t done in glossy design showcases like Shis or, say, Buhle, another self-consciously stylish hot spot. It’s done at more traditional restaurants like Casa Aleixo, where squat, grandmotherly women work in a theatrically framed open kitchen at the far end of the dining room while briskly efficient servers carry heaping platters of crazily good fried octopus filets to the table.

The Portuguese have a special talent with octopus. With sausage, too. At Shis, I first tasted the country’s alheira sausage, made with a mixture of meats and — the distinctive part — bread. In that sense it’s like the meatloaf of sausages, but with a pillowy interior texture that meatloaf seldom achieves. Some alheira is fried, making it crunchy on the outside: a delectable contrast. I couldn’t get enough of it or of Portugal’s cumin-seasoned version of blood sausage.

AT Shis and elsewhere, I also developed more respect for Portugal’s affordably priced wines, produced in greater numbers and more variety than you would ever guess from wine lists and stores in the United States. While Portuguese reds have won more international regard of late, the crisp, easy-drinking, medium-bodied whites remain underrated, and those from vineyards near the Douro are more nuanced than, say, vinho verde, Portugal’s best-known, utilitarian white. I especially liked, and recommend, two- or three-grape blends in which viosinho, a distinctive Portuguese varietal, is used. These tended to have a crucial edge of acidity, a pleasant heft and, when aged in oak, a glimmer of the opulence of a white Burgundy.

Portugal’s winemakers grow and use many grape varietals not well known elsewhere. That alone makes the drinking fun. And drinking was on our minds as Tom and I headed east, toward the Douro winemaking region, and Quinta do Vallado, a prominent vineyard there. From Oporto to the city of Vila Real we took the highway, but from there to the city of Peso da Régua we deliberately took a slow, serpentine route, N2, instead. It gave us much better views of all the grapevines, planted on mountainsides sculptured long ago into what look like gargantuan, crop-friendly steps.

We digressed for lunch in Lamego, mainly to see its famous Baroque staircase, which wraps around fountains and patches of garden as it climbs high, high up a hill. A third of the way to the top, we quit, this being a vacation and not “The Biggest Loser.” Then it was on to Quinta do Vallado, where we met its owner, João Ferreira Álvares Ribeiro, one of a small posse of ambitious local vintners who have been christened the “Douro boys.”

Mr. Ferreira is trying to point his winemaking peers toward the kind of savvier hospitality that might make the Douro River valley competitive with, say, Tuscany or Piedmont. About five years ago he created five spacious, handsome guest rooms in an old stone building among his fields, presaging similar development at a few vineyards nearby. In addition to those lodgings, two extraordinarily elegant resorts — Aquapura, where rooms go for more than 238 euros a night, and the Romaneira, where they cost at least 794 euros — are located within a few dozen miles. Mr. Ferreira charges only about 100 euros, in the high season, from April through October, for the littlest of his, which aren’t so little. (Take note: from late June to early September, the weather here can be scorchingly hot.)

IN April, during my stay, he was just finishing up a reception area where tourists can do tastings. That is something sadly unavailable at many vineyards. For example a Web site for Quinta do Vesuvio trumpeted that its “inviting veranda offers the ideal location to enjoy a glass of port,” but when I called to see if I needed to make an appointment, the woman on the other end said flatly, “There is no part of it that is open to the public.”

“It’s our own fault more people don’t know us,” Mr. Ferreira told me, shaking his head, pressing a glass of his 2007 sousão (a native red varietal) on me, and warning that it might be too big and saucy to love. “This is a wine you need guts to drink.” I started with a small sip — a scouting mission, you might say — and then proceeded to drain my glass.

The next morning, he drove us to the peak of his property, where the vineyard’s overnight guests can eat lunch at one of several bulky, oddly shaped stone tables with lumpy, rough-hewn stone benches: picnic-henge. We could see dozens of miles in every direction. In terms of topography and sunshine, Tuscany has nothing on the Douro River valley.

In terms of eating, it certainly does, but this area is making strides. Near Quinta do Vallado I found two restaurants I liked immensely. One, DOC, is on the far side of the Douro, along the road east to Pinhao. Glass-walled and minimalist, it juts out over the river, affording a nearly 270-degree view, and for that reason is best visited before sundown. We had superb octopus (again!) and tender, juicy veal. And we drank one of Mr. Pereira’s white wines, an elegant white blend of gouveio, viosinho and rabigato called Quanta Terra, which is how we came to know of — and, later, meet — him.

The other restaurant, Castas e Pratos, is in the center of Peso da Régua, practically on the train tracks. On the first level is a wine bar with stools upholstered in purplish crushed velvet; above it, a dining room with a translucent floor. The restaurant specializes in gorgeously composed small dishes. One had many delicate layers of crunchy pastry filled with goat cheese, almond slivers, fig and a port wine sauce. Another tasted like some cross of a savory bread pudding and a risotto, rich with bits of alheira.

But many of my favorite moments were away from the table, just taking in the scenery, which you can do by foot (if you’re inclined to hike), boat (if the river’s water level isn’t too high), car (if hairpin curves don’t daunt you) or train (if you can bear a glacier’s pace). We went glacial one afternoon, riding the train from Peso da Régua to the end of the line, in Pocinho. The tracks never stray more than about 100 feet from the river. Along some stretches, rocky cliffs rise up right beside you — you get the sense that you’re creeping through a deep canyon. The river itself is narrow, wide, greenish, grayish, roiling, calm and never, in any two places, exactly the same. The four-hour round trip went down easy.

But for sheer spectacle, we did even better by car. A drive between the sleepy towns of Pinhao and Alijó was stunning and mildly terrifying, with steep drops from the side of the road. We noticed a number of hungry-looking dogs, strangely far from shelter or people.

“What are they doing here?” asked Tom, behind the wheel.

“My guess?” I said as I gripped the dashboard, imagining the fatal accident in the offing. “Waiting for carrion.”

But the even more breathtaking drive came the next day, with Mr. Pereira, whom we contacted through DOC. He invited us to visit his warehouse on the outskirts of Alijó.

He gave us tastes of his Vértice line of sparkling wines, all nice. We tried his Terra a Terra and Quanta Terra whites and reds, also good. Then he eagerly shepherded us into his truck. What he would show us, he said, we’d never see on our own.

He was right. In no guidebooks did I see instructions on this particular route, and on no maps can I find what I’d need to give exact, unerring guidance about it. But if you head from Alijó in the direction of Favaios, then follow the first signs to Castedo, then turn left at the fountain in the center of that village onto a narrow, bumpy road sloping sharply down toward Tua, you should have luck. Or you can always double back, try again and have luck the second or third time. It’s a small area. You can’t go too wrong for too long.

And when you go right: wow. All afternoon long Tom had been consumed by some work problem back home, and he had tap-tap-tapped on his BlackBerry even through our wine tasting. But as we plummeted toward the Douro, at what felt like a 180-degree incline, I glanced back at him and saw that he had finally ceased. He was looking at one thing and one thing only: the soaring, tumbling, majestic land around us. It couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be ignored.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

There are no regularly scheduled nonstop flights between New York City and Oporto; I flew direct to Lisbon and drove three hours to Oporto. Continental, TAP Portugal and United have round-trip flights from Kennedy Airport or Newark Liberty International in late June for about $1,150. In April, my round-trip fare to Lisbon was about $800. Renting a car, which you’ll want for exploring the countryside, costs between $225 and $350 a week from major companies, depending on car size.

WHERE TO STAY

The Palacio do Freixo (Freixo Palace, Estrada Nacional 108, Oporto; 351-225-311-000; www.pousadas.pt), which is also known as the Pousada do Porto, has spacious contemporary rooms on an 18th-century estate with frills galore. A standard double in June costs about $175 on a weeknight and $300 on a weekend; I paid in dollars.

Quinta do Vallado (Vilarinho dos Freires, Peso da Régua; 351-939-103-591; quintadovallado.com), on the outskirts of Peso da Régua, has five colorful guest rooms in a vineyard with a pool and splendid views. In summer and early fall, rates range from about 100 euros to about 150 euros, about $121 to $184 at $1.21 to the euro, depending on the time of week and room.

WHERE TO EAT

Restaurante Casa Aleixo (Rua da Estação 216, Oporto; 351-225-370-462) oozes Old World charm, and has terrific fried octopus filets, among other fried fish. Dinner for two with wine costs about 75 euros.

DOC (Estrada Nacional 222, Folgosa; 351-254-858-123; ruipaula.com), just outside Peso da Régua, does creative contemporary riffs on Portuguese cooking, courtesy of one of the country’s most acclaimed chefs, Rui Paula. Dinner for two with wine costs about 125 euros.

 

Frank Bruni is a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine.

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