Trains and tipples in northern Portugal
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- Food and Drink, Mid-range
In Portugal's Douro Valley, you can take a train tour round some of the best local vineyards, and discover that port isn't just for Christmas
Get your anoraks out, as trainspotting hasn’t been this hip since Ewan McGregor crawled out of a toilet. With few roads up into the Douro river valley in northern Portugal, trains are pretty much the only way you can see this scenic part of the country. This includes vintage metre gauge steam locomotives that still run on terrifyingly narrow tracks snaking through the hills and valleys. It's a trainspotter’s paradise, with many of the locomotives that still run on the network decommissioned in the rest of the world.
PTG runs a vintage port and rail tour of the area, which includes a trip on a vintage steam train from Douro to Tua. This train was built in 1925 and consists of lovingly restored wooden bodied carriages and a steam locomotive. You get the smoky smell in the carriage and can see the carbon on your fingers when you’re sat downwind from the engine. It is a real blast from the past and you can pretend to be in an Agatha Christie mystery, though fortunately the only slaughtering that is likely to happen is everyone overdoing the port that is served en route.
In Tua, the place to have lunch is the Calta Curta restaurant, which is just by the train station. It's a regional restaurant that serves traditional Portuguese fare. Portuguese cuisine is heavy on the pork (making life difficult for Jewish, Muslim and vegetarians), but river fish and seafood from further afield are also much loved, and deep fried potato fish cakes are a particular delight. A great tip is to order a platter of local cheeses and try them with a few different ports. You can even spot the goats and sheep the cheese came from out of the restaurant window - the distance from farm to table is that short.
Port is the point of the PTG trip, as the quintas (wine estates) you can visit and the port houses in Porto all attempt to educate you on the history and production of this delicious wine. On most of the railways, trams and boats that make up the tour there’s always a little tipple of port on offer. Strangely, port doesn’t taste the way you’d expect it to out in the sunny vineyards, as it’s a million miles away from the Christmassy context in which we normally drink it.
The scenery is breathtaking. Some of the vineyards are planted almost vertically in neat rows on the sides of the hills, leading down into flower-dotted valleys through which the river gently gurgles. The lovelorn should head to the riverside town of Amarante, where the 12th-century Saint Goncalo is said to be able to hook you up with the man or woman of your dreams. Pilgrims come and touch his tomb in the hopes of finding The One. When you’re done desperately beseeching the saint to sort out your love life, you can have lunch in the quaint riverside tavernas across the 16th-century bridge at the heart of the town. In the afternoon, visit the Quinta da Avaleda with its romantic goat tower and Victorian tea house.
Ensure you also fit in a visit to Casa de Mateus. This is the manor house that is on the label of Mateus Rosé wine and is buiilt in the baroque style, with really beautiful gardens to explore.
For those who like to have a spot of swimming on the itinerary, Hotel Regua Douro has a fabulous outdoor pool with views across the river and valley. You can also add more water to the agenda with an all-day boat trip down the valley into Porto. Interestingly, you go through a number of dams before you reach the city. It is a strange claustrophobic feeling to be inside the dam gates as the water rises to the right level so you can continue on down the river. However, it is a party atmosphere on the boat and by the last dam you’re too merrily tipsy to care too much about the spooky disaster movie feel of the dam gates.
Once you reach the bustling city of Porto, check into the Hotel Dom Henrique. Its high-rise profile makes getting lost on the way back to the hotel hard. There's also an excellent cocktail bar on the 17th floor that affords wonderful views of the city and is a great place to regain your cool after a day’s anoraking.
TAP and Ryanair fly to Porto from around £150.
The vintage port and rail tour run by PTG can be taken as seven or 11 days. Prices vary, but a seven-day trip from Gatwick, including flights, transfers, train and boat tickets, some meals, lots of port and a full itinerary, costs around £999.