Taking the Slow Train Through Portugal's Beautiful Douro Valley

Photo by SeanPavonePhoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

by Tim Moore, The Telegraph, April 4, 2019

Sao Bento, agleam in the morning sun, may well be the world’s most becoming railway station. Porto’s secondary terminus pays glorious tribute to the city’s belle époque, its opera-house concourse walled from floor to lofty, elaborate ceiling with colourful hand-painted tiles.

A magnificent old clock looms above the wrought-iron and glass platform canopies, dwarfing the little yellow train creaking to a halt beneath. When a clerk hands me my ticket something seems amiss: the ambience demands a small rectangle of stout cardboard, but I’ve been handed a flimsy curl of barcode-stamped paper.

North of the Algarve’s generic beaches and golf greens lies a very different Portugal, where steep, old cities tumble down to majestic rivers, the skyline and landscape still largely shaped by a legacy of Moorish rule and pioneering maritime adventure. 

Despite its sometimes excitable weather, the Atlantic flank of the Iberian Peninsula is a far more peaceful, ruminative realm than its Mediterranean counterpart. Pedestrians amble, and motorists display a regionally atypical aversion to the horn. Even the native language seems laid-back, a meandering slur with none of that frenetic Spanish staccato.

When it comes to train travel, there’s only one way to get around this country: slowly. And so I’m going with the Portuguese flow, taking a succession of sleepy, stop-everywhere regional services south. From Porto, where the mighty Douro meets the ocean, down to Sintra, close to the mouth of the even mightier Tagus.

Sao Bento offers a perfect introduction to the more humble but no less enchanting stations I will trundle through in the coming days. Nearly all are graced with those splendid tiles. The Moors introduced glazed tiling to Portugal, and over the centuries local artists refined the technique to wondrous effect.

But on my debut leg, hugging the Douro inland from Porto to Pinhao, there’s an awful lot more than winsome old stations sliding gently past those dusty windows. Below us the fat, green river winds through walls of rock and endless stripes of terraced vineyards and orange groves, curled about the steep hills like 3D contour lines. Even the elderly local regulars, bent over their knitting and newspapers, raise their heads to savour a Portillo-grade spectacle.   

Pinhao is delightful: a venerable rank of whitewash and terracotta dozing in the sun around a broad curve in the river. I have to walk across the tracks to exit the station, past aproned old dears toting wicker baskets filled with paper-twisted rebucadas, a local barley sugar. 

A short cruise up and down the spangled Douro brings me into conversation with skipper Pedro, who tilts his chin at a clutch of roofs atop the vineyards that rear up behind Pinhao. “My village”, he sighs, one hand on the wheel and the other round a thimble of port. “We have the best view in the world.” 

Pedro tells me it’s an easy 25-minute walk up there, but when I go to leave my trolley case with another Pedro, barman at the Café Imperia opposite the station, he smiles and shakes his head. “People up in Casal de Loivos always tell the same. It’s one hour minimum and like this!” The old men nursing fishbowl glasses of white wine along the bar turn to watch Other Pedro angle his forearm straight up at the ceiling.

At his suggestion I take a taxi up the flailing switchbacks to Quinta do Jalloto, one of the many panoramic wineries perched along the ridges around Casal de Loivos. The panorama, admired with a glass of their 2013 Grande Reserva, is glorious. Those steepling terraces beneath are embellished with giant placards proclaiming allegiance to revered port houses – DOW’S, CROFT – but with the ageing port market on the wane, most Douro grapes are now magicked into evermore sophisticated red wines. Full appreciation makes a wayward stumble of my vertiginous walk down through the broiled vineyards.

Back at Porto I’m met by Edouardo Moura e Sa, and whisked off to a Douro-side steak dinner. He’s a splendidly patrician industrialist who speaks with urbane fondness of the fabled “oldest alliance” that links Britain and Portugal, nodding at the Anglo-founded old port warehouses standing proud on the opposite bank, and the redolent scarlet pillar boxes and telephone kiosks that stand amongst twinkly streetlamps along the quay below us. Afterwards he drives us past the Factory House, a Bath-stone Georgian mansion where the city’s port barons still meet every Wednesday for a lunch that comes accompanied with the London newspapers – each copy 100 years old to the day.

Then it’s a short and balmy drive south to the quinta that has accommodated his family for umpteen generations, now doubling as a grand but homely guesthouse. My room has a magnificent carved bedhead, heavy shutters and an heirloom sideboard full of tassled perfume puffers. It’s like staying with the loaded, posh grandparents you never had. 

Morning brings a breakfast of crusty rolls, freshly-squeezed oranges and local honey, presented on heavy linen amid vases of blooms from the quinta’s manicured grounds.

Afterwards, as we stroll through winding avenues of monkey puzzles and magnolias, Eduardo modestly confesses that his garden draws visitors from across the country. I comment on an especially lovely rhododendron tree. “Thank you”, he murmurs. “In fact, we have more than one thousand of those.”

Coimbra, a pootling train-ride south, was Portugal’s first capital and remains home to one of the world’s oldest universities. Yet it’s slightly off the tourist radar, and the waitress who brings me my caldo verde – a leafy soup with chunks of spicy chourico – can manage no more than a charming shrug when I request sightseeing suggestions in English. 

The city’s old town is a maze of perpendicular alleys that echo with the screech of vehicles struggling for traction on slick calcada, the patterned black and white cobbles that are such a pleasing urban fixture in this part of the world. Shrubs sprout from the roofs of weathered Romanesque churches, and roses cascade down ancient walls.

My map-circle reveals itself as a delightful shabby-chic botanical garden, testament to the plucky 15th-century seafarers who returned from the tropics with exotic plants that have thrived in Portugal’s temperate climate. Deserted avenues of spindly palms radiate from overgrown fountains and rusty Victorian glasshouses, flanked by gaudy purple-orange blurts of bird-of-paradise flowers. Then it’s a hike back up and over the lofty old town to the station, window shopping along the way.

High streets might be dying elsewhere, but not in Portugal. The shops are all tiny, and rewardingly niche: flat caps, model cars, ecclesiastical regalia. 

A languid, two-hour rattle on the self-styled “high speed express” takes me through misty flatlands to Caldas da Rainha, where I’m met on another ghostly platform by Patrick and Hayat. Over an artful plate of polvo a lagareiro – baked octopus with smashed spuds – the Belgian couple tell me what drew them to this overlooked stretch of the Estremadura coast: empty beaches, wild seas, a general air of mystery. “There’s a Visigoth chapel in the dunes nearby”, says Patrick. “It’s one of the oldest churches in Europe, but hardly anyone knows about it.”

Making tracks | Portugal's ancient trams

Their guesthouse is tucked up near a sweet little church just inland from those mighty Atlantic gusts, and I bag the prime room: my very own windmill, a cosily converted cousin of the sturdy sawn-off cones that dot the surrounding hilltops. 

I hit peak trundle on the train south to Sintra, sharing a creaky carriage with a nun and a bloke with a bundle of massive planks he clearly couldn’t fit in his car. Storks totter about in poppy-speckled fields. Goods trains stacked with eucalyptus trunks lumber past. A Bernard Cribbins station master waters his window-boxes beneath a steam-age water tower. 

In this timeless mood, it’s hardly jarring to find myself transferring to a rattly, clanging, 90-year-old tramcar, all dim bulbs and dark varnish. After a clatter through Sintra’s comely palaces and holiday mansions, there’s a rather mad 20-minute runaway plunge down the foothills of the Sintra Mountains to the seaside at Praia das Macas. It’s a pilgrimage, of sorts. My father’s family lived in Sintra during the early years of the war, and my grandfather – The Daily Telegraph’s Lisbon correspondent and a reckless naturist – posed for a fabled album shot on this bright and blowy beach, standing before the dark cliffs wearing nothing but a proud smile and his gold-rimmed pebble specs. In preference to a homage, I toast him with a chilled Super Bock at one of the bars that gaze out at the boisterous Atlantic. 

I overnight at Casa Miradouro, a candy-striped villa dating from Sintra’s 19th-century aristocratic heyday. My attic balcony offers beckoning views of the Moorish castle that looks down on the town, its Game of Thrones battlements meandering around a granite outcrop. Villa Sassetti, a mansion halfway up the castle hill, has recently opened a very steep public footpath to the castle through its well-tended grounds, and in the morning I set off to hike it. Sintra is embarrassed with splendid vistas, but you never get them for free. My annual Fitbit record will have been shattered come sundown. 

From the windy castle turrets I don’t look down on the majesty of Portugal, but of its far-flung empire. Beneath me sprawls a kind of pioneering theme park, shaped by colonial wealth and influences. Pastiche, pimped-up chalets and chateaus stand amongst day-glo fronds of bougainvillea, huge sequoias, date palms, tree ferns and delicate Oriental pines.

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The centrepiece Town Palace is a weird, white Moorish fantasy topped with chimneys like giant upturned megaphones. Taking a different path back down to town, I get lost and reprise this trip’s defining pleasure: leaning back on my heels down steep, cobbled alleys, gazing up at a cloudless sky through tram wires and palm leaves.

And then, quite miraculously, I blunder across my father’s childhood home. He’d only remembered the name of the house, not its location, but suddenly there it is on a whitewashed wall just past the church of Santa Maria, inevitably painted in blue on white tiles: Casa da Lapa. I gaze up and down the cobbles and out across the palace-dotted hillsides, feeling rather short-changed by my own formative years in Ealing. Mind you, at least my father kept his shorts on in the garden.

Tim Moore is a travel writer and humorist. His book, The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold: Adventures Along the Iron Curtain (Vintage Publishing; £8.99) is available through Telegraph Books (0844 871 1514; books.telegraph.co.uk) for £7.99.

Essentials

Tim Moore stayed at Torel Avantgarde in Porto (from €110 per night for a double room), Quinta de Mourães in Lever (from €95 per night for a double room), Flamboyant B&B in Serra do Bouro (from €80 per night for a double room) and Casa Miradouro in Sintra (from €70 per night for a double room), all booked through Sawday’s (sawdays.co.uk).

For information on train journeys and timetables visit cp.pt

 

This article was written by Tim Moore from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected]

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