A gourmet train ride in Portugal’s wine country

CNN  — 

Dappled sunlight gleaming off its regal blue livery, Portugal’s Presidential Train glides out of the medieval heart of Porto toward the Douro Valley on the start of a new addition to Europe’s selection of luxury rail journeys – a nine-hour gourmet excursion through one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world.

Its oldest carriages were assembled in Parisian workshops 127 years ago to convey the kings and queens of Portugal around their realm in high comfort.

Now the once-royal rolling stock takes paying passengers on a lavish day-trip through 200 kilometers (125 miles) of stunning scenery from Porto to the grand Quinta do Vesuvio estate on the far eastern edge of Douro wine country.

For most of the journey through Portugal, the train hugs the riverbank. Each curve reveals a different breath-stopping vista of the broad, blue Douro as it snakes through vine-covered slopes dotted with granite villages or the stately mansions of old wine-making families.

It doesn’t come cheap. Tickets for riding this railroad are €500 ($560) – compared to €24.60, if you take the regular train along the same line. The Presidential price includes some extras, though, starting with the fancy catering.

A succession of Michelin-starred chefs from Portugal and beyond are serving gourmet lunches to travelers on the 30 or so trips scheduled for spring and fall 2017. Their multicourse meals are partnered with prize-wining Douro wines.

Kicking off the show should’ve been Esben Holmboe Bang, who holds the distinction of being both the world’s youngest and most northerly three-star chef. His restaurant Maaemo in the Norwegian capital Oslo is hallowed ground for devotees of new Nordic cooking.

Gastronomic revival

This is no express ride. The Presidential travels at a gentle pace.

Unhappily, Holmboe Bang broke a leg the day before he was due to fly down from Oslo.

His Irish sous-chef, Halaigh Whelan-McManus, had to gamely step in to save the show, ensuring the 60 or so passengers were served up a blend of Nordic knowhow and northern Portuguese seasonal products – from an appetizer of onion puree infused with rhubarb oil and fiery Scandinavian akvavit, to strawberries and smoked custard for dessert.

The Presidential Train’s gastronomic revival is the brainchild of businessman Gonçalo Castel-Branco. He fell in love when he saw the carriages languishing immobile in Portugal’s railway museum.

“I had to get it back on the line, but couldn’t work out how,” Castel-Branco says. “When my 10-year-old daughter suggested a restaurant, I told her ‘that’s a terrible idea, go to your room,’ but when I woke up next morning, I thought, she’s absolutely right.”

After much persuading, the national railway company agreed. A try out last year saw the train running 10 trips with meals prepared by Dieter Koschina, chef of the two-star Vila Joya restaurant on Portugal’s south coast.

This year the train is back, with 10 journeys scheduled through May and another 20 or so planned in the fall when the Douro vineyards come to life for the grape harvest.

Porto chef Pedro Lemos and João Rodriques, of Lisbon’s Feitoria restaurant, are on track to cook for the remaining spring trips, but Castel-Branco has yet to reveal the fall lineup.

“This is something that works,” says Castel-Branco. “When you have this train and you have the Douro, this landscape, everything else is easy-peasy.”

Spectacular views

The oldest carriages were assembled in Parisian workshops 127 years ago.

The journey begins in Porto’s São Bento terminal, a temple to the golden age of rail, built in the early 1900s with a grand granite façade in the French Beaux-Arts style. Its cathedral-like concourse is clad with over 20,000 painted tiles depicting medieval Portuguese warriors battling their Spanish or Moroccan neighbors and other scenes of historical heroics.

With passengers all aboard, the train pulls out, heading straight into a tunnel running beneath the cafes and theaters of Porto’s uptown Batalha district.

It emerges for a first, spectacular view of the Douro.

Cutting through the city, the river is crossed by the iron span of the 1877 Maria Pia Bridge, built by Gustave Eiffel, a French engineer better known for a certain tower in Paris. Below, passengers can glimpse brightly painted riverside mercantile houses and historic port wine lodges on the far bank. For a while, the tracks head away from the river through Porto’s eastern suburbs – time to admire the train.

Portugal’s royal family didn’t have long to enjoy their luxurious carriages. The monarchy was toppled by a 1910 revolution, but the train rode on under the republic. It served Portugal’s presidents until the 1970s.

Visiting dignitaries were also invited on board. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II used it to flit around Portugal during a state visit to her country’s oldest ally in 1957.

Vintage comfort

The renovated train retains its original luxurious art-deco elegance.

One of the train’s last trips was for the funeral of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar in 1970, when it carried the body from Lisbon to his hometown of Santa Comba Dão.

In following years the train lay neglected, until restoration work began in 2010 to recreate the art deco elegance enjoyed by heads of state after the last major refit in 1930.

Lovingly recreated, the presidential, ministerial and press carriages are filled with soft, velvety seating, as well as a bar wagon and two restaurant cars featuring wood panels and white linens. Attention to detail goes down to the vintage comfort of the restroom facilities.

These days a chunky 1960s diesel locomotive, resplendent in glossy blue with scarlet and white trim, pulls the train rather than the steam engine that powered Portugal’s 19th-century monarchs.

Staff are already serving the first drinks – a glass of crisp white from the Quinta do Vallado estate up the Douro – as the train edges through the suburbs. By the time it’s up to the top speed of 80 kph (50 mph) – the elderly train does not like to be hurried – passengers are sipping a Vallado rosé with that onion appetizer.

When the track meets the Douro again, by a broad stretch of water surrounded by the trellised greenery of vines destined to produce youthful vinho verde wines, the first course has arrived – a delicate concoction of green peas, asparagus and elderflower.

Now the train is chugging into the Douro wine region proper: a land of venerable estates on hills rising precipitously from the riverbank. Terraces bolstered by rough stone walls are carved into the slopes to create the unique landscape.

Small waterfront stations glow with the blue-white-and-yellow designs in azulejos – distinctly Portuguese ceramic tiles.

Climatic extremes – temperatures regularly top 40 C (104 F) in summer, frost is common in winter – explain why the train journeys are limited to the verdant spring and harvest time when the vines turn amber and crimson.

The Douro has been a protected wine region since the 18th century, producing the raw material for fortified ports and, increasingly, world-beating red and white table wines. Several of which keep coming as the train continues its journey. At least seven different wines were served during the trip.

Between stops in the pretty wine shipping ports of Régua and Pinhão, came reserva whites to accompany a flower-covered mackerel filet with apple and ramsons.

Then came pigeon breasts with wild mushroom sauce and roast celeriac, paired with the day’s first red – a smoky, spicy tipple made by Niepoort family, originally from the Netherlands, but making wines in the Douro since 1840.

Before dessert, the train reaches the Quinta do Vesuvio halt. A deserted platform in an achingly romantic spot where layers of low conical hills ripple to the river. Bounded by vines, citrus groves and palm trees, the aristocratic mansion at the heart of the estate sits in splendid isolation on the south bank of the Douro.

Golden river

Named after an Italian volcano, Quinta do Vesuvio is a wine-tasting stop on the nine-hour journey.

Local lore says the estate got its name because one of its seven hills reminded a noble 19th-century owner of the volcano she’d gazed on during her Neapolitan honeymoon.

Passengers can relax in the riverside garden under the shade of orange trees; indulge in coffee, port and cigars while admiring the view from the patio; or head for the cool of the winery where there’s a selection of hearty reds and rare ports on offer for tasting among the monumental stone basins still used for crushing grapes by foot.

There’s more port on the return journey: Graham’s 30-year-old Tawny to accompany some savory and sweet snacks – locally smoked cold cuts, and fruit tarts featuring Norway’s unique brunost cheese.

The trip is not without its teething troubles: in a region renowned for robust cooking – Porto’s signature dish is a mountainous mix of offal and beans – some customers complained the delicate Scandinavian morsels could have been more substantial; there were gripes about slow service of the food, although the wine never stopped flowing; and a technical hitch meant a 90-minute delay getting back to Porto.

Still it was hard to be too grumpy as the setting sun gave a golden sheen to the Douro, a troubadour strolled the carriages strumming his 12-stringed Portuguese guitar, and the pianist in the bar carriage took requests as waiters broke out the spirits.

Paul Ames is a freelance journalist based in Lisbon. He’s been hooked on Portugal since visiting as a kid in the 1970s.