Portugal’s Douro River flows like liquid gold

CNN  — 

Rio Douro roughly translates from Portuguese as “river of gold.” When the setting sun catches it right, you can see why. The waters gleam like liquid bullion bars.

The Douro cuts across northern Portugal, snaking 200 miles from rugged wilderness on the Spanish frontier to the old city of Oporto and the Atlantic beyond. Grapes grown on its steeply rising banks have been sending forth legendary port wines for centuries. It may be the world’s most beautiful wine region.

Not enough? It’s also got spectacular landscapes and a scattering of World Heritage sites. Here’s the best Portugal’s golden river has to offer:

1. Tripe and tradition in Porto

Cafe Majestic: Beautiful venue. Awesome cinnamon toast.

From the upper deck of Dom Luis I Bridge, Porto presents a stunning urban landscape. Its heart is a UNESCO Heritage site centered on the quayside Ribeira district’s cluster of brightly painted houses. In winding alleys, restaurants serve the local delicacy: stewed tripe with beans.

Churches shimmer with blue tiles outside, gold within. Bolhao market is a foodie delight. Downtown overflows with stores unchanged for generations. Cinnamon toast at the 1920s Majestic Cafe is hard to resist.

Majestic Cafe, Rua Santa Catarina, 112 4000-442 Porto; +351 22 200 3887

2. World’s oldest graffiti?

In the 1980s, archeologists made a startling discovery where the Coa River joins the Douro. Rocks in the lush valley carry thousands of carvings: deer, goats, horses, horned aurochs – ancestors of modern cattle.

The 30,000-year-old prehistoric graffiti is perhaps mankind’s oldest outdoor art. Plans for a dam to flood the valley were scrapped and it’s now a UNESCO site. A striking hilltop museum decodes the Stone Age art and runs tours to the engravings. There’s relaxation nearby at the Longroiva spa hotel.

From $91 per night
Rates provided by Booking.com

3. Port perfection

Port is a complex tipple.

It’s made using grapes grown along the Douro, fortified with brandy, then evolves into bafflingly delicious varieties. Dry whites are great for aperitifs and cocktails. Rubies and tawnies go with cheese or chocolatey desserts. Then come vintages, LBVs, colheitas, reserves and other superior nectars.

Port knowledge can be perfected with visits to the venerable lodges where the wines mature in Vila Nova de Gaia. Or upriver at the source of port in vineyard estates – quintas – scattered across the Douro hills.

4. Riding the river

This might just be the best way to see the river.

Narrow barco rabelo sailboats no longer race down Douro rapids laden with wine casks. Still, there are plenty of ways to get afloat.

Sleek floating hotels provide weeklong cruises punctuated by plenty of wine-estate tastings. Ferries chug upriver for cheap and cheerful day trips from Porto complete with hearty on-board lunches and return by river-hugging railroad.

Private yachts and historic launches offer bespoke romantic sailings. All give unforgettable views of vine-covered terraces emerging from the meandering river.

5. ‘Buonos dies’ to Miranda do Douro

Portugal has two official languages: Portuguese, spoken by 250 million worldwide, and Mirandese, spoken by 15,000 around the frontier city of Miranda do Douro.

Your first lesson: “buonos dies” means “good morning.” Miranda has been sidelined since 1762 when invading Spaniards blew up a chunk of it and local bigwigs hastily relocated.

Remoteness allowed clifftop Miranda to preserve its language, medieval architecture and unique traditions. Menfolk perform a war dance dressed in frilly skirts and stripy socks. Locals venerate a statue of Jesus sporting a top hat. It’s famed for steak – at Restaurante Balbina they barbecue it on the fireplace.

Restaurante Balbina, Rua Raínha D’ Catarina 1, 5210-228 Miranda do Douro, Portugal; +351 273 432 394

6. Dining on lamprey

Douro delicacies include lamprey (parasitic, eel-like river critters) cooked in red wine with rice; pork innards in blood (papas de sarrabulho), baby goat (cabrito), fried octopus (polvo frito), salt-cod pie (bolo de bacalhau) and wonderful smoked sausages served with broccoli raab (alheiras com grelos).

Food is big here, whether in gourmet hangouts like The Yeatman, Largo do Paco and DOC, or rustic restaurants serving gargantuan portions – as is the case at Tasquinha do Fumo near Baiao or the belt-busting O Sapo in Penafiel.

7. Atlantic state of mind

Porto’s posh beach suburb of Foz do Douro is where the river meets the sea. It has palm-shaded promenades, Atlantic surf and super-cool beach bars.

Sunsets are wonderful. Sunny days see joggers, cyclists and strollers pass seafront parks, historic fortresses and a string of sandy beaches.

8. Staying in palaces, quintas, manors or grain silos

Quinta da Pacheca is a boutique hotel on a wine estate with river views.

There’s a dazzling array of distinctive accommodation along the Douro. Urban palaces such as Palacio do Freixo, charming, family-run mansions like Solar Egas Moniz, even luxuriously converted grain silos.

Welcoming wine estates blend old-world elegance with modern design. Quinta do Vallado, Casa das Pipas, Morgadio da Calcada are worth looking out for, as are the staggering views from Quinta Nova Winery House.

9. Hopping on the Pocinho express

Trains take three hours from Porto to the end of the Douro line at Pocinho. Time will fly. The track clings to the riverbank, with breathtaking views at each curve. Tickets cost around €13 ($15).

Along the way are riverside stations brightly decorated with azulejos – painted ceramic tiles. Special trains with historic carriages run in summer.

You can buy luxury nine-hour rides on Portugal’s former presidential train, including a four-course gourmet degustation menu by a Michelin-starred chef.

10. Getting into the red

The Douro has been famed for port over 300 years. Now its table wines – especially robust reds – are generating international buzz. Wine Spectator placed two Douro reds in its 2014 world top four (a port was No. 1). In 2015, it ranked Porca de Murca red as the best buy under $20.

Touring the vineyards is a treat. Many estates are centered around historic homes with dramatic locations. In most you can visit and taste. In some, like mountaintop Quinta do Popa, or picturesque Quinta das Amendoeiras you can join the harvest, even crush the grapes, old-style by foot.

Quinta do Popa, N-222 Adorigo 5120-011 Tabuaço, Portugal; +351 915 678 498