Saturday, 21 September 2013

Travels Up North - 2

Our third day up north saw us travelling from the Aquafalls Hotel to Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo in the Douro Valley.  The journey took us through Vila Real where we stopped for a coffee.  The mountains that overlook the city are the Alvão and Marão mountains, rising to 1,400m.

We passed by the Palácio de Mateus, an image of which appears on the labels of a range of wines that includes Mateus Rosé, possibly the best-known and certainly the best-marketed of all Portuguese wines.  The distinctively shaped bottle certainly stands out from the crowd of other standard taller bottles and this no doubt helped to raise its profile in the UK back in the 1970s when people made table lamps out of them.

The Douro Valley has been described as one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world and it certainly has its attractions.  It seems that almost everything that happens there is connected in some way to the production of wine.  The names of well-known producers can be seen everywhere.

Our time spent at Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo was most enjoyable and a lot of fun.  The vineyards and cellar date back to 1764 but the ‘rural hotel’, formerly an 18th Century manor house, was established only in 2005.  We took a tour of the cellars and saw some of the wine-making process but the highlight came when we were given the opportunity to create our own individual blends of wine.  We were given three bottles, each of them already containing a blend of two or more wines, and then, using flasks, measuring cylinders and pipettes and guided by the Quinta’s Susana Pinho, we each set about making a new unique blend which we then bottled and brought away with us.  We took it seriously but the fact that we regularly tasted the mixture as we refined it ensured that there were plenty of laughs during the process.  We’ll be keeping ours for a special occasion, such as West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City both winning a match on the same day!
June, the wine maker

Showing off the new wine blends

Quinta Nova

Quinta Nova

After lunch we visited the railway station at nearby Pinhão, another one that like the São Bento Railway Station in Porto is decorated with azulejos.  The station is a major tourist destination in the Alto Douro Wine Region.  The azulejos date from 1937 and depict landscapes, and customs of the Douro Region, including the harvest.  Travelling to the Douro Valley by rail looks like it could be a nice option.

Pinhão railway station


Also in Pinhão, we came across the MV Spirit of Chartwell, a hotel barge owned and operated by Portuguese holiday company Douro Azul for luxury cruises along the river.  This is the barge that formerly operated on the River Thames and carried the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant on 3rd June 2012.

MV Spirit of Chartwell

Our last stop of the day was at Quinta da Pacheca, one of the best known wine producers in the Douro Valley and apparently the first to bottle wine under its own brand.  Unfortunately, we were a few days too early for the start of the harvest so although we had a tour of the place we missed out on the chance to actually tread the grapes.  We were told by our charming host, José Serpa Pimentel, that one million bottles of wine were produced here last year and it was good to hear also that every one of them had a traditional cork stopper.

Quinta da Pacheca

As well as wine production, Quinta da Pacheca has a very nice hotel where we spent the night and an excellent restaurant where we had dinner and breakfast.  It also has a shop that, as well as wines, sells jams and other regional products.  June came away with a bottle of rosé and a jar of tomato and orange jam.

Dining room at Quinta da Pacheca

Most of the last day of our trip was devoted to visiting Arouca Geopark, part of the European Geoparks Network that was created in 2000, now has 54 member sites and about which we were previously completely ignorant.

Arouca Geopark is primarily of geological interest but it covers more than 300 sq. km. and is being developed for tourism based on archaeological, ecological, historical, sporting and cultural activities and there is a network of walking trails.  We visited the Frecha da Mizarela waterfall, Portugal’s highest but not at its best at this dry time of year.  We had been told that there was the chance here for us to go canoeing, which seemed a bit unlikely, but in the event we were offered canyoning, which may sound similar but is something entirely different!  We declined and instead spent a couple of hours birding.

Also in Arouca we were shown trilobites, fossils of extinct marine arthropods very similar to the Dudley Bug that we both know from the Wren’s Nest National Nature Reserve.  Some of these Portuguese ones were of a particularly impressive size.

Probably the best known attractions of the Arouca Geopark are the Pedras Parideiras, the “rocks that give birth to new stones”, which are thought to be unique in the world.  Disc-shaped biotite nodules (stones) occur in the granite (rocks) and are released as a result of erosion.  Not only did we see these, but in the interpretative centre at Castanheira village we watched a 3D film about them!

Ready for the 3D film

Hearing about the Pedras Parideiras

We spent our last night back at the coast in the very nice Hotel Solverde Spa & Wellness Centre at Espinho.  For dinner at the nearby PraiaGolfe Hotel we were joined by Helena Gonçalves, Executive Director of the Porto Convention Bureau to whom we are most grateful for having had the opportunity to at last visit to some new and very different parts of Portugal.  At times, it was easy to imagine that we might be in a different country from the Algarve.

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