The mouth of the Douro River marks the starting point for an enchanted journey. On the northern bank lies the city of Porto, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed Site where narrow houses – tightly-packed, clad in decorative tiles and washed in shades of ochre and pink and terracotta – tumble down the hillsides towards the water. On the southern side lies Vila Nova da Gaia, Porto’s twin and the place that was inhabited, during Roman times, by most of this region’s population.
Separating the two settlements is the Douro, a river that springs to life in central north Spain and flows on for nearly 1,000 kilometres before emptying out into the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s a beautiful place from which to embark on an adventure, filled as it is with preserved Romanesque, Neoclassical and Manueline style architecture, and rich in a history that centres on the river flowing through it.
It’s upon this river that the very existence of the grand old city of Porto is hinged: Celts and Moors and Romans lived beside its banks at one time or another; wine was transported along its course, loaded onto flat-bottomed boats called rabelos or even cast adrift so that barrels would float from the Douro Valley, upstream, all the way to Porto, where they would be scooped from the river and delivered to cellars or merchant ships; and a new kind of liquor was born here when spirits – added to bottles of Douro wine to keep them from turning to vinegar on their journey to the British Isles – transformed them, inadvertently, into the lush, sweet nectar known as port.
Before the Scenic Azure has even set sail, passengers will have tasted the fruits of the Douro Valley’s vines, for a Portuguese meal is complete only once the wine has been poured. Restaurants in Porto and Vila Nova da Gaia serve classic Douro drops with platters of food that seem to have been dished up straight from farm and sea: squid, mussels, cod, greens aplenty – and potatoes, always. “We use potatoes for everything,” says Maria Andrada, Scenic’s General Manager in Portugal. “We love codfish – and we have one thousand ways to cook it. We still have the habit to go down to the local market to buy fresh fish and vegetables, and to cook them at home.”
As the Scenic Azure glides out of Porto and heads upriver towards the iconic Douro Valley, it’s on board chefs draw inspiration from the dishes being served in the homes dotting the increasingly vertiginous hillsides. All along the way, the produce that springs from this schist-heavy soil - olives, almonds, figs, grapes, sumac – is used to make the oils and wines and ports and preserves and seasonings that distinguish this region’s dishes.
It’s a cuisine whose provenance and history come to life again when passengers step off the ship and into the villages and quintas lining this deep and beautiful valley. At Quinta Pacheca, which sits among capacious vineyards in the village of Cambres, grapes are still ritually stamped by foot in white granite tanks at the end of each harvest; the tanks show no sign of the more than a century’s worth of grape-stamping that’s occurred in them since they were installed in 1910.
At Quinta Nova, which sits high above the river on a vineyard-terraced hillside, guests sip wines made from grapes grown in 18th century orchards. They dip bread into olive oil pressed from the fruit of the nearby olive grove. And even the bread has its own story to tell: the local baker doesn’t have a delivery service, so he leaves a bag of bread in the crook of a tree each morning at the top of the road that winds its way down to Quinta Nova. It’s a story that imbues every fresh loaf with something more than mere wheat and yeast; it tells of care and trust and sharing, and of the deep sense of community upon which the people of this valley depend. Catherine travelled as a guest of Scenic.
*Locations may differ to those available in the Scenic itinerary.