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Exploring Portugal's wine country

                                                                By Diana McLeod                                                        2015

THE CITY OF PORTO: Levels. The charm of Porto is in the levels. This city doesn't just have one iconic landscape, it has many. It all depends on what you are looking at, and how far above the waterline you were seeing it from.

     What a view from the top of the bridge! Porto has a number of lovely bridges spanning the river Douro, linking the old wine warehouse district with the city itself. Several of the gracefully arched steel bridges of Porto were designed and built by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel tower fame) or his partners, and they had the same wonderful elegance as the famous tower. We stood on the top level, several hundred feet above the river Douro, with the cityscape sprawled below, golden in the afternoon sun. The shimmering waterway beneath us was busy with river traffic, mostly tourist boats, ferrying loads of sightseers, and dropping them off on the Gaia side of the river, where all the port wineries have their wine warehouses. Many of the old tiled-roofed winesheds date back several hundred years. All along the river's edge, the wineries sell their wares in waterside tasting cafe's, right next to the picturesque boats that are moored there. The boats used to ferry wine downstream from the high winegrowing country, but now, they are mainly there for tourist photos.

     On the other side of the river is an even more splendid view - the city of Porto itself rises up out of the water and climbs the hill. The historic district is full of blue ceramic-clad buildings, embellished with wrought iron balconies and crazy chimneys. The tile rooflines tilt like flights of drunken, tilted stairs, and the streets and alleys twist and turn, as if the whole town has imbibed too much of its own splendid products, and is staggering home.

     Porto was great for exploring or sitting and sipping vino verde or port in streetside cafes. Outdoor dining in the tourist area was a bit hit-or-miss, but the seafood was generally great. I always feel guilty about eating octopus, but it is a must-try in Portugal.

THE BOAT RIDE: We took a day-long river cruise down the Douro river on a splendid sunny day. The ride was very pleasant, drifting through the steep gorges, floating past terraced vineyards, and enticing little villages. The area was very undeveloped and scenic, and we recommend the tour.

      Much to our regret and/or amusement, this particular sightseeing tour was frequently interrupted by some of our fellow passengers. When we Americans think of the French, we always get intimidated. We've been taught that the French are cultured, and sophisticated, and that, in comparison, we Americans must be gauche and déclassée. The words "redneck" and "French" couldn't possibly belong together. Wrong! A group of about twenty male French tourists brought crude, loud, drunken, hillbilly behavior to a whole new level. They practically terrorized the ship, and they mercilessly harassed female members of the staff! I thought we were going to have to organize a posse to rescue the ship's photographer from their clutches. One guy took his shirt off and left his pants undone with his gut hanging out while he danced around the deck. It was quite the repulsive floor show.

MEETING GLORIA: A few days later, we left Porto in a rented car and drove toward the high wine country in the Douro Alto hills. We planned to base our explorations out of the town of Amarante. Dave booked a very small guest house in a nearby hamlet, hoping to get some authentic village flavor. If you're ever in the region, you have to try finding this wonderful place: Casa de Nogueira, Canadelo, Portugal.

      It took us a very long time to find it. We took several wrong turns on the twisty, difficult roads, struggling with unclear directions. The misty forests closed in around the road, making it feel hard to see. Twilight was over and darkness was complete by the time we found the village. The little rental car barely fit down the tiny village street. But the inn was charming, and our hostess, Gloria, was very friendly. Our only problem- we were already tired and stressed out, and it was going to take us at least a half an hour to drive back into Amarante to get dinner.

     Gloria could tell that we were road weary. "Why don't you have dinner here, with me?" she asked.

     We were so grateful! What a wonderful hostess she was! And the main house was very, very old, but gorgeous. Her kitchen was straight out of the middle ages, with a gigantic hearth and ovens built right into the masonry of the chimney. Antique settee chairs were arranged in front of the fire, with pull-down tables attached so that dinner could be eaten right in front of the fire on wintry nights.

     We ate at the large kitchen table. It was far too big for one person, all by herself. I could tell that Gloria also enjoyed having company. She served us "Jewish Sausages," explaining that these sausages were invented by Jews during the time of the Inquisition, when they lived in fear of being exposed as Jews and burned at the stake. They fed their Christian neighbors these sausages, because they looked and tasted like pork, without actually being pork.

     Gloria turned out to be a very interesting person. She had lived in Africa for some time with her husband, who had been in the military. Her perspective was quite international, for a person in such a tiny, isolated village. We had a lively conversation over a bottle of local wine.

     We said our thanks by re-writing Gloria's road directions with more detail, so that future guests will find her place more easily.

THE MEGALITHIC KITCHEN: Our guest house wasn't the only place in the village for tourists. There was an Australian couple staying next door. They had rented a cottage on air B&B. They invited us over to see their place, and it was extraordinary! The kitchen was straight out of the stone age! Built in the seventeenth century, it had one huge granite sink, hand carved out of a single slab of stone, and another sink, built for washing vegetables and grapes, carved out of a slanted piece of smooth shale. The kitchen table was a granite slab, six feet long and eight inches thick, mounted on heavy stone pillars, It must have weighed several tons. The entire cottage was built of hand-hewn stone, with a very funky slate roof.

EXPLORING THE DOURO ALTO WINE COUNTRY: Driving out into the rugged terraced hills of the Douro Alto on day excursions is very pleasant, and certainly not to be missed, if one travels to Portugal. Autumn colors were beginning to redden the vines, and the harvest was nearing an end, although we still did find plenty of grapes still on the vine. I have to confess that we harvested a few ourselves... The days were sunny and glorious and the countryside was beautiful. If you have only time for one region in Portugal, visit Porto and this region. You will love it!

      Thanks for reading, Diana McLeod

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