I vividly remember the first time I tasted Portuguese wine. I was at a seafood and sushi bar in Virginia Beach, and my friend Tamara ordered a glass of Vinho Verde. I had only been practicing law for a year or two at the time, and my foray into non-boxed wine was still in its early stages. I had never heard of Vinho Verde, so Tamara let me have a sample. I liked it so much I had to text her a few weeks later when I was returned to the restaurant to make sure I ordered the right thing. It has been my favorite type of wine ever since - and the fact that it is relatively low in alcohol content, calories, and price has been an added bonus.
The Porto region of Portugal is where port wine originated, and the lush river valleys to its north and east are where Vinho Verde (or "green wine") is produced. Milliliter by milliliter, wine here only costs about twice as much as water, whether in the grocery stores or restaurants. A decent bottle can cost as little as 1.5 Euros retail and 8 Euros at a nice restaurant. Douro wine has a light crispness similar to Vinho Verde, and is produced in the region to the east of the Vinho Verde vineyards, along the Douro River.
We decided to explore the Vila Nova de Gaia, which is the town on the south side of the Douro, directly adjacent to Porto. We took a tourist cruise which included a boat ride from just east of the city to the mouth of the river at the Atlantic and back, and were given tasting tickets for some of the port cellars that line the waterfront.
Our guide gave us history lessons on the development of the port trade, and on all of the bridges that connect the north and south over the river. As we moved west through the widening river, the cool fog moving east from the ocean settled around us on the boat.
We hit the cellars after we disembarked, and enjoyed the white port more than we had anticipated. Porto Cruz had port-based cocktails and a gorgeous rooftop patio - a perfect spot for taking some pictures of the river and enjoying the sun.
A few days later, we decided to take a day trip on a train to see the vineyards along the Rio Douro as it narrows and snakes through lush green mountains to the Douro wine region. The tourist office recommended that we go to Pinhao, a town so tiny it doesn't even have its own Wikipedia page.
The train tracks tack north first, then southward out of the dusty row of abandoned train stations to trace the river's edge. The old Portuguese man who sat facing us on the train pantomimed reaching through the window and down into the river to pull out fish and smiled- we were that close to the water in some areas.
As we passed small towns along the way, we looked down into the debris contained behind the roofless walls of ruins from decades and centuries of since-extinguished lives. We saw granite and concrete walls that were still in use but would never be refurbished - once their utility has expired, the roofs will fall and the blocks and bricks will become ruins too. We looked at a cluster of shanties so flimsy that they won't even leave a trace of the people who spent countless nights huddled up against their corrugated aluminum.
The greenery that sped past my window was dotted with hibiscus, morning glories, palm fronds, and oranges. Bamboo had staged a hostile takeover of some areas near our path, and Queen Anne's lace dotted the dirt near parallel tracks. There were ghosts of houses and businesses built long ago along the river's shore that had been cut off from the rest of the world by the train tracks, and were left to sink, mossy, into the soft wet soil.
As we traveled farther east, the hills were taken over by stark parallel lines that had been hand carved by vintners over the course of hundreds of years. The vines encircled the topography, and every so often the lines changed direction, creating dimensions in hillsides unlike any I had seen before. The spans of vineyards were unbroken by much of anything for almost an hour of the train ride - there was an occasional hotel or mansion. A few narrow unpaved roads divided one section from the next.
We finally arrived in Pinhao almost 3 hours after we left Porto. It was at least 15 degrees hotter in Pinhao, and I was woefully overdressed. We watched with jealousy from a footbridge as a dozen tanned men, women, and children swam in the river and paddled kayaks. Agendaless, we wandered down winding streets that were covered in white dust.
There were moments when we felt like time had stopped 50 years ago.
We walked down to the river where there were three restaurants and two boat tour kiosks, and nothing else.
We weren't really in the mood to spend our day's budget on overpriced ham sandwiches or a 45 minute boat ride, so we wandered onward, down a road, around white walls, and followed a fading sign that promised a winery uphill.
There was a wooden arrowed sign that pointed up a long and winding driveway toward aged white buildings with tile roofs nestled among overgrown gardens. We kept crunching gravel underfoot, and looked into the open windows of what was apparently an abandoned resort, with empty brick-floored suites and ivy that snaked up its walls.
Once-manicured gardens were messy with wild, uncut boxwood shrubs and fountains that had empty spouts and dried, dead leaves where water once flowed. Mottled balls of rotted fallen fruit from neglected orange trees dotted the path beyond the hotel. It snaked back up to an abandoned chapel, where I was able to climb to an upstairs door and peer through a keyhole to catch a glimpse of gold-leaf adorned rafters. A dust-encrusted side window revealed an altar that glowed blue and a chalice from rituals that are no longer practiced there.
We wandered around the grounds, snapping pics along the way and wondering how what was once a grand tourist destination could fall into such utter disrepair. It was sad to see so much faded beauty, even though the decay had its own allure.
By the time we returned to the bottom of the hill, we had just enough time for one glass of Douro before catching the last train back to Porto. We boarded and watched the scenes from earlier in the day in reverse as the sun descended behind them.
words + photos by Kara
+photo by Shane