The Douro is one of the major rivers of the Iberian Peninsula, flowing from its source in northern-central Spain to the Atlantic Ocean at Porto in Portugal.
We joined it at Peso de Regua, in wine country. The Douro Valley wine region is internationally famous for its vintages that are produced on the steeply terraced hillsides which tower above the wide waters of the green river.
It’s possible to drive along the Douro on a narrow road that hugs its twisting north side, but we didn’t want to do that in Bertha. Instead we bought a return ticket for the local train service to Pocinho, at the end of the line.
We were blessed with the arrival of a striking blue vintage locomotive pulling four dapper cream and yellow carriages. We were doubly blessed as at the time we were sat onboard a train about to head in the other direction!
This is not uncommon and is symptomatic of Portuguese railway stations which offer the hapless traveller no information about departing trains, or at which platform to wait.
Having dashed off the fast service to Porto and raced across the rail tracks (in front of) and onto the local stopping service that we wanted, we were lucky to meet Tom, a fellow travelling Englishman with valuable knowledge of the rail network!
Being both a regular visitor to Portugal and a working rail guard at home, Tom explained that rolling rail stock in the north of the country is low due to demand along the southern Linha de Algarve.
As such, vintage locomotives and carriages are being put back into use elsewhere. The result for us was a wonderful afternoon spent travelling in the high style of the 1960s along an incomparable riverside route and being pulled by a 1400 locomotive, which Tom advised us had been partly built in Britain.
The Douro Valley railway is on a wide gauge, which meant the carriages were large with comfortable lounge seating, pull down windows and chrome fixtures. The train was super clean and stylish.
We were able to stand at the windows and peer out, but not to far as we quickly discovered the line travelled through a series of tunnels which appeared suddenly at rocky corners, and could claim a loose limb or head poked outside…
Rolling vine-covered hillsides ended abruptly at a flat horizon under blazing blue skies. Severely terraced slopes had our eyes watering at their engineering which presumably was dug out by hand in the earliest days. The Douro region of wine is the world’s oldest regulated region dating from 1756.
Reds and whites are produced at both large commercial and small family concerns. Reduced demand for old school Port has seen new varieties of fortified wine being produced in the valley. We were keen to try some, but the high end and swanky boutique wineries were all further up the hillsides and required driving out to.
We saw a range of properties from uber modern ‘grand designs’ to dilapidated former workers’ cottages with their rooves caved in and now homes to nesting storks.
We passed small railway stations, endearingly lined with white-painted picket fencing along short platforms. There was very little housing nearby and Tom explained that a couple of the stations had been built solely for the purpose of transporting barrels of wine, not people, along the tracks.
The river narrowed at a steep rocky canyon and peering down from the rail line up above, we were amazed to see a wide tourist cruiser just about nosing through between tall boulders that seemed to act as sentinels on either of the waters.
Having just 20 minutes at our turnaround point we chatted with Tom at Pocinho’s only bar and he advised us to ride with him in the front pink-painted compartment on our return journey. It was first class!
We sprawled in seats that we could move on a central swivel to face either forward or backward and luxuriated in the views that opened under the bright, lowering early evening sunlight.
It was a sensational rail journey and one that will always be remembered.
Waving farewell to Tom, who was heading back to the end of the line at Porto, we acted on his last recommendation – a visit to a locals’ bar near to Regua railway station, Xanoca. Here we had possibly the best and most eccentric meal out of our trip!
Under the watchful gaze of interested old boys and the blaring of two televisions showing an impossibly sexist game show, we ordered a portion of grilled squid and requested a tasting of Port to go along with it.
We were served a mountain of fresh crusty bread with a whole creamy white cheese, two hugely pink and grilled squids with fried potatoes and pickled cabbage… and, hesitantly, a jug containing half a litre of ruby red port.
€20 later and with much conviviality and bemusement from our fellow diners we left chuckling, to research our meal. It turns out the Portuguese drink Port at every occasion and at any hour but never, ever with seafood. It was a fine misdemeanour on which to end a wonderful day!