Road trip through Northern Portugal
Nazare, Porto, Aveiro, Coimbra, and the Douro Valley
One of our goals since arriving in Portugal is to spend the first year or so exploring the country to decide where we might call our home base. So far our first landing spot in the Algarve has checked a lot of boxes and exceeded our expectations as residents here. This trip hasn't made the decision any easier, Portugal has so much to offer.
On this road trip from the Algarve to the North, we combined brief stops in a few select areas with an eye toward living there, and worked in time as tourists in Porto and the Douro Valley. On day one we drove from Home in the Algarve to Porto with stops in Nazare and Leiria. The next two days we explored Porto, then took the train out to the Douro Valley for a two day visit to the world famous wine country. We returned to Porto on the train for an overnight stay, then drove home the next day with stops in Aveiro and Coimbra along the way.
Typical for the North this time of year we were met along the way with a mix of rain and sunshine, both adding special moments to our journey.
This is Nazare, home to some of the worlds largest surfing waves and miles of soft white sand beaches. Forte de São Miguel Arcanjo is the best spot to watch the crazy surf activities when the winter waves are forming. The current record wave surfed here is 86 feet in 2022, although an unofficial video captures a german pro surfer on a 115 foot wave in 2018.
At the entrance to Forte de São Miguel Arcanjo is a line up of food, drink, and souvenir shacks. The Big Wave Burger at Le Petite Chef Belge was very tasty!
Porto never disappoints, rain or shine it sparkles like a gem. It's not hard to understand why UNESCO designated the entire Historic Center a World Heritage site. So much history, so many sites to see, we'll definitely return frequently. It's only a five hour drive from our home in the Algarve, just like a drive from Carpinteria to San Francisco, no reason to not visit frequently. Might even be a good place to call home?
Highly recommend the Torel Palace Hotel, a small historic mansion that has been artfully restored to a luxury hotel. During the renovation they were not allowed to alter the walls so the architects built a cube of mirrors in the center of the large rooms that houses the bathroom, closets, electrical, etc... A pretty genius way to preserve the ornately detailed ceilings, walls, windows and mouldings of the palace rooms.
Dinner @ Enoteca 1756 in Porto located on the Vila Nova da Gaia side of the river near the Port houses. This relatively new expansive restaurant features a broad variety of dishes. Although the menu is very broad, several specialties are done very well including dry aged beef, an extensive Sushi bar, and Fresh Pasta and of course wine. Scattered throughout the room are extensive glasses in wine storage rooms housing the over 800 selections on the wine list. 1756 is a reference to the date that the Douro region was Demarcated.
McDonalds is not on our list of must visit restaurants but we often run into unique versions of the brand. This one housed in a three level historic building along the riverfront in Porto. Beautiful building, the contents inside are not so pretty :')
A must visit when in Porto is a Port house for tours and tasting of the regions most famous product, across the river there are many selections. We visited Churchills on a recommendation and were not disappointed. Owned by John Graham of the Graham's Port family who sold their iconic brand several years ago. John started Churchills in order to produce a slightly dryer Port. The 2011, 2016 & 2017 Port Vintages are said to be the best of all times rivaling past benchmark vintages.
From Porto we took the train from the historic Sao Bento station in the heart of the old center. The 19th century station is noted for its elaborate Azulejo tilework in the main vestibule.
The Douro Valley, about two hours by car and two and a half by train to the center from Porto depending on your specific destination in the region. A long valley of steep slopes rising from the Douro river is marked by terraced vineyards along the steep slopes with the occasional Grand farmhouses and production facility. It was a great time to visit as the fall colors were in full effect.
Wine production in the region dates back to the Roman occupation in the Iberian peninsula between the 1st and 3rd centuries, becoming an important export of the Kingdom of Portugal by the 12th century. Port wine as we know it today became the primary production in the second half of the 18th century. Today Port wine represents only about 35% of the total wine production with table wine growing in consumption worldwide. Port wine production is not shrinking, we heard that 2021 was a record year for Port.
The Douro region is the oldest Demarcated region in the world classified by the then powerful Prime Minister of Portugal, Marquis Pombal in 1756. He realized the value of imposing a state monopoly over the wines produced from this popular region. The region was recognized by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage site in 2001.
We walked over to Quinta da Foz for a tasting. Founded in 1872, 22 hectares of "Old Vines" with an average age of 80 years. The "Old Vines" sections are planted with more than 30 different varietals, interspersed in each row, not in blocks of single varietals like in France or America. This practice was used so production could still continue if a disease or other issue affected a single rootstock or varietal, they would still be able to produce wine with the remaining healthy vines. Thus most wines produced from "Old Vines" designated vineyards do not identify the varietals in each bottle (although there are often higher percentages of a few key varietals in the field) but are simply referred to as "Field Blends". Grapes are still crushed in the traditional method of foot stomping. They say this helps to avoid the stems and seeds from getting crushed in the process and effecting the wine. We really liked the wines produced here, so much that we had a mixed case shipped home.
Dinner @ BonFim 1896 by Pedro Lemos. Quinta do Bonfim is home to Dow's Port production since 1896. The restaurant is cozy, and sits on the bank of the Douro River with great views. We shared some beautiful scallops then feasted on Roasted Turbot and Duck Breast accompanied by Lentils with Wild Mushrooms
Tasting at Quinta das Carvalhas, one of the largest Quintas in the Douro Valley and the only remaining Quinta that is Portuguese owned.
Lunch and tasting at Quinta Nova's, Terracu's Restaurant. A 45 minute taxi ride from Pinhao winding through narrow, steep and curvy country roads was well worth the trip. Beautiful countryside and the grounds of the Quinta are georgous. There is an 11 room botique Relais & Chateau Manor House and Terrace Hotel here for those choosing to stay.
Smoked trout with rush from Ribeira Pisca, roe, avocado and orange from the quinta, Lucio from the Douro (Fish), Turbot in Shiitake crust, celery puree and clams a Bulhao Pato, Cherry, Raspberry and yogurt mousse cheesecake, Puff Pastry with chocolate mousse
Departing Porto we stopped in Aviero, a small beach/river town about an hour south of Porto. Known for its canals (Ria de Aveiro) and colorful barcos moliceiros (boats).
Farther South we stopped in Coimbra, another riverfront city and the former capital. A college town home to the University of Coimbra which is housed on the grounds of a former palace, and famed for its baroque library and 18th century bell tower. The historic center is a preserved medieval old town where you can find the 12th century Romanesque Cathedral Se Velha