The Sweetest Sort of Paddling
There are relatively few regions in Europe that remain off the beaten path, but northern Portugal is one of them. Full of old-world charm, this part of the country is home to rolling hills, picturesque medieval towns, romantic Baroque-style quintas (farm estates), several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, hearty local cooking, and plenty of wine.
The Douro River, often known as the “River of Gold,” curves through the region, traversing deep canyons blanketed with grapevines. This river valley has been producing authentic port—the famous dessert wine fortified by adding grape brandy—for more than 2,000 years. Its microclimate of brutally hot, dry summers and extremely cold winters creates intensely flavorful grapes. In the past, flat-bottomed boats called barcos rabelos would carry the wine from vineyards along the Douro River to storage cellars in Porto on the Atlantic coast. Today, tanker trucks are used instead, but you can still follow the boats’ ancient river route in a modern kayak.
Begin in Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, famous for the eponymous beverage and a historic downtown with spectacular architectural sites. After exploring the city for a day, take the train to Pocinho, and settle in for a night at a local farm to get a real taste of the area. A traditional feast and local wines will fortify you for the next several days of kayaking. The next morning, drive a bit farther inland to the river’s mouth. Once you start paddling through the Douro’s upper gorge, you’ll be overwhelmed by the striking views of mountain ranges, bountiful olive and almond orchards, terraced grapevines, and the lush countryside. When you’re ready to rest your tired arms, stop at the quaint village of Nossa Senhora da Ribeira.
Refreshed, you can take off the next morning to kayak past more vineyards. You might stop to chat with workers harvesting grapes or see the wine being prepared for transport. On the following day, paddle through the dramatic Valeira Gorge, once the river’s scariest passageway. Still a narrow, granite gorge, it’s more accessible today because the accompanying rapids were dynamited in the 18th century and a dam was built. Making your way along the water, you’ll see countless birds, particularly kingfishers, before stopping for lunch in the village of Tua.
Kayakers take a break on the rocks in Portugal’s port wine region.
As you journey down the river for another couple of days, you might begin to think you’ve traveled back in time. Although some large conglomerates now make wine in this area, many of the smaller independent vineyards still use artisanal techniques. Grapes are hand picked, loaded into rustic baskets, and even stomped by foot to the tune of guitar strumming, joyful singing, and lots of drinking. If you’re lucky enough to witness one of these events, there’s only one thing to say, which sums up the entire experience of traveling along the Douro: Saúde (which means “cheers” in Portuguese)! —JS
Portugal Tourism Board, Rua Ivone Silva, Lote 6 ( 351/211-140-200; www.visitportugal.com).
Tour: Mountain Travel Sobek, 1266 66th St., Emeryville, CA ( 888/831-7526; www.mtsobek.com).
When to Go: Early fall for harvest season.
Oporto (Porto) airport.
Tour company provides lodging, but in Porto: $-$$ Pestana Porto, 1 Praça da Ribeira, Ribeira ( 351/223-402-300; www.pestana.com).