Did time sneak up on you again?
It happens to us over and over. We have every intention of being “somewhere” “around a certain time” (a vague notion like, “We would like to watch the leaves change colors in Europe”), but before we know it, making it happen would mean booking our trip now.
How are we supposed to book when we haven’t even chosen a destination yet? There’s just so little time to research locations, let alone figure out exactly when to go.
It’s for people like us that we created our series Start Booking: Where to go Next, a quarterly crib sheet of perfectly timed destination information.
Our recommendation for autumn, that magical time when the landscape catches on fire, temperatures drop, and energy seems to soar? It’s the Douro River region of Portugal, a UNESCO World Heritage site famous for undulating terraced landscapes, river cruises, and that perfect chilly-weather drink, port.
Portugal is a reserved – and therefore seemingly mysterious – land often characterized by the longing of its famous fado folk music. (Check out Ana Moura pouring her heart out:)
Unfortunately, during some parts of the year (high summer) and in some parts of the country (the southern Algarve Coast), you’re more likely to hear the latest beats from the U.K. than anything in Portuguese. Fast forward to November, when the crowds have gone home, and up north to the port city of Porto (Oporto) and the Douro River that flows east to west across the country, and you can easily tune in to a vibe more like the Portugal that you were expecting … all while seeing one of the most beautiful parts of the country.
The Douro River of Portugal
The Douro River is Portugal’s portion of the Duero River of Spain. The Duero (Spain) is known for some of the peninsula’s best wine; the Douro (Portugal), while producing wines that are increasingly sophisticated, is most notable for producing the world’s only “true” port, or fortified wine, which is a protected designation of origin under EU law (though not in the United States unless labeled “Porto” or “Vinho do Porto”).
The narrow, twisting river and steep hillsides make for difficult horticulture, which explains why almost all of the river banks are terraced. From above, it looks like a giant topographical map that has been realistically rendered in shades of green and blue (or rust and gold in autumn). Grapevines and other produce springs up from every available patch of land, including backyards and planted pots adorning porches of tiny country villas. It all makes for gorgeous scenery, especially when the leaves are changing:
This area seems to come alive in fall, not just with the blaze of colors, but with the harvest and multitude of gastronomy festivals to celebrate the season. The gastronomy of the region at this time of year – for the uninitiated, think Tuscany – includes fragrant chestnuts, succulent wild game, hearty stews, smoky sausages, and preserved cod from the coast.
Porto (Oporto), Portugal
Meanwhile, Porto in November is exactly what fado would suggest: slightly melancholy but multi-layered. Built on a series of hills, the city is an urban version of the terraced riverbanks leading to it. Old, peeling buildings topped by red tiles, drippy or misty weather, the noises of traditional life spilling into the streets when doors swing open, and plenty of port aficionados await (up until 1987 port had to be matured in Vila Nova de Gaia, the area across the river from the old district of Porto, in order to be classified as port.)
But there is far more to this city: a vibrant contemporary arts and artisan scene filled with hip shops and galleries and unexpected public art projects, on the one hand, and old world elegance on the other. There are also wide boardwalks along the river lined with restaurants and bars that hint at a busier summer.
Autumn hits here later than many parts of Europe. Plan for Thanksgiving weekend, and you’ll have an eyeful. If you’d like to combine your trip with a culinary extravaganza (who wouldn’t?) look out for the Festival de Gastronomia do Douro hosted by several regional restaurants, typically throughout the month of November.
Porto is a Ryanair hub, so if you’re in Europe, getting there will be a breeze. If you’ve written off discount carriers, a la my beloved Ben, there are still several non-stop options available as of this writing:
- Frankfurt via Lufthansa
- Geneva via TAP Portugal or Swiss
- Madrid via TAP Portugal or Iberia
- London, Milan, Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Zurich and Barcelona via TAP Portugal
- Outside of Europe, TAP Portugal also flies direct from New York, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Caracas
After enjoying Porto for a couple of days, you can drive or take the train, ferry or river cruise up the river (for more on the leisurely joys of river cruises, see our article about cruising on the Rhine in Germany). If you don’t drive yourself, plan to rent a car or driver once you reach your destination (we recommend the pretty town of Pinhao) so that you can explore the greater Douro valley and stop at the tasting rooms and quintas, or wine estates. A car will also be handy for access to the best views, seen from above at lookout points or miradouros. Another option for a bird’s eye view is a helicopter ride.
For lodging, we suggest CS Vintage House in Pinhao and The Yeatman in Porto. The former is located in an estate directly on the banks of the Douro and features an excellent restaurant, a cozy fireplace-enhanced library bar, velvet-draped interiors, and a “wine academy.” The latter is owned by the Taylor Fladgate (port) family, whose bodega and tasting room is just across the street.
There’s more! In the following weeks as we’ll share yet other ways to fall in love with port, Porto, and the Douro…