Fall is a perfect time of the year to find yourself in Portugal’s strikingly beautiful Alto Douro wine region. This year we based ourselves for 4 nights at Taylor-Fladgate’s Vintage House in Pinhão during the second week of November, after the fall harvest, when the vineyards explode in a rainbow of vivid colors. A few weeks earlier the leaves had not yet begun to change with the season, and although still a dramatic landscape, fall is when the Douro River Valley comes alive with color. If you come, plan on spending at least 4 nights so that you have time to visit a few wineries and explore the countryside. You can also expect it to rain from time to time, but it wasn’t enough to interfere with our further exploration of the Douro River Valley.
The hotel, a former 18th-century wine estate, was originally built by Taylor, owner of Croft, Fonseca and Krohn, in 1998. It was sold in 2012, but re-acquired in 2015, and remains the only luxury property located right on the bank of the River Douro. All of its 50 rooms are south facing river view rooms with sit-out terraces. Over the last few years it has become the center of tourism of the Douro River wine growing region and remains one of the best options for exploring the region any time of the year.
Exploring the Douro River Valley
The most beautiful part of the Douro River Valley begins just west of Peso da Régua at Mesão Frio, about 90 km (56 miles) upriver from Porto, where the Serra do Marão mountains rise up, protecting the Alto Douro from the influence of the Atlantic, and continues upriver for another 120 km to the village of Barca de Alva, at the border with Spain. The only way to explore the river east of Pinhão is by train or boat, as there are no roads following the river except for a short section at Tua.
By train from Porto
The train from Porto’s Sao Bento station to Pinhão, the Linha do Douro, takes just over two hours. The last stop on the line is the tiny village of Pocinho (Vila Nova de Foz Côa) another hour further up the Douro river. This section of the Douro, from Pinhão to Pocinho, where the terraced vineyards climb the steep banks of the river, can only be seen by train, or by sailboat and powerboat from Pinhão, and is considered one of the most picturesque train routes in all of Europe.
By boat from Pinhão
Although there are river cruises from Porto to Pinhão and all the way to Barca de Alva, with many people arriving by boat and returning by train, the most comfortable way to see the Alto Douro beyond Pinhão is in smaller boat, either on a traditional Rabelo, a sailboat, or by luxury motor yacht like the Friendship I or the Pipadouro II.
Staying in the Alto Douro
During the fall harvest
If you are interested in visiting the Alto Douro during the fall harvest, accommodations must be reserved at least 10 months in advance, if not a full year. Most hotel rooms in and around Pinhão and Régua were completely booked by late October for next years harvest, which generally starts in early September and ends before the end of October, depending on the weather. This year’s harvest started earlier because of the warm weather and continued for six weeks.
A room with a view
The Douro River Valley boasts a luxurious resort hotel, spa hotels, gracious manor homes and working wine estates, quintas, where one can relax after a full day of wine touring and exploring the graceful Baroque churches and Cistercian monasteries in the immediate area.
Besides staying at the Vintage House, we have also based ourselves in the center of the appellation a few minutes drive from Pinhão in the very heart of the port wine producing area at the Hotel Rural Quinta do Pego, a small 10-room boutique property which enjoys a privileged location in the most prestigious section of the Alto Douro, overlooking the river from its southern, or left bank. Fall sunsets here are spectacular.
The Quinta de Santo António de Adorigo, on the left bank, has 9 double rooms and a pool, and is only a few minutes downriver from Quinta do Pego.
The Quinta Nova, with 11 rooms, with panoramic views of the vineyards and the river, is celebrating their 250 year, sits on the northern bank overlooking the river. You can arrive by train, helicopter, car or bus, or boat at their own pier.
The 42-room hotel Delfim Douro sits atop a mountain overlooking the Douro a 10-minute driver downriver from Régua.
Quinta do Crasto also sits high above the Douro on the right bank between Régua and Pinhão and can be reached by car, train, boat or helicopter, but sadly, no longer offers accommodations unless you’re a buyer.
Quinta de la Rosa is only a few minutes by car from the train station in Pinhão, where you can find a taxi when you arrive.
Quinta do Vallado‘s upscale 8-room wine hotel, which opened in 2005, and designed by Architect Francisco Vieira de Campos, sits above the Corgo river, a tributary of the Douro, offers one of the nicest stays in the Alto Douro. There are also 5 suites in the original house, which once belonged to Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira. It’s new boutique 6-suite property, Casa do Rio, is located 100 kms upriver from Régua, in Castelo Melhor – Vila Nova de Foz Côa. A unique property, it sits between the vineyards and the river, offering a spectacular view of the Douro, but is more suitable for a great weekend get-away than wine touring.
Beyond the vineyards
The Alto Douro is all about the landscape and the best viewpoints, or miradouros, to see the unforgettable scenery are Casal de Loivos Miradouro, which overlooks the river from high above Pinhão. São Leonardo de Galafura, above Régua, and the highest point of the entire Douro Valley. São Salvador do Mundo, where you will find a sanctuary at the top of the hill, and where the panoramic view of Cachão da Valeira, or Valeira gorge, is very impressive. There is also the view from the Museu do Côa, where the Côa river meets the Douro.
The village of Lamego, and the “Stairway to Heaven”, which leads up 686 steps to the stunning Sanctuary of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, is located on the banks of the Balsemão River, a 20-minute drive south of Régua and well worth a visit. Here you’ll also find the small, historic chapel of São Pedro de Balsemão and the Museu de Lamego, possibly Portugal’s best museum.
The Parque Arqueológico do Vale do Côa, with its major Paleolithic carved rock sits along the west bank of the Côa river where it meets the Douro, near the village of ila Nova de Foz Côa and can be reached by car or boat.
The walled village of Castelo Rodrigo, and the historic medieval castle, Castelo de Castelo Rodrigo, lies 30 minutes drive south of Barca de Alva, on the road to Salamanca.
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