Exploring the Douro Valley

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Travel and Leisure magazine named Portugal as one of the top travel destinations for 2016 and maybe because it’s been on our travel radar also, or maybe it’s just been in the spotlight lately, but we’ve been seeing articles about the Douro Valley all over the place.  After seeing pictures of these terraced vineyards clinging to the hills above the broad Douro River, we knew we had to go see it for ourselves.  Locals like to say that in the Douro, they have 3 months of winter and 9 months of hell as temperatures soar to above 40 degrees Celsius during the summer months.  Fall was actually a perfect time to visit-the temperatures were mild and comfortable and the colors in the vineyards with the vines changing colors were just spectacular.

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After researching quite a bit, we knew that we wanted to stay in one of the quintas, not just a hotel but a wine-growing estate.  We needed to see where the magic happens!  😉  Our first night we stayed at Quinta do Vallado in Peso da Regua, about an hour and a half from Porto.    We were greeted with a welcome glass of Port when we arrived and we had just enough time to stroll around the lovely grounds before making our way over to a complimentary wine tour and tasting.

The wine tour was very…long thorough, which we probably would have appreciated more without the kids!  Let’s be real, we were just in it for the free tasting at the end. 😉  But anyway, it was informative and they were fine with us having the kids along-and thankfully the kids were well behaved! We really enjoyed the wines and port we sampled and only wished we had enough room in our luggage to bring back a case!

Since there was not much around the hotel, we had made a reservation before our arrival to have dinner there that night.  It was a three course meal with wine pairings and they prepared something also for the kids.  The food was great and the service too, and it was just a lovely evening.  We had the suite in the newer building and the room was very spacious with a gorgeous slate bathtub and also complimentary fruit and a mini bottle of wine.  Love those little touches!

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Breakfast was included with the room and it was a really nice spread.  Before we checked out we took turns having massages, which were so good and so incredibly relaxing.  It was a great stay and we were sad to only have one night there to enjoy.  We arrived just after the harvest had finished, but if you decide to come in the fall you might want to time it for harvest-you’d even have a chance to stomp the grapes since they still keep this tradition alive here!

We were surprised that the Douro Valley is such a foodie area-we stopped for a very gourmet lunch at Castas e Pratos before driving to our next destination farther along the Douro River near the town of Pinhao.  The Douro Valley has typically been a fairly impoverished region aside from the estate owners and although tourism is rapidly growing in this area, you still see the juxtaposition of  fairly poor towns next to luxury hotels and restaurants.  The Douro Valley is quite a self sustaining region, which has been their key to survival.  It is a microclimate that is ideal for growing grapes, but also plenty of other things too-nuts, fruits, olives, citrus, and family gardens as well.

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Our last night we stayed high up in the hills at Quinta Nova de Nossa.  The roads were a bit hair-raising to get here, but the views from the top were well worth it.  So about this hotel…I have a mixed review.  It was our most expensive hotel so I had the highest expectations for this one; and after staying at Quinta do Vallado, we had a great experience to compare it to.  The staff at Nova de Nossa were courteous, but not overly friendly.  We had booked the suite, as they said it was the only room that could accommodate a family, but we were not informed that it had twin beds.  And more than that, two of the twin beds were those incredibly high sleigh beds that you have to have step stools to get in.  The decor of the place was very old-fashioned…and not like hip, vintage old-fashioned; just like my grandparents house old-fashioned.  We had dinner at their restaurant since you are virtually in the middle of nowhere and there is nowhere else to go.  The food was good, but there were only two options…that night it was either octopus or veal which I wasn’t very excited for.  They had said via email that they had a kids menu, but when we asked that night there was only one option, which was beef.  We don’t eat beef, but after some confusion with our server they did wind up preparing some really delicious pasta with tomato sauce.  And my final gripe-they offered wine tastings, but it was 8 euros to taste 3 wines.  Which wouldn’t have been a big deal had we not had the experience the previous night where we got a two hour tour and tasting of about 10 wines and ports all complimentary as guests of the hotel.

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Now on to the plus side.  The views were absolutely stunning.  Which I think is a big part of what you pay for.  The port tonics were delicious and the grounds were extensive with paths to explore them.  There is a beautiful infinity pool which I imagine must be heaven in those hot summer months.  They have baskets for guests to pick fruit from their orchards when it is in season, which would be really fun especially for the kids.  There is a bar where you can also get a sandwich or small snack to eat, and in retrospect we probably should have just done this for dinner.  They also have lots of areas both inside and outside to lounge and relax and also some games you can borrow in one of the sitting rooms.  And for me, their saving grace…we realized after we got home that we had left my younger son’s stuffed cat that he takes everywhere in the room we stayed in.  I emailed them and not only had they found it, but they mailed it to us free of charge…it arrived in just a few days.  They saved the day!

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We had one more day to fill before our flight home at 8 pm, so we headed down the scary road to Pinhao for a sailboat tour on the Douro River.  Our guide was so informative and it was a very relaxing way to spend the morning.  There had been heavy showers overnight and a drizzle in the morning, but thankfully the weather cleared just in time for us to set sail.

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We had lunch in Pinhao and admired more beautiful tiles before making one last stop at a quinta we had read about, Quinta do Seixo owned by Sandeman, the famous port producer.

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In the interest of time and our sleeping toddler, we skipped the tour and just went straight to the tasting.  I did a wine tasting and Lukasz had a port and chocolate tasting that was divine.  They were also sweet to bring a big orange juice to the kiddo who was awake still.  The views from their vineyard were amazing and the good thing about being a big producer is that they sell at the airport so we were able to bring a few bottles home without the luggage restrictions!

Our trip to Porto and the Douro Valley completely exceeded my expectations and I was surprised at just how kid friendly this trip was.  The people we met, especially in Porto were so warm and kind and the scenery was sensational.  I’m so glad we finally made it back to Portugal and now we are already plotting our next trip to this beautiful country-maybe Lisbon and the Algarve?!

 

 

Fall Fun in Porto

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Portugal has been on our list for a long time now and since we have only spent a night in Lisbon, we knew we needed to go back and check out more of the country.  After doing some research, Porto and the Douro Valley seemed like the perfect fall destinations and when our friends who are from Porto assured us that it is quite kid-friendly, we were sold!

I must say, we have been to a lot of beautiful cities, but I think Porto may be the most photogenic city I’ve ever seen.  Between the beautiful tiles, colorful Ribeira houses, and the wide Douro River, this place is absolutely a photographer’s dream!

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We stayed at Cardosas Boutique Apartment and could not have been happier with our stay.  We arrived at our hotel on our anniversary, which I had mentioned when we booked because we were looking for a babysitter for one night so we could enjoy a dinner out.  We were so surprised upon check-in to be greeted with rose petals on the bed, a bouquet of fresh flowers, the most delicious chocolate cake, and a small bottle of port.  What a way to celebrate!  The apartment itself was spacious, centrally located, and beautifully decorated.  Sarah, the property manager, also babysat for us one night and she could not have been sweeter.  A gem of a place that we would highly recommend!

We had never done one of the Hop on/Hop Off bus tours, but since the things we wanted to see were a bit spread out and it was super cheap, we decided to give it a try.  The kids loved it and we were happy it included discounted admission to the Sea Life aquarium.

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On our first full day we had fun exploring all the beautiful architecture of the city.  We hit all the main sites including the Ribeira district along the river, the Sao Francisco church, and the Se cathedral.  Mostly though, we just enjoyed wandering and seeing beauty around every corner!

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The beautiful Sao Francisco church

Loved the colorful Ribeira neighborhood

The picture above is of a rabelo boat, a traditional Portuguese boat built to haul people and cargo, specifically the port wine that the town is famous for.  The boats are now used to carry tourists instead, but they are still beautifully made.

And oh my-all this gorgeous blue and white tile!  Love! ❤ <3<3

Another beautiful spot is the Sao Bento railway station.  There are 20,000 hand painted tiles in this station depicting important moments in Porto’s history.

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There are stunning views from the Se Cathedral!

 

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After a busy day of seeing some beautiful sights, we were ready for a bit of a rest.  Luckily there was an outdoor market happening right outside of our apartment along with a little cafe where we were excited to try port tonics (my new favorite drink) made of muscatela port and tonic.  Delicious!

Speaking of delicious, we enjoyed some great food in Porto-highlights were our dinners at Tasco and Cantina 32.  We went to Tasco the night we had a baby-sitter and really enjoyed it.  Helpful tip–Cantina books up like crazy, but they open unofficially at 6:30 pm and you can come grab a table if you don’t stay too long.  A perfect option with the kids!  And finally, don’t forget to try the famous local pastry when in Porto-pastel de nata.  I may have eaten my weight in them because they are sooooo good!  The best ones we had in Portugal were at a little cafe next to the bookstore Lello.

On Saturday we hopped on the bus and headed out towards the ocean!  The morning started out drizzly, but turned into a gorgeous, warm fall day.  We spent the morning at Sea Life aquarium, which was quite small, but the kids enjoyed it.  Then we had lunch down by the ocean before heading back downtown for some afternoon port tasting.  We like to include a little something for everyone when we travel! 😉

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Amazing views on the drive out.

 

The Hop On/Hop Off tour also included free port tasting at a few different cellars so we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sample some.  All of the port houses are on the other side of the river, across the Dom Luis bridge in Vila Nova de Gaia.  There’s also a little playground right next to the river on that side, so it was a good place to stop after our tastings to let the kids burn off some steam.

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After the tastings, we took the cablecar back to the top half of the bridge where we stopped for some breathtaking views and then it was just a short stroll back to the apartment.

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On our last morning, we visited Lello, the famous bookstore that inspired J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series.  This little shop must be amazing without the crowds, but unfortunately word has gotten out and it is so packed you can hardly even browse without being knocked out by a selfie stick.  Even in spite of the crowds, I am glad that we got the chance to pop in and take a peek.

We are so glad we had the chance to explore the gorgeous city of Porto!  We were sad to say goodbye, but it was time to pick up our rental car and head to the scenic Douro Valley.

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