The upper reaches of the Douro in Portugal present a landscape of extraordinary beauty and tranquillity. The banks rise steeply into the surrounding hills which are clothed with terraced vineyards, patches of woodland, little villages and quintas. Until recently one of the remotest clefts in western Europe, the region remains remarkably unspoilt and difficult of access. It is best approached by train; a journey into mountains that begins at the mouth of the river in Porto (Oporto).
The capital of northern Portugal, Porto is synonymous with the port wine trade, which since time immemorial has been dominated by the British. Hence an architectural peculiarity of Porto: the serene Neo-Palladianism of buildings by John Carr of York and his imitators cheek-by-jowl with the highly wrought, startlingly pigmented and lavishly gilded Baroque style of churches and public buildings. Baroque was virtually introduced by another foreigner, the Tuscan painter-architect Nicolau Nasoni who had a hand in the design of many churches and houses in the city and along the Douro.
Porto is also relatively unspoilt, retaining a jumble of historic architecture on its undulating even precipitous site, but it is also a city of parks and gardens and the occasional flash of ultra-modern architecture.
This is not a tour in pursuit of masterpieces, rather an exploration of delicious scenery and ancient townscapes in a most beautiful but often overlooked corner of Europe. The port wine industry is a subsidiary theme, along with the excellent red wines now produced here. The pace on this tour is slower than on many.
Porto. Fly at c.11.45am from London Gatwick to Porto (TAP Portugal). Introductory talk and time for a stroll along the river front before dinner. First of three nights in Porto.
Porto. Porto is dense with historic architecture and falls steeply down to the River Douro. The cathedral is basically 13th-century with later embellishments, many by the painter-architect Nicolau Nasoni. The Clerigos Church with its wonderful Baroque tower is also by Nasoni, the church of the Misericordia has good Flemish paintings and São Francisco has an amazingly rich carved and gilded interior. Also see the magnificent decorative tiles, azulejos, in the railway station and visit the Factory House (by special arrangement), a club of British port wine traders founded in the 18th century. Overnight Porto.
Porto. See the façade of the Hospital de São António designed by John Carr of York (1770). The Soares dos Reis was Portugal’s first national museum and has collections of Portuguese fine and decorative arts, and the nearby Museu Romântico in the Quinta da Macieirinha has a garden and 19th-century furnishings. Álvaro Siza’s Fundação de Serralves is set in an attractive park and houses contemporary art. Cross the Douro for a tasting at a port lodge and study the scene of Wellington’s impulsive and brilliant 1809 river crossing which enabled him to finish Marshal Soult’s still-warm lunch.
Porto, Douro Valley, Pinhão. Free morning in Porto. Early afternoon train journey up the Douro Valley which becomes increasingly rural, unspoilt and beautiful, with vineyards, patches of woodland and quintas clinging to the hills. Pinhão is a tiny town with a hotel in a former port lodge overlooking the Douro. First of four nights in Pinhão.
São João de Tarouca, Lamego. At the village of São João de Tarouca, there are paintings by Grão Vasco (1506–42) and Gaspar Vaz (1490–1569) in the church beside which are the ruins of the first Cistercian abbey in Portugal (1169). Continue to the busy little town of Lamego, replete with Baroque mansions and dominated by the pilgrimage church of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios atop a ceremonial stairway. The town museum in the former episcopal palace contains a series of panels by Grão Vasco. See also the cathedral, largely Renaissance behind a Romanesque belfry and has a Gothic west front.
Vale do Côa. Up the Douro is the small town of Vila Nova Foz Côa with church with Manueline doorway. Close to the border with Spain the River Côa valley holds one of the greatest archaeological finds of recent years, an extensive array of outdoor Paleolithic art, the largest in Europe. There are well-preserved engravings of auroch, horse, deer and goat along a long stretch of steeply slate-banked river. Visit one of the key sites by 4WD, then continue on foot. Return to Pinhão on the train beside the Douro.
The Douro by train and boat. A leisurely day in the heart of the wine-making area. Travel by rail downstream to the Quinta do Vallado; visit and lunch here. Sail back to Pinhão on a private rabelo boat.
Vila Real. The Palácio de Mateus at Vila Real, a Nasoni design made familiar by the rosé wine label, is a fine 18th-century manor house, well furnished and with gardens including a box tree avenue. Continue to Porto airport for the flight to London Gatwick, arriving c. 7.50pm.
May departure: participants combining with 'Toledo: A Festival of Spanish Music' take a late afternoon flight from Porto to Madrid. Transfer by coach to your selected hotel in Toledo, arriving c. 9.30pm. The festival begins in the evening of 20th May. At the end of the festival, Thursday 25th May, take a flight from Madrid returning to London Gatwick at c. 9.30pm. See the Toledo: A Festival of Spanish Music page for full details.
Dr Gerald Luckhurst
Landscape architect and garden historian based in Lisbon with an extensive knowledge of sub-tropical and Mediterranean garden flora. His work involves both historic restoration and contemporary garden design. Books include The Gardens of Madeira, Luigi Manini: Imaginário & Metodo, Sintra: A Landscape with Villas and The Gardens of the National Palace of Queluz. He is currently writing a doctoral thesis on the gardens of Monserrate in Sintra, near Lisbon.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £2,410 or £2,240 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,860 or £2,690 without flights.
For prices combining the May departure with the Toledo: A Festival of Spanish Music, see the festival webpage.
Included: flights (economy class) on scheduled TAP (Air Portugal) and British Airways flights (Airbus 319); private coach for transfers and some excursions, some rail and boat travel; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts, two lunches and five dinners with wine, water and coffee; all admission to museums, churches, wine estates, etc.; all tips for restaurant staff and drivers; all state and airport taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Pestana Vintage (Porto), an excellently situated 4-star hotel in the historic centre, on the right bank of the river Douro. Vintage House (Pinhão), a delightful hotel surrounded by vineyards and with gardens and terrace overlooking the river. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
Visits in Porto are on foot and uphill (via some flights of steps). The archaeological park requires sure-footedness. Travel is by coach, train and boat. Average distance by coach per day: 37 miles.
Between 12 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.
The rail travel was novel but most enjoyable because the scenery was wonderful.
Very interesting mix of old and new in Porto.
An outstanding and thoroughly enjoyable week. I would definitely travel with MRT again.
Excellent - the tour got better and better as the week progressed. We couldn't have been better looked after.
Everything was delightful. We found the company of Adam and Gaby an unmitigated pleasure, We think they must be your duel team for conducting a harmonious MRT tour.
Very well planned, with a pleasing balance between art, architecture and sightseeing.