Two weeks ago, my husband Terry and I got in our car and traveled five hours northwest from our village in the Alentejo to the Douro Valley, one of the oldest wine regions in the world. After ten months in lock down last year, the freedom to travel around Portugal seemed almost too good to be true. But in a country where 85% of the population is now vaccinated, where people don’t complain about wearing masks or keeping their distance, it’s a lot easier to feel safe outside, now. Safe enough to travel.
As always on our trips together, it’s Terry at the wheel, confidently speeding along impossibly steep, narrow mountain roads, while negotiating blind curves and hairpin turns and me in the passenger seat nervously wondering how dizzy or carsick I’ll get. But for this trip to the Douro, I cleverly remembered my Dramamine and was able to spend the (albeit sometimes harrowing) drive drowsy and relaxed. Not drowsy enough however to miss the spectacular scenery—terraced vineyards, orange groves, olive plantations – for which the Douro is famous. The kind of beauty that takes your breath away.
Relaxed as I was, I was still glad to settle in to our lovely B&B amid the vineyards before we set off again to the town of Peso da Régua, to visit the Douro Museum where I learned more than I could imagine about the making of port wine. I learned that the Douro represents about half of the world’s mountain viticulture. Just over 30,000 wine growers cultivate some 100,000 acres of land. In this valley, people were making wine well before the arrival of the Romans. Between the late 18th and early 19th century, over 30,000 Galician Portuguese laborers built walls, pruned and grafted vines and harvested grapes. Hard labor and human sweat define port wine making.
At a bend in the Douro river is the charming–-if shabby–little town of Pinhão, where we spent a happy hour lunching with local truck drivers and winery workers, eating our polvo and porco, French fries and rice, while everyone laughed and shouted to one another across the room. Afterwards, I grabbed my camera and walked along the town’s main street where most of the buildings are dilapidated and abandoned. It made me sad and sorry for the town, but I snapped pictures like crazy and, spectacular as the vineyards are, it’s the photos I took in Pinhão that are the most beautiful.
Just steps away from our B&B was the Infantado Winery. I hadn’t realized this when Terry booked our room, but I doubt this was coincidental. Infantado’s owner, 5th generation winemaker João Roseira, turned out to be one of Terry’s best friends from the 1990s when he was importing wine from Portugal to the U.S., and the Infantado winery was his old stomping ground. João and Terry hadn’t seen each other in twenty-five years and their reunion was a very happy event.
Growing up, I never understood people’s passion for wine. I like a glass of wine with dinner from time to time, but I just never got the wine tastings, the wine snobs, all that drinking. I never knew my husband as in importer of Portuguese wines. I knew him as a wood worker, a furniture maker, an artist, a fisherman. I didn’t share his interest in wine. Until this trip to the Douro, I hadn’t given Terry’s wine business a lot of thought. I had other things on my mind. Like writing a memoir about my life before Terry.
We spent our last night in the Douro with João, his wife Paula, and his cousin Álvaro. João is many things – a fine winemaker, a wonderful cook, a generous host with a genius for friendship. He has a big personality and a big heart. It was easy to see why Terry would speak so fondly of the wine business. Our trip to the Douro was a revelation to me as I watched my husband’s face light up when he and his old friend João recalled their years working together in Portugal decades ago, just as my face lights up when my old friend Marguerite and I recall our years working together in Africa decades ago–the work I’ve written about in my new book Expecting the World – Learning from Women in Left-Out Places
The Douro gave me more than stunning landscapes, charming towns, fascinating history,and delicious wine. It helped me understand my husband’s love for this country of his ancestors. It gave me a way in.
It’s so good to feel safe enough to travel.