The Douro region is stunning in itself with its age-old vineyard cultivated slopes that are a World Heritage Site. Along the way are a series of towns all with different histories and traditions.
Not only can you cruise down the Douro to take in the sights, but you can take one of the narrow gauge railways in some of the country's most beautiful scenery or explore on foot, bike or canoe.
Amarante lies east of Porto between the city and Vila Real. It sits right on the picturesque River Tamega over which the Sao Goncalo bridge gives you stunning views of the town and leads you to the striking 16th century Convento de Sao Goncalo. Sao Goncalo as you can already tell is a significant figure for the town as its patron saint and the patron saint of marriage. He was a 13th century hermit upon whose reputation the church was founded. He is credited with founding the town and building the town's first bridge, the granite Ponte de Sao Goncalo, a symbol of Amarante's defiance against the French. However, the present day bridge was actually built in 1796 after the original Goncalo bridge collapsed in a flood in 1763.
It is said that if those searching for a loved one touch Sao Goncalo's statue on the outside of his tomb that lies in Mosteiro de Sao Goncalo, they will have their wish granted. It is obviously a tradition that has been followed by many a single person as the face, toes and fingers of the statue have all but been rubbed away by hopeful romantics.
During the celebrations of Sao Goncalo's Day on 13 January and the beginning of June another interesting and up-front tradition remains in which phallic shaped cakes, falus de Goncalo, are given as a sign of affection!
Lamego has long been an important centre and was already organised into a bishopric by the Visigoths in the 7th century. In 1143 Portugal's first parliament was convened here. At the far end of Avenida Visconde is the stunning baroque stairway comprising 696 steps that zig zag up to Igreja de Nossa Senhora dos Remedios - rather like Bom Jesus near Braga.
Other attractions in Lamego are the 12th century Igreja Santa Maria de Almacave, Lamego's oldest surviving building, the Lamego regional Museum, that houses paintings by 16th century painter Vasco Fernandez, Brussels tapestries from the same period and gilded 17th century chapels from the Convento das Chagas before is was lost, a pousada now stands on its site. There are also the remains of the 11th-13th century castle that was originally Moorish in origin at the top of Rua da Olaria - maintained today by the Boy Scouts. The town itself is a warren of old, steep winding lanes with traditional shops selling all manner of things from food to shoes.
The impressive Noss Senhora dos Remedios church is the focal point for the town's biggest fiesta "Festa de Nossa Senhora does Remedios" that runs from late August to mid-September. On the 8 September ox-drawn carts carry religious tableaux vivants through the streets before undertaking the tortuous pilgrimage ascending the steps on their needs!
Peso de Regua was formerly known as the capital of the Upper Douro but this has now moved to Pinhao, half an hour to the east. However Regua, as it's more frequently called, is still a junction point through which all wine must pass on its way to Porto. All the River Douro cruises and trips stop at Regua and the barcas rabelos boats are often moored at the riverside.
There are a wide range of quintas around the town that offer wine tasting tours making the town a good stopping off point on the Port Wine Route (see below). The town is also a good base from which to explore the Serra do Marao Mountains that border the town to the north-west.
A good stopping off point in Regua is the Solar do Vinho do Porto housed in a converted warehouse on Rua da Ferreirinha. Like the Solar in Porto it is run by the Port and Douro Wines Institute and offers a choice of wines for tasting as well as information, exhibitions and artistic events about port and the Douro area. Open Mon-Sat 11am-7pm. Tel: 351 254 320 960. Next door at the Casa do Douro, the headquarters of the port growers organisation, is a series of stained-glass windows illustrating the history and production of Port wine.
Twenty two kilometres upstream of Peso da Regua is Pinhao, the current port wine capital. The town lies at the base of hillsides covered in vines where the Douro and Pinhao rivers meet.
Pinhao is dominated by the various port wine lodges and once again there are a variety of quintas from which you can taste the local wines. Even the train station has an azulejos display illustrating the wine harvest.
Pinhao is a good base from which to explore the Douro wine region and the Tourist Information office in the town can provide information on trips, tours and tastings. One of Portugal's most beautiful narrow gauge railway journeys, the Linha da Tua, runs from near Pinhao at Tua. The journey travels up through the Tua Valley, ending at the pretty market town of Mirandela and takes two hours.
Cruises along the River Douro of either one or two day trips leave or stop off at both Peso da Regua and Pinhao. Trips naturally tend to focus on the wine growing and production of the area and overnight trips incorporate stays at country estates and manor houses alongside the River Douro. This is a leisurely way to visit the historic sights of the area and get a riverside view of the countryside of the region. The main routes usually end up in Porto and can be started or ended at either Peso de Regua or Pinhao. Cruises run from March through to November.
Vila Real is one of the bigger towns central to the Douro area acting as an important agricultural, market and transport centre. It sits at the confluence of the Corgo and Cabril rivers and although a university town, it still reflects the laid back pastoral atmosphere of the surrounding countryside. It is a good base from which to explore the Alvao Natural Park to the north and the Marao mountain range to the south which together help identify Vila Real as the "Gateway to the Tras-os-Montes".
In Vila Real itself is the 15th century gothic cathedral once part of a Dominican monastery. There are also several churches nearby including the 17th century Igreja dos Clergios with a fine baroque facade and tiled interior. There is a good viewpoint across the gorge of the Rio Corgo and Rio Cabril south at Mirodouro de Tras-do-Cemiterio.
Probably the most famous sight in the Douro area is the Palacio de Mateus, three kilometres from Vila Real, which was built in the 18th century for the Count of Vila Real. This is the grand house featured on every bottle of Mateus wine. Nicolau Nasoni strikes again, as he was the architect to design the Palace. This is the third most visited building in Portugal and guided tours are available.
Sabrosa is a small town south east of Vila Real. Its attractions include the house where Ferdinand Magellan, the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe, once lived as well as a wealth of 15th century architecture. In and around the town is a wealth of archaeological history including a variety of relicts of settlements from the Neolithic period including Iron Age hill forts such as at Castro da Sancha and burial chambers.
It is also renowned for its full-bodied red wine made locally at the Adega Cooperativa winemaking plant and its cuisine including Portuguese stew "cozido a portuguesa" which contains roast kid with oven-baked rice, meat pie "bolas de carne" and desserts including "pao-de-lo" a kind of spongecake and glazed biscuits "cavacas altas".
The town of Vila Nova de Foz Coa is still very much a small, friendly, laid back place, and has few other attractions than the Igreja Matriz with an impressive Manueline doorway, leaning walls and painted wooden ceiling.
Many archaeological artefacts have been found around this area dating from the Stone Age right through to the 18th century. At Freixo de Numao nearby the Museo da Casa Grande has a display of some of these finds from the different archaeological sites. It is also an attractive baroque townhouse with Roman foundations. Museu da Casa Grande, tel: 351 279 789 117. Fax: 351 279 789 573. Open Tues-Sun 9 am-12 pm and 2-6 pm.
This area is rich in archaeological discoveries and there are several other archaeological sites in the area such as the Bronze Age Castelo Velho in Freixo de Numao, the roman temple of Almofala at Castelo Rodrigo and a complex of stone architecture that was built between the Chalcolithic to the Bronze Age at Castanheiro do Vento. Check the links opposite for more information.
One of the best attractions in Portugal is The Parque Arqueologico do Vale do Coa (PAVC). It was designated to protect a series of Paleolithic rock engravings. The protection of these engravings had a troubled and contentious history. There are over 30 sites where rock engravings have been found, most are Palaeolithic but there are some that date from the 18th century where someone must have decided to add their own art to the prehistoric collection. Visits to the sites are highly restricted and can only be undertaken in the company of guides from the Archaeological Park. Three sites are open to the public: Canada do Inferno, Penascosa and Ribeira de Piscos. All three sites have a series of different rock engravings. Site visits are organised by the Park Offices at these locations, the main one being at Vila Nova de Foz Coa. Check the Foz Coa page for more information.
The Douro Region's landscape has been recognised as being of international importance so it makes sense to get out there and find out what makes it so special. The stunning mountains of the Alvao Natural Park and the Serra do Marao can be explored from the Alto Douro region.
With mountains, rivers and valleys the Douro region lends itself to all sorts of outdoor pursuits including walking, whitewater rafting, kayaking, canyoning, climbing, hang-gliding, cycling and mountain biking. Check our Douro Outdoor page for more information.
Another great way to see the Douro is onboard one of the historic railway lines that hug the river and mountains' giving you spectacular views of the countryside. The Tua Railway is said to be the most beautiful rail journey in Portugal, but it's difficult to choose when you've got the Douro line travelling right through the Douro Valley alongside the river for much of its length and the Corgo Line taking the shorter journey through the middle of the Douro region.