Road trip – Portugal


My journey exploring northern Portugal started with a short flight from London to Porto, picking up a local car from the airport and quickly adjusting to driving on the opposite side of the road – a difficult task when my curiosity made me more interested to absorb this city that was so new and exciting. Spread over both banks of the Douro River and framed on its western side by the Atlantic, Porto is certainly different from many of its European neighbours in terms of landscape and climate. Built on rolling hills, Portugal’s second largest city is one of the oldest in Europe (proudly registered as a World Heritage Site) and highly diverse in landscape – after a short drive or quick hop on the metro you can walk on white beaches with a refreshing Atlantic breeze to keep you cool in the hotter months.

Other than the gluttonous desire to eat the fresh fish that the Atlantic generously brings in everyday, the well-celebrated architecture of Porto was also a major lure to this city. After a simple but delicious lunch of grilled squid, I headed northwest for a short drive to my first Porto abode in the downtown district, Casa Do Conto. This district is charmingly different from the bustling centre – with many crumbling and derelict townhouses and few tourists, this part of the city essentially remains untouched, a perfect bolt-hole for those who desire a quieter city vacation.

The unassuming entrance of Casa Do Conto does not prepare you for the contrastingly super-cool interiors that await inside. Simple yet classically stylish Scandinavian furnishings contrast beautifully with the polished concrete floors and ceilings that run through this hotel and artist residence.

After the original four-storey town house conversion burnt down just days before its planned opening, the new design focused on concrete, and ceilings were cast in this stark material with narratives – such as the coordinates of the buildings location – carved into them. This interestingly graphic touch is only noticeable when reclining in one of the many soft furnishings that make staying here so extremely comfortable.

Straightforward yet luxurious style is king here, where each of the six suites is slightly different but still with the trademark of polished cement. Our suite was finished with all the touches you would expect from a luxurious hotel including crisp white linen, cotton dressing gowns, plush velvet chaise longue – but combined with the design of the hotel it was elevated to something far more memorable.

After reclining for a short rest in the small but perfectly formed garden with a cup of freshly brewed coffee I skipped with excitement to the first of many pre-planned architectural treats. Only a short walk form Do Conto sits the beautiful Casa da Musica, designed by one of the Dutch masters, Rem Koolhaas. This concert hall is hard to miss with its sharp concrete angles and elegantly curved glass windows. Even without seeing a concert here, it’s well worth the walk from the city centre.

We then walked further west to explore another gem in the form of the modern art gallery, Fundação de Serralves. Designed by Portuguese icon Álvaro Siza Vieira, this really is a must for anyone who has even the faintest interest in modern design and art. The gallery also shares grounds with the Casa de Serralves, a beautiful Art Deco villa which houses an array of modern sculptures, fully completing the artistic experience.

Walking down from Fundação towards the main centre is a pleasure in the afternoon sun, and especially so when peppered with a few glasses of delicious Port wine. Maybe it was the wine, the sunset walk along the river, or the continuous temptation of a fishy delight but I soon found myself deliriously happy with this new city.

The next morning, after coaxing myself from the cotton sheets and feasting on a breakfast of locally sourced eggs and homemade bread (I omitted the ham but was assured it was delicious), I bade farewell to Casa Do Conto and hit the road for pastures new.

Even without heading anywhere specific, this drive would have been a beautiful one. My perceptions of the Portuguese landscape prior to the trip were, to say the least, ill-formed. But they were quickly corrected; driving north-east out of Porto the cityscape quickly evaporates into greenery and sparse open land, where even the highways are beautiful curves leading you up into the stark but arrestingly beautiful mountains.

After two hours we pulled into Pedras Salgadas just in time to catch the afternoon sun shining above the impressively dense forest within which this resort is set. Sitting behind the town of Bornes de Aguiar and in the Pedras Salgadas nature park, seven cabins turn this public park into an Eco retreat truly submerged in nature. With little else to do but enjoy this rare treat of sitting amongst a bounty of evergreen trees, one could happily while away the afternoon listening to the birds, aided of course with a little local wine.

The Parque de Pedras Salgadas eco-resort has won numerous architectural awards thanks to Portuguese architects Luís Rebelo de Andrade and Diogo Aguiar. With my aversion to heights, I opted to stay in one of the ground level cottages but I’m almost certain that the raised tree houses make for an interesting stay for those happy to wake up above the trees.

For me, the beauty of this eco retreat was the serene quiet and calm that allowed me to indulge in the on-site spa, followed by the difficult choice between either the indoor or outdoor pool! The quiet in the park was only ever broken briefly when a convenient golf cart dropped off our breakfast hamper each day, making mornings that little bit more exciting.

After spending two blissful days in tranquility, it was time to reacquaint myself with the car for a drive south towards the wine region of Pinhão. Hopping back into the car I headed towards Vila Real and from there turned off the highway onto a quiet country road. The landscape here changed drastically, changing from beautifully stark mountains to rolling hills, intricately planted with rows of vines. Needless to say, the roads also changed drastically, becoming narrow and winding and making the drive somewhat more perilous. If the English countryside can be compared to a patchwork blanket, then this north-eastern region of Portugal where the vineyards are perfectly groomed can certainly be compared to an embroidered blanket.

Reaching our next destination – the Vineyard of Quinta Nova – took somewhat longer than expected with my painfully slow driving and constant desire to pull over and take pictures. Higher up into the heart of the wine region – and just a few kilometres from Pinhão – Quinta Nova sits high above the Douro River with its impressive vineyards spreading beneath it. We arrived just in time to drop our bags and join one of the frequent wine tours that attract what seemed to be a regular stream of wine enthusiasts. Quinta Nova – originally a Port producer but which now also makes a full variety of red and white wines – is a relatively small production, with quaint outbuildings and a few rooms for wine enthusiasts who want to stay just that little bit longer.

After asking a multitude of questions and walking around the vines with our tour guide, we couldn’t let the tour end without a full wine tasting where we sat overlooking the rolling hills with the Douro River flowing down below – a perfect way to end a drive, and be welcomed to a new place.

Driving is the best way to get around this part of the world but there is also Ferrão rail station just a short walk downhill from Quinta Nova, and trains run to and from Pinhão and Porto daily. A little disappointingly, the train ride from Ferrão to Pinhão was a quick ten minutes, and I couldn’t help wishing it was much longer as I wasn’t the driver and for once I could fully concentrate on the landscape winding in and out of the mountainside as we ran parallel with the Douro River.

Pinhão attracts mostly wine tourists who easily fill the petite winding streets and small cruise ships stopping in the modest port, but it’s a perfect-sized town to walk around in less than an hour and find a simple but delicious lunch. Needless to say, as we were taking the train it would have been rude not to sample what the neighbouring vineyards had to offer. And back at Quinta Nova, to round off yet another hedonistic day, I was told by our hosts that, without any excuse, we were to sample the menu at Quinta Nova’s newly opened restaurant. It’s easy to see that the owners are proud of their new addition which attracts outside visitors as well as their own guests. The mild evenings of late September allowed us to fully enjoy sitting outdoors whilst dining on three courses of modern Portuguese cuisine.

After a short but charming stay it was with great reluctance that we headed back north west to Porto. Before leaving the region it was unthinkable to miss its crowning architectural treat – the Quinta do Portal winery that sits high above most vineyards in the region and overlooks Pinhão in the far distance. The winery, aptly clad in cork and brilliantly designed, again, by Siza, was a perfect way to bid farewell to the land of beauty and plenty.

After returning the car in central Porto, with a heavy heart I might add, and before flying back to London, we took in one last treat: Restaurante Casa Aleixo. A reasonable distance from the centre – but well worth the walk – it was only right to round off the trip with Portuguese red wine, salted cod cakes (the restaurant’s speciality) complemented by an array of fresh salads, local bread and grilled game sausage with black eyed beans.

With such a small area explored, Portugal holds even more allure for me now than prior to the trip. It is without doubt a place of adventure and immeasurable beauty. Until I return again it will remain, at very least, the place which has surprised me the most. The variety of its landscape, the wealth of architecture, the bounteous cuisine, all such a short distance away, quite simply took my breath away. –

by Stephanie Clair

Quinta Nova – Vineyard and Hotel – Covas do Douro