The Douro by train

Much the best way to appreciate the grandeur and the authenticity of the Douro is to board the train. In this extract from the fifth edition of Port and the Douro, published this month by Académie du Vin Library, Richard Mayson introduces us to some of the highlights of this atmospheric journey

Words by Richard Mayson

Port and the Douro, by train

The journey upriver begins at Oporto’s São Bento railway station from where trains leave for Pocinho, currently the end of the line. São Bento station is worth a visit in itself. Built on the site of an old convent, its cavernous concourse is covered from floor to ceiling with blue and white tiles (azulejos) depicting some of the more glorious moments from Portuguese history.

The journey to Pocinho takes nearly four hours but it is worth taking the train at least as far as Pinhão in the heart of the Cima Corgo wine region. With an early start, the return journey can be undertaken in a day. On leaving the tall suburbs of Oporto, frequently swathed in morning mist, the train emerges into Vinho Verde county. Pergola-trained vines, sometimes strung with washing, almost brush the windows of the carriage but there are no views of the River Douro until after Marco de Canaveses, when about an hour of the journey has elapsed. From here until the end of the line, the train snakes alongside the river through country that is so rugged in places that neither mule nor motor vehicle could gain access. When the old trains are running, the carriage doors are often left open in hot weather so the brave (or foolhardy) can sit on the steps. In places the line runs so close to the edge of the river that it would be possible to dive from the carriage into the Douro. Some of the newer trains on the line are air-conditioned, so this pleasure is now denied.

It is quite easy to see where the Vinho Verde region ends and the Port vineyards begin. As the river curves at Barqueiros, hard granite gives way to flaky schist and terraced vineyards, like hanging gardens, take over from the unruly pergolas. The first major stop inside the Douro region is Peso da Régua. Apart from its setting, Régua itself has never been an attractive town. The only building worthy of note is the headquarters of Pombal’s old Companhia, around which the town grew in the mid-eighteenth century; it now houses the Museu do Douro (Douro Museum). During the summer months a steam engine plies between Régua and Tua. Although this is an atmospheric way to see the Douro, spare a thought for some of the vineyard proprietors whose vineyards have been known to catch fire from sparks issued from passing train.

Soon after leaving Régua, the railway passes under the monolithic concrete bridge that carries the new north–south highway over the Douro. Shortly after passing over the River Corgo and the village of Covelinhas, a number of famous quintas come into view. Quinta do Crasto can just be seen to the left of the train with Barros Almeida’s Quinta de São Luíz on the opposite side of the river. Quinta Nova, Quinta da Boa Vista and Ferreira’s Quinta do Porto, Sandeman’s Quinta do Seixo and Quinta de la Rosa all follow in fairly quick succession before the train arrives at Pinhão.

At vintage time, the station platform frequently resembles a cocktail party as wine-trade visitors and Port shippers converge and exchange invitations and the latest vineyard gossip

Pinhão owes its existence to the railway, and the station, with its remarkable panels of azulejos illustrating scenes from the Douro, is the only building of any note. It is also a passing place on the single-track railway where the ‘up’ train meets the ‘down’ train. At vintage time, the station platform frequently resembles a cocktail party as wine-trade visitors and Port shippers converge and exchange invitations and the latest vineyard gossip. Pinhão’s position is spectacular and there are many famous Port quintas within easy walking distance from the cobbled main street, especially since a new footbridge has been built over the mouth of the River Pinhão. The town itself is a disappointment. Once described to me by the late Bruce Guimaraens, not inaccurately, as a ‘one horse town where the horse left’, Pinhão has nevertheless improved considerably in recent years. There is a five-star hotel (The Vintage House) in the centre of the town and there are a number of quintas within easy reach, offering good, characterful accommodation. Both Dow and Croft have visitor centres that can be reached on foot from the railway station. Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim, Sandeman’s Quinta do Seixo and Quinta de la Rosa have restaurants which are destinations in their own right.

Upstream from Pinhão, the train passes a succession of the most famous estates. Royal Oporto’s Quinta das Carvalhas faces Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim. Croft’s Quinta da Roêda, Quinta da Romaneira, Sandeman’s Quinta do Vau, the Symingtons’ Quinta da Vila Velha, Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta da Tua can all be seen clearly from the train. The hamlet of Tua is the next important stop and the station is always a scene of confusion as railway passengers alight to buy bread from the little motorised cart that sits on the platform before returning hurriedly to the train.

Continuing on the Douro main line, the train passes an abandoned halt called Alegria (‘happiness’), presumably named because of the relief felt by the boatmen at having descended the rapids of Valeira immediately upstream. Quinta do Castelinho can be seen on the opposite bank. The train proceeds beneath the dam and emerges from the tunnel in a forbidding chasm. Cachão de Valeira is a sinister place with lofty grey mountains reflected in the jet-black waters of the river. Storks, herons and the occasional bird of prey can be seen hovering above the crags. Cachão de Valeira marks the boundary between the Cima Corgo and Douro Superior. At Ferradosa, just above the former rapids, the railway crosses to the south bank of the river and some of the largest and most stately of all quintas come into view. Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas and the Symington family’s Quinta do Vesúvio both have their own railway stations. On the opposite side of the river, Cockburn’s Quinta dos Canais, Dow’s Senhora da Ribeira and Warre’s Vale Coelho and Telhada can all be seen from the window of the train. As the train reaches Pocinho the valley opens out and, apart from Quinta do Vale Meão, there are more olive trees to be seen than vines. Pocinho itself is no more than a collection of down-at-heel buildings and a few rusting steam engines. It feels more like the end of the world than the end of the line.