Planning a glorious trip to Porto and the Douro Valley

In Porto, we like to stay far from the commotion of the city center. One of our favorite choices is Freixo, an 18th-century palace converted into a luxury hotel. We’re also fond of the neighboring Pestana Douro Riverside, a perfume factory turned into a modern hotel with generous views of the Douro River.

We always enjoy visiting Porto’s architectural jewels like the Bolsa Palace, the Lello bookstore, and the Majestic café. And we never tire of the spectacular tile panels that decorate the São Bento train station and the Carmo church. If you’re a music lover, check out the schedule of Casa da Música, a concert venue designed by Rem Koolhaas. We like visiting Bolhão, a 19th-century farmers market that has been recently renovated. It is the perfect place to buy a present for a gourmet friend, while enjoying a glass of wine and some appetizers.

Our favorite activity is to visit Gaia’s port-wine cellars. Port-wine merchants built these cellars to protect their precious wines from the scorching Douro Valley summers and allow them to age gently. Over time, the cellars expanded, often taking over adjacent buildings and even entire streets. The Ferreira cellars include the house that once belonged to the famous Dona Antónia Ferreira. A cellar visit is a unique way of experiencing the magic of port wine. The cellars of Taylor’s, Ferreira, and Ramos Pinto are all great choices.

For lunch, we like going to Matosinhos to feast on grilled fish (rodovalho is our favorite). For an enchanted evening, treat yourself to a sunset dinner at the luxurious Boa Nova Tea House headed by chef Rui Paula.

To enjoy panoramic city views while sipping an aperitif, head to the rooftop of DeCastro Gaia. Whether it’s a chilled dry white port, a port tonic cocktail, or the exquisite Soberbo vermouth produced by Poças, you’ll find the perfect drink to complement the breathtaking scenery. When you’re ready for a delicious meal, head down one floor to relish the culinary delights prepared by Miguel Castro e Silva at DeCastro Gaia.

There are many fine dining choices in Porto. Eskalduna, helmed by Vasco Coelho Santos, offers a gastronomic journey through Portugal’s finest produce. Pedro Lemos crafts refined versions of traditional Portuguese recipes, while DOP, led by chef Rui Paula, is another avenue to savor his elegant cuisine.

There are also traditional eateries that have stood the test of time. Aleixo, famous for its octopus carpaccio, and Adega S. Nicolau are perennial favorites.

After spending one or two days in Porto, it is time to head to the Douro Valley. You can opt to drive or take the train to Pinhão, a town in the heart of the valley, from the São Bento or Campanhã stations. Alternatively, you can travel from Porto to Régua by boat. The eight-hour ride offers an opportunity to admire the magnificent bridges designed by Gustave Eiffel and sail through the impressive locks which regulate the river flow at Crestuma-Lever and Carrapatelo.

In the Douro Valley, it is a privilege to stay at Ventozelo, a magnificent wine estate transformed into a luxury hotel. The houses once occupied by workers and two port-wine balloons have been beautifully converted into unique bedrooms. Other elegant accommodations include the riverside Vintage House in Pinhão, the luxurious Six Senses Douro Valley, and the meticulously restored Quinta da Corte.

As soon as we drop our bags at the hotel, we head to Foz Torto, a winery near Pinhão owned by our friend Abílio Tavares da Silva. Abílio, a successful engineer who sold his company to become a wine producer, is the ultimate guide to the secrets of the Douro Valley. We also make sure to visit Sandra Tavares da Silva and Jorge Serôdio Borges, the acclaimed Wine & Soul enologists. Their exquisite wines showcase the best the Douro has to offer. It is always a pleasure to visit the vineyard that produces the iconic Pintas or their splendid Quinta da Manoella.

Distances within the Douro Valley are short, but travel times can be long because the narrow roads meander through the landscape. There are two ways to enjoy the breathtaking views without worrying about driving. The first, is to board the historical, coal-powered train from Pinhão to Tua for a journey back in time. The second, is to travel by boat from Pinhão to the mouth of the Tua River. In the past, the aristocratic Douro families traveled by boat to visit each other. There were no restaurants, but every family had a talented cook who used traditional recipes to prepare culinary feasts.

One of these cooks is Dona Graça. Together with her daughter Rosário, she opened the delightful Toca da Raposa restaurant in Ervedosa do Douro. We love her cooking so much that we often have all our meals here. 

There are two restaurants with beautiful views of the river. The esplanade of Foz do Tavora is the perfect spot to enjoy a simple meal. DOC, another Rui Paula venture, is one more opportunity to try his elegant food. If you’re in the mood for a sumptuous breakfast or brunch, you can satiate your desires at the Six Senses Douro Valley

As our stay in the Douro Valley nears its close, it’s always hard to leave. Abílio reminds us that our restlessness reflects our “urbanoid” disposition – we constantly seek new vistas instead of embracing paradise. Why don’t you move to the Douro Valley?, he asks. Perhaps one day, we shall heed his wise advice.

Sleeping by the river in Porto

We love falling asleep to the sound of the river flowing by at the Douro Riverside in Porto. Adjacent to its older sibling, the Freixo Palace, the hotel occupies the site where a company called Floral produced soaps, candles, and perfumes between 1888 and 1990. 

Floral’s imposing brick chimneys, built by master Lino Soares Guedes, were meticulously restored. The formulations used to produce the scents prized by the city’s aristocracy adorn the walls. And the flowers are back, lending their aromas and elegance to the interiors. 

But it is the river that plays the lead role. Its views are everywhere, from bedrooms, balconies, public interiors, and terraces. An infinity pool creates the illusion that its waters mix with the river. But the Douro keeps to itself and looks straight ahead as it flows to the sea.

The Pestana Douro Riverside is on Av. Escritor Costa Barreto nº60, Porto. Click here for the hotel website.

Vouzela pastries

No visit to Vouzela is complete without tasting the famous local pastries. The recipe, created by nuns of the order of Santa Clara, involves an impossibly thin Philo-like dough that wraps a luscious filling made of sugar and egg yolks. In the 19th century, an orphan adopted by the nuns mastered the tricky recipe and started selling “pasteis de Vouzela” to make a living. Today, four families produce these pastries.

We stopped at Café Central, which, as the name promises, has a central location. It is close to the village pillory and has a view of the cobalt blue tiles that cover the façade of the Misericordia church. The café was inaugurated in 1929, just in time to bring some sweetness to the lives affected by the Great Depression.

Tengúgal and Vouzela are rivals, each town claiming to produce the finest version of the same convent recipe. We ordered a couple of pastries and asked whether we could photograph a tray full of pastries. Before agreeing, the waiter asked, “Have you tried Tentúgal’s pastries?” “Yes, but we find their dough slightly thicker,” we answered. “I’m glad you noticed,” replied the waiter with evident satisfaction, bringing a tray for us to photograph.

We sat at a table, enjoying our “pasteis.” Created by nuns who lived in prayer and solitude, every bite is a glimpse of heaven.


Life is made of connections and disconnections. Fernando Sousa and Margarida Batista had a restaurant in Viseu, our hometown, for many years. We lived in the same city without ever crossing paths. Nine years ago, the couple moved to Vouzela, a quiet village in the countryside.  We heard about their restaurant from Abílio Tavares da Silva during a visit to the Douro valley. Since then, we have tried a few times to make reservations but received a friendly message telling us the restaurant was fully booked. Finally, we managed to email with enough lead time to secure a table for lunch.

We got off the highway, following the sign that reads Vouzela, and soon we were driving on a narrow, winding road. The sight of granite dominates the landscape. There is granite on every hill, and these stones are used in street pavements, exterior walls, and church façades. 

Fernando greeted us with a promise: “I will take care of you.” He manages the dining room, and Margarida does the cooking. We sat at the table, and soon a pleasant Dão wine made with the classic trio of local red grapes, Alfrocheiro, Touriga Nacional, and Jaen, filled our glasses. 

Then Fernando brought a wood turntable with rice cooked in the oven with mushrooms, sausages, and meats, and golden veal accompanied by vegetables and roasted new potatoes. Both dishes have sumptuous flavors. The veal melts in the mouth, and the rice is deeply satisfying. 

Fernando showed us with pride a photograph of Maria de Lurdes Modesto, the chef who codified traditional Portuguese cooking, taken when she visited them. It is natural that Modesto, who prized flavor above all, liked this restaurant.

Margarida is a simple place. What makes it shine is Fernando’s copious affability and Margarida’s gifted cooking.  What else do we need?

Margarida is located at Rua Mousinho de Albuquerque 33 in Vouzela, tel. 936 935 843, email It is a small restaurant; reservations are a must.

Mariana Salvador’s elegant wines

We were not surprised when a leading Portuguese magazine awarded the Wine of the Year prize to Vinha Negrosa, one of the wines produced by Marcelo Aráujo’s Textura Wines. These wines are like Audrey Hepburn–they have an elegance that is difficult to define and hard to imitate. Everything is in harmony from the moment when the cork frees the first aromas from the bottle to when we taste the delicate flavors of the wine.

Together with Luís Seabra, Mariana Salvador makes these wines in the Dão region. They use traditional varietals planted in granite soils near the sky, on the slopes of Portugal’s highest mountain, Serra da Estrela. The vineyards are in the coldest part of Portugal, with copious rainfall and high thermic amplitude between night and day. 

This is only Mariana’s third harvest at Textura, but she compensates for youth with intensity. She notices everything and speaks in rapid-fire sentences. When she likes someone’s comments, she replies “boa, boa” (good, good), as if the echo of the first word was unavoidable.

In lesser hands, the grapes could produce unbalanced wines with excessive tannins. But Mariana and Luis found a way to get the best out of the grapes. They make wines with minimal intervention, relying on natural fermentation to better express the properties of the varietals and the region. The result is a collection of graceful wines that are a joy to drink. 

Porto Côvo

There are so many seashore towns in Portugal that it’s hard to single one out. But Porto Côvo, an old fisherman’s hamlet on Alentejo’s Vicentine coast, deserves special mention. It is blessed with sandy beaches bathed by turquoise waters and a view to the enigmatic Peachtree Island where two forts, now in ruins, once kept pirates at bay. 

In the late 18th century, Jacinto Fernandes Bandeira, a successful businessman, bought a vast stretch of land in Porto Côvo. He hired an architect to draw plans to populate the area and turn it into a significant harbor. The king rewarded these efforts by granting him, in 1805, the title of Baron of Porto Côvo da Bandeira. 

Bandeira’s plan was inspired by the grid system used to rebuild downtown Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake. The construction of Porto Côvo did not adhere closely to it, but its sense of geometry prevailed, giving the town a harmonious feeling.

In the center, the farmers market brims with fresh fruits from land and sea. Local restaurants turn these products into appetizing meals. Our favorite is Lamelas, a place where chef Ana Moura serves veritable culinary pearls. We owe these riches to Baron Jacinto Fernandes Bandeira who first recognized the beauty of Porto Côvo.

Myths and secrets at Bussaco

King Charles I enjoyed hunting in the Bussaco forest so much that he decided to turn a local Carmelite monastery built in 1630 into a royal retreat. When construction began in 1888, the king engaged the most important Portuguese artists of the time in the project. 

It is a gorgeous place. Limestone from the nearby village of Ançã, carved with intricate motifs, decorates the outside. Beautiful tile murals and frescos depicting scenes inspired by literary works and historical events adorn the interiors. 

In 1910, Portugal abolished the monarchy and became a republic. The royal palace seemed destined to become a romantic ruin. But Alexandre de Almeida, a local entrepreneur, endeavored to save it. He negotiated a concession with the state to convert the palace into a luxury hotel. Inaugurated in 1917, it became a success with international celebrities like the mystery writer Agatha Christie.

In the 1920s, Alexandre de Almeida started bottling wines to serve in the dining room of the palace.  These wines gathered fame for their unique character and outstanding aging ability. 

Alexandre de Oliveira, the founder’s grandson, currently runs the hotel group that operates the Bussaco Palace. One of his childhood friends, António Rocha, directed the hotel for many years. Fifteen years ago, António told Alexandre that he would like to give up his managerial role to focus on producing Bussaco wines. Knowing António’s passion for these wines, Alexandre accepted his proposal.

We met António in the palace cellar. He’s been spending many hours there, patiently recorking old bottles so the wine can continue to age gracefully. He showed us with pride wines bottled in the 1940s. “They flow from the bottle with remarkable freshness and vigor, ready to be enjoyed,” he told us.

“What makes Bussaco’s wines so special?” we asked António. “Great wine is 60 percent myth and 40 percent secrets,” António answered, smiling. Bussaco is located between Bairrada and Dão, so the wines are made with grapes from both regions. The red is made from Touriga Nacional and Baga, the emblematic grape from Bairrada. The white is made with Bical, Maria Gomes, and Encruzado. Total annual production is small, only 20,000 bottles. But the cellar stores 200,000 precious bottles hoarded over the last century. 

Later, we joined António at a vinic dinner for a small group of wine connoisseurs at the famed Mesa de Lemos. There were many interesting wines to try, and as the wine flowed, so did the conversation. António tuned out the words to focus on the aromas and tastes of the wines. When it was time to sample the Bussaco wines he brought, António tried to be impartial, appreciate qualities, and identify aspects that can be improved. This passion and dedication is the true secret of Bussaco’s wines. 

Click here, for the Bussaco Palace web site.

The maker of Barca Velha

Luís Sottomayor, the enologist who makes Barca Velha, an iconic Douro valley wine, is uncomfortable with his fame. He misses spending August in quiet solitude amidst the vines at Quinta da Leda, the large estate that produces most of the grapes used in Barca Velha. Today everybody wants to talk to him, journalists, sommeliers, and wine enthusiasts. They all want to discover the secret of Barca Velha.

Luís says the style was created by the legendary Fernando Nicolau de Almeida when he produced the first Barca Velha in 1952. Nicolau de Almeida traveled the Douro valley in search of grapes that could make an exceptional table wine and found them in a region called Douro Superior. He blended grapes from high altitudes that have acidity and freshness with those from low altitudes that have maturation, body, and color. This marriage of acidity and structure created a sublime wine that can age and improve for decades. 

Barca Velha is made with the best grapes that Sogrape, Portugal’s largest wine company, has in Douro Superior. The parcels are vinified separately and stored in casks. Luís creates a blend from the different barrels. If the resulting wine meets his exacting standards, he bottles it. Then the wait begins. He samples the wine with his team for four, five, six, sometimes seven years before deciding whether to label it Barca Velha or Reserva Especial. Since 1952, there have only been 20 vintages of Barca Velha and 17 of Reserva Especial. 

Luís says that some decisions are challenging but he was lucky to learn with the two masters who made Barca Velha before him, Fernando Nicolau de Almeida and José Maria Soares Franco. Luís was hired by Soares Franco in 1989 and became responsible for Barca Velha in 2007. 

“For how long should we store a Barca Velha?” we ask. Luís smiles and says he doesn’t like waiting too long to pull the cork from the heavy bottles that guard the precious wine. “Open it when you’re with good friends,” he recommends. Luís is a hunter, so he loves to pair Barca Velha with partridge or duck. “But the wine also can be enjoyed without food, especially by the fire on a cold winter night,” he says. 

We asked Luís about another remarkable Sogrape wine called Legado (the Portuguese word for legacy). “Barca Velha has a consistent style and is the expression of a large terroir,” says Luís. “Legado is the opposite. It comes from a small terroir– a vineyard planted in 1910 with eight hectares that produce only six or seven tons of grapes. Each vintage is a different chapter of the life of that vineyard.”

Luís grew up on a farm near Porto. His father, who studied enology in Dijon after the 2nd World War, worked in a port wine company. From an early age, Luís dreamed about being a winemaker. Now he makes wines that people dream about drinking.


Belmiro is the kind of restaurant that is increasingly hard to find in Lisbon. It does not prepare food to look good on Instagram. It does not seek originality for its own sake. Instead, it cooks classics of the Portuguese cuisine with good-quality, seasonal ingredients. 

The restaurant is named after Belmiro de Jesus, an old hand who’s been a chef at places like Salsa & Coentros. Belmiro is famous for his mouthwatering “empadas,” small pies with delightful fillings. And he is a virtuoso at cooking partridge and hare. He prepares them with rice, in “açorda,” with beans, and much more. The menu is seasonal, it changes to reflect what’s fresh in the market. If you can’t decide what to choose, a good rule of thumb is to order anything cooked in a “tacho” (a saucepan). 

We like to go to Belmiro with friends and ask the chef to prepare a few entrées we can all share. Accompanied by some good bottles of wine, the meal always turns into a party. 

Belmiro is located at Paço da Rainha 66, Lisbon, tel. 21 885 2752.

The professor’s partridges

The best partridges we ever tasted were cooked by a professor. His name is Emídio Gomes. He is the rector of the UTAD, the university that trained many of the star enologists who work in the Douro valley. 

Emídio learned to cook while studying in France on a meager scholarship. He asked his grandmother to teach him some of her recipes so that he could eat at home. Cooking was so relaxing that he continued to cook regularly after returning to Portugal.

Emídio’s stewed partridges are renowned throughout the Douro valley. The professor generously gave us his grandmother’s recipe and allowed us to share it with our readers. 

The recipe starts with an admonition: “If the partridges are good, make sure you don’t ruin them.” Here’s the rest. 

Remove the feathers and the tripes of the wild partridges and cut them into pieces. Marinate them for twelve hours in a small amount of white wine, laurel, parsley, and a little thyme.

Heat a cast iron pot. Pour a generous amount of olive oil. The quality of the olive oil is paramount. Choose an olive oil with low acidity, ideally from the Douro valley. Slice enough onions to cover the bottom 2 inches of the pot. Slowly sweat the onions. Remove the thyme, laurel, and parsley, and place the partridges in the pot. Add a small amount of water to prevent the stew from drying.

Cover the pot with the lid and slowly stew the partridges for four to five hours. Monitor periodically to ensure the stew does not dry; add small amounts of water as necessary. Season with salt towards the end of the cooking period. After the first four hours, regularly pierce the meat with a fork. The partridge is ready when the meat offers no resistance. Serve with white rice and toasts.

Like a top scientific paper, the recipe requires high-quality content and flawless execution. And in the end, the results look deceptively simple.