By Hannah Silverman
There comes a trip in every traveller’s life when you just don’t want to plan a dang thing. So when a highly organised travelling buddy takes hold of the reigns, a surprising treat inevitably awaits you on foreign soil. Best still is that it’s all unexpected. Suddenly the trip becomes more about the journey than the destination, and this is something we forget when we weigh ourselves down with checklists.
The purpose of this particular trip to Portugal’s Douro Valley wine region was to attend another friend’s wedding. She married into port royalty and exchanged vows atop a breathtaking vista of vines and valley (see below, I’m definitely not over exaggerating). Beyond the valley snaked the Douro River while by nightfall fairy lights twinkled across the lawn. It was a romantic experience in many translations of the word and yet everything was a surprise because I had the luxury of not putting so much as a keyword into a search engine. A lucky experiment that this time blew me away.
In the name of friendship, day one was sent sipping Portugese wine (Altano Douro Branco, 2012) beside a pool as we overlooked meandering views of the Douro. We were at Quinta do Alvito, where the wedding would be taking place and the hype was obviously mounting.
The following day was also mapped out for us. Given the nature of weddings, this traveller had minimal input in this aspect, also (surprise!), leaving the travel diary to be filled with the kind of organic inspiration that only comes with spontenaiety and a distinct lack of expectation. It was here that you feel appreciative to have friends and freedom to experience opportunities usually closed off to others. It was also here that the Pol Roger started kicking in, giving me with gratitude and perception, which after a glass or two feels a lot like wisdom even if it was just a mental note. A very fortunate muse that Champagne, don’t you think?
While attending the wedding festival we stayed in a small town called Pinhão. It’s about a 20 minute drive down from Quinta do Alvito at the base of the valley and along the riverside. Had I not been a victim of car sickness I would tell you that if you open your eyes, the roads tour past some seriously stunning scenery.
Pinhão is perfectly rustic, and not in a way that was purposely created to appeal to the modern day bohemian. First impressions might describe Pinhão as somewhat of a ghost town with shabby paint jobs, uneven paving and very few people wandering the streets while those who are appear to be in a daze of either extreme nonchalance or serenity. In the heat of the afternoons I spent here, I would assume the latter.
Surprisingly, there is only a subtle underbelly of tourism catering to the many visitors who either travel on the train, or use the town to set up camp for their adventures throughout the neighbouring wine territory. There are a handful of souvenier shops besides the train station and a few hotels for those parking their suitcases as they enjoy this part of the Douro, but little focus on hospitality. This seems to be left to the hotel industry and, of course, the wineries which are just a short taxi ride a way. Pinhão itself is a surprise, a gem in the heart of the port country and an ideal base to lose yourself.
Very fortunately we stayed in the Ritz of Pinhão, also known as Vintage House Hotel which presented us with a terrace that overlooked the pool, that overlooked the river, that overlooked hills of vines.
After calling Vintage House Hotel home, we began our journey back to Porto. We took the train which we were told provided the most beautiful views en-route, and as I peeked up from my novel I took several moments to allow this truth to set in.
In Porto we visited Graham’s Port House for a winery tour and tasting, sipping on a Tawny vintage as old as 1968 and Port from 1978. Also the commemorative bottle of Tawny presented to the British Monarchy to celebrate the christening of Prince George. A delightful marketing story to relay to friends not so inclined to take note of vintage variation.
Highly recommended here, wino or not, is the adjoining Vinum restaurant with spectacular views across the Douro River to Porto and Gaia. As the hour glass was running out of sand for this visit, I was unable to explore the gorgeous Porto city, instead travelling through its meandering streets with my eyes and imagination. The glimpse, although largely unexamined, hinted at a city steeped in history and culture (it is one of Europe’s oldest cities after all and, since 1996, has been a registered World Heritage Site). Next time, next time…
It was a four-day adventure filled with surprises that can only come when you sit back and let your days tell you a story, not the other way around.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I do usually love to plan. Equally I adore research and it’s at this point the little control freak hiding within has been known to take centre stage. But these are usually solo trips, and when there are other parties involved I’m uncomfortable doing things I think the others would be gritting their teeth through. It’s like clothes shopping with a man, they know better than to say anything other than ‘you look amazing’, but scantily clad and vulnerable in the change room you know that’s code for ‘what time is lunch’. Likewise when making suggestions to friends, I’m always careful not to drag them through yet another historic site if they’d rather live a little more in the present.
I’m also not advocating travellers be completely spontaneous and unprepared. The fine print reminds us that there is some research you can’t avoid (VISAs, transport, currency, language etc), but sometimes it’s nice just to ‘be’ in a new place you haven’t already exhausted in your mind. S’all I’m saying.
If you have an opportunity to sit in the passenger seat of your next holiday, sit back and enjoy the ride. The unexpected is the only thing to expect.