“Portugal – and the Douro Valley, in particular – has always held a great fascination for the British. There are ties going back to the Anglo-Portuguese alliance, of course (reputedly the oldest in the world), and the prized shipments of Port wine created another bond, more through happenstance and accident rather than by design. Firstly, wars with France and the loss of England’s French possessions meant that us Brits had to start looking beyond the Claret-producing region of south-west France for our wine; and secondly, it was only the merchants’ habit of lacing wines from the Douro Valley with brandy to stop it from spoiling over the long voyage that resulted in the sweet, fortified drink we are so familiar with today.
But if the Douro – the ‘river of gold’ – is not altogether unfamiliar to the British, then, as far as the Symingtons are concerned, it practically runs in our blood. My family have been Port producers for five generations, but their involvement dates back as far as 1652!
I have been coming to this area ever since I was a child, so it’s perhaps not surprising that it has always held a magical appeal, full of fond memories and strong associations. The region was very different back then, though, of course. In fact, it’s only relatively recently that it has become a ‘visited’ area at all.
My recollections of childhood are of a decidedly rugged environment that was largely inaccessible due to the mountainous terrain and which felt virtually cut off from the outside world. The facilities – if that’s the right word – were practically non-existent: we’d get our milk straight from the cows (no pasteurisation in those days), and the local people who worked the land lived a very simple existence.
The river itself (undammed until the 1970s) was an additional challenge: far from being the lazily flowing beauty it is today, it poured savagely through the mountains, forming a series of perilous rapids on which the flat-bottomed, square-sailed barcos rabelos boats were sometimes lost.
It also put at risk their precious cargo, of course, and it was not unknown for a barrel or two to go missing at various points along the journey – and not always by accident! Flooding wasn’t uncommon either, and I remember my Uncle Michael turning his outbuildings into shelters for the locals on more than one occasion. Die-hard traditions held sway in the Douro back then, and many still do. And they extend far beyond the correct way to pass the Port around the dining table! So when, as an Inntravel customer, I offered to help to put together a walking holiday in this area, there were quite a few things to contend with. In fact, it was creating the walking routes themselves that provided perhaps the greatest challenge: so much land is privately owned, from the top of the vineyards right down to the banks of the river itself, and not only are there very few signposts but it’s also pretty hard to establish where the public rights of way (for they undoubtedly exist) actually go!
So it was partly with the help of a local farmer called Nelo, and the maps he had used to help him criss-cross the hills on his moto-cross bike, that I was able to gradually piece things together. Another great help was my cousin Cristina van Zeller at Vilarinho de São Romão: as well as being a keen walker and helping to test out the routes, she provides wonderful hospitality at one of several unique guesthouses along the route, and the accommodation (including Casa de Vilarinho) in general is an aspect of the holiday that helps to make it truly exceptional.
So, 10 years down the line, I’m delighted to report that The Valley of Gold remains one of Inntravel’s most popular walking holidays, and the feedback from customers is fantastic. It’s hugely rewarding to know that many others have come to appreciate this magical region on foot, and that they have enthusiastically succumbed to the charms of the Douro. I suppose that must have happened to me many decades ago, during a childhood when there were very few creature comforts in this part of the world. But the place still casts its spell on me – even to this day. Place me on a sunny terrace overlooking the vineyards and the curls in the river, and put a lightly chilled glass of Graham’s 10 Year Old Tawny in my hand, and I couldn’t be happier.”