I‘d like to say we pulled into the little town of Pinhão on an old steam train, stepping out onto the 1930s station platform as the horn whistled and the mist rose. But really, our rental car was parked up outside in the station’s parking lot. Minor detail. Anyway, we’d arrived in the heart of the Douro Valley, Portugal’s wino country, ready to taste the good life.
If you’ve ever romanticised about the golden age of train travel, Pinhão is your stop. You can actually arrive by train here from Porto on the Linha do Douro, an old line going since 1887, which travels along the river, clinging to the precipitous rocks as the track passes through the Douro gorge. It’s said to be Portugal’s best train ride and Pinhão is no doubt the country’s most beautiful station.
I didn’t have a train to catch, but I did have some drinking to do, and luckily for me, there was a wine house stuck to the station, operating out of the old ticket office and offering tasting and nibbles right on the platform.
Picnic tables line the azulejo tiles overlooking the train tracks and there’s a private room and a museum inside, providing a little background of wine-making in the region since the 19th century– not your typical setting for a wine tasting.
It’s a recent addition to the picturesque station as part of a rehabilitation project by one of the local wineries, Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo. They also have a beautiful hotel on their estate in the hills if you prefer to sleep among the vineyards during your stay in the Douro Valley. We stayed in town at Pinhão’s irresistible Vintage House Hotel (€140 for the night), but it was a tough call that had to be settled with a coin toss.
After a good whetting of the palate before lunch (it was five o’clock somewhere), the heavens opened and it began to rain. While waiting for the clouds to pass, we decided to try and take cover in a curious run-down building we’d been eyeing across the tracks.
The front door was locked so we went round the back to see if there wasn’t a door someone had forgot to lock.
Sure enough, a strong nudge of the last door on the landing and we were in.
We were in an old winery or a port-producing house, that much was certain. There were bottles piled in crates, some empty, some half full, and we were treading very carefully on top of the old holding tanks in the basement, which were still had their number plaques.
This seemed to be the worker’s cloak room and a place to freshen up after a long day’s work.
The rats had already got to the office before us, and as we looked through some of the old accounts and paperwork, most of them fell to shreds. But some gave a few clues…
We found measuring notes from as far back as 1939…
And according to this lad’s calendar, it looks like the building could have been abandoned since the late 1970s. It didn’t look like there had been many visitors since, as there was no graffiti or any sign of vandalism other than nature’s own wear.
I had a Google of the name at the top of the paper, and found this article entitled “Casa do Douro will die and leave a legacy debt of 167 million to the State“. Elsewhere, I read that this greco-deco building in Pinhão was created in the 1930s as an entity to defend the local wine producers and workers rights under the dictatorship.
Looks like we found the boss’ stash under his desk. Might explain the downfall of Casa do Douro!
There were plenty of bottles with gorgeous old typography, and tempted as we were to take home a souvenir for the bookshelf, like good urban explorers, we left them where we found them.
Having worked up an appetite, we left the old Casa do Douro behind and headed for lunch across the station at Segredos Do Douro a charming little restaurant that felt like we invited for a home-cooked meal at our honorary Portuguese grandmother’s house. And just as expected, Grandma’s portions were huge, making sure we were well-fed.
I’d love to have shown off all my pictures of rolling hills and endless staircases of vineyards leading down to the river, but the truth is, it didn’t stop raining most of the afternoon, so here’s a picture-perfect postcard I borrowed ↑ to show you what my pictures should have looked like!
We were headed to Lamego next, a town nestled among the terraced slopes of the Douro valley overlooked by an ornate shrine that parted the forest…
(We were told that it would help us work off our lunch).
Hundreds of zigzagging stairs later, dozens of tiled friezes frame by a tropical garden forest, and we made it to the top of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios…
Isn’t she splendid? I’d always wanted to climb one of these things, so I was pretty proud of myself and so were my thighs.
Our plans were originally to eat dinner in Lamego at a kitschy recommendation called Tras da Se. I would have loved to try it but when we arrived, there was a sign on the door saying “closed due to illness”. If you want to give it a go, I’d recommend calling before (+351254614075) to check it’s open. Luckily, I had another trick up my sleeve….
If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll already know that we ended up dining inside a wine barrel. Yes, a giant wine barrel in the neighbouring town of Vila Real. While the town itself didn’t blow us away and could probably be given a miss on a Douro Valley road trip, the Restaurante Terra De Montanha was well worth it for a late dinner. A friendly waitress, delicious inexpensive food– and we ate in a damn wine barrel.