Friday, May 24, 2013

Douro River Valley Tour 1: Amarante village, Vinho Verde (green wine) and some Travel Agency rant

Although the weather in the Douro River Valley (a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage in Portugal) had been unfavourable when I was there in March (2 months ago)—the cruise ships were forced to dock for days and many shops on the river boulevard, and even the boulevard itself were submerged under water, I was quite lucky enough to be able to book a Douro River Valley tour, but by land though, which is what I really wanted anyway.

This is the town of Amarante, our first stop for this Douro River Valley Tour. Do take note that Amarante is not a part of the Douro area, it is a municipality under the Greater Porto District located just before entering the Douro.

I need a travel agency who wants my business

The travel agent (will not name names) in Porto where I booked the tour initially told me resignedly, that there are NO tours to the Douro because of the floods, but moi being a persistent (I am in sales okay) and methodical (I have autistic abilities sometimes) individual  insisted that she calls the tour company to confirm, and I also pressed her to call the other tour companies offering the same service as well. I was her first client that morning and perhaps she hadn’t had coffee yet because it took some pesky nudging to get her butt off her seat. Woman helloooo, this is a sure sale!

My goal that morning: Book the Douro River Valley Tour for Sunday (full day tour). If this woman cannot sell me a tour now, I am going somewhere else. Pronto. I mean, I am the only customer in her office. Does she not want my business?

‘Good news!’ she said as she hanged up the phone, ‘One company is doing a Douro Tour tomorrow Sunday, but by land.’

Voices in my head was tormenting me to tell her off, ‘I told you woman! You just have to pick up the darn phone!’

If I was staying longer in the northern part of Portugal, I would have done this tour myself, but unfortunately that is not the case, so booking a group tour for me was the best option. It is a much more expensive option as well going at 95 Euros p.p. but I really wanted to see the Douro River Valley.

Sunday comes the tour… with Living Tours

So just before 9AM Sunday, a little mini bus from Living Tours picked me up in front of my hotel. The tour guide introduced herself as Maria and she speaks excellent English you’d wonder if she did the student exchange program in England but she told us she learned English by watching Sesame Street on TV. Brilliant.

Inside the car is a Japanese couple with a little girl and a baby. They live in Frankfurt, Germany and are corporate expats. Then we drove to the next hotel to pick up the rest of the participants, a whole family. I thought they were Belgians at first but did noticed that their accent is not quite Belgian except for one guy. I later learned that they were a Dutch family who migrated to Brussels 40+ years ago and the guy who spoke with very thick Flemish accent was a native of Gent.

So Maria told us that we are now complete and we will now begin the tour.

This is our group. Maria our lovely tour guide and driver explaining the history of Amarante. The Japanese expats with their children living in Frankfurt. The Dutch family living in Brussels (see the Dutch guy giving me the eye why I am stealing a shot--ooh, I am scared, lol) and the Belgian guy who seem to (always) go astray...

Our first stop: Amarante Village

Amarante is located in the Grande Porto District just before entering the Douro District. It is known for its green wine cultivation, the Vinho Verde which is a very young type of wine.

Maria also said that Amarante is the last home of the Catholic saint, ‘Blessed Goncalo de Amarante’. The main buildings of interest here are the Sao Gonzalo Church and Monastery and the Sao Gonzalo Bridge built in 1790. Basically, everything is about Sao Gonzalo here.

There was also a fight against the French on this bridge that lasted for many days.

The Sao Gonzalo Bridge built in 1790. Of all my days in my long weekend trip in Porto, this was the day that was gloomy and rainy.

The estate mansion above in ochre yellow is the Relais & Chateaux hotel Casa de Calcada with a 1-star Michelin restaurant, Largo de Paco.

Flowing across town and below the Sao Goncalo Bridge is the Tamega River. On a warm sunny day, the river banks would be a nice place to stroll on, and for those seeking a much more luxurious getaway, there is a 5-star Relais & Chateaux hotel (Casa de Calcada) with a Michelin star restaurant (Largo de Paco) just across the bridge. Ahhhh, I would have loved to lunch at this restaurant. Maybe another time.

A local practice in town that I read is that, during festivities, in the name of the Blessed Goncalo de Amarante, phallic pastries were sold to promote procreation. Quite interesting huh? But here’s more... if someone is searching for love and/or a partner and touches his tomb (located inside the church), the person’s wish will be granted in a year’s time.

So anyone looking for their soul mate? Come here!!! (alright, another one of those... )

Sao Goncalo Church and Monastery

So we checked out the church and monastery of Blessed Gonzalo de Amarante (Gonzalo is also spelled Goncalo in Portuguese). The church and monastery are annexed together (monastery on the left with white tower on the picture below).

The golden interior and altar of the church, a usual sighting at most Catholic churches.

This must be the oldest statue of the blessed saint, Maria says, located inside the room where the priest prepares for the mass. The rest of the pictures are the courtyard and vaulted corridors of the monastery including a confessional corner that is attached to the church.

The beautiful ceiling inside the room of the priest.

And we also checked out the monastery annexed to it. Incidentally, the room where the priests changes their clothes and prepare their stuff before offering a mass was open. Sneaky tourists like us went inside to quickly inspect it (we did not touch anything ok). When we saw the ceiling in wood painted in elegant colours, we went from AHH to WOW. The ceiling reminds me of the Kasbah Taorirt in Ouarzazate, Morocco that I visited in the spring of 2009. They have the same painting style and geometrical construction pattern.

Along the corridors of the monastery, Maria pointed to a little recessed hole in the wall. She said it is the confessional corner. Very interesting to note that the confessionals in the past in this church is located outside of the church, but still inside the premises but along the corridor.

Vinho Verde at 10AM

Now I remember Maria telling us that the Vinho Verde (green wine/young wine) is produced in the Amarante area and if we wanted to try this wine, then we better try this during our stop. It’s just before 10AM (it was 10:30 when I had the sip) but gastronomic curious moi is not going to let this chance slip away. I am going to try this green wine!

Vinho Verde is not a grape vareital but is a young wine that is supposedly consumed within a year from bottling. It is a Portuguese type of wine produced in the northern part of the country only. See more information here: Vinho Verde (Green Wine)

This too full a glass of vinho verde that I bought from the cafe across the church cost me just 1 Euro. Can you imagine? Yes, I finished this for my morning drink break =)

I should not forget to take a souvenir picture.

My take on Vinho Verde? It is a light fizzy wine. Quite refreshing in fact. They say this is best paired with any Bacalhau recipe and I can understand why because Bacalhau is salty and this would offset the taste and give a refreshing sparkly feel in the mouth.

Hmm, this is beginning to remind me of the Vinales Valley Tour I did last year (2012) with Blondine in Cuba where we had cocktails at every stop starting at 10AM. I don’t say no to spirits you know, but nothing to worry, I drink moderately and responsibly, and moreover, I am not driving the mini bus!

Men and their umbrellas

As with any tour group participant, one must be careful of his/her time. A quick check of the clock revealed I still have 15 more minutes to bum around the little village before going back to the mini bus. I did not have to wander around that far really because my attention got caught up with the men walking around on the square with their umbrellas.

In Amarante, there is a thriving community of retired men who seem to know each other and gather around at the square of the village, and somehow they all seem to sport their umbrellas fashionably. Talk about a cool yet functional fashion accessory. Don’t they all just look so cute?

Now on to our next stop.

Travel Period: March 2013
Destination: Amarante (Grande Porto), Portugal

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