Douro Valley & Porto (I): A Day Exploring Quintas

A day at Douro Valley, visiting quintas and tasting port wine.

The Douro Valley is the birth place of port wine, a rich and complex ‘sweet juice’ that goes great after dinner on its own or with dessert. Who doesn’t love port wine? Visiting the valley and tasting port have been on our list for years, we finally made it in February.

Quinta do Seixo, Sandeman

Our plan was one day at the Douro Valley and two days in Porto. Three days were not long barely enough for us to visit the places we had wanted to go. We decided to stay at the heart of the Douro, a little town called Pinhão, which was about two-hour drive from Porto.

To maximize our experience, we splurged on the fancy classic hotel at Pinhão, the Vintage House Hotel. Our balcony was open to the Douro river.

From the hill top of Pinhão, Douro Valley looking down on our hotel the Vintage House Hotel

A river cruise was just a step away from the hotel. In February, there is only short cruise–one hour navigating around Pinhão, the most scenic part of the Douro River. The long version lasts for seven hours, operates daily from March to November between Porto and Pinhão. In my opinion, this short ride gave a taste of the cruise, enough for us because it all looked the same after a while.

It was orange season, all kinds of citrus fruits were there await, begging to be tasted and free for hotel guests. The orange and grapefruit were ones of the sweetest and freshest I’d tasted. My favorite among the five kinds of citrus there was kumquat. We are having a tough time to adjust our taste buds to supermarket fruits now.

Do you know the Douro river is 550 mile long, starting from Spain? It is called Duero in Spain. We happen to love red wine from the Douro, both of Spain and Portugal. The longer part of the river, about 350 miles, is in Portugal. The river runs west, pours to the Atlantic ocean at Porto. The grapes are harvested in the fall, the wine spends the first winter in the valley, then the barrels are floated downstream to Porto in the spring to be aged in the cellars because the valley is too hot for storage in the summer months.

350 miles of the Douro River is within the border of Portugal

The deep in the Douro setting gave us advantage to visit quintas out of the way from the main road. A quinta is a farm that produces port and table wine. Our best tasting experience in the valley was at the Quinta do Panascal.

The Picturesque Quinta da Panascal

Different from the other quintas we visited, the tour at the Quinta da Panascal was self guided. We were given a recorded audio guide, then wondered off freely to explore the winery. This Quinta produces Fonseca wine, which is owned by Taylor.

We chatted with the manager, and he pointed to the olive trees scattering all over the winery. Actually the olive oil industry goes much longer the wine industry in Douro. I did pick up hint of olive on the wine tasting that followed. The power of suggestion? 🙂

Wine tasting was followed after the tour. There are basically three types of port wines: the ruby port, the downy port and the vintage port. There are six grape varieties making up the majority of the port, they are Tinta Amarela, Tinto Cão, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz (also called Tempranillo in Spain), Touriga Francesa (the most widely planted) and Touriga Nacional (the most famous Portugal grape). Check out this article for further reading.

  • Fonseca Siroco White Port N.V. 3***
  • Fonseca Bin 27 Finest Reserve Port NV 4****
  • Fonseca 10 year Old Tawny Port 4.5****

Ten euros for the tour and wine tasting. The above three wines were included in the tasting. Actually most of the quintas offer a similar program, an hour long tour following by a tasting of 3-4 wines for 10 euros.

Of all the port wine, I can’t say which is better since they were all tasty to me. If I have to list my preference, then first is tawny port, the ruby, finally white port. Can’t say much about the expensive vintage port since we didn’t taste much. However we did taste a 1977-vintage port at Porto which I’ll write about at the next blog!

The best Quinta for photograph got to be the fabulous Sandeman’s Quinta do Seixo. Unfortunately we were there during their lunch break, the tasting room was closed for two hours. However, we made it up tasting Sandeman at Porto later.

The ride from Douro Valley to Porto was really beautiful especially the segment from Pinhão to Peso da Régua. In the 70s a series of dams were built along the Douro to tame the water. Because of the dams, the water was so calm, the mirror-like reflection was enchanting.

Three shots of city of Peso da Régua:

After thoughts:

It was preferable to rent a car to the Douro Valley, if possible. Otherwise a convenient train can take you to the valley from Porto. With a car we were not limited to the quintas of walking distance around the station, we could explore deep into the valley.

A Quinta near Pinhão
A small memorial at the top hill of Pinhão

Most of the quintas at the valley were informal, economic and down to the earth, in comparison with our tasting experiences at the Napa Valley which were much pricier and more upscale in most wineries. It was perfect okay to just pull into any quinta. However coming in the light season, we missed a couple of tasting because of lunch break and close. So make sure to call ahead to get their tasting hours if you have one on the must-have list.

It turned out good for us to visit the valley first, then to Porto. Because we could make up the tasting we missed at the valley. Actually you can find tasting of almost every port wine at Porto where port wine ages up to decades at the cellars here after transported out of the valley.

Thank you for reading this far, please check out our visit to Porto, too!

Be Positive During Quarantine

Places I don’t mind to be at during this lock down: the first one on the list is Obidos, Portugal

Since we are staying at home in this special time, I’ve found myself have more time praying and reading. I have also more day dreaming, looking through travel photos to remember the places where I don’t mind to be isolated for a while. The first one comes to mind is Obidos, Portugal.

A small town an hour north of Lisbon, Obidos is a jewel sitting on atop a hill, enclosed by 45-ft tall walls which were constructed in 14th century. The terracotta roofing and yellow and blue accented white-paint houses are the signature charm of the town. It was a wedding gift from King Dinis to his bride Isabel in 1282. What a gift! He scored high on the romantic side!

Obidos is pretty yet very touristy, ideally to visit in the morning or evening to avoid crowds. We did in the morning with the town almost all to ourselves.

It is impossible to get lost in Obidos, from the city gate to the castle (Pousada), the main road is pretty straightforward, lots of shops and restaurants along the way. The churches of St. Mary (left) and St. Peter (right) are right in the middle of the attraction.

We saw stairs access to the walls at the beginning of main road near the city gate as well as at the end of the road by the castle. The walls and the views were also the main attractions of the town in my opinion. Lots of photo opportunities if you like taking pictures, both looking inside and outside, along the walls. Since I am afraid of height, it took me a while to walk up to and around the 45-ft tall walls, but the views were totally worth the scare.

It was orange season in the middle of February. There were different kinds of citrus all over the town, we saw trees of lemon, orange and mandarin. When gentle breeze mixed citrus scent filled the air, we felt like carrying a bouquet walking in citrus forest. This sensation reminded me a similar experience in another European city, Seville in southern Spain. We were there in the early spring, in March 2013, another orange season. Seville is also famed for orange trees and fruits, and everything else orange, such as orange marmalade and orange perfume. Lucky for me, I LOVE oranges!!

If you like shopping, there are shops and stores dotted along the street, happy to assist tourists. We took home three unique gifts of Portugal: cork tray, blue tiles and cans of cod fish (Bacalhau). We got the cork tray from Lisbon, the blue tiles from Coimbra. One of the well-known can fish company is Comur Conserveira de Portugal.

We decided to pick a different route back to the gate from the castle. A smaller path away from the main street, closer to the walls. It turned out to be an even better choice. It was quieter, with lesser crowd. Each corner we turned , we were welcomed with tranquility and beauty.

I hope you agree with me that Obidos is a better choice for lock down. At least you don’t mind to be alone here for a few hours.

Switzerland (V): Transportation Hub Zurich

Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland, the last stop of our Swiss travel. At the first glance, Zurich seemed less personal than Bern, yet a beautiful city nevertheless.

You can’t miss this fun, gigantic flying “Guardian Angel” at Zurich train station. It was installed in 1997 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Swiss rail system.

Busy Zurich Train Station

Crowded and busy, Zurich didn’t feel as intimate as Bern. But as soon as we left the station and went on small cobble streets, Zurich was quite attractive.

Zurich is bike friendly.

The restaurants and cafes fill the alleyways.

Our hotel was by the Limmat River, in the early morning Zurich was quite lovely before the hustle and bustle filled the scene.

We visited the Grossmunster, the big cathedral of Neo-Gothic style. Her double domes have become the symbols of Zurich.

Rathausbrucke Bridge is a favorite spot for Instagram photos 🙂

You can read about the Swiss Reformation and the key role Ulrich Zwingli played in that era, and check out the 1531 Zurich Bible there.

Another church, Fraumunster, is on the other side of Limmat River. People come to see Chagall’s (1887-1985) stained-glass windows.

One thing we noticed in Switzerland: Swiss people really LOVE their flag, not only inside the cities, but at the Alps and in the mountain towns. We fly ours on July 4th, but here it seems everyday a National Day.

Another amazing thing in Switzerland is the spring water: the water from public fountains is not only drinkable but DELICIOUS. We didn’t need to spend a CHF on water in Switzerland.

Water fountain in Gimmerwald at the Swiss alps

This water fountain in Zurich had a smaller water outlet at the right corner, for water bottle! How thoughtful!

While at Switzerland we made sure to have their delicious cheese fondue. Here is a recipe I tried after came back. It tastes pretty authentic, just like the one we had in Interlaken. Enjoy!

If you are a shopper like me, you can easily stay for hours inside the Zurich train station. Anything you can think of, want or need, you can find it in the multi-floor station.

Make sure to pick some Swiss chocolate home! Our favorite is Laderach, yummy!

Last breakfast at the hotel before heading out to the airport to fly back home.

Another tip: if you travel light like us, with just a carry-on, you really don’t need to take a taxi to the airport. It is about 10 minute train ride from Zurich downtown to the airport, for a few CHFs the train will drop you at the lower level of the airport, all you need to do is to get to the top floor to check in your flight! We were totally amazed by the efficiency of the Swiss train system! And they are always on time!!

This concludes our Switzerland trip! Thank you so much for stopping by and reading my travel blog! Stay tuned for Germany, Austria and Hungary.

Switzerland (IV): Swiss Capital Bern

It is true that people come to Switzerland for her great outdoors, to places like Lake Lucerne (Luzern) and the Berner Oberland, the beauty of Swiss Alps is out of this world! With that said, if you have extra time, Swiss cities also have a lot to offer. We visited a few cities in Switzerland, such as Luzern, Zurich and Interlaken, all of us agree that Bern is the dearest.

An hour ride from Interlaken, the train dropped us right in the old town of Bern. And the charm of the city was felt immediately the moment we stepped out of the train station.

Colorful 16th-century fountains are scattered around the city, 11 in total, prominently placed at the center of the road. They are the trademark of the city, adding vibrant colors and fun to otherwise monotone buildings.

The Parliament is a definite must visit. See the statues in the above shot: the women on the left, under 1291, stands for Freedom; the woman on the right, under 1848, represents Peace.

Both years of 1291 and 1848 are significant in the Swiss history. And city of Bern has been the Swiss capital since 1848.

The View over the Aare River from the Terraces behind the Parliament

Pass the passageway at the right of the Parliament building to the Terraces in the back, we were welcomed with great views!

The beautiful blue color of the Aare River is from the melting glacier water of the nearby mountains Eiger, Momch and Junfrau. We were told that in a clear day you could see the alps in the distance on the Terraces.

View of the Parliament Building from Kirchenfeld Bridge, across the Aare River.

We followed the Rick Steves’ travel guide “Heart of Bern Walk”. We basically stay on this long road after making a left turn across Bahnhofplatz out of train station. What confused us was the name of the road–this street changed names four times! From Spitalgasse to Marktgasse, to Kramgasse, finally to Nydegg near the Bear Park where the Walk ended.

We only turned right, toward the Aare River, off the main road three times to see the Parliament, the Cathedral and the Einstein Museum.

Bern Cathedral is a 15th century Catholic-turned-into-Protestant church, with a mighty 330-foot tower, the tallest in Switzerland.

See the Cathedral tower on the right shot.

Can you find the bear on this shot? Hint: He was trying to catch a fish 🙂

Bear is the symbol of the city. You can spot this local mascot in many places in Bern, it is even on the coat of arms of Bern.

We found a live one soundly sleeping in the wood by the Aare River in the Bear Park. He looked content and happy to me.

When you see a Casino in Bern, don’t automatically think of gambling. It is the home of Bern’s Symphony Orchestra! 🙂

The building on the right side of Kirchenfeld Bridge is Bern’s History Museum complex, which devotes an entire second floor to Albert Einstein.

One of the highlights of our visit was the History Museum, covered by the Swiss Travel Pass, on the other side of the Aare River. The museum’s second floor was all about Albert Einstein.

We spent a big part of the afternoon learning about Einstein, one of the smartest men walked on Earth. He lived in Bern from 1901 to 1909, it was his work during this period, the Relativity Theory, won him the Nobel Prize.

At the Bear Park, we hopped on the bus #12, and arrived at another museum, Paul Klee Center, 15 minutes later.

This cool wavy building complex was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. Another museum we visited by the same architect was Pompidou in Paris.

Paul Klee is a Swiss native, a world-renowned artist (1879-1940). The Center houses his artwork as well as his art collections.

To be honest, the buildings were more interesting than his art work.

If you have Swiss Travel Pass, the museum is free, otherwise 20 CHF!

Switzerland (III) Explore Swiss Alps: the Golden Pass, Interlaken and Lauterbrunnen Valley Walk

After Lucerne (or Luzern) , we took the Golden Pass train to Interlaken, which served as our base for exploring Swiss Alps in the Bernese Oberland area.

There are three segments of the Golden Pass, our journey only run the first one, from Lucerne to Interlaken Ost.

The train came with semi-panoramic windows, and the ride lasted two hours.

Make sure to sit on the right side of the train for better views.

We chose Interlaken instead of the car-free villages up the mountains, such as Murren, Wengen and Gimmelwald, for the reasons listed below:

The views outside of our hotel in Interlaken
  • There were more hotel choices
  • More choices for restaurants
  • More evening activities in the town
  • And easier access to the nearby city, Bern
Evening walk in Interlaken

If you have three days visiting Bernese Oberland, save your best day to Schilthorn or Jungfrau, give the cloudy day to Lauterbrunnen valley. This pleasant and easy walk along the valley floor is weather-proof.

There is a main road, also a paved lane (which we took) paralleling the river; also small bridges to let you cross.

In mid-May, the valley was covered with wild flowers, especially yellow dandelions. The cows were happily munching and mooing, obviously they liked the flowers too! 🙂

There are totally 72 waterfalls in the 3-mile long valley.

However, most of the waterfalls start strong, only run out of steam half way, turn into mist in the midair, never get a chance to reach the deep valley floor. Here are some that actually touch the ground.

The most powerful waterfalls in the valley is Trummelbach Falls, about half way of the walk. This was the only attraction in the entire Switzerland trip NOT covered by the Swiss Travel Pass (11 CHF).

We rode an elevator up through the mountains, then climbed up many stairs to see the upper falls. The mighty melt from Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau cut through the mountain, in a speed up to 5200 gallons a second!!

There are also cafe and small shops along the valley, you can have snacks and drinks, like cookies and beer, by the waterfalls.

And you can quit anywhere along the walk, just hop on the Postbus for a short ride back to Lauterbrunnen.

Switzerland (II) Exploring Swiss Alps: Snow-Capped Schilthorn and Heavenly Gimmelwald

If you only have three days in Switzerland, please choose the rugged Bernese Oberland as your destination. If you only has one day in the Bernese Oberland, make it to the Schilthorn.

However, you need a VERY clear day to fully enjoy the region, to appreciate the magnificent mountain views.

There are a couple of ways to reach Schilthorn, below were was our route:

  • Train from Interlaken (our home base) to Lauterbrunnen
  • Change to cable car up to Grutschalp
  • Switch to train to Murren
  • Take cable car again to Schilthorn
  • From Schilthorn, take cable car down to Birg for the Thrill Walk
  • Then cable car further down to Gimmelwald, the best village in Switzerland!
  • Cable car down to Stechelberg
  • Bus back to Lauterbrunnen
Train ride to Lauterbrunnen

We were blessed with a sunny day with clear and blue sky. The train ride from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen set a tone for the day.

This is the view from the cable car — on the way up to Grutschalp from Lauterbrunnen. From Grutschalp, we then took a train to Murren. The train ride was synchronized with the arrival of the cable car. As a matter of fact, almost all rides of this round trip were synchronized.

Murren, a car-free village, faces the valley.

To reach the cable car station to Schilthorn, we walked across the town, it was about 10 minute walk. However we just lingered and wondered around and totally forgot about time.

Would this happen to you, no need to panic. The cable cars up to Schilthorn operate twice per hour, simply wait for the next lift.

There are also great hiking trails starting from Murren. Looking down Lauterbrunnen valley from Murren, it was mesmerizing!

The last leg of cable-car ride to Schilthorn!

We made it!! All the way to top, 2970-meter high!

The Skyline View Platform offered the panoramic views of Swiss apls, there were information boards to help identify the surrounding peaks.

The most striking three peaks were side by side–Elger, Monch and Jungfrau. You could catch all three in one shot, like the one on the right.

If you are hungry, there is a 360 revolving restaurant, Piz Gloria, up at the summit. The 1969 James Bond movie “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was filmed there, so EVERY dish (and buffet) was Bond themed. The 007 logo was even stamped on our burger bun!

Thrill Walk at Birg

After lunch, we took a cable car descend to Birg for the famous Thrill Walk.

The 600-foot-long Thrill Walk was not for everyone. It began with metal cat-walk by the cliff side, then a tightrope bridge. If those were not scary enough, you could try to walk on the glass flooring or to crawl through a chain tube staring at the valley far below!

Look at the drifting clouds. By the time we finished the Thrill Walk, the clouds completely fogged up the surrounding mountains. We couldn’t see the peaks even through we knew they were right in front of us.

Gimmerwald is a village with about 120 residents. We got off on our way descending and spent the rest of the afternoon to explore this little heaven on Earth.

Although Gimmelwald was tiny, its beauty was shining through every winding path and at every direction/corner of the town.

The magic of Gimmelwald could let you put aside all the nuisances of life, switch your attention to the loveliness of the day. Yes, life is beautiful.

So don’t waste your time on the trivial things, enjoy life!

Switzerland (I): Lucerne (Luzern), Lake Lucerne and Mount Rigi

I had been dreaming about visiting Swiss alps for years, finally we set foot on the Swiss soil this past month. It was even prettier than I had imagined!

Lake Lucrerne from the Rigi Kulm Summit!

Our day in Lucerne (or Luzern) was divided into three parts: the city walk, Lake Lucerne boat ride and Rigi Mountain.

Lucerne is Switzerland’s tourism capital, it is very pretty and walkable. We had covered lot of ground in the city in two hours, starting our walk from Lucerne Bahnhofplatz, the central train station.

The followings were our favorite attractions in the city:

  • Bahnhofplatz
  • Chapel Bridge
  • Jesuit Church
  • Lucerne’s Lakefront around St. Peter’s Chapel
  • Lion Monument
  • Bourbaki Panorama

The boat dock for Lake Lucerne was conveniently located by the train station. Our destination was Weggis (#3 on the map), from there we would take a cable car up Rigi mountain (#4). The boat cruised about an hour, perfect time for a lunch break.

It turned out that the cable car to Rigi summit didn’t run for the day because of scheduled maintenance.

So we hopped back to the boat to the next stop, Vitznau.

From Vitznau a cogwheel train, the oldest one in Europe (since 1870), chak chak us up to the summit, Rigi Klum.

The view of ascending was magnificent!! Make sure to sit on the left of the train for the best views!

We had a panoramic birdeye view of Lake Lucerne as shown in the beginning of this post. You had to have camera ready as it passed by very quickly.

Although Mt. Rigi was only 5900 feet in altitude, it was still covered in snow in mid-May. And the temperature dropped from comfortable 55 F to near zero. To make it worse, the Sun was gone too!!

To our surprise, there at the summit of Rigi stood a giant basalt rock labeled “Mt. Emei”, a famous mountain in Southern China. How miss leading! 🙂 As it turns out that Mt. Rigi and Mt. Emei are sister mountains. This stone was shipped from China in 2015, weights 8 tons! And a similar stone from Rigi was shipped to Mt Emei a year earlier.

To save time, we didn’t take the return cruise, instead we rode another cogwheel train down to Arth-Goldau (left of Rigi Kulm on the map), then took a regular train back to Lucerne.

Tips: All the transportation and museums mentioned above and in the future posts of this trip were covered by Swiss Travel Pass. A great deal!