Every year I make up several calendars on different themes to share with friends and family. Photographic quality is often secondary to the desire to tell stories of my adventures or recall happy moments. This year, in addition to the above, I collected my best landscape photos from Patagonia, Portugal and western Canada and found that I had enough for a 13 month calendar. Photography is certainly not the main focus of my travels, but I thought that the following images were good enough to share.
The “float” part of our “Float and Bloat” tour, whether on water or wine, has been front and centre. Although we have eaten well, only the roast lamb dinner was truly memorable. Today we learn that you can’t always stop eating even when you really want to.
After passing the dam we paddle to Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos, the flagship manor for the Graham’s brand, one of eight port brands owned by the Symington Family, which controls about a third of the country’s port production. Symington is obviously not a Portuguese name; it is, in fact Scottish and the family has been involved in port since the 17th century. A gracious hostess leads us on a brief tour before lunch. No, that’s the wrong word; we sit down to a feast. I won’t detail the whole menu because I can’t remember it. The main course is salt cod in cream, with the texture of soft, thick macaroni and cheese, flavour that a pantheon of gods would praise, and enough calories to see us through the rest of the week. It’s a serve-yourself dish, and most of us return for generous second or third helpings. Feeling sated we don’t really look forward to dessert, but it comes anyway: the most delectable chocolate mousse I have ever eaten. Surely that’s all! Now they put five different cheeses in front of us. I refuse; I’ve already eaten far too much. Then I see the looks of bliss on the faces of those who have risked a small taste. I try one cheese. Then another. Then a third. Utterly delicious! I’ve never had an experience like this; I love fine dining, appreciate exquisite cuisine and sometimes overdo it, but I have always been able to push away from the table before my body screams “Help!” Not today.
Needless to say, we couldn’t have paddled any farther that afternoon; I’m surprised we were able to stuff ourselves into the vans for the drive up the hill to Casa de Casal de Loivos, where we spend the next two nights. This magnificent white mansion boasts one of the world’s best vistas.
We are met by an impeccably clad host who would not have been out of place on Upstairs, Downstairs. Too stupified with food to pay much attention, we retire to our rooms, vaguely aware that pre-dinner cocktails will start in a couple of hours. We must seem like the most ungrateful of guests; we manage to drink the port, of course, but can only stare numbly at the lavish dinner that is served.
The following afternoon, after a final paddle on the river, we are able to appreciate the house and our accommodations. Each of our rooms opens onto a terrace overlooking the valley.
The ground floor now serves as a hotel, while the owners’ quarters are upstairs.
Opulence and elegance, understated but fundamental, reflect 350 years of history.
The old kitchen is incorporated into the decor of the modern one.
The family quarters are relatively modest and steeped in history. Many of the old books on the library shelves are in Latin.
Good weather allows dinner to be served outside on the terrace. Torches are lit, reminding me irrationally of that awful TV show, Survivor.
After a final deluxe breakfast we board the vans and head for Oporto, our trip through the Douro valley but a memory now. There will be a farewell dinner in the city, sad goodbyes, promises to keep in touch and exchange photos, but we will not all be together again nor share the same sun, wine and water.
Finally, the guides from Explorers’ Corner (now Natural Habitat Expeditions) who made this trip so incredibly memorable. Thank you.
We have by now abused our livers with more port than any responsible MD would recommend, but we have yet to see how it is made. All that changes today at the Dow vineyard. After a brief paddle and hearty lunch we proceed to the winery.
Romantic visions of bare-footed workers stomping on grapes are quickly banished; although the traditional granite stomping tanks still exist, some wineries, including Dow, have adopted more modern methods, not least because too few workers want to spend exhausting hours shin deep in grapes after a full day of picking same under a hot sun. Human stomping has been replaced by an automatic masher that moves back and forth over the grapes.
The mashing extracts juice and sugar from the grapes and begins fermentation. After mashing, the skins and seeds are allowed to go to the surface. Fermentation is remarkably short; I think they told us a matter of hours, not days. Once the wine master has determined that the moment is right, the wine is drained and a special brandy added to stop fermentation.
The fortified wine is transferred to huge containers.
After about six months the wine is sent down river for finishing. For centuries the wine had to be transported by boat, so only small casks could be used. Today’s roads and trucks can handle more size and weight.
Of course we couldn’t leave without tasting some port. Unfortunately the sun was so hot that about all we could taste was the alcohol; the remaining bottles that were supposed to be served remained corked.
We did, however, enjoy another beautiful view of the river.
With no quinta available we spend the night in a comfortable, if unspectacular, hotel by the river. Next day we learn why a river as large as the Douro is so calm: it’s dammed! And today we have to pass through a dam. Guide Nancy has made an appointment for noon at the lock, meaning that we must be there on time. Slowpokes that we are, Barbara and I have to cheat a bit; Vitor and Pedro, our Portuguese guides, have rented a motor boat to take us and our kayak to a point near the dam, where we will rejoin the group.
It’s a boat that has seen better days, but our ride allows us to enjoy the scenery without the pressure of paddling to keep up.
Once at the dam, we wait as a large passenger boat comes through the lock, then we paddle in and raft up (forming a raft of kayaks side by side, each holding on to the other). Even though the drop is about 90 feet, it causes surprisingly little turbulence, only occasionally requiring the outer kayaks to push us away from the sides. As the gate comes up we face a deluge from above, paddling through a curtain of water that pours down our necks, under our PFDs and into our pants. Oh well, it’s a hot day.
With quite a distance still to paddle before lunch, we hurry on. Only one quinta remains in our itinerary, and all too soon our adventure will end.
Most of my travels concentrate on wilderness or the natural world, where, in a very brief time, I am immersed in my environment, touching its reality. How different the experience as a tourist in a foreign culture. A ten-day tour of Portugal provides little opportunity to interact with the Portuguese, especially since, with the exception of the owners of the quintas, almost everyone we meet is employed to serve us.
Each day we have to drive to our put-in point, since the quintas are always located on high ground.
It’s a blistering hot day and we are happy to stop at a sandy beach for lunch in the shade of a eucalyptus tree and a swim in the cool water.
The peaceful water allows us to hug the banks looking for fruit to pick.
The occasional large boat produces a gentle wake that sends us bobbing up and down. Who’s having more fun: the few passengers on the boat or our hardy band of paddlers?
Our plan this day was to visit a newly opened museum of regional pictographic art but we arrived too late. Still, the drive to this ultra-modern building high above the river was rewarded with a spectacular view.
Portugal has had devastating wildfires this summer, and the museum site gave a clear view of one of them.
Our quinta for the night is an organic farm and vineyard. The owner, family and staff are incredibly welcoming, treating us to the usual pre-dinner port and the best roasted lamb I have ever eaten. For once, our talkative group is silenced as we gnaw bones and lick fingers, table manners which we are assured are more than pleasing to the cook.
Early next morning the owner takes us on a tour of his property, accompanied by a trained bird dog and a bouncing puppy that already knows instinctively how to point. We see cork trees and sheep, almond and olive trees, cabins for hunters who come for the quail and wild boar, and more wildfire.
The lower part of the cork, which is apparently the bark, has been harvested. In seven years the cork will have regrown enough to be harvested again.
The owner’s love for his land and animals translates into joy as he explains how he irrigates, tends and harvests.
All too soon it’s time to return to our kayaks. I wish we could stay another night here to see more of the quinta, enjoy the cuisine and visit the museum, but a busy day awaits.
Hiking and backpacking remain my favourite activities, but unhappy knees and feet keep urging me to find alternate forms of adventure. Horse treks (one broken arm), dog sledding (one concussion, one badly bruised back), rafting Arctic rivers (no injuries) and a camel ride (never again!) have now been joined by kayaking. Never stop trying!
From Oporto we travel up river by train, then drive to our first quinta, where we stay two nights and are introduced to our kayaks. What a mixed bunch we are: three couples with kayaking experience and two Canadian women of a certain age (one sporting a newly healed broken arm), both eager but lacking basic skills. “Not to worry,” says Nancy, our head guide, “This isn’t a race.”
The Douro is about as tame as a large river can be. Cutting through a deep valley, it ranges from glassy smooth to mildly choppy, the main excitement being the wake of an occasional large boat passing by. From the shores rise granite hills covered by a thin layer of soil in which grapes and trees of citrus, almonds, olives and countless other fruits take root and thrive. The river offers a window into the lives of people who have lived in harmony with the land for centuries.
How quiet and peaceful it is! No sound of motors or traffic, no other people, just scenery. Our first day is in a national park, where the steep slopes are covered with brush.
Gradually we enter the realm of vineyards, where no patch of arable ground is wasted. Planted on slopes so steep that they are often terraced, served by dirt paths too narrow for machines, the vines require the skills and robust energy of a people long used to hard labour.
Our quinta is a masterful combination of ancient and modern. Originally a two-storey structure of stone, with animals below, people above, the house has been restored without disturbing what remained of the earlier building. Slanted floors, walls that are not squared, doorways of unequal height – all add to the charm.
Our accommodations were not without modern comforts, however.
We start each day wondering what new vistas and experiences it will offer, wanting to delve deeper into this beautiful land and its culture.