The source of our pleasure

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 terrace at Casa de Casal de Loivos

The ground floor now serves as a hotel, while the owners’ quarters are upstairs.

View from the upstairs balcony.

Opulence and elegance, understated but fundamental, reflect 350 years of history.

The entryway.

Simple luxury

The old kitchen is incorporated into the decor of the modern one.

The old kitchen

The family quarters are relatively  modest and steeped in history.  Many of the old books on the library shelves are in Latin.

Books and our elegant host.

Good weather allows dinner to be served outside on the terrace.  Torches are lit, reminding me irrationally of that awful TV show, Survivor.

Port with panache

Lighting the night

Dinner under the stars

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.

Nancy raises a toast to our host

Breakfast at Casal de Loivos

The whole group together, last day on the river.

Finally, the guides from Explorers’ Corner (now Natural Habitat Expeditions) who made this trip so incredibly memorable.  Thank you.

Pedro, Nancy and Vitor


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.

The river beautiful

Not haute cuisine, but good standard fare

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.

Grape masher at work in background.

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.

Grapes fermenting.

The fortified wine is transferred to huge containers.

Storage containers for the new wine.

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.

Large casks

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.

Vitor and the Dow representative, ready to serve port.

We did, however, enjoy another beautiful view of the river.

Douro River, orchard and vineyards.

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.

Barbara, Vitor and Pedro (behind).

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.


The rock is almost as beautiful as the vineyards


We pass our group.


One of many striking bridges

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.

In the lock

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.


“Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.”                                                                                                              Jose Saramago, Portuguese novelist, Nobel Prize in literature, 1998.

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.

Unloading the kayaks.

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.

Lunch stop

The pause that refreshes

The peaceful water allows us to hug the banks looking for fruit to pick.

Drifting along.

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?

Cruising the river.

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.

Outer entrance to the museum.

Inner entrance to the museum.

View from the museum.

Portugal has had devastating wildfires this summer, and the museum site gave a clear view of one of them.

View from the museum.

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.

My kayak partner, Barbara, and Vitor, one of our incredibly hard-working Portuguese guides, enjoying a pre-dinner port.

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.

Cork tree.

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.

The owner with his puppy.

Fields of gold.

Shepherd and his dogs.


Lambskin lunch bag.

Cottage for hunters

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.

First time on the water, waiting for the signal to start paddling.

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.

Spain on the left, Portugal on the right

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.

VIneyards in the distance, glass on the water.

Sun, vines and water

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.

The original steps

Our accommodations were not without modern comforts, however.

The entrance to one of our rooms 

The old kitchen

Old and new

Modern doors, their height determined by the old walls

Original door

The view from my window

Our happy group at breakfast.  Nancy, our head guide, on the right.

We start each day wondering what new vistas and experiences it will offer, wanting to delve deeper into this beautiful land and its culture.


This trip is not for the weak of stomach or liver.  When we were not on the river we were usually eating or drinking or eating AND drinking.  We stayed in quintas (historic vineyard estates), dined on lovingly prepared traditional dishes, learned how port is made, and sampled as many wines as our generous hosts could put before us.  Small wonder that this tour is affectionately dubbed “Float and Bloat”.

I arrived in Oporto two days before the trip was to start, partly to recover from jet lag but mainly to have a chance to visit this stately old city at the mouth of the Douro River. Armed with a map and walking shoes, I wandered freely, pursuing whatever view seemed most interesting.  The central area of the city is very small and is easily covered on foot in a day and a half.  Graceful buildings and green parks follow the narrow streets that spill down the precipitous slopes leading to the historic riverfront district.  I’m not one for tour buses and the like, but ten Euros were well spent on a boat tour of six bridges across the Douro.  One night I also enjoyed my first taste of fine Portuguese cuisine in a restaurant recommended by my hotel (mussel soup with saffron and puff pastry – exquisite!).

View of Oporto from the Se Cathedral

Two of the graceful bridges over the Douro

View of the steep relief of the city

The beautiful and historic riverfront district of Oporto

Our group met on the afternoon of September 11 and promptly got down to the business of the trip: wine.  Graham’s port winery is one of many across the river, and we were treated to a tour of their facilities.  The port is actually made at vineyards up river, held there for six months, then trucked to Grahams to be mixed, evaluated, aged and bottled.

Barrels for aging at Graham’s winery

Having always drunk ruby port, I thought that this was basically what port was.  What a surprise to learn that ruby is the lowest quality they make.  There are tawny ports that are aged for various numbers of years, and then vintage ports that come from an especially good harvest.  Some of the latter are over 100 years old.

Ruby, two tawnies and two vintage ports presented for tasting.

After tasting five different ports and realizing the variance in quality, I was quite ready to spend whatever it took to get one of the vintage bottles, planning to serve it on special occasions to special friends.  Alas!  We were told that the vintage ports must be consumed within a day of opening.  There is, I decided, a limit to friendship.

Already stoked with five glasses of port at Graham’s and more at a group meeting in our hotel, we somehow navigated to a waterfront restaurant for more wine and a dinner which I remember was excellent; unfortunately the specifics have been lost in the sea of gastronomic indulgence that followed over the next few days.

Yes, this was a kayaking trip, and I will actually get to the kayaking in the next post.

Mountains that Made me who I am: Part 4 The Alps

Eiger, Monch, Jungfrau, photo from Wikipedia Commons

Shortly after Logan (see previous blog), I followed Eddie to Grindelwald, Switzerland, never suspecting that his guiding services might be fully booked.  He had time for only two climbs, and our first objective was Monch, one of a magnificent trio that also includes Jungfrau and Eiger.  The weather had been bad for several days so the early train to the Jungfraujoch overflowed with guides and clients.  As we exited the station we found ourselves wallowing in fresh snow.  All the other parties quickly turned back, but Eddie, using brute force, ploughed a path.  On the ridge of the mountain Eddie was sometimes chest deep in snow, commenting that if we caused an avalanche, at least we would be above it.  Still super fit from Logan, I followed him with ever-increasing joy.  It was a beautiful day, we were on top of the world, and the mountain was ours alone.  They called him “crazy Eddie” when we got back.

So began one of the most memorable phases in my climbing career.  Over the next four summers I climbed dozens of mountains great and small, far too many to include here even if I could remember half of them.  I will deal only with those which were especially meaningful to me.  Unfortunately I took very few photos in Europe and have lost almost all of them, but Wikipedia Commons provided me with some stunning views for this blog.

Monch held no real technical difficulties.  The second climb Eddie selected was the west ridge of Vorderspitze, a rock route that that was longer and far harder than any I had ever done.  I remember his constant urging and encouragement as I struggled, the tight rope that held me when my arms were too tired to hold on, the warning on a difficult traverse, “Don’t fall there – you’ll kill yourself!”  I remember thinking on the summit, “I didn’t realize I could climb like that.”

Eddie returned to his clients and I met my new guide, Hans Muller.  Small, quiet and cheerful, he gave no outward hint that he had done a significant winter ascent of the north face of the Eiger some years before. Hans decided to do Jungfrau, an easy snow climb but one that would allow him to judge my abilities.  After that, he invited me to stay at his home in Kandersteg in a small cottage near the house.  I soon became good friends with him and his wife, taking meals with them when we weren’t climbing.  And climb we did: rock and snow, high peaks and short valley routes.  We climbed for one glorious month, during which the highlight was our ascent of the north face of Doldenhorn.  This was a steep wall of ice and snow, where Hans had to chop quite a few steps and most of the belay platforms.  As the only north face of my career (weather would interfere with plans to climb two others in succeeding years), Doldenhorn remains as much a source of pride as Vorderspitze.

If I had maintained the same level of fitness I had after Logan, I think that the following summers would have yielded more substantial results.  But without a high-altitude prelude, I was far less prepared to do challenging routes.  One summer, bad weather chased us around Switzerland and even into Italy, looking for something to climb in the rain, since major routes were not possible.  It is from this period that I have the only two surviving photos from all the climbing I did in  Europe (not just with Hans, but also from earlier visits to Austria and the Dolomites).

Hans Muller leading

The only photo of me climbing in Europe

The most memorable, if not the most pleasant, climbs with Hans took place when both of us were injured.  Hans had fallen, and although he had broken no bones, he was very stiff and sore.  Since he could not guide me, he chose another guide to take me up the Finsteraarhorn, the highest peak in the Bernese Alps. We reached the summit, then spent the night at the Finsteraarhorn hut.  Next morning, I sat up in bed only to have my lower back seize up in agonizing pain.  Somehow the guide prodded me onto the glacier and down to the valley, where I caught a train to Kandersteg and the Muller home.

Finsteraarhorn. Photo from Wikipedia Commons

For a week I could barely move, requiring 45 minutes just to get out of bed each morning.At last I decided that if nothing could ease the pain, I should at least try to do something I enjoy.  I began walking, bought new climbing boots and told Hans that if he was ready to climb, so was I.  So off we hobbled for a week that included Mont Blanc and Eiger.  Amazingly, the mental focus required for climbing almost completely masked my pain; when not climbing, the pain was intense and sleepless nights were the norm.

Looking out from Mont Blanc. Photo from Wikipedia Commons

Our route on Mont Blanc began from the Tete Rousse hut, which is reached by a dangerous rock passage with frequent rockfall (to my mind, the most difficult part of the trip).  A mixture of wine, schnapps and codeine bought me two hours of slumber, but in the morning the pain was bad and I was very slow to get going. Hans had to bring me my breakfast tray because I couldn’t carry it, and he put my boots on for me.

I think we left the hut around 0300, almost the last climbers to depart.  On the snow slopes above us I saw a sight that is etched in my memory: a long chain of lights curving back and forth under a star-lit sky.  The scene lacked only the Humming Chorus from Madama Butterfly to be complete; indeed whenever I hear that music I am back at the hut, enchanted by the beauty.  Hans set a very slow but steady pace.  We began passing other parties, then more and more, until we were among the very first to reach the summit, just in time for sunrise.

The Mittellege ridge on Eiger is a steep, very strenuous and exposed route that I consider the most beautiful and entertaining I have done. The climb begins on the Jungfraujoch train, which burrows through the inside of the Eiger for much of its journey.  Climbers exit midway, into the rock core, and follow a narrow, snowy tunnel to a door  that opens onto the back side of the mountain.  From there some exposed scrambling leads to the Mittellegi hut, perched precariously atop the ridge.

In good weather the climb is very popular, so popular that I had my first experience of people passing through our rope (apparently it’s not that uncommon in the Alps).  I would reach for a handhold only to have someone’s foot get there before me, without so much as a word of warning. After a few pitches, however, everyone had passed us.

The steepest sections of the ridge have fixed ropes; the arm strength required to haul oneself up is exhausting, and the ropes seem to go on forever.  When my face wasn’t plastered to the mountain, I could look straight down into the valley, thousands of feet below.  On this narrow, airy ridge one should dance lightly, tied to the earth by nothing more than secure technique.  I could not dance, but even while gasping for breath and struggling to raise myself onto the next foothold, I understood the elegance of the route.  And when I stood at last on top of the Eiger, it was awe, not pride, that I felt.  To be there was a privilege undreamt of.

There are numerous excellent photos of the ridge but all that I have found have copyright.  By far my favourite is at the site below:

I returned home shortly after Eiger and never climbed with Hans again, although we did ski the Haute Route a year or two later.  After a couple of months of yoga classes, my back stopped bothering me, and has given only occasional trouble since.