I’m having a day off from driving and have decided that the best way to see the Alto Douro is to catch the train from Regua to Pocinho which runs along the banks of the river. The line was originally built in 1887 and used to run all the way to the Spanish border. During the summer months there is a tourist steam train but at the end of October, I find myself on the local diesel with only a few old ladies for company. The windows are dirty and don’t open. Also the heating is on full blast even though it is not remotely cold. I sit on the right-hand-side as I am assured by the locals that this will give me the best views.
We are late leaving, having waited for the connecting train from Porto. I imagined that it would be a slow journey but the train is actually quite fast and each time I see a photo opportunity, I am too slow to get the camera. In the end I give up with the photography and just gaze out of the window as we pass the much slower cruise boats with their panoramic windows, top deck pools and well-stocked bars.
Yesterday, I watched the Douro Spirit pass through the lock at the Regua dam. It was a tight squeeze and a big rise in water level to continue up stream. There are 5 hydroelectric dams on the Portuguese section of the Douro River providing electricity for the local region and beyond. But the main lifeblood of the Douro is the water and the wine. Traditionally the railway line and the river were used to transport the grapes and the wine but now it only transports a handful of locals visiting family or tourists like myself.
At Pinhao we are joined by more passengers, some clearly tourists with their bright Nike T-shirts, cheap sunglasses and Low Alpine daysacks filled with guidebooks. Beyond Pinhao we enter a region not accessible by car, where the residents and farmers are more dependent on the river and the train.
The river seems almost unnavigable past Tua, where they are building another hydroelectric dam on a side tributary. Then it narrows between steeply sloping hills covered with bushes and, at Vesuvio, the slopes are covered with orange and olive groves, giving a Mediterranean feel. All along the route, large billboards advertise the company that produces port from the grapes growing on the slopes. Some I recognise – Cockburn, Warre, Croft – some I don’t – Sandeman, Ferreira.
The end of the line is at Pocinho (125m above sea level) where passengers wishing to travel beyond must transfer to minibuses. There’s not much to see in the village and it is a 45 minute wait for the return train, so I find a small café near the station where the driver and conductor are drinking glasses of port while catching up with the small, but very vocal, patroness.
On the way back I stop at Pinhao for lunch. Luckily the two cruise boats are just leaving as I arrive. Across the pedestrian bridge from the main village, I find all the local labourers and coach drivers feasting on roast pork with chips at Casa de Foz. Most people are eating inside but it’s quieter and fresher outside under a portico of jasmine. Unfortunately my view of the river is initially blocked by a wine tanker and a coach but the food is very tasty and the ½ litre of local red wine goes down very well indeed. I just about have room for the homemade chocolate mouse and a glass of coffee. The grand total for my feast comes to just €8.
I guess the best and most relaxing way to see the Douro, if you can afford it, is from the deck of a river cruise boat, but if your budget won’t stretch that far, the train offers and equally enjoyable and more affordable option.