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Trip Report Visiting the Upper Douro

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I have an annual work trip to Lisbon, which we always try to supplement with a few days´getaway on the Iberian peninsula. This year our destination was the Parque Internacional do Douro, the part of the Douro River where it forms the boundary between Portugal and Spain, in the far northeast corner of Portugal. Though the weather could have been better, we were able to do adn see all that we had wanted and we were never soaked by rain while hiking. There is not much in the way of tourist infrastructure, nor are there many monuments or historical sites to visit. But this stretch of the Douro is stunning, lots of steep canyons and apparently the best place in Portugal to view big birds of prey. We saw a few, but are not birders and can barely distinguish a bald eagle from a crow.

This area of Portugal is described by the official website of the Portuguese side of the park: http://portal.icnb.pt/ICNPortal/vPT2007-AP-DouroInternacional I used it for many of the hike details and was happy to see that things were generally well marked.

Our first day was our arrival day from the US, so we took it slow. Picked up the rental car and made our way up to our first night´s destination, the historic village of Castelo Rodrigo. Along the way, we stopped in Belmonte for lunch (it´s right off the interstate) and a chance to stretch our legs. Then on up to Pinhel, where we stopped to visit a couple of castle towers and a few dolmens nearby. Our destination in Castelo Rodrigo was the Casa da Cisterna, http://www.wonderfulland.com/cisterna/ This is a totally renovated property located in a small historic town with no modern construction. There is a ruined castle, a few churches, a pillory, an ancient cistern (adjacent to our casa rural), and a few places selling regional products (got some good olive oil, cheese and honey). It´s a very nicely renovated property, and it includes separate houses on the grounds as well as rooms in the main house. We had a suite next door and it was wonderful. Everything was done to the highest standards and both the decor and the construction fit well with the surroundings.

For dinner, we drove about 15 minutes to O Lagar, a few minutes north and outside of the adjacent modern Figueiras de Castelo Rodrigo, http://www.olagar.net/contactos.php
Very nice place, good meal if a bit heavy.

The next day, we drove to our base for the remainder of the trip. I frequently wished that the Casa da Cisterna were about 150 kms further north, because it would be a great place to stay for a few days. If you were going to visit the rock paintings at Foz Coa, the towns of Trancoso, Penedo and a few more of those fortified towns, it would be well located. For us, with our goal being the Douro park, it was just too far south.

Our drive up to Bemposta, and the Solar dos Marcos, was interrupted by a long hike to the lookout at Candedo, north of the border town of Barco d'Alva. This was a terrific hike, lots of elevation gain up to some fabulous look out points. We had brought a lunch and enjoyed it way up high looking down over the Douro. We also made a stop at another well-placed look out point, the Penedo Durão. This is a much more built up stopping point than Candedo, with lots of picnic tables, paths through pines, etc.

In late afternoon, we stopped first at Freixo de Espada e Cinta (mainly for gas and some groceries for our next days´ hikes) and Mogadouro, where the Douro Park's main office gave us some great information on hikes and sights in the park. These are both out of the way little sleepy places, each with its own church and requisite pillory.

We spent the three nights at the Hotel Rural Solar dos Marcos, in an 18th century bishop´s palace. http://www.solar-dos-marcos.com/solardo/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=55&Itemid=91 This is by no stretch of the imagination a four star property. The historic part is nice enough, but the rooms themselves and the common areas are pretty tasteless tacky and modern. Breakfasts were mainly packaged goods (oh how I yearned for the Casa da Cisterna´s yummy home made delicacies), bad coffee and some aging fruit. But in spite of all the negatives, the location is excellent for exploring the Douro park and the guy in charge was extremely helpful and very kind.

Our two full days in the park were filled with hikes (from Picote, one from Miranda do Douro, on to Sao Joao des Arribes -- all of them taken from the park´s website), a visit to Miranda do Douro (the only city of any size, with a good restaurant Balbina -- I am not much of a meat eater, but the posta a mirandesa, the veal tenderloin was pretty amazing, and the restaurant was a lively and happy place), and one afternoon we scooted over to Bragança. We have been there before but like the city a lot, and having a few hours to walk through the castle, on the walls, through the old part, was a lot of fun. One of the highlights of the visit was the one hour boat ride through the Douro River canyon. Boats leave twice a day from the dam on the river at Miranda do Douro and give a nice perspective, especially since we had been hiking up high. And finally, we took a quick trip over to Fermoselle, about 10 kms on the Spanish side right across from Bemposta. The park has a little museum there (mainly geared to children but somewhat interesting), and we also were able to take about an hour´s walk along the valley of the Tormes River, not too far from Fermoselle. Fermoselle also has a nice plaza mayor and a romanesque church, unfortunately not in great condition.

We had a whole day to drive back to Lisbon, so took it slow. We stopped first in Almeida, one of those border cities that has a Vauban fort (distinguished by its star shape) and it was a beautiful afternoon for walking all around the border. We ate in Casa de Irene in Almeida, perfectly decent food, nice people.

The way from Almeida to Lisbon can track the highways, but we took an off-highway route to visit Sabugal (an amazing castle up on the top) and one of my favorite little historic villages in Portugal, Sortelha. There is a small town, totally preserved, totally within the walls of the castle, with houses built into, around, and on top of the many boulders and rocky faces. It´s a really lovely place, with a few cafes and restaurants inside. We learned that 3 people still live inside the walls, but most have departed to the modern town outside. It is a very special place to visit, IMO, well worth a detour. Not too far from Belmonte and Covilha, so it can be an added stop to trips going in different directions.

So, those are the details of this most recent trip. Though none of these places would top anyone´s list of places to visit in Portugal, if you are familiar with the main cities, there are some really lovely places hidden away here, and I think it´s well worth the effort.

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