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October 31, 2006

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                          Douro Valley, Portugal

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Happy Halloween! There’s an eCard for all of you Halloween Travelers at the end of this story.

Olá! Last week we left off in Porto, Portugal (here’s the link to the archives). This week we finish our trip to this historic country by checking out the incredible Douro Valley. I had no idea how nice this part of the world is; now I know why it’s a UNESCO world heritage site. If you want to come for the ride, bring your camera, Dramamine and some grape-picking clothes – we’re off to the mountains to make some vinho! If you’re in a hurry or have ADD, don’t worry; there’s a 2-minute Johnny Jet video at the end of this week’s story.

Port wine: It all started in 1678, after the British blockaded French ports when the two countries were at war. The British began importing wine from Portugal’s Douro Valley. Back then Portugal’s wine was dry, full-bodied, and had a high alcohol content. All that changed when the British added neutral brandy during fermentation to preserve it better for long boat trips. But adding brandy changed the natural fermentation process, and prevented the leftover grape sugar from turning to alcohol. That resulted in a sweeter, fruitier wine that is now usually enjoyed as an apéritif or after-dinner wine. For a detailed history of Port, click here.

The 560-mile Rio Douro (River of Gold) begins in northern-central Spain, and flows to its outlet in Porto, Portugal. Along the way the river runs through the Douro Valley. The "gold" here is the grapes that grow on 617,000-plus acres of some of the most spectacular quintas (wine-producing farm complexes) I’ve ever seen. Most quintas lie on almost completely vertical slopes; the land is said to be the toughest to cultivate in the world. In the old days farmers used the river to transport their wine to the cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia (located across from Porto -- we visited there last week). Because Porto was a major port city, and this is where they shipped it from, "Port wine" gained its name. The farmers also used the mountain railroad, but today there are excellent highways so they use trucks. The jaw-dropping Alto Douro region has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site (here’s the link), because the region has produced wine for almost 2,000 years and its landscape has been molded by human activities (see this UNESCO link for more criteria). The Douro Valley is a perfect place for growing grapes, cherries and olives. They are also some almond and cork trees. The weather is hot and dry in the summer, cold and wet in winter. Once you drive over the Serra do Marão mountain range, the weather changes instantly. Thanks to humid air, fertile soil and schist rock to keep the fruit warm at night, grapes thrive here. The next time you see a bottle of wine labeled "vinho do Porto," you’ll know it was created right here in the Douro Valley.

There are several ways to reach the Douro Valley from Porto, 90 km (56 miles) away. One is by boat, but nine locks make for a long ride. There is also a mountain train, which takes 2 hours and 20 minutes to reach the 130-year-old Pinhão railway station. If you take the train, be sure to stop and notice the 100 or so ornate blue tiles that depict different scenes of local port production on the outer walls of the station. The Douro Valley claims to have more than 25,000 wine makers. From the railway station, one of the closest (1.8 km = 1.1 mile) is the one I visited: Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo. It lies across the river and up a hill -- about a 10-minute taxi ride away. The fastest and most expensive ($360 per person) way from Porto is by helicopter -- it takes only 25 minutes ( But most people drive to the Douro Valley, which is what I did. I was fortunate to be on a private tour with one of Portugal’s best official guides. Helena Baltazar gives private tours all over Portugal, in Portuguese, French or English. Rates vary; contact her at or tel.: 351-917572555.

If you get motion sickness, be sure to sit in the front seat or take Dramamine, because the last half of the 2 ½-hour ride gets hairy. If you’re afraid of heights – close your eyes. However, doing that is a huge mistake, because these narrow roads at an elevation of 1000 feet (without guardrails) have some of the best views I’ve ever seen. I think the vistas rival Zermatt, Switzerland (here’s the link) -- and that’s saying a lot. Just look at the pictures we snapped when we pulled off to the side of the road! Nearby lived a friendly elderly lady who insisted that we sample her grapes (it was harvest time, and the entire side of her house had bins full of red and green grapes). Oooh, were they good -- and walking on the street right afterward, everything felt so alive. The sun was shining, the bees were buzzing, and the grapes were ready to be crushed. I couldn’t wait to start picking those bad boys myself.

On our exciting ride to Quinta Nova we pulled off to the side of the road again when Helena spotted a pile of cork. She said that cork is the bark of the cork oak tree, and Portugal produces nearly half of the world’s commercial corks. Here’s an article on how cork is produced, and another one on Portugal’s cork industry.

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Copyright 2007 JohnnyJet, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Pictures From

The Trip


Douro Valley


Excellent Highways


Grape Truck


Porto Train Station


Pinhão Station


Boat Up The Douro




Balcony With A View


Got Grapes?


Cork Oak Tree


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