Drifting on the Douro

For a lazy look at northern Portugal, take a scenic boat tour from Porto along the Douro River Valley, lined with the fragrant vineyards that produce port wine.

The cruise takes about seven hours from the town of Porto to the heart of the Douro, and comes with a lunch and passage through two locks. (The once-feisty Douro River was tamed in the 1980s by a series of five dams with locks, including the highest one in Europe, which inches boats up and down, like a giant elevator, more than 140 feet.) Drifting along the Douro is a slow but satisfying way to see the valley. The most interesting segment is easily the 17 miles between the towns of Peso da Regua and Pinhao.

The biggest tour boat companies, based in Porto, offer package itineraries that include overnight stays at fancy hotels and inns. For less money, you can get a boat tour and a more personal experience with some of the smaller operators. Your best bet is to choose a cruise in Porto by comparison-shopping the options for the day you want to sail (try looking online at www.portotours.com). There are also alternatives to boats. Trains, including a historic steam locomotive, can connect you between Douro towns, and the region is easily accessible by car.

The Douro hillsides change colors throughout the year – dusty brown in winter, scrubby green in summer, and glowing gold in fall. This ever-changing terrain was sculpted by centuries of hardy farmers. Unlike many great European rivers (such as the Rhine), the Douro was never a strategic military location. On a river cruise, you won’t spend your time gazing at fortresses and palaces. Instead, you’ll drift by idyllic scenes of farms, villages, and endless tidy rows of rock terraces. But don’t be fooled. These terraces were no less difficult to build, and are no less impressive, than the castles and chateaus of other European nations. Locals brag, “God made the earth -but man made the Douro.”

Farming has always been the top industry of the Douro Valley. To this day, port wine remains key. Make time to tour quintas, the local vineyards. It’s an informal scene – simply pull into any quinta and ask for a quick tour and a taste. The smaller, independent quintas (not associated with big tour companies) are more intimate, and offer a chance to meet the people who have devoted their lives to making the best wine they can.

Consider staying at one of the many quintas that offer accommodations. They range from simple rooms on family farms to one of the most breathtaking inns of Portugal. The spectacular inn, Casa de Casal de Loivos, hovers on a lofty perch above the town of Pinhao, offering the best views in all the Douro Valley (double rooms for $108, www.casadecasaldeloivos.com). To stay in a real-life family farmhouse, try Quinta de Marrocos near Peso da Regua (rustic doubles for $70, www.quintademarrocos.com).

Combining a cruise, a wine-tasting, and an overnight stay at a family-run quinta make a memorable day in northern Portugal. If you visit in fall, get more than a photo op. Get dirty. Stomp some grapes. You’ll never feel the same way about port wine again.

Rick Steves of Edmonds (425-771-8303, www.ricksteves.com) is the author of 27 European travel guidebooks including “Europe Through the Back Door” (published by Avalon), and host of the PBS-TV series Rick Steves’ Europe, airing weeknights at 7 p.m. on Channel 9.

The schedule this week:

Monday, August 2: Sicily

Tuesday, August 3: Spain’s Andalusia and Sevilla

Wednesday, August 4: Portugal’s southern coast

Thursday, August 5: Lisbon, Portugal

Friday, August 6: Berlin and Potsdam

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