Tuesday, 25 August 2015: Bitetos to Régua to Pinhão, Mateus, and Sandeman
Written 12 December 2015
Tuesday morning, we cast off at 7:15 a.m. to cruise upriver to Régua, the lower boundary of the port-growing region, so when I showed up at 7:00 a.m., when the dining room opened, I found the captain finishing his breakfast before going up to the bridge.
At the left here is the sumptuous coffee station just outside the dining room door, flanked on the left by a machine that dispensed several flavors of coffee and hot chocolate and on the right by the bright-yellow device that dispensed hand sanitizer. (We were asked to use it whenever we reboarded the ship and whenever we entered the dining room. At the top, serried ranks of mugs and a shelf of little news-summary leaflets that hit the highlights of the daily news in each of the countries represented among the passengers. Below those, juice glasses, teacups, tea bags, and a wicker basket stocked day and night with pastries. On the counter, bottles of lime and almond syrup, thermos bottles of skimmed milk, whole milk, and half-and-half, more tea bags (including herbal teas), a pitcher of fresh orange juice with an ice insert to keep it cold, and all the usual accountrements, like spoons, honey, cinnamon, sugar, napkins, tongs, and a bowl of toasted almonds. Below the counter, the chrome door of the ice machine and a waste bin. The pastry assortment changed daily.
The photo on the right shows the dining room, largely empty at the time, showing the bowls of fruit and tiny jars of jam on the tables and the omelet chef at his station.
This montage of tiles hung over the sofa in our stateroom. I made sure to record hte image, as those Celtic knots would make nice quiting patterns or even inspiration for tatting designs.
At the right is a hand towel folded into the shape of a boat that we found on one of our beds after housekeeping had passed through. As on the big Caribbean cruise ships, they apparently used a different folded shape every day, but we tended to reuse our towels rather than having them changed daily, so we didn't see the whole repertory.
After breakfast, I took my computer up to the lounge to work on this blog, which at that stage consisted mainly of transcribing notes off my recorder and trying to keep them organized. As you can see in this photo, the banks were beautiful, a mixture of wild land and intensively cultivated areas.
At the left is a rocky promontary; at the right a graceful bridge, carrying the railroad over a small tributary to the river. The railroad parallels the river all the way to the Spanish border and apparently it even once crossed the border and connected to the Spanish system, but fairly recently, and for some pretty trivial reason, which I've since forgotten, the two systems no longer connect, so you can't travel by train from Porto up the river and into Spain.
Some fairly steep slopes were terraced for agriculture, most often grapes, like the one here at the left.
At the right is part of a particularly picturesque estate we passed, surrounded by its cultivated terraces of grapes, citrus, oaks, and olives (the grayish trees are the olives).
In the course of the morning, we passed through another lock, of a slightly different design. Rather than swinging open sideways like the pages of a book, the door rose and fell like a guillotine. This lock lifted us 32 m; it's the tallest in Europe and one of the tallest in the world.
At 10 a.m. in the lounge, Alexandra the program director, presented a short lecture on Portuguese history and culture, together with a lesson in the Portuguese language.
We arrived at Régua at 11 a.m., and at 11:15 a.m., Alexandra gave another lecture and slide show, this one on the Douro valley and its features. Some passengers chose instead to disembark and explore the village.
Among other things she talked about the "tras es montes" ("trash ess moontesh") region. The phrase means "over the mountains" and is the name for the back country, away from the river. Travel there was slow and laborious until the recent arrival of the freeway; you can now get in an hour to places it used to take all day. Development and job opportunities are therefore much greater than they used to be.
Before 1980, everyone's first foreign language was French, and the country and culture were heavily influenced by France. Since then it's changed to English, but many older people still speak a good deal of French, and when unemployment has been high, many Portuguese have immigrated to French-speaking countries, especially France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. Luxembourg is called "little Portugal," and only Lisbon has more Portuguese residents than Paris.
Mountains parallel to the coast cast a rain shadow over the interior, keeping the rainfall and humidity much lower than on the coast and actually creating a continental microclimate. In addition to grapes and olves, the area produces mineral water and chestnuts (and, farther upstream, almonds).
For lunch, the "official" appetizers were Capresi salad and puff pastry with veal, but again, they were part of a much larger buffet.
At the left here is one of the main courses, a traditional Portuguese soup of pork, cabbage, carrots, and red beans. At the right is my main course, pasta carbonara (pasta with cream and bacon). The other two choices were coq au vin and a tuna melt on a baguette.
The desserts were (a) chocolate cake garnished with a physalis berry and (b) strawberry ice cream. I sent back to the buffet for another couple of those great green figs.
After lunch, we boarded the buses and set off for the first stop of our afternoon's excursion, Mateus (pronounced "mah-TAY-oosh) Palace! Remember those little oval bottles of roséthat were so popular when we were grad students?! This is the place that pictured on the label, and it still produces the wine, though it also produces (both industrially for the mass market and on a smaller scale to sell locally) a wonderful line of james and jellies sold as "Casa de Mateus" brand.
On the way, we passed the usual amazing series of views down across the valley, like the one at the left here. At the palace, we were divided into two groups. One group toured the house first and then the gardens. Buz, Kathy, David, and I were in the group that did the opposite. We started with the demonstration orchard next to the house, which was amazing just in itself. At the right is a vine bearing ripe white grapes.
A row or two over, I got these two shots, of a vine with ripe red grapes and one with ripe purple grapes. We tasted all three; being wine grapes, they were extremely sweet!
It didn't seem right to strip the trees in the orchard, as they no doubt had many tourists yet to come this season, so we mostly confined ourselves to the abundant windfalls under them. We sure were there at just the right season!
On the left, apples (I don't know what variety). On the right, bosc pears. I didn't taste the apples, but the pears were perfect.
At the left, round purple plums. On the right, oval prune plums. Both juicy and ripe to bursting.
At the left, greengage plums (what the French call "Reine Claudes"); at the right, kiwi fruit. the green plums were a little less ripe, and we didn't taste the kiwi. They looked ripe, but there were no windfalls. Only the Asian persimmons were still hard and green. The cherries were all gone by.
We could also see walnut and chestnut trees in fruit but didn't go over to them. Also lots of figs, both cultivated and feral.
The orchard took up only one side of the house. Across the back were handsome decorative gardens. At the left here is the "formal" section, with neatly trimmed hedges forming symmetrical designs. Note particularly the bright green hedge at the back left, with its scalloped crenelations!
At the right and below, yes, those are crepe myrtles in bloom. We also found southern magnolias in the mix. I womething that looked like a tiger swallowtail but wasn't, and an orangy checkered butterfly. Maybe a paon butterfly in the distance. The grandmother of the current count developed the gardens. Three gardeners maintain them today.
In front of the house were two huge and ancient conifers, which I could not manage to get a decent photo of. They were helpfully labeled, though. One was a Cedrus deodara (a deodar or Himalayan cedar) and the other a Chamaecyparis lawsoniana (a Port Oxford cedar or Lawon cypress). I also saw a black oak labeled Quercus coccinia and a white oak that was probably French white oak.
The house is famous for its terrace and exterior staircases and for its decorative roofline and pinnacles.
Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside, so you're in for another long block of unleavened prose.
The palace is owned by the Margrave of Vila Real, who lives there in the summer and spends the winter near Lisbon (or maybe I have that backwards, but anyway, he wasn't there when we were). It dates from the early 18th century, i.e., the baroque period, by the third margrave. The architect was Nicolau Nasoni, the same one who designed the Clerigos tower in Porto.
Inside, it has chestnut ceilings and lovely wooden floors. The floors are not original, but the ceilings are.
The beautiful library houses the original copper plates used to print the illustrations of most important book by Camoës (remember him from the museum in Lisbon?), about Vasco da Gama and the conquests. The margrave had something to do with publishing it, but I didn't catch what.
We were shown a photo of Don Fernando de Albuquerque (the current marquis) with the president of Portugal.
One room is dedicated to a set of four paintings, each with a woman and an allegorical figure formed of symbols of the season: spring flowers, summer fruits (melons, stone fruits), fall fruits (pumpkins, apples), winter fruits (citrus, quinces, cabbage, onions). They are of the Italian school of Archimboldo.
The oldest piece in the house is a large platter from the 15th century with gilding in the glaze front and back.
Another room is dedicated to a large collectino of decorative ladies' fans. Most prominent among the collections, though, is large assortment of "cabinets" (chests of little drawers with handles on the sides for traveling). Many are inlaid with exotic woods, or gilt, and they are scattered throughout the house. Cabinets from Spain and Goa are in the shape of Bengal tigers. The most valuable cabinet in the house is a Japanaese gold laquered one. A magnificent table from Gujarat is inlaid with "scales" of mother of pearl, with black highlights made from turtle shell.
Two rooms were occupied by a "religious museum" with a zillion reliquaries and monstrances and dioramas of the crucifixion and nativity. The dioramas do not move, but as is typical of the baroque, they suggest movement. There was a beautiful three-foot detailed ivory carving of Christ for use on a crucifix and elaborate convent-embroidereed vestments created for dedication of the chapel in 1759. It is thought to have been made in Portugal but shows Asian influence.
The Blue Room is so called because it contains a huge china cabinet made of chestnut and full of blue and white china.
For our tour of the house, we had a local guide, named Rachel. Both Kathy and I noticed that her English featured a quirk we'd heard from many other Portuguese speaking English, including our guide Henry. They tend to insert an epenthetic H before vowels: coat of harms, h1817, hinnocence. We never did figure out a pattern to it or why it might happen.
Next up on the agenda was a visit to the Quinta de Seixo, an estate that produces wine for the Sandeman company.The building is accordingly topped by a titantic sillouette of the figure in black cape and hat that features so prominently in the Sandeman logo.
To get there, we traveled a winding road down one bank of the river and back up the other. We were assured that two months before, this road had been declared the best in the world for sports-car nuts. It apparently has gorgeous scenery and the best ratio of stretches to cruves. Big Sur is the second, and someplace in Italy is third.
Again, we got beautiful views down across the valley as we went, as well as this view (at the right) from the terrace outside the Quinta's building. In it, you can see both wine terraces and parts of the long and absolutely vertiginous driveway we traveled to get up there. Seriously, this was one of the roads where, before we started on it, the tour escort recommended that passengers afraid of heights trade places with others on the bus to sit on the uphill side. Unfortunately, on some of those drives, the up- and downhill sides, switched every turn or two. On this one, the estate had espaliered fruit trees against the vertical retaining walls on the uphill side, so we were treated to a view of pears and apples whizzing past the windows, inches away. They were pretty dusty, but I'm sure they're washed before use.In this view, note also the narrow columnar conifers planted along the edge of the terrace. See how the one on the left is sagging out of shape, as some of the branches lean outward from the center? That happens because their cones are fleshy, about the size of Brussels sprouts, and so heavy that they make the branches sag. While we were there, they had somebody up on a ladder removing them by hand, branch by branch, so that the trees would stand up straight and narrow again. He had accumulated about a bushel of the little cones.
At this winery, of course, all the guides and tasting-room staff wore the black cape and hat. The guide explained to us that the cape represented Portugal, where Sandeman makes port, and the hat represented spain, where Sandeman makes sherry. Here the guide is standing next to a stone pillar etched with the date 1748, presumably when Sandeman was founded. Ferreiro, Sandeman, and one other belong to the same group; we could see "Ferreiro" signs on distant vinyards from the terrace outside.
Nearby was this large seal of the company. We were told what the 4 represents, but I've forgotten.
We learned from our guide that this year's harvest will be early, a week to 10 days from now. First they hire harvest labor locally, then make up the shortfall with workers trucked in from eastern Europe and elsewhere. About 200 harvesters are employed on this property. The harvest lasts ca. 6 weeks, and is all done by hand. No irrigation of port grapes is allow, but irrigation is okay for table-wine grapes.
The upper section of the river does white ports and table wines. The vines can be 100 years old and reach 50 m down into the cracks in the schist. A vine that gives less than a kilo of grapes, they replace. A good one gives 1.5 kg.
The wine is aged for about 6 months at the quinta, then sent downriver to Porto. This property produces mostly rubies, which are 14-18% alcohol in the barrel. They use French and American oak for th barrels. We saw medium-sized 550-l barrels, used for tawnies. Sandeman's youngest tawnies are aged 6 years.
The "institute" (an organization of port producers) is the group that declares vintage years. Twelve tasters confer, and if more than 20% of growers have exceptional enough wine, then a vintage year is declared. If less than 20%, then there may be special "late harvest" production, but not vintage.
Finished port is 19–22% alcohol. The wine spirits they use come from Spain or France, without wood tannin. Sandeman white—they just make the one—is a young three-year half-dry white.
In the tasting room, they poured the founder's reserve ruby, supposedly tasting of red fruits, chocolate, and "balsamicums." And lest we forget what that bottle (and of course, the picture of the palace) looked like, the shop sold Mateus as well. Besides all the wines, they also sold grape jam, fig jam, and "chutney d'abobora com cenoura." Henry the guide translated that last for me as chutney of pumpkin with carrot. You could see big yellow mustard seeds through the jar.
They even provided recipes using their port.
Port splash: Glass of ice with a lemon slice and mint sprig, filled with half white port and half tonic water.
Ruby on the rocks: Ruby port over ice with an orange slice and splash of OJ.
The photo at the right above is me, standing in a corner of the terrace, amid the rosemary bushes, with my Quietvox around my neck, and framed by the view.
Written 15 December 2015
While we were off touring, the Hemming had cast off from Régua and traveled upriver to Pinhão (pronounced peen-yow, except that the final "ow" sound is nasalized, the way the French would pronounce "ah-on"), where we rejoined it by bus about 6:00 p.m. to find cocktail hour already in progress with Arsenio at the piano. As usual, The last 15 minutes before dinner was devoted to the briefing on the following day's activities, though just in case you missed it, or couldn't remember all the details, housekeeping left a copy of the Viking Daily on our coffee table each day. It provided the full schedule of the day, plus tips on what to see on your own in the towns we stopped at, additional information about the places we toured, and always interesting trivia about Portugal, like "The world's largest Santa Claus parade took place December 2010 in Porto. Nearly 15,000 people donned Santa outfits, beating the record of the previous year." Now where else are you going to learn stuff like that?
On this evening, dinner was further postponed to accommodate a demonstration of the opening of a 1987 vintage port without disturbing the sediments or risking messing with the cork. In a bottle that old, the cork can be very fragile and is likely either to crumble into the wine or to be too soft to hold a corkscrew, so instead, the neck of the bottle is broken off, undisturbed cork and all! I had heard about this process, but I never understood how you could ensure that glass chips didn't get into the wine.
At the right, here, you see Liliana, who ran the bar, approaching the bottle with tongs, while supervisor of hotel services (left) looks on. Behind the bar are Alexandra and the chef; maitre d' Claudio leans on the pillar to her right. Notice that they are all grinning, because this was Liliana's very first try, and she was very nervous. The bottle had been handled very gently, so as not to disturb the sediments, and was resting in a special cradle designed for the purpose. The tongs, also designed for the purpose were heated in a flame (they set up a gas hotplate for the purpose), then clamped around the neck of the bottle, halfway down the length of the cork (which is extra long in vintage ports to facilitate the process). Their shape ensured that a ring of glass all the way around the next was heated. After a moment, the tong were removed and a little pitcher of ice water poured over the hot area. We could all hear the distinct "clink" sound as the glass cracked in a neat line around the cork. She then pulled and twisted gently on the distal end of the bottle neck until the cork slid out a little way but was still firmly plugging the bottle at both ends. More water was poured over the exposed ring of cork and the two broken ends, to wash away any glass chips. The cork (and the end of the glass bottle neck) could then be pulled all the way out (gently, so as not to disturb the sediments).
In the left-hand photo, Joachim is pouring the port very gently into a glass decanter, where it will breathe during dinner. At this point, he revealed that the crew had opened six other bottles of the same vintage earlier, so each passenger got a glass with dessert after dinner. I declined it (it would have been entirely wasted on me), but David pronounced it outstanding.
Note, as an aside, that Joachim's name is pronounced not "Wah-keem" (as it would be if he were Spanish) but "Jo-ah-keem" (because he's Portuguese).
At dinner, the amuse-bouche was a tiny glass of delicious gazpacho. Then, for the first course, I had the salmon tartare (shown at the right), which, oddly, was ground to a paste. I'm not even sure it was raw.
Kathy chose the goat cheese gratin with arugula and raspberry coulis. The cheese was wrapped in phyllo dough, gathered up into a pouch, baked, and then served on a bed of arugula with the raspberry sauce drizzled over the top.
The other two choices were Greek salad and spinach ravioli.
The two main course choices were grilled perch with mashed peas and saffron rice and roasted lamb with rosemary and garlic potatoes. I took the lamb, and very good it was, too.
For dessert, I think we all chose the mixed berry tart (over orange cream cake and ice cream).
We all shared a cheese plate, which featured one cheese in a wedge-shaped slice and another that was so soft it was served with a scoop, accompanied by crackers, bread sticks, and an onion-fruit relish.
A dark chocolate truffle was served with the port.
After dinner, we repaired to the lounge for a concert by a local folk ensemble, called Alto da Escrita. They were seven, playing a tiny guitar (a ukelele?), a triangle, a tambourine, an accordion, a Spanish guitar, a Portuguese guitar, and a drum, and they all sang, though the lady in the red dress was the vocal soloist.
At the right, here, you can see a couple of the ship's crew joining in with the dancing and clapping, to encourage audience participation. Joaquim turned out to be a real party animal—he led the conga lines on dancing nights.
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