Tasting Portugal: Port, chestnuts, and aguardente

It was a bit of a squeeze, but I managed to enjoy the beautiful Greater Coa Valley in Portugal again at the start of October. Visiting our partners and testing new accommodations in Covid times isn’t easy, but with the correct measures in place, it was still possible.

Text: Aukje van Gerven

Photos: Aukje van Gerven

The Greater Coa Valley was the first area I visited for work, exactly two years ago. How different it felt then: I was still fairly new at the European Safari Company and only just started to get an idea of who’s who and a grip of how it was all working. Two years later, I knew all of our partners, visited most of our areas, and was even feeling a more seasoned traveler than I was back then.

Still, every trip is different, and I was excited to meet new people and see a different side of Portugal once again. It never ceases to amaze me that you discover new things every time, even if you have travelled there before.

I was on a schedule when I arrived Sunday afternoon: driving northeast after landing in Porto, with a first stop at the beautiful Quinta do Bomfim. Porto, and especially the Douro region, is of course famous for its wine and port. The Symington Family Estate here is perfectly placed to enjoy a small port tasting with a view over the river.

A short tour over the premises taught me everything I needed to know about port and winemaking, which makes driving through the area so much more interesting. Symington works with and supports the local Rewilding Portugal team as well, so it is a natural fit to incorporate their port &wine tourism with our wildlife tourism, and show guests the best that Portugal has to offer.

Further, I go toward Rio de Onor. Here you can go for a wonderful wolf tracking adventure with our guide and wolf expert Duarte  Cadete. I was also to test new accommodation here, Casal de Palacios. Set in a small town, it is an old farm that is completely renewed, with comfortable rooms and run by a large and fun family. How fun, I was to discover quickly…

The owner recommended a meal at a local restaurant. Since I was hungry, I quickly changed and was about to set off. But before I was allowed out, I was first to enjoy local delicacies with the family. I was sat down around the big central fireplace, and seated in between a wide array of aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and friends. No one spoke English, but the language of ‘here, drink this port’, and ‘here, eat these chestnuts’, is easy enough to understand. After two ports and twenty-six chestnuts, the singing started... and however much fun it was, my stomach was growling. So I managed to get out the door and headed out to find the local restaurant.

It was quiet in the restaurant but outside was someone grilling meat, and he gestured me in. No English spoken here either, and the menu was in Portuguese. With my few words of Spanish and a lot of gesturing, I ordered water (enough port for one day!) and pointed at something on the menu. Ten minutes later, I received a large plate with a large piece of grilled meat, potatoes, and salad. I guess my pointing skills are pretty good. I slept like a log that night.

The next day I said goodbye to my lovely hosts and left for a three-hour drive to a small town just north of the National Park Serra da Estrela. I had a meeting with Dino and Tony from Vale das Lobas, a new nature tourism project that’s currently in development.

I was lucky to receive a guided tour of the soon to be nature spa hotel, the campsite, restaurant, and the village itself. We walk past a small farm in the village with a few senior citizens making aguardente, a distillation from the remains of the grape skins. Of course, I am to try a sip of it. It is highly alcoholic and burns my throat, the villagers laugh at my ‘wow!’.

Vale das Lobas is committed to restoring health, revitalize the community and regenerate ecology in the area. In all honesty - they had me at ‘goddess pool’.

I will most certainly be back and look forward to sending our guests there as well.

I spend the night at our partners at Casa da Cisterna in Castelo Rodrigo. Ana’s welcome is always warm, the food delicious, and the bed soft. After an early breakfast, I drive south to meet our guide Fernando Romao at Vilar Maior. This is a quaint little town in a rural area, and Rewilding Portugal would like to develop some tourism around it – both for local and international tourists.

Fernando shows me around the village and we climb up the ancient walls of the castle to look out into the fields and hills in the surrounding area. There are opportunities for wildlife and bird watching here, so this would fit the European Safari Company perfectly.

After I say goodbye to Fernando, I pop by at the Rewilding Portugal office and have some time with Pedro and Marta. It is great to meet members of the local Rewilding Teams in person! We of course are in touch via email and video calls, but the opportunity to meet face to face (with the appropriate distance of course..) and hear what they are working on, always helps me immensely to connect. We eat Dutch stroopwafels in combination with Portuguese coffee.

I then have another big drive ahead, back to Porto. I have another, last meeting there, but am a bit ahead of schedule and decide to have a very quick stop at the Atlantic Ocean. I have done a lot of driving in the last few days and my body feels stiff when getting out of the car.

I’m slightly out of place on the beach, in my Rewilding Europe T-shirt, outdoor pants, and trail running shoes, but just have to make the most of it. I give myself twenty minutes to enjoy the sight, sound, and smell of the crashing waves.

A whirlwind trip finished on a high.

Would you like to take this trip as well? I have some options for you:

Five days rewilding in Faia Brava

Portugal inside and out

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Many thanks to all our local partners who go out of their way to make our guests comfortable and make their experience even more special.