Mark Twain, Samuel L. Clemens’ pseudonym, refers to two fathoms—safe waters—for steamboats to travel the Mississippi. Navigating Portugal’s “River of Gold,” the Douro, takes careful navigating, not only for its captains plying the increasingly popular tourist route but also for readers. Cruises begin in Porto, which gave its name to harbors as well as to the famous fortified wine. The nearly 600-mile river narrows precipitously in parts, and the highest lock in Europe at 108 feet lifts and lowers specially built riverboats. The steep riverbanks are lined with quintas, massive wine estates. Sandeman, known by its trademark of a mysterious, caped figured is an easily recognized one. Douro Valley: Journeys and Stories provides a guidebook to the region.
Two mysteries help guests wile away the hours on the sundeck of the river cruisers. The first, Death on the Douro by Roger Aspler (1997), begins with the dramatic death of the “Baron,” Joseph James Forester, a British gentleman who crusaded for higher port standards and who famously mapped the dramatic landscape of the Douro Valley. He drowned in a cataract known as the Devil’s Cauldron when his boat overturned, his body never found. The narrative flashes forward to a more contemporary time with Canadian wine journalist and amateur detective, Eric Brant, called in by a quinta owner to investigate mysterious happenings at the estate near Pinhao. Notable for its excellent details about port and its production, Death on the Douro is less effective as fiction. The protagonist, an aging and out-of-shape connoisseur of wine, somehow finds beautiful women attracted to him. The author commits the crime of “bringing a gun on stage and not having it go off.” Subplots that don’t go anywhere couple with grammatical errors. A nasty dangling modifier early on is confusing. As I’ve said before, where is Maxwell Perkins when you need him? Or perhaps the self-professed “Comma Queen” of The New Yorker could be brought on board.
A much better written novel is The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Italian author Antonio Tabucchi. Although it doesn’t stray from the main setting of Porto, it delivers local color. A young tabloid journalist, Firmino, is sent from Lisbon to Porto (also called Oporto) to investigate a gruesome murder. He has a prejudice about Porto but purchases a guidebook—perhaps from the famous Lello & Firmao bookshop—to learn more about the city. (The art nouveau bookstore, called one of the most beautiful in the world, was a favorite haunt of J. K. Rowling, when she taught English as a second language in Porto.)
Defying expectations, this thriller is also a terrific place to learn about the food of Portugal. Firmino is not fond of Porto’s favored dish: tripe. Truly, Portugal eats the pig from tip to tail. (I passed on pickled pig’s ears.) Rojoes a la mode de Minho is a favorite of the narrator, the slow-cooked pork and potatoes that we ate at the Alpendurada Monastery turned hotel-restaurant, still cooked in the traditional way in wood-fired ovens. Slow-cured hams and local olives offer tasty bites before a meal. The novel’s emphasis on food is carried along by a philosophizing lawyer and gourmand who has a strong resemblance to Charles Laughton.
To check out enticing recipes, seek out cookbooks that feature updates on traditional recipes, such as The New Portuguese Table by David Leite, which includes recipes like a fresh fava bean and fennel salad. Traveling along the Douro will work up an appetite as tours visit not only wineries but also UNESCO-certified heritage bakeries like the ones in Favaios, famous for “Four Corner” bread that takes its shape from ancient Roman recipes.
The town of 1,000 produces eight times its population daily to supply this popular staple to other towns. It’s also the home of muscatel. A wine cooperative produces 30 million bottles of the sweet beverage annually, but the number is misleading as most of the containers are small—just large enough to be added to a glass of beer, an unusual but popular pairing. Tour guides wear shirts labeled “Follow Me. I know where the wine is.”
River cruises end at the border of Spain, and day trips by bus take in the golden city of Salamanca, home to the fourth oldest university in Europe. Read the 12th entry in Bernard Cornwall’s popular series—Sharpe’s Sword—to find a novel set in this university town during the Napoleonic Wars.
For a fun read, try the nonfiction Cork Boat (2004) which details John Pollack’s funky dream to build a boat out of wine corks (165,000+) and rubber bands (15,000) in Washington, DC, where he was a speech writer for President Clinton, and have it shipped to Portugal, where he sailed up and back down the Douro River! The home of cork loved this adventure and celebrated his successful return to Porto. The memoir also demonstrates Pollack’s alacrity with language; he won the 1995 O. Henry World Championship Pun-Offs. If only we’d known. Our collection of corks saved for some eventual project—cork wreath, cork bulletin boards—is about to overwhelm. Check out a YouTube video of the final product. It takes about 50% of the book to arrive on the Douro River, but then there are terrific details about the area.