Portugal is the first stop on our IndieRail adventure, and we have two weeks to explore. We spent the first one in Porto and North Portugal – including the Douro Valley, where port wine is produced.

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Porto is a port city situated on the Douro River. It’s got a touch of faded grandeur, with many empty buildings and crumbling pavements, but it’s easy to spend a day or four just wandering around admiring the architecture. Take a cruise down the river at sunset for an alternative view.

Café in Porto, Portugal

Many buildings have tiled facades, as much for insulation as for decoration, which gives the city a unique feel, and the Bolsa (stock exchange building) takes opulence to a new level with its richly decorated rooms.

And of course, you have to have port while you’re in Porto – tastings are available in many wine cellars along the river, or you can just order a glass in any bar. We discovered port tonic, a mix of white port and tonic, garnished with a slice of lemon – very refreshing on a hot day.

Douro Valley

Cruise on the Douro River

A two-hour drive to the north of Porto is the Douro Valley, where port is actually produced. Although the wine takes its name from Porto, the city never really had much to do with port except for being the sending-off point for exports – the wine is made in the Douro Valley and aged in Gaia. The valley is verdant with vines, and a trip along the river in a rabelo boat is a good way to see it.

In the heart of the valley, you’ll find the small town of Pinhão, which is famous for its emblematic train station decorated with azulejos (tiles) depicting wine production and traditional life in the area.

Painted tiles on the Pinhão train station building


This World Heritage city is also the European Capital of Culture for 2012. Its twelfth-century castle is its most notable feature, though the Ducal Palace and narrow medieval streets are impressive as well.

Guimaraes Castle through the trees


Guimarães and Braga seem to fight it out for the title of “oldest city in Portugal” – though it’s clear that they are both pretty old. It’s known as the religious capital of the country and is the home of the sanctuary of Bom Jesus, which is situated at the top of a hill and can be reached by climbing 600 stairs.

Some of the 600 stairs leading to Bom Jesus, Braga

Ponte de Lima

The Romans arrived in the area in the fourth century BC and there has been a bridge over the river Lima ever since then – hence the name “Bridge of Lima”. The current bridge was built in the 14th century and is a masterpiece of medieval construction.

A fraction of the first bridge over the Lima, at Ponte de Lima

Viana do Castelo

Named after Vienna by a king who thought the town was like Austria’s capital, Viana has a quiet charm. Apart from the historic city centre and green bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel, Viana is known as the home of the sanctuary of Santa Luzia, which is similar to the Sacre Coeur in Paris. It seems there’s more of a connection with Paris than Vienna.

The Sanctuary of Santa Luzia at dusk, taken from our bedroom window

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