Sabrosa, Portugal—Outside a of couple of neighborhoods in Lisbon, driving in Portugal is relatively safe and easy. The highways are good—and relatively empty—the city streets are manageable and the road signs are universal. But, it’s the 90-minute drive from Porto along the IP4/A4, up the Douro River valley into the district of Vila Real—whose winding roads, breathtaking vistas and slightly frightening unguarded drops from the hilltops—that really make driving in Portugal something to talk about.
On the road to a weekend in Sabrosa, at the Quinta do Portal (quinta is Portuguese for farm or vineyard) , one of the things that is of note is that the Portuguese paved routes along the tops of the hills and mountains, instead of along the bottom in the valleys. The result is a continuous series of expansive views that dangerously catch your eye. But, the precarious route is worth every raced heartbeat. Its amazing how different the geography is in Portugal between places just an hour or two away. Northern Portugal is very green and packed with rolling hills, as compared to the flat and dry southern interior, and of course, it’s wondrous coastline with roaring cliffs and seemingly endless beaches.
It is in this northern region, where one of Portugal’s most successful ambassador’s was and is born—Port wine. Named after Porto, the city where the fortified wine hits the market, port wine is actually produced about 70 miles inland. Sandeman, Ferreira and all the big names in port are here. Within the region, is Sabrosa, a small quiet town high in the hills above the Douro River. It is home to the vineyard/wine label “Quinta do Portal”. And right in the middle of the vineyards sits Casa das Pipas (pipas is Portuguese for wine barrels), a elegant bread & breakfast, surrounded on all sides by endless rows of red wine producing grapes.
Yes, not all the grapes here are destined for port, but in fact, red wine production here, and throughout most of Portugal is an extremely important part of the culture and economy, for both local and international markets.
Casa das Pipas is a modernly decorated villa, with what could be said are typical rooms for southern Europe—nothing extravagant with hot tubs and flat screens, but certainly elegant and comfortable. The hosts are fantastic. Friendly and genuine—you really feel like their personal guest. The common area is stocked really well with red wine, vinho verde, port, muscatel, Madeira, etc. Just help yourself and pour a glass. It works on the honor system, just sign your name on the list with what you had and pay an extremely modest price at checkout. They had to breakout the calculator for me, but even then the sum was almost negligible. There’s a pool outside, plenty of lounge space, you can work on tan, catch up with some reading by the pool or upstairs in the library, you can hike, there are biking expeditions and you can head into town and visit the house where the famous explorer Magellan was born back in 1480.
You can also visit the winery, and in September, you can see it in action as the grapes are harvested and brought into the winery for crushing and fermenting. You can tour the facility, do some wine tasting, visit the cavernous wine cellar (designed by world-renowned architect Álvaro Siza Viera), which houses countless barrels of wine. And best of all, you can buy a couple of bottles, many of which are international prize winners, and take them home with you.
On the property is also a world-class restaurant, where each night a multi-course dinner is prepared. Each course is designed for pairing with one of Quinta do Portal’s wines. The food is quite good, and the wine even is better.
Perhaps my favorite part of the stay, is the quiet. There are only a few guests at Casa das Pippas at any one time, and there are few neighbors within walking distance. In a way, the vineyard is filled with more silence than it is grapes. One night, while drinking my favorite vintage of the day, I got startled by the relatively loud sound of a bee flying by—it’s that quiet. That calm. That relaxing. And with no city lights, the night’s stars can barely help you make out the vast expanse in front of you, though you know it’s there. I stayed out until the early morning hours explore the wonders of port.
Also worth the effort, is a short trip down the hill by car—eyes on the road!—to the picturesque town of Pinhão, which sits right on the Douro. It makes for a pleasant stroll, a nice place for lunch and you can get a boat ride along the Douro and Pinhão Rivers and take in the equally beautiful vistas from sea level.