Spain is an enchanted destination for all types of travelers.
There are castles from the Middle Ages, celebrated works of contemporary architecture, rustic tapas, and Michelin-rated restaurants. There is world-class surfing, skiing in the Sierra Nevada, cycling for all skill levels, and a wealth of cultural activities that are unique to the Iberian Peninsula. And, of course, there is the wine.
Hemingway was on to something with his love of this country.
Portugal is equally captivating: Fado singers, ornate Manueline architecture, colorful Azulejo tile work, rugged beaches and seafood riches. Combine all these with a staggering list of indigenous grapes and diverse wines, and you get a culture that is distinctively and romantically Portuguese.
An efficient rail system crisscrosses through Spain and connects its major cities. Travel is made easy if you prefer the well-beaten path. Knowing that, it's usually the toughest journeys that are the most rewarding.
Navigating the 350-mile-long river basin of the Duero River, as it meanders west through northern Spain and into Portugal, does require a car, a good map and some fortitude, but it's well worth the effort. You didn't think we were going to let you take the nice, comfy train, did you?
Starting in Madrid, it's about a two hour trek north to the town of Penafiel, which is known for its 10th century castle and a medieval square that still hosts bullfights. Penafiel is also at the center of the Ribera del Duero D.O. (Denominacion de Origen). This wine region is blessed by a large share of superstar producers. Estates like Pingus, Vega Sicilia, Pesquera, Emilio Moro and Abadia Retuerta are all within a short drive of Penafiel. Ribera del Duero is essentially red wine country. Most of the wines are made from 100 percent Tinto Fino (Tempranillo), although Garnacha (Grenache) and small amounts of international varieties are also used in blending.
Leave Penafiel and head west for an hour along the river. You'll pass the town of Valladolid. It deserves a visit. The Plaza Mayor, one of Spain's first great plazas, is centrally located within Valladolid. It is a large rectangular space, bordered by the Casa Consistorial (Town Hall), the 19th century Zorilla Theater, and a succession of granite arcades. The Plaza Mayor has a breathtaking simplicity that encourages spontaneous conversation, so strike one up with a local and find out the best place to enjoy authentic tapas and local wine.
Within a stone's throw of Valladolid is the white wine region of Rueda. Verdejo is the main grape used here, and the crisp, dry wines are often clarified with local clay. Most Rueda whites are aged in stainless steel to retain purity and freshness. Additionally, there are some examples aged in oak or blended with Sauvignon Blanc and Viura. Bodegas Naia is consistent with tank-aged Rueda. Try Belondrade y Lurton if you are curious about oaky styles. Small amounts of sparkling wine, rosé and red wine are also made in the Rueda D.O.Adjacent to Rueda is the aptly-named Toro D.O. The area's full-flavored Tempranillo wines, made from a local clone called Tinto de Toro, can run you over like the bull they were named after. The sandy soils of Toro protected much of its vineyards from phylloxera and as a result 100-year-old vines can still be found. Take a scenic drive through some of Toro's vineyards and you're bound to see staggered rows of gnarled bush vines and struggling, hard to ripen selective clusters. Numanthia is one top Toro estate. They craft several cuvees that warrant cult status. Alternatively, Finca Sobreno is a value-priced, over-achiever in Toro; the intensity and complexity in the wines could command higher prices.
Shortly before the Duero River crosses into Portugal (and has its name changed to the Douro River), it weaves itself through the ancient town of Zamora. Travelers who appreciate history or architecture should visit the walled, medieval portion of the city or tour any of the dozen Romanesque churches. No other city in Europe can boast more of that style.
Travel is arduous but exhilarating when you reach the middle section of the Douro Valley near Pinhao, Portugal. This section is known as the Cima Corgo. Here, the steep contours of the Douro's bank are packed with terraced vineyards that supply the best grapes for Port production. Port vineyards are rated on a declining quality scale from A to F, depending on a list of natural and man-made variables. Vineyard location, aspect, vine density, gradient and soil composition are all part of the matrix. The better composite scores receive higher letter grades and that warrants higher prices for that vineyard's grapes. There are six main grapes (of the 48 permitted) widely considered to be the best for Port production. Of these six, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) command the most respect.
Most of the big names in the Port trade have quintas, or winemaking estates, in the Upper Douro near Pinhao. Traditionally, the wines were fermented and fortified at the quinta, transferred to a 550 liter barrel, and then shipped down the Douro on barges called rabelos. The barrels of Port, called pipes, are off-loaded just a few kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean at Vila Nova de Gaia. This picturesque village sits directly across the river from Oporto, the city that lends its name to the wine. Vila Nova de Gaia's narrow streets are lined with the aging facilities of all the famous producers of Port. Shippers like Graham's, Dow's, Warre's and Fonseca all have lodges in Vila Nova De Gaia where they age, blend and bottle some of their fortified wines.
Many of the Port lodges are open to the public for tastings, tours, or retail sales. While you're there, treat yourself to some of the world's great fortified wine in the city that raised it. Take a moment to reflect on the hundreds of miles you've traversed, the elements of natural splendor and ancient culture you've seen and heard, the nostalgic aromas of Iberian regional cuisine, and of course, the specific sense of place in the diverse wines you've tasted. Revel in that as you sit on the bank of the mighty Douro River and savor the last sip of a 30-year-old Tawny Port in the golden afternoon sun.
Do you really think you would get all that from a train window?