From Wine Tasting to Extraordinary Architecture: Discovering the Douro Valley

Author’s Note: Seville wasn’t always the object of my Spanish affection: I spent six weeks living with a host family in Valladolid, perfecting my castellano accent and drinking copious amounts of Ribera del Duero wine, still one of my picks. The fertile Duoro valley, which begins in Northern Castilla y León, flows into Portugal, who has also gained international fame for its port wines from the region. I had the opportunity to visit its capital, Porto, and became a big fan! I’m aching to go back and explore more: Home to some of Europe’s most remarkable natural landscapes, the Douro Valley is undoubtedly one of Portugal’s finest regions. An international hotspot for fine wine production, this charming valley is the ideal destination for a summer holiday. 

As one of Portugal’s most sparsely populated areas, the Douro Valley is an excellent destination for visitors looking to escape the stress of urban life. Relax and unwind as you travel down the Douro River, taste great Portuguese wine, and enjoy yourself in this area of natural beauty. 

Wine Tasting

The Douro Valley is one of Portugal’s most well-known wine growing regions, with the unofficial title of ‘world’s most beautiful wine region.’ Famous for its delicious port wines, the Douro is one of Southern Europe’s wine growing hotspots. Relax beside the Douro River and sample one of the region’s famous ports, including 40-year-old tawny variations. Lovers of red wine will enjoy spending their holiday in the Douro’s vineyards and riverside wineries.

Authentic Portuguese Dining

The Douro Valley region is home to some of Portugal’s finest food, as well. Spend your first day in the region exploring Porto– the region’s largest city. Known as the country’s capital of fine dining, Porto is an excellent place to taste authentic Portuguese food.

Known for its seafood, Porto is the perfect place to taste bacalhau – a dish made using salted codfish. Other options include the popular beach BBQs in Matosinhos, where you can sample grilled fish, chicken, and shrimp.

Excellent Architecture

The entire Douro Valley region, and Porto in particular, is home to some of the best architecture and urban design in Portugal. Relax near the Douro in the central districts of Porto – also a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and spend an afternoon exploring the thin, winding city streets. Streets near the city center, like Rúa Miguel Bombarda and the streets winding around the Seu and the university are especially charming.

As one of Europe’s largest mercantile cities in past eras, Porto is home to a style of tall, thin townhouses that are hard to find elsewhere in the country. The riverside area of the city, known as Ribeira, is a great place for architecture nuts to explore.

River Cruises

The Douro Valley is also renowned for having some of the most incredible scenery in all of Southern Europe. With vineyards lining the mountains that surround the river, a trip down the Douro is an incredibly stimulating visual experience.

Whether you opt for a short one-day cruise or a five-day river trip, spending your holiday on the Douro River is an excellent way to enjoy some of Southern Europe’s most dramatic scenery.

Historical Sites

Northern Portugal, the Douro Valley region in particular, is home to one of Europe’s oldest civilizations. Porto, the region’s largest city, was a Roman outpost during the height of the Roman Empire’s dominance of Southern Europe. Because of its historical significance, the region is filled with stunning churches and palaces. The Porto Cathedral is a beautiful Romanesque structure at the heart of the city, while the Palácio da Bolsa is a gorgeous 19thcentury palace that was formerly the city’s stock exchange.

From fine wine to delicious food, incredible houses to beautiful historical churches and Roman buildings, Portugal’s Douro Valley is an immensely rewarding place for visitors looking to relax in beautiful surroundings and discover Portugal’s history.

This travel guide was written by Shearings Holidays, one of Europe’s leading coach holiday companies. Visit their website to learn more about river cruises in Northern Portugal and Spain. If it weren’t true, I wouldn’t publish it cuz I like keeping it real.

Travel Highlights from the Last Six Months of 2012

When I reflected on just how much travelling I’d done during the first half of 2012 – from two new autonomous regions of Spain to fulfilling a nagging want to see Istanbul, I vowed to slow down a bit during the second half. Not because I don’t love the butterflies of savoring a new place, but because I wanted to use this year to focus on a bit more than moving – slowing down to complete a master’s, to work on this blog, and stop to enjoy actually living in Seville.

My roommate, Melissa, used to call me Macaco after his hit, Moving. All the people moving, she said, was me; indeed, my parents claim that I never walked, but went right to running.

Go, Cat, Go!

July

After leaving my job and watching my friends Lindsay and David give one another the “si quiero” in the other’s language, I cheered Spain onto victory in the Euro Cup finals, had to say goodbye to Kike, and then set up camp on my own in La Coruña.

My fourth summer in this little rinconcito of Spain was just as magical as always, full of sweeping views of the peninsula, afternoons spent snuggling in bed with my computer in front of me catching up on some work, and plenty of fresh seafood. Our plans to see Fisterrea were foiled by the rain, per usual, but I left camp feeling ok about it.

August

My birth month found me back in Chicago, which truly is the ciudad de mi corazón. My friend Phil was back from a 2-year sojourn in San Francisco, so we spent time catching up and playing tourist in a city we’d both known for decades. Sweet home, indeed.

After 27 years and 28 countries, I finally made it to New York City. Cue Alicia Keys song, and you’ll understand my fascination. Sadly, all of my pictures not on social media were lost, but we hit all of the big places on our girls’ trip – the Rock, Central Park, Fifth Ave, Magnolia Bakery, Le Tren Bleu, The Financial District, Ellis Island. My friends Kim, Pedro, Monica and Cait all came in from Long Island and Jersey to help me celebrate my 27th birthday doing the things I love most – drinking beer, laughing like a crazed person, boating and eating well.

On the actual day of my birthday, Margaret, Nancy and I took the Bolt Bus to Boston for a family wedding. My birthday cake was made of cannolis and toasted with Blue Moons, courtesy of my father, and I ate an enormous lobster. Boston was a gorgeous city and just the right size, and I had the added bonus of celebrating my second consecutive birthday with my friend Bri and attending my cousin Thomas’s beautiful wedding on the Boston College Campus.

From there, I caught up on reading on the Amtak to Stamford, Connecticut, where my friend Christine lives. There were barbecues and flippy cup tournaments, boat rides and water skiing, and lots of laughs as we caught up in Spanglish.

September

Coming back to Spain after Labor Day was tougher than it has been, as I feel a bit in limbo over my future in Spain. As I got off the airplane and into a cab to get to Lauren’s house, I left my laptop in the backseat, never to see it again. There went my pictures, some semi-important documents…but I found that parting with it wasn’t the end of the world (and the excuse I needed to upgrade to a Mac). Baby steps, people.

Lauren, Liz and I attended Travel Bloggers Unite in Porto Portugal, a wonderful and oft-overlooked city with a thriving art scene. I was jet lagged, bummed about the computer and not looking forward to networking or selling myself or anything more than a glass of port and a stroll around the city’s old quarter. I was pleased to find other, well-established bloggers willing to help out and informative talks that inspired me to keep pushing on this project, making me feel less like a clueless newbie.

Kike took me to Cádiz the weekend afterwards as a late birthday getaway for us both. We explored the beaches in Tarifa (pictured above), Zahara de los Atunes, Bolonia and Zahora before the summer slipped away.

October

The ruins of Aracena castle

I started working with my students and a master’s all at once while adjusting to a totally new lifestyle by working in the evenings. Even with Fridays off, I opted to save a little money so I could buy a new Mac and pay the second half of my program in Public Relations. Kike and I did get to Aracena, a gorgeous white village in the mountains, for their annual ham fair. I was even interviewed while stuffing my face full of pig products by Canal Sur!

November

November blustered in with cooler temps, and I began to buckle down on blogging, teaching and masters-ing, taking the time to take care of my friendships and enjoy the lovely destinations in the province. We ventured north to San Nicolás del Puerto, the village where Kike’s family has property, to celebrate their patron saint’s feast day. Unfortunately, Camarón’s auto focus broke, leaving me with little else that weekend but instagram (follow me @sunshinesiestas).

A few weekends later, I was a guest in Estepa with Heart of Andalusia. This pueblo blanco in the eastern reaches of the province is famous for its mantecados and other Christmas treats, and we were treated to a lovely day out in a place I’d always wanted to visit.

December

Spain’s commemoration of their Constitution and the Immaculate Conception means back-to-back days off, so my friends and I rented a car, got pulled over by the cops, and barely made it to one piece to La Rioja, Spain’s Wine Country. While there, we feasted like kings on the famous Calle Laurel and took a trip to Marques de Riscal’s gorgeous bodega in nearby Eltziego.

I also made it to Madrid for my cuñado (brother-in-law)’s wedding, a food tour with Lauren of Madrid Food Tour and a quick trip to visit my host family in Valladolid. The following day, my family descended upon Madrizzz and we spent six days exploring Catalonia and Andorra (country 29 and already with Christmas sales!).

2013

2013’s travel plans haven’t been fully set yet, but my family and I are celebrating New Year’s Eve in the Plaza del Sol. In the works are an anniversary trip to Bologna, heading to Toulouse to visit friends and attending TBU wherever it may be this time around! And, without a doubt, walking the Camino de Santiago this summer!

Where are you heading or hope to visit in 2013?


Details and Street Art in Porto

“Maggie?” I had to run to catch up with our fast-talking and fast-moving guide. “What does this mean?”

Showing her a photo I’d just snapped, she held her head back and roared with laughter. “Why, Rui Rio is the mayor of Porto, and this person has said he’s a son of a bitch!”

Lauren and I arrived to the Sheraton Oporto hotel in the city’s business district, Boavista, only a few hours before, running to catch a taxi and check in before the free tours and workshops started at the Travel Bloggers Unite conference. She got into a photo editing workshop, whereas I was rushed through the Oporto Cool tour. I imagined I’d have time in another moment to see the UNESCO World Heritage sites that crown the Duoro River, but blog conferences offer little time for anything more than social media.

No matter, though, as our tour of Fundação Serralves and the artsy backstreets of one of Iberia’s hippest cities provided the glimpse into tripeiro life I was looking for – the graffiti and details of urban living said it all.

Maggie, a native Angolean who has resided in Oporto for the better part of her life, had us disembarking in front of a stone house, once used as a farm house for a wealthy family. This was the Portugal I already knew – the exploration that gave way to commerce and a small yet fiercely proud people.

Thankfully, a quick pivot to our left and we were on Rúa Miguel Bombarda, a street with galleries every two steps and graffiti resting in between them.

Elders silhouetted the bright graffiti, hunched and making their way to nearby Alimentação for onions and water, and we followed suit. The stuck out just as much as we did, clustered next to graffiti depicting poetry and Oporto’s famed heart symbol. The warm day’s morning clouds had cleared, making us squint as we moved along the rúa.

The tour led us to a small mall, the Centro Comerção Bombarda, with bonsai gardens, chalk drawings on the floor and windows and artsy cafés. Used to the regal districts of Lisbon, seeing a city so alive with art and off-beat culture was refreshing. Named for a revolutionary who led a resistance against the long-standing monarchy, Rúa Miguel Bombarda is slowly starting a revolution of its own.

The street art even took the form of laundry, which Maggie pointing out as a way of life in Iberia: “We even think our garments are art. can you see? No secrets here. We are starting something new out of something old.” For someone who hangs her own laundry out to dry (both literally and figuratively), I had to laugh.

The rúa is also home to a number of interesting shops, displaying everything from rare sports cards to out-of-print books and even a curious shop with recycled goods. We sifted through old tiles, shoe horns and corsets. Hidden treasure was just begging to be found, but Maggie moved us right along, up towards the university and its nightlife hot spots.

Maggie led us past bookstores and bars carved out among government havens, speaking of the students’ revolution and their quest for all things bohemian. We tucked inside one of Porto’s oldest shops on Rúa Galerie da Paris, converted from a textiles mart into a gift store. I ignored everything on the tables and instead ran my hands along the worn wood of the old postal office and admire the crown molding on the second floor before being hurried out and onto a franchesinha sandwich. Old meets new when it comes to food, anyway.

Have you ever been to Porto? What were your impressions of the city?

How to Survive a Blog Conference as a Newbie

Bridging my current knowledge gap with those who know far more.

It seems that I can confide in my blog designer (let her know how great of a job she’s done!) about all of my blog-related qualms. When I told her my site needed some work done before attending Travel Bloggers Unite earlier this month, I also blurted out, OMGIHAVENOCLUEWHATIMDIONGTHEYREGOINGTOHATEME .

Staring down the list of all of the big names in the industry and all of the other delegates, I was immediately intimidated and glad I would be with my friends and fellow Spain bloggers Lauren of Spanish Sabores and Liz of Young Adventuress. We schmoozed, we had silent freak out moments (ok, mostly me) and we traded business cards with some big guns, all in the name of self-promotion.

Bring Business Cards

Not three days before leaving the US for the conference, I realized I hadn’t had business cards made. For many, seeing this little card will give them your first impression of your blog, so it’s important to have them on hand and ready to dole out. When meeting people, I often jotted down something that we’d connected on, like bikes or fundraising, and made sure to tweet them right after the conference.

Moo and Vistaprint can get you fast cards with a professional look for just a few dollars, plus shipping. Having made this mistake, I’d really take a look at your brand and what message you want to send to another blogger or PR rep. Black and white for a country as vibrant as Spain? Sure, it fits the picture I used, but it doesn’t really tell the story of just how colorful a place it is.

Research Who Will Be There and Reach Out to Them

Conferences of this calibre often have a list of delegates who will be attending, along with the keynote speakers, chat givers and organizers. I was shocked when Lauren checked in and the conference organizer said, “Right, you’re the American married to a Spaniard in Madrid!”

My designer told me to talk to a few people in particular, many whose blogs I’ve read, so I did a little research to find out something we had in common, or a particularly interesting anecdote to comment on. As Gary Arndt put it when we met last week in Seville for tapas, “Someone never makes themselves visible to me until they’ve got something to say.” My connection with Gary?

We’re both Green Bay Packers fans (and he even owns stock!).

Introduce Yourself By Way of an Interesting Anecdote

On a sunset cruise of the Duoro with Liz and Lauren

Speaking of which, use the “elevator pitch” technique when introducing yourself. Think about your blog as a product, and imagine you’re in an elevator with someone. You’ve got maybe 45 seconds to present yourself and your blog, the product, so how do you package it up?

Just like a speed dating event, blog conferences allow you to rub shoulders in buffet lines or cramped into a lecture hall. The first questions people tended to ask was, “So, what’s your blog?” and I had to think fast to tell them about me and Sunshine and Siestas. Nerve wracking, maybe, but I have sorority recruitment practice!

I had conversations ranging from how to swear in Spanish (with tutorials), to the bedbugs I caught at the hostal, to my missing laptop. I immediately hit it off with the duo from As We Saw It over my strange pareja de hecho marriage business, and we spent an hour talking about dozens of topics. Once I felt comfortable enough to do more than observe, I could let my voice shine through and connect with people – even if it was about bug infestations.

Have Any and All Gadgets on Hand (and their chargers!)

I had to laugh when we rolled up the magnificent Palacio do Freixo on the Duoro. I was ready for a glass of port, but the first thing handed out to us was a sheet of paper with Internet passwords. I realized I had left my iPod at the hotel charging, so the paper was no use to me. Many blog conferences have a special hashtag, so you’ll see people social media-ing away between chats, over coffee and when they’re up thinking at night (maybe that’s just me).

Roll out the ipods and smartphones!

I sent many tweets to people I was interested in meeting, and used instagram to show people what I was eating and seeing on the day of our city visits.

Be a Fly on the Wall Until you Have Your Bearings

My designer told me it was normal to feel overwhelmed and out of place. Thankfully, the first day’s pre-conference tour introduced me to a small group of people as we toured Porto’s artsy haunts. There were a mere six of us, but we all got on well enough to talk travel, products and marketing. Don’t feel the need to start doling out cards the second you arrive – ease into it, and speak out when you feel comfortable.

Ask All of your Questions

I went into TBU without a clear idea of what it was. Thanks to research and my training as a communicator, I soon found that the atmosphere was a bit more relaxed, and that most people were willing to help. Look at the conference site and map out what talks you’d like to attend. Note what you like on other blogs and write down questions on how to do it. Stay in contact afterwards.

I’m extremely happy that I made the decision to attend a conference, as I left feeling inspired and ready to tackle a new design and more ideas for content. With more preparation, I could have probably squeezed even more out of it, but we’re just taking baby steps for now!

should be applauding, but this crème burlee is so, so good!

Upcoming events:

TBEX: Girona, Spain. September 21-22   http://www.travelblogexchange.com/

World Travel Market: London, England. November 5 – 8   http://www.wtmlondon.com/

ITM: Berlin, Germany. TBA March   http://www.itm.org.uk/

Have you ever been to a conference of this nature? What was your experience?

 

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