Sputtering into the Douro Valley

Mesao Frio, Portugal

It was another beautiful morning — sun shining, not a cloud in the sky — as we walked to a café across the street for bicas and chocolate croissants heated in a panini press (genius and dank).

After spending yesterday tasting the wines of Portugal, our plan today was to drive into the heart of the Douro Valley, the source of all of those grapes. We started by following the meandering Douro River out of Porto; as the frenetic city fell behind us, the terrain changed and we soon were surrounded on all sides by lush, terraced rolling hills of vines.

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Meanwhile, the Opel Corso was anything but impressed with the terrain. The hairpin turns, coupled with the steep climbs, had her gasping for air as our RPMs sat just underneath the red line. Unsurprisingly, the check engine light soon came on. Charlotte turned to me.

“What if we break down?” she asked. Looking around at an entire area that was named a Unesco World Heritage site in 2001 — just one sweeping vista after the next — my response was simple: “Think we’ll survive.”

And we did, soon turning onto the long driveway of Solar de Rede — a pousada (state-run) hotel just outside of a town called Mesão Frio — that was housed in an historic old building with impressive views all around.

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Our huge room was a short walk from the main lodge, set among the hotel’s own vineyard. From our porch, we could see an occasional train chugging alongside the river; in the distance, a church bell marked the hour. (Note also the twin beds provided in a “double room” — this is truly a European phenomenon.)

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We spent the rest of the day at the pool, soaking in the 90-degree temperatures and picking our lunch — a handful of free Valencia oranges — right from the trees. As the sun began to set at around 9 p.m., we cracked open a bottle of red wine, snacked on some jamón and took it all in.

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We both agreed that, indeed, this wouldn’t be a terrible place for the car to die.

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