Every year, sometime around the end of the grape harvest, a group of people gather at a fire station in the heart of the Douro Valley. This year we were over 130 participants on the Provesende vineyard walk to support the local fire service.
The walk’s organizer, Paulo, a talented graphic designer who also works in the village artefacts shop, ticks my name off his list and hands me a bag branded ‘Bombeiros de Provesende’ (Provesende Fire Service) which contains a bottle of water and a green cap. My next call is a trestle table behind which a couple of women fire fighters are standing. They hand me a steaming mug of coffee and a large ham roll: breakfast.
The Provesende walk has the status of local legend and attracts people from as far away as Porto. Sponsored by Symington Family Estates who have financed the purchase of a fire engine for each of the last ten years, it attracts a broad band of wine and nature enthusiasts.
Off we set, soon leaving the village behind us and climbing up to Quinta do Cume, a rising star award winning winery comprised of a group of elegant contemporary stone structures. The paths are bone dry and dusty as there has been practically no rain in Portugal since the spring. I find myself talking to a nice woman from New Zealand who says that she has been returning to the Douro for the last seventeen years as a cook for one of the local wine families. Her previous clients, earlier in the summer, lived in New York, quite a contrast! She explains how she always uses local materials to cook with and manages to adapt to local cooking traditions – a versatile artist.
The grape harvest this year was unusually early and harvesting in most vineyards ended several weeks ago. This is a bit of a shame as I remember after last year’s walk watching grape treading in a traditional stone lagar. One major wine producer tells me the quantity of grapes he harvested was considerably down this year.
Our party winds up the hill like a great serpent, gradually disintegrating into conversational groups, before looping round and plunging back down through Provesende towards Quinta da Cavadinha, the seat of Warre’s port, a brand that dates from the 17th century and which is owned by the Symingtons. The quinta is charming and unpretentious with a staggering view over the Pinhão Valley. A plaque quotes from Miguel Torga’s beautiful novel ‘Vindima’ (‘Harvest’), a brilliant sociological dissection of Douro society in the first half of the last century. The Symingtons are offering a glass of port. Although I know it will be delicious, I decline as it’s already very hot and we still have some way to go.
The descent down towards Pinhão is steep and knees and thighs are beginning to be challenged. I’m already on to my second bottle of water, but so glad to be here. The combination of festive spirit and stunning landscape is exhilarating. We walk through a village which clings to the side of the hill, greeted by calls of encouragement from people standing in front of their houses and the anxious barking of dogs surprised by so many people.
Just above the River Pinhão another table has been set up beneath some welcome shade. This time we’re getting some Quinta da Fonte do Milho rosé with great chunks of bread covered with olive oil and jam.
Recharged we head off on the final stretch of the walk, following the course of the river as it winds into the small town of Pinhão. People are talking enthusiastically about the bus that will take us back up to Provesende. We’ve already walked more than 12 km and the existence of the bus is a relief. Before we climb gratefully aboard, there is the final treat of walking along the banks of the great Rio Douro, today a magnificent dark green band.
Back up in Provesende, at the Fire Station, we sit around large round tables where we are served hearty helpings of tripe washed down by a cheerful red wine. Soon the building is filled by the sound of laughter and animated talk. It has been a wonderful day and I suddenly realize that I haven’t looked at my phone since eight o’clock this morning.
“See you next year,” a couple who have come all the way from Dorset, England, say to me waving goodbye.