Douro: Iberia's River of Gold 14

The Douro River flows for nearly nine hundred kilometres from Duruelo de la Sierra in north-central Spain to the Atlantic coast of Portugal. Iberia's third longest river, behind the Tagus and the Ebro, the Douro winds its way like a snake through Spain's historic Castile and León region before bisecting northern Portugal on its way to the ocean in Porto and between Salta de Castro and La Fregeneda, the river etches its was perfectly along the Spanish-Portuguese border for 150 kilometres. The Douro was revered as a god known as Durius during Iberia's time under Roman rule and its name stems from the Celtic word 'dubro', which literally means 'water'. Tourism companies around Europe frequently call the Douro the 'River of Gold' due to its near perfect weather and the river's unique micro-climate sees almonds and olives flourish in abundance along its valleys. Unquestionably, the Douro's most iconic export is the world-renowned Port wine made from the sun-kissed, sweet red grapes which grow in the special 'quintas' vineyards on the banks of the river in northern Portunga's Pinhão and São João da Pesqueira regions. Trademark wine and immaculate weather are not the only highlights of the Douro, however, and the story of the river and the towns and cities along its banks are interconnected with those of Iberia under Islamic rule and the forging of empires during Spanish and Portuguese global exploration in the Age of Discovery. From Porto to Vallodolid, checking out medieval cathedrals, charts of the New World and the home of one of history's most influential novelists along the way, we explore some of the very best of what Iberia's 'River of Gold' has to offer.

Porto, Portugal

Jun 1 2016

Portugal's second largest city after Lisbon, Porto sits at the mouth of the Douro as the river flows its way into the Atlantic. The city is home to roughly 1.8 million people within its urban area and in 1996 its historical centre was officially designated as a world heritage site by UNESCO. As with many of Iberia's coastal areas and regions, Porto's history dates back to the Celtic period, when ancient fortified citadels were built around what is now the city centre, and after the Iberian peninsula fell under the control of the Romans, who named it 'Hispania', in the third century BC, the city became a vital commercial and trade hub along the Atlantic coast. The Douro flows virtually straight through the middle of Porto and down the centuries has seen the Islam come and go under the Moors, who were ousted by Iberia's Catholic kings during the Reconquista, as well as the ignition of the Age of Discovery, with part of Henry the Navigator's fleet leaving from the city to explore the coast of West Africa in the early fifteenth century which ultimately lead to the exploration of the New World. Image Date: 02/06/2016

Porto, Portugal

Jun 2 2016

Today, the centre of Porto overflows with Romanesque, Neoclassical, Baroque and Romantic-era architecture with some of the most famous structures on the Iberian Peninsula and the Gothic Church of São Francisco, the official Bishops' residence of the Paço Episcopal and the eighteenth century church of Igreja dos Clérigos are among the architectural icons of the city. Sé do Porto, or Porto Cathedral and which sits on the north bank of the Douro in the middle of the city's historical core, was originally founded in the twelfth century. Outside the cathedral, along the northern stretch of the Terreiro da Sé, a statue of Vímara Peres is immortalised on horseback. Peres was a warrior and nobleman from the Kingdom of Asturias, in what is now northwestern Spain, and holds the unique position of expelling both the Islamic Moors and the Vikings from Iberia in the ninth century. In 868, after ousting the occupiers, Peres became the very first ruler of the Asturian County of Portugalia, which laid the initial foundations for the establishment of the independent Kingdom of Portugal two centuries later. Image Date: 04/20/2014

Pinhão, Alijó, Portugal

Jun 4 2016

Just over 125 kilometres inland from Porto along the river, the tiny town of Pinhão sits at the heart of Portugal's world famous Douro Valley region. Above all else, Pinhão is the Douro Valley's wine country and virtually everything in town, including its famous bakeries, cheese producers and traditional Portuguese açougueiros butchers, is geared or connected to its iconic port-producing vineyards which ship the wine all over the world. Built in 1937, Pinhão's railway station is also famed as one of Portugal's prettiest and most photogenic and with its blue and white glazed Islamic-influenced Azulejo tiles which depict the town's vineyard harvest, bunches of grapes are brought down from the surrounding hills to be processed into the famous port and the resulting casks being shipped westward down the Douro to Porto. Image Date: 03/14/2009

Pinhão, Alijó, Portugal

Jun 5 2016

As the river twists its way through Alto Douro and begins to widen in the river alley near Pinhão, the countryside surrounding the town is comfortably some of Portugal's most photographed and best loved scenery. In autumn ever year, the at times sleepy Pinhão bursts into frenzied activity as the grape harvest begins in the vineyards which cascade down the sides of the valley towards the Douro, themselves easily mistakable for the stepped rice terraces of China and Southeast Asia. This part of the Douro Valley, which is even nicknamed 'Douro Vinhateiro' its most famous product, is one of the oldest and largest wine-producing regions on earth and household names such as Cockburns, Taylors, as well Sandeman's across the river from Pinhão in Quinta do Seixo, can be seen emblazoned on placards in the vineyards on the hills. Image Date: 01/08/2015

Zamora, Castile and León, Spain

Jun 8 2016

Across the border going upriver from Portugal, Zamora is the first large town which the Douro flows through after crossing the border with Spain. Roughly fifty kilometres away from the border and historically a key stop along an old Spanish commercial trade route known a 'La Via de la Plata', or 'The Silver Road', Zamora's tumultuous history saw it change hands dozens of times between Catholic and Muslim during the Reconquista. Legendary Spanish warrior and military leader El Cid is also part of the town's mythology after he intervened in a struggle between two sons of King Ferdinand I of León, who were feuding over Zamora, and sacked the town in an effort to install Sancho II of Castile and León as king. Sancho was later assassinated, with rule of the town then being passed onto his brother, Alfonso VI, and when the seven centuries of Moorish rule in Iberia came to an end in 1492, the town acted as an outpost in the wars between Castile and the newly independent Portugal. Today, Zamora is home to around 67,000 people and is famous around Spain for its 24 Romanesque-style medieval churches, the most of any town or city in Europe. Alongside its castles, royal palaces, churches and cathedrals, Zamora is also home to five sets of medieval-era watermills known as 'Aceñas de Olivares' which were a major part of the town's trade and industry during the Middle Ages, milling the vast majority of its flour and wheat as well as being the official royal property of the King of Castile. Image Date: 09/17/2010

Zamora, Castile and León, Spain

Jun 9 2016

San Juan de Puerta Nueva is widely considered to be the jewel in the crown of Zamora's 24 iconic Romanesque-era churches and the building is thought to date back to roughly 1172. The church dominates Zamora's Plaza Mayor in the centre of town and its most immediately recognisable feature is the rose window indented above the main entrance. Inside Iglesia de San Juan de Puerta Nueva, which originally featured three separate interior cloisters with Islamic-inspired Mudéjar artwork before the main tower collapsed in 1559, the church still showcases the gold-tinted Spanish Catholic decor which has been made famous in both Europe and the New World, including a large crucifix, arched pillars and half-moon shaped lunette frescoes depicting scenes and figures from the bible. Easter is arguably the most important festival celebrated in Zamora, so much so that the Catholics in the city mark the occasion two days before Good Friday with an event dating back 1660 and known as 'Festividad de las Cuarenta Horas', or 'Feast of Forty Hours'. The event still is still held in Zamora today and outside the church, surveying the western side of the Plaza Mayor and playing a bugle and a set of drums respectively, two black statues make up the Merlú monument which crafted and installed by sculptor Antonio Pedrero Yeboles to commemorate a band of Catholic monks known as the 'Brotherhood of Jesus de Nazareno', whose job it was to to begin the 'Forty Hours' feast and its procession. Image Date: 10/01/2011

Toro, Castile and León, Spain

Jun 11 2016

Forty kilometres upstream from Zamora, the Douro River passes through the Castilian village of Toro. Home to just over nine thousand people, the village encapsulates many travellers' preconceptions of Spain and as the frantic pace of modern life penetrates even the most isolated and rural areas of the country, Toro still goes into a sleep-induced lockdown every afternoon for its daily siesta. This is Castile's wine country and in a similar fashion to Zamora, forty five minutes downstream along the Douro, the village is studded with reminders of Spain's Romanesque architectural period, most notably with its collegiate church of Colegiata de Toro and the Church of San Lorenzo el Real. Toro is also famous for its fusion of Spanish Catholic and Islamic Mudéjar-style religious buildings - most famously the Iglesia de San Lorenzo just off the Plaza Porticada in the centre of town - an architectural relic from Spain's past and which also inspired the Alhambra, the Alcázar of Seville and many more of the country's most iconic buildings. Image Credit: Dirkvde (Wikimedia Commons) Image Date: 2/23/2013

Toro, Castile and León, Spain

Jun 12 2016

Toro is also a 'Denominación de Origen', or 'Denomination of Origin' which officially recognises its wine among the most prestigious Spanish labels. The town is also part of a region collectively known in the wine trade as Tierra del Toro and Tierra del Vino and wine has been produced in the region for well over one thousand years. What Pinhão and the serene twisting valleys of the Alto Douro are to Portuguese wine, Toro has historically served a similar function in Spain and the story goes that Christopher Columbus even made a special request to have have a cellar filled with Toro's wine on board the Santa Maria when he set sail from the Spanish town of Palos de la Frontera for the New World on August 3rd, 1492. Since 2015, however, Toro's town's relationship with its famous wine has been anything but tranquil and in the past two summers the inhabitants have gathered on the Plaza de San Agustin not so much for a wine party but a wine fight which amounts to an extraordinarily messy celebration to mark the end of Augusts's Fiesta de San Agustín with the 'Batalla del Vino', or 'Battle of Wine'. The wine-saturated free-for-all, in which the only rule is that participants must wear white, is inspired by the same raucous celebration which takes place in the town of Haro in northwestern Spain's La Rioja region and sees hundreds of tipsy combatants equip themselves with buckets, water pistols and back-mounted liquipaks kitted-out with sprayers filled with Toro's famous red wine with the sole intention of completely drenching anybody in sight. Image Date: 08/27/2015

Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Jun 14 2016

Despite being located on the banks of the Tormes River and seventy kilometres to the south of Zamora and Toto, Salamanca often finds itself on travel itineraries for Spain's Douro region and the city is one of the real icons of Europe's classical Renaissance architecture. Salamanca has a population of around 210,000 and its history goes way back to the time of Iberia's Celts and the legendary Carthaginean commander Hannibal also laid siege to the city in the third century BC. The city spent two centuries under Islamic rule after the Moorish invasion of Iberia in 712 and after La Reconquista, Salamanca became one of the most important intellectual and cultures centres in the Kingdom of Castile. One particular story goes that, when Pope Alexander IV visited Salamanca in 1254, he dubbed it 'one of the four leading lights of the world' and many of the city's famous old buildings are made from sandstone mined from Castile's nearby Villamayor quarry which are said to glow gold, orange and pink when the sun sets to give Salamanca its other nickname, 'La Dorada', or 'City of Gold'. Image Date: 07/23/2014

Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Jun 15 2016

The Universidad de Salamanca is the oldest university in Spain and the fourth oldest in the western world. Located just off the Plaza de Anaya in the southern part of Salamanca, the university began as a cathedral school in 1130 before being granted official university status by King Alfonso X of Castile in 1254 and and recognised by Pope Alexander IV year later and as Christopher Columbus began pressuring the Spanish monarchy to provide financial backing for his voyage to the New World as means of establishing another trade route to the Far East, he enlisted the help of geographers and scholars at the Universidad de Salamanca to help plea his case. Thereafter, as Spain began to explore Americas, many of the university's academics stood on the 'Supremo Consejo de Indias', or 'Supreme Council of the Indies', and the 'Casa de Contratación', an agency supervising trade in the Spanish empire. In addition to famous astronomers, clergymen, poets and philosophers who studied at the Universidad de Salamanca, the institution's connection to the New World also applied to its students as future conquistador Hernán Cortés, who would later defeat the Aztecs and ultimately claim what is now Mexico for Spain, enrolled at the university for two years in 1499. The Universidad de Salamanca's historic library, which famously houses 906,000 volumes, also features an Age of Discovery-era globe with a Mesoamerican glyph-style depiction of either an Aztec or a Mayan smoking chocolate through a ritual pipe while sat under a palm tree. Image Date: 04/01/2008

Tordesillas, Castile and León, Spain

Jun 17 2016

Tordesillas sits thirty five kilometres upstream along the Douro from Toro and during the Reconquista, the town acted as a defensive stronghold and supply base as Iberian armies under the command of Catholic kings gradually drove the Moors out of the peninsula. In 1344, King Alfonso XI of Castile had a royal palace built in Tordesillas at what would later become the town's famous Convent of Santa Clara and he originally commissioned the complex to be designed in the Islamic-influenced Mudéjar style as a kind of miniature version of the Alcázar of Seville. Today, Tordesillas is home to a population of around nine thousand people and to the detriment of its storied and fascinating history, the town has been historically associated with the bloody tradition of Spanish bull fighting. In September 2016, breaking from the grisly and cruel tradition, Tordesillas' annual Toro de la Vega bull fight saw the release of the chosen animal as it was allowed to run to a meadow just outside the town before being taken to a local corral. Image Date: 07/01/2010

Tordesillas, Castile and León, Spain

Jun 18 2016

Just off what is now the Calle Libertad in the south of Tordesillas on the banks of the Douro, Ferdinand II of Aragon, Isabella I of Castile, John, Prince of Asturias and John II of Portugal came together in the building now preserved as the Casas del Tratado to the discuss the Treaty of Tordesillas on June 7th, 1494. Thirty eight years previously, Henry the Navigator, Alvise Cadamosto and Antoniotto Usodimare had claimed the Cape Verde Islands off West Africa for Portugal and in 1492, Christoper Columbus claimed what would later become known as Cuba and Hispaniola for Spain. For their part, the Spanish rulers wished to confine the Portuguese to exploration of the African coast, keeping them away from the Americas in the process, and the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed, with a line of demarcation known as the the Tordesillas meridian which ran from pole to pole, was agreed upon and the document was signed by Spain on July 2nd, 1494, and by Portugal on September 5th of the same year. The Portuguese later landed in South America, with Pedro Álvares Cabral claiming Terra de Santa Cruz, which would later become Brazil, on April 22nd, 1500, and a map known as the Cantino Planisphere was drawn up by the Portuguese in 1502. The chart shows the territories encountered by the Portuguese, including Brazil and India as well as huge swathes of Africa and parts of Southeast Asia and the altered Treaty of Tordesillas was ratified by Pope Julius II and made official on January 24th, 1506. Image Date: 10/10/1502

Valladolid, Castile and León, Spain

Jun 20 2016

The Pisuerga is the Douro River's second longest tributary, which flows down from the mountains of Cordillera Cantábrica in northern Spain and joins the Douro roughly 25 kilometres southeast of Valladolid, the capital and largest city of the Castile-Leon region. Valladolid sits at the virtual geographical centre of Spain's central Meseta plateau and, while unable to boast the sheer beauty of Salamanca, is home to dozens of iconic buildings and its central Plaza Mayor, at the end of Calle Santiago in the middle of town, is one of Spain's very best. During the golden years of Spain's surge to being an early modern global superpower from the end of the Medieval period, Valladolid acted as home to royalty in Felipe II, Fernando and Isabel as well as Christopher Columbus, who died in the city on May 20th, 1506. Arguably the most famous resident of Valladolid, and unquestionably the person with whom the city is proudest to have its name connected, has a European university named in his honour as well as having his residence preserved as a kind of literary shrine. Image Date: 04/26/2006

Valladolid, Castile and León, Spain

Jun 21 2016

On central Valladolid's Calle Miguel Íscar, Miguel de Cervantes, Spanish literary icon and one of the most famous and influential writers in history is memorialised at the Casa de Cervantes. The two-storey complex doubles up as a museum as well as a revered literary shrine and after serving in the Spanish military and his harrowing tale of spending five years as a captive of Ottoman pirates in Algiers between 1575 and 1580, Cervantes himself lived in the building from 1604 to 1606. During his time at the Valladolid residence, Don Quixote, his most celebrated and iconic work was published and he also wrote some of his famous Novelas ejemplares, or 'Exemplary Novels' during his stay. Image Credit: Lourdes Cardenal (Wikimedia Commons) Image Date: 03/29/2007

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