I Saw Portugal by Traveling This Scenic Train Route — and I Can't Recommend It Enough
Legend has it that while traveling through a November rainstorm from one ancient Gaulish town to the next, a Roman soldier came upon a beggar. The solider was Martin, later to be St. Martin of Tours. Though he faced a long journey in horrible weather, to help the wet, shivering man, St. Martin cut his own cloak in two so that they could share the cloth. In response to such benevolence, so the story goes, the rain stopped, the sky cleared, and the sun dried the charitable soldier. St. Martin has ever since been eulogized as the source of unexpected lovely weather.
In Portugal, a slash of warm, sultry weather cut into normally dreary November is called Verão de São Martinho, St. Martin's Summer. In that nation of sunseekers, the warmth is treated as a fleeting miracle. Porto's Douro-side cafés fill with diners taking the opportunity to eat grilled fish and drink white wine beside the river before the murk of winter's full arrival. I was there, in that happy sunshine, eating that fish and drinking that wine alongside them. On the water, a gulp of cormorants dipped and dived, and there was a clear view out to the Atlantic. Free from the usual doldrum of gray clouds, the dome of sky, so blue at its zenith, lightened as it descended toward the horizon, where it blurred with a white opacity, making the cargo ships at sea appear like shadowed cities. The golden-leafed trees lining the river's promenade were the only sign it was truly autumn.
"É dia de São Martinho. Comem-se castanhas, prova-se o vinho!" goes the local rhyme: It's St. Martin's Day. Let's eat chestnuts, let's drink wine! Under those philamot boughs, black-capped castanheiros presided over smoking black cauldrons on mobile carts, occasionally stirring their pile of cooked, ashen chestnuts from which poked a glimmering sight of the nut's butter-yellow meat. From the river, a trail of these chestnut vendors can be traced up through Porto to the central São Bento train station, where a castanheiro tactfully positioned outside the main entrance yells "Castanhas, quentinho é boa" (or "Chestnuts, warm and tasty") at the top of his lungs.
But my partner and I had no time for more chestnuts; we had a train to catch. It was the MiraDouro, running from São Bento to Pocinho, a small provincial village in the country's interior. We boarded the wide and spacious Swiss Schindler cars through a set of heavy folding doors and settled onto the straight-backed benches. Built in the 1940s, the cars were newly refurbished after being decommissioned in 1977, though their orange and purple checkered color scheme retains a definite retro feel. That garish technicolor is in sharp contrast to the uniforms worn by the stewards: gray jacket, sweater, shirt, tie, shoes, and, one can only assume, socks and underwear, too.
A large group shuffled aboard at Campanhã, and we passed through the rest of suburban Porto. Pulling away from the city, you can feel the industrial tendrils stretch and snap. You shoot into the countryside, and the distant green becomes a blur. Between June and October, a historical steam locomotive takes up part of the journey, chugging between the port wine epicenter of Peso da Régua and Tua. But the line is still active throughout the winter and spring, and the three-and-a-half-hour journey between Porto and Pocinho makes for a leisurely and beautiful escape into the Portuguese hinterland.
This entire route, from Porto to Pocinho, had been on the chopping block in 2019, but was saved by a general outcry from tourists and locals alike. Portugal's interior, particularly the northeastern Trás-os-Montes region, is already dismally served by public transport — tiny Pocinho, with a population of a few hundred, is the end of the line. Historically, the hinterland's lack of connection with the country's main coastal hubs begat lack of infrastructure, which in turn caused the rural population to seek out better opportunities in France, Switzerland, and other western European nations. Those who return are known for building large, over-the-top houses, which present a stark duality to the small villages they left behind: stone houses crumble into the earth beside these angular, boxy new builds, many of them painted in tones of red, green, and yellow, Portugal's national colors. A glance over the countryside shows that the country suffers from a poor development plan. People can build anywhere, so they do. Between 1986 and 2007, some 80,000 houses were built per year — one every five minutes. Such overbuilding makes stretches of unbroken nature all the more splendid.
While the first part of the journey swings north of the Douro, passing along irregular fields of dry, yellow corn stalks and small paddocks of sheep, it finally rejoins the river at Pala, where to the south and east, the blue width of the water is like a strip of silk caught between two green pillows.
The train descended to the river's edge, stretches of which were long and flat enough for seaplanes to land. There was little action on the water, though, save the odd heron and a few rippling wakes of passing rabelo boats. The narrow vessels once carried barrels of young port wine from vineyards in the upper Douro Valley to the warehouses along the river's mouth. Now the river is dammed, the boats only carry tourists, and the barrels make the downstream journey by road.
The leaves of the vineyards had also changed color, and the terraces stepping up from the water's edge were trimmed with ribbons of red, gold, and bronze. Wrapped in these festive colors, the terraces were like celebrations of themselves. Every so often, the vineyard's name would appear on the hillside we were passing, the great white letters declaiming the owners of these fine terraces. It was this incredible view that Portuguese author Jose Saramago called "a fine miracle with which to start the journey."
Nothing was hurried on this perfect little train. The passengers were an eclectic mix of foreign and Portuguese, all happy and chatting away while orange trees and purple morning glories brushed against the large panorama windows. At each stop, the train stopped just long enough for the steward to hop off and give the platform a quick once over, before throwing his hand up with a flourish, a signal to the conductor to carry on. The steward then leapt aboard as the train hooted and we resumed our journey. Hardly anyone got on or off at these little stations, which seemed merely cut into the cliffside and removed from anywhere else.
As though we had not only traveled into Portugal, but through it — into another time — we reached Pocinho too soon. It was the coffee hour, and the town's only café was busy with men cradling their espressos and água-pé, a weak wine, and another São Martinho tradition. If it had been another era, there wouldn't have been much argument. A radio was playing loudly, and when Creedence Clearwater Revival came on, someone turned up the volume and said, "Ah! When partying was great!" When John Fogerty sang, "Have you ever seen the rain, coming down on a sunny day?" the question felt perfect for the climatic schism of St. Martin's Summer.
From Pocinho, we walked the four miles to Vila Nova de Foz Côa through olive and almond orchards, rising high enough to get a panoramic view over a horseshoe bend of the Douro, as well as a clear sight of the little sprinklings of houses over the distant hills.
In five years, perhaps, Vila Nova de Foz Côa will be a fine place to visit. For now, it has the barren feel of a forgotten town. Some tourist infrastructure has been started, but it emits a feeling of abandonment — there were no bikes in the electric bike stands, and the tourist information center was void of information.
We had planned to visit the famous cave paintings of the Côa Valley — older than those in Lascaux, France — found a few miles outside of town. We called the museum to book a tour, but were told that evening visits could only be made in groups of four and morning trips required a minimum of three. Short of soliciting the citizens of Foz Côa to join us, we were out of luck. Feeling slightly defeated, we instead bought figs and olives and settled down with a beer at a café.
At suppertime, we ate at a restaurant where the steak was cooked to perfection. And at the youth hostel, we were informed that the games room, bar, and just about anything else we might find interesting was closed. Needless to say, we were the only guests.
In the morning, the mountains had a bluish tinge and were covered with shreds of fog. After a skimpy breakfast, we walked back to Pocinho, arriving into town just as the MiraDouro had. On the return journey, we read and gazed out at the river, both of us bound for the Atlantic coast. Soon, I was dozing in the light streaming through the window. From somewhere within the warmth of that dreamworld, I heard a cry of "Castanhas, quentinho é boa!" Slowly, I realized it was coming from the sunny steps of São Bento station. We had arrived, with another fine day of stolen summer still ahead.