DOING THE DOURO. A PADDLE THROUGH SPAIN AND PORTUGAL
A canoe journey down the full length of the 530 mile river Duero/Douro through Spain and Portugal. This is one of Iberia’s major rivers, flowing through arid Castilian plains, deep gorges and through some of the world’s most famous wine regions.
It’s a river valley that has seen centuries of conflict, and castles seem to stand on every rocky outcrop. At different times in history the river has formed the front line between Moors and Christians, been the scene of battles between the troops of Napoleon and Wellington, and seen brother fight brother for the throne of Spain. Roman armies also suffered one of their most humiliating defeats against a small force of Celtiberians here.
The river rises in the Sierra de Urbion in the province of Soria, and emerges at Oporto in Portugal, by which time it has changed its name to the Douro. The scenery changed constantly as we canoed the valley. We trekked to the source in some of the finest walking country in Europe. On the flat plains of Castille the hot, dry wind seemed to be always pushing us back. On the border between Spain and Portugal there is a deep gorge, 80 miles long, where griffon vultures and eagles soar, and which is only accessible with your own boat. The terraced vineyards of the Port wine-growing region are an engineering marvel, and made the last 100 miles of our trip a joy to navigate. We called into several of the vineyards and met members of the distinguished British port wine families, who also later showed us round their wine cellars in Oporto.
This lecture tells the story of our seven weeks on the river. It was a journey that was much harder than anticipated due to the unseasonably cool and wet weather, and the problems of getting past some of the largest hydroelectric dams in Europe, and dozens of smaller weirs and dams.
I talk about the history, of the decades of depopulation that have almost emptied so many villages, of beautiful towns crammed with architectural and historical treasures. Of devastating droughts and floods. Of a huge area of Palaeolithic rock art that was saved from submersion by the efforts of a small group of protestors. Of colourful Spanish monarchs with names like Joan the Mad and Philip the Cruel. Of a visit to a Spanish vineyard that reportedly produced Winston Churchill’s favourite tipple. Of the origin of the British control of the port wine trade in Portugal, and their role today.
This is a part of Europe that the tourist often ignores and I hope to introduce you to its surprises.
This journey became the subject of a 90 minute series on BBC Radio 4 called ‘Doing the Douro’ in 2000.
This lecture is illustrated by excellent slides.