I certainly was not expecting to meet Mr Bean’s doppelgänger in the Douro Valley. But more of that later.
By the third morning of my Douro River cruise I know to chose the sort of breakfast that will neutralise the effects of the coming day. Our first stop today is the Douro Museum, where we learn about the history of port making in the region, all the way back to Roman times – wine being much safer to drink than water. Of course, this newly-gained knowledge must be celebrated with a tipple or two of port.
This has fortified (groan!) me for the trek up the zig-zag stairway to the Sanctuary of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios(Our Lady of Remedies). The staircase is completely over the top baroque with stone balustrades, urns, fountains and statuary. I adopt a sudden and keen interest in the blue and white tiles depicting religious scenes along the way – more dyspnoea than devotion. Reaching the charming chapel after 686 steps, I pray to Our Lady to grant a remedy for my creaking knees, or, at the very least, for my intemperance over the past few days. I am grateful, though, that I am not a pious pilgrim crawling up on my knees during the annual feast day.
Next we are twisting and turning our way up a ridiculously narrow road through a never-ending sea of grape vines. Many thousands of hours of hard yakka have gone into terracing and training these rocky slopes into vineyards. From our destination, the Quinta da Avessada, I admire the neatly terraced contours of the valley walls, the Douro meandering leisurely below, a glass of delicious muscatel in hand. I have been on plenty of wine tours in my time so I am not expecting anything special until our host, Luis Barros, arrives with his little band of musicians – including a piano accordionist, of course – and launch into some cheerful local folk songs. Luis regales us with stories of his family, the winery, the wines. His madcap facial expressions, fluctuating tone and wildly exaggerated gestures have me in stitches. This IS the Portuguese Mr Bean!
We visit a room where, bizarrely, a bunch of animatronic men demonstrate grape stomping in the old tradition. I am pretty sure the Japanese still have the inside run on robotics, although I muse that I might prefer an animatronic wine stomper over a robotic nurse to look after me in my very old age. Then to the cellar, a classic dimly lit stone and timber cave with oak barrels where I learn to appreciate the range of wines and ports produced in the Douro Valley. Really all too delicious to spit out, and it would be so unlady-like.
We weave our way to the restaurant where Luis continues his performance – I mean his explanations of the food and yet more wines. He is hilarious and, as they say, there isn’t a dry seat in the house. I force myself to try every dish on offer, all hearty local peasant foods and ensure I match the wines correctly. Only to be polite, naturally. More music from the merry men and a final fire-in-your- throat brandy and I and the rest of the gang are singing and dancing along with Mr Bean. No-one notices the treacherously winding road down to the river and the boat. Time for a well-earned siesta before dinner. I think I can take a lot more of this.