The valleys of the Douro offer visitors a real feast each and every year. In February and March, the valleys that the winter stripped bare are all dressed up in shades of pink and white. These flowering almond trees attract thousands of visitors to the region.
Legend has it that the almond trees were planted by the Moorish King Ibn-Almundim to soothe Queen Gilda, who was pining for the snow of her homeland, somewhere to the north. The sight of the white flowers of the almond trees the following spring cured Gilda of her malaise.
These days, almonds are one of the most widely cultivated products in the region, particularly in the counties of Freixo de Espada à Cinta, Mogadouro, Torre de Moncorvo and Vila Nova de Foz Côa. Whilst the almond trees are in flower, these municipalities organise fairs, festivals and guided visits to this natural wonder.
One excellent way of enjoying the beauty of the almond trees, and the region as a whole, is to travel the Almond Route. This takes the form of a special train trip that CP – Comboios de Portugal organises for Saturdays in March every year.
The train takes you from Porto (Campanhã station) to Pocinho, a journey that, in its own right, offers an amazing experience as you travel along the banks of the Douro River. Once you get to Pocinho, you can choose from one of three bus tours
Tour A begins in the village of Pocinho, which neighbours the dam of the same name. You are in the municipality of Vila Nova de Foz Côa, in the district of Guarda. In the 19th Century, the Pocinho train station played an important role in the development of the area, serving as an entrepôt for merchandise. The station tiles portray scenes from everyday farm life and the making of wine on the Douro.
Once you have taken you photos and had your fill of the flowering countryside, it is time to move on to Vila Nova de Foz Côa. The Gothic-Manueline pillory and parish church are a source of local pride, but most tourists go to Vila Nova de Foz Côa to see the world-famous rock paintings (the oldest of these are 25 thousand years old).
To this end, this first tour includes a visit to Côa Museum. Inaugurated in 2010, it offers the best possible access point to a universe that is still something of a mystery: how did the Côa valley become the world's biggest open-air museum, recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage site? Besides the objects and rocks, thousands of years old, the museum also offers an audiovisual and multimedia experience that serves as a taster for a guided visit to the rock art centres (save this for when you have time for a longer visit to Vila Nova de Foz Côa).
Having assuaged your hunger for knowledge about the humanity’s past, it is time for lunch. This will be taken in Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo. The stork nests and the parish church, with its baroque façade, are just two of this town’s attractions. After lunch, it is time for Castelo Rodrigo, a medieval village that played an important part in the defence of Portugal. Note the old walls that have resisted the passage of time, the ruined palace of Cristóvão de Moura, the 16th Century pillory, the medieval cistern (13 metres deep), the houses (some Manueline, others Arabic in style) and all the other historical features of Castelo Rodrigo.
Your trip continues on to the small village of Barca d’Alva, a northern settlement that has a Mediterranean climate. From here you can see across into Spain Next, you will arrive at Penedo Durão, an enormous rock that rises over the right bank of the Douro. The viewpoint on top of the rock offers excellent panoramas of the flowering almond trees. It is also a great place to spot birds (from the partridge to the Egyptian vulture).
Freixo de Espada à Cinta is home to a Gothic castle. Some of the castle walls encircle the Manueline parish church (the streets are full of doorways and windows in this same style) The irregular heptagon of the Rooster or Clock Tower (Torre do Galo or Torre do Relógio) is another sight worth seeing in this town. This is the last stop on Flowering Almond Tree Tour A, before you return to Pocinho.
This tour begins in Freixo de Numão. Archaeological research tells us that humans have been living here for thousands of years. The pillory, a national monument, the Casa Grande, a baroque palace from the mid-18th Century with a rococo chapel, and various other chapels form the collective heritage of this town which is also known for its smokehouses and, of course, for its almonds.
The archaeological tour continues. Archaeologists have not yet been unable to solve the mystery of what exactly the Old Castle (Castelo Velho) really was - a fortified settlement or a site made into a monument? We do know that people were living there in the third or second millennium BC. There are plenty of ruins from the Copper and Bronze Ages in the immediate vicinity, such as Castanheiro do Vento, and from Roman times, as is the case of Prazo and Rumansil. The Casa Grande Museum also displays archaeological remains.
Your journey continues on to Penedono and Trancoso, where you stop for lunch. Lying on a plateau 885 metres up, Trancoso dominates the surrounding countryside thanks to its castle, which dates back to pre-Portugal times, its walls and the city’s jewel, the King’s Gates (Portas d’El Rei). Trancoso also has a long-standing connection with the Jewish community in Portugal.
The four towers and encircling walls are the most striking features of the medieval village of Marialva. A guided visit to the castle, built on a 613-metre high hill, takes us back to the 12th Century and the reign of King Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first king. Next is Meda, with its parish church, and then Longroiva, which dates back to Roman times. In Longroiva, you can also explore the ruins of a Templar castle. If you come back for a longer stay, you can try out the therapeutic properties of the thermal waters.
This second Flowering Almond Tree Tour then takes you to Foz Côa before finishing back at Pocinho.
The third tour starts in Pocinho and heads off to Torre de Moncorvo. Two monuments stand witness to the story of a place that once lived in more prosperous times, thanks to the trade between the lands to the north of the Douro River and the wine-growing region of Beira Alta. These are the parish church and the renaissance Misericórdia church.
The tour continues to Mogadouro, where you will stop for lunch and then visit the Archaeology Museum, which has a collection of archaeological artefacts from across the county, some of them quite rare and very old. From Castanheira Mountain or Penas Róias Castle, enjoy the exquisite views of the surrounding countryside, bedecked in hues of pink and white, or browns and copper, depending on the time of year.
Next stop: Cerejais, a village in the county of Alfândega da Fé with just a few hundred inhabitants. Located high up on a plateau over the Sabor River, it affords some unmissable views of the region. The Cerejais Sanctuary attracts many pilgrims, particularly on the last Sunday in May, for the feast in honour of Our Lady of Fátima.
Before we finish our tour in Pocinho, there is time to visit Alfândega da Fé. The Clock Tower, the neoclassical parish church and the various chapels comprise the town’s heritage.
How to get there
There are numerous direct flights into Porto. If you are travelling low cost you can fly straight from London, (Stansted and Gatwick), Birmingham, Paris (Beauvais, Orly, Vatry and Charles de Gaulle), Marseilles, Dole, Lille, Strasbourg, Tours, St. Etienne, Bordeaux, Lyon, Nantes, Madrid, Barcelona El Prat, Valencia, Milan Bergamo, Rome Ciampino, Brussels (Charleroi and Zaventem), Eindhoven, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Geneva, Basel/Mulhouse, Dortmund, Frankfurt Hahn, Karlsruhe Baden, Nuremberg, Hamburg Lübeck, Munich Memmingen and Düsseldorf Weeze.
In the summer, low-cost airlines fly from Liverpool, Dublin, Bologna, Toulouse, Clermont Ferrand, Carcassonne, La Rochelle, Limoges, Rennes, Las Palmas, Palma de Majorca, Tenerife and Bremen.
The traditional airlines operate flights to Porto from London (Gatwick and Heathrow), Madrid, Barcelona, Munich, Frankfurt, Paris Orly, Caracas, Geneva, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, Milan Malpensa, Luanda, Zurich, New York, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brussels Zaventem, Rome Fiumicino, Toronto and Luanda. In the summer, they also fly from Montreal, Minorca, Brest and Brive.
Campanhã station can be accessed from the Porto metro network (A, B, C, E, F lines). You can also explore the Almond Tree Route by car, thus skipping the train journey: just follow the A4 and then the IC5. You will get to Pocinho in about 2 hours.