NATURE IN THE DOURO VALLEY
It was dark when I arrived at my destination in Portugal’s Douro Valley. Dark and silent.
The drive up had been slow on the narrow winding mountainous roads with nothing to see in the inky blackness where only the occasional distant lights of homesteads flickered in the valleys below.
Somewhere along the way a pair of shining eyes had reflected in the car’s headlights; a wary fox stood like a sentinel by the side of the road and watched intently as we passed. When I looked back he was still there, gazing in our wake as our lights disappeared into the blackness of the night.
I woke with first light, refreshed from the silence of the countryside and slid open the balcony windows. A cuckoo called in the fresh morning air. He sounded so close that I might have reached out and touched him. I scoured the treetops and bushes, fence posts and rocky outcrops, but the ever-elusive bird was nowhere to be found.
A blurred flash of movement in the corner of my eye and two, orange crowned hoopoes flew in loping flight across the rocky landscape, alighting in a distant meadow. In the meadow, flowers blossomed in their thousands, butterflies fluttered from delicate bloom to delicate bloom and the air was thick with the almost tangible drone of invisible bees.
The Douro Valley, the wine-producing and sublimely spectacular heartland of Northern Portugal, demands stillness and silence if the traveler wishes nature to reveal itself.
From the deck of a boat meandering the waters of the Douro River there is that stillness and silence. In those watery alleys your eyes are drawn ever upwards along the terraced slopes of the vineyards; higher still to the sun lit peaks which compress the river’s journey where a single dark speck of life appears and disappears among the spires of the rock. An Egyptian vulture, an Imperial eagle? Its distance was too far and the sun was too bright to be sure.
In a darting projectile of rainbow color the flat calmness of the river mirrors a speeding kingfisher. There is the definitive blue flash of an azure magpie among the pines and the unseen cackle of jays echo from the canyon walls. But they are only glimpses and an eavesdropping on the natural world.
In the distance there is an ever expanding ripple on the water’s surface, you wait with bated breath for its creator to reappear. But there is nothing; an otter or cormorant hunting in the river’s rich depths; you may never know.
On the wooded hillsides, in the cloudless azure skies, on the vine-laden terraces and in the rich colorful meadows the Douro Valley bristles with life. But as I have said, this is a place which demands stillness and silence if nature is to reveal itself.
As I returned to my hotel along the winding roads which play peek-a-boo with the shining river, a large brown-flecked bird of prey flapped above the hedgerow to my right, its wings outstretched, it’s yellow and grey beak agape, it’s talons raised in fright, and it was gone again, all in an instant. It could have been a Bonelli’s eagle, but I couldn’t be sure, I only had one glimpse.
Text & Photos: Nelson Carvalheiro