PORTO, PORTUGAL — The Douro River was once a wild and untamed channel pulsing its way through northern Portugal’s verdant hillsides and valleys from the Spanish border west through narrow passages to its mouth on the Atlantic Ocean.
Too shallow for normal ship traffic and often turbulent during the rainy season, its use was limited to the Portuguese rabelo boats, flat-bottomed cargo boats that transported barrels of wine from vineyards in the north to the wine cellars in Nova de Gaia on the opposite side of the river in Porto. These days, the traditional rabelo boats are used as sightseeing crafts that cruise the Douro around Porto. They have been joined by river cruise lines such as Viking River Cruises, which offered the opportunity to explore this region on the Viking Hemming, a modest-sized ship designed to navigate this intriguing waterway.
Above: The Douro is lined with lush vineyards where Portugal's famous port wine is produced.
Cruising on this fabled river became possible after a series of dams were built from the 1960s to 1980s to control flooding and harness hydroelectric power. Navigable for roughly 220kms, the river is a window to the Alto Douro wine region, an area of incredibly lush vineyards and quintas — gleaming white wine estates where many grapes are still picked by hand and trodden underfoot. Ship excursions introduce passengers to historic villages and towns as well as a few of the wine estates where they learn about wine making and the properties of grapes that determine its taste and texture.
Portugal’s most famous and popular export is its renowned port wine and the Douro Valley is the only place in the world that produces the grapes that are blended into the authentic port. The unique quality of the port is due in large part to a combination of rocky, acidic soil, a warm, sunny climate and the sweetness of the grapes. The port is matured in oak casks in special port lodges before being bottled and sold.
Roughly 50 per cent of the wines produced along the Douro, also called the River of Gold because the setting sun’s reflection in the water gives it a golden glow, are table wines, while the other half becomes port. The valley’s wine-growing region is the oldest demarcated in the world, established around 1756. The wine and the breathtaking scenery in the Douro Valley are just two characteristics that contribute to the region’s allure.
Above: The river passes through Porto, the historic city whose harbour is lined with port warehouses.
Encounters along the river’s course from Porto to Salamanca in Spain include the towns of Régua, Barca d’ Alva, Pinhao and Lamego. Prior to boarding the Viking Hemming in Porto, guests can opt for a two-day, pre-cruise in the capital of Lisbon, a fascinating, culturally diverse city with a storied, glorious past. Lisbon is known as the City of Seven Hills, and from St. George’s Castle atop one of the hills, you have a commanding view of terra cotta-tiled rooftops, ancient monuments, statues and the fabled Old Quarter of Alfama, where nostalgic fado music is played nightly. Lisbon’s narrow and hilly labyrinthine streets, brimming with inviting cafés and craft shops, lure visitors in droves. The old-world buildings are dotted with the decorative azulejo tiles that appear throughout Portugal’s architecture.
Down by the Tagus River, from where many Portuguese explorers set sail during the Age of Discovery, stands the Belém Tower with its fairytale turrets and the imposing Monument to the Discoveries. This landmark, cast in 1960, commemorates the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, the central character in the Discoveries initiative. From the beach in Belém, Vasco da Gama set sail to discover the sea route to India.
Also situated nearby is Jerónimo’s Monastery, a 16th-century Manueline architectural masterpiece that is related to the Discoveries period and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After a day and a half in Lisbon, a Viking motor coach transports passengers to the city of Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city and one of the oldest in Europe. This riverside enclave is a maze of steep, narrow streets, picturesque plazas and pastel-coloured houses. It also is home to the Majestic Café where J.K. Rowling reportedly enjoyed coffee and dreamed up the Harry Potter stories.
Porto lends its name to the port wine, and is its claim to fame. There are many wineries and wine cellars in and around the city and some of the estates and cellars are visitor attractions. Quinta da Aveleda, an estate located in the rolling hills outside of Porto in the charming town of Penafiel, has been in the Guedes family for centuries and here ship passengers can learn the family’s approach to winemaking and how the climate and altitude help produce the perfect grapes.
When the ship departs Porto for Régua, it passes under the famed Luis I iron bridge constructed by a student of Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame. Porto has five bridges but the Luis I gets the most attention because Porto’s younger generation decided that this was a great place to jump from into the river, much to the delight of cruise passengers and onlookers along the riverbank in the trendy Ribeira neighbourhood. Régua is the site of the extraordinary Mateus Palace, the building depicted on the Mateus Rosé wine labels, and home to the last count of Vila Real, who still collects a royalty for the image on every label.
Above: Mateus Palace, left, is named after Portugal's famous wine, and Belem Tower, right, is a Lisbon landmark.
The last Portuguese village along the Douro, just a few kilometres from the Spanish border, is Barca d’ Alva, a town surrounded by dramatic mountains with sheer rock formations, olive groves and terraced vineyards on all sides. Two of the river’s five locks are located at the Valeira and Pocinho dams. The main attraction here is the Castelo Rodrigo, which has been listed as a national monument since 1922.
Salamanca, Spain is the final destination of the cruise. The river is not passable beyond the border and so the ship returns to Porto with only brief stops in Pinhao for a visit to a traditional bakery and to Lamego, a site where the devout venture to the chapel Nossa Senhora dos Remedios, or the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies, during religious pilgrimages.
For the remainder of the sail back to Porto, one is left to ponder the incredible sights and the majesty of the River of Gold.