Katherine Lawrey takes a trip along Portugal’s beautiful Douro valley – one of the the quietest rivers in Europe that is making more and more noise in the UK market, with capacity on the increase
Viking River Cruises now has three vessels on the Douro and CroisiEurope added a fifth ship (Miguel Torga) this April. Scenic introduced the Douro last year and it’s new for Emerald Waterways and Riviera Travel this year. Other operators include Uniworld, AmaWaterways and Saga.
The Douro is navigable for about 200km from where it flows into the Atlantic, across northern Portugal to the Spanish border.
Most river cruises start in Porto, Portugal’s second largest city, which is well-served by regional flights from the UK. It’s where I joined the 132-passenger Miguel Torga, the newest member of CroisiEurope’s Douro fleet. It’s a modern, contemporary ship, with a sizeable pool on the sun deck. Rooms were a little tight for space, but beds facing out the French windows made the most of the Douro’s enchanting views.
CroisiEurope is a French-owned, family-run company, but it attracts an international audience, and it complements the French onboard cuisine with regional specialities and entertainment, depending on where the ship is sailing. I could’ve drunk local port morning, noon and night, thanks to the ship’s all-inclusive drinks policy. After dinner we were treated to traditional Portuguese folk music and dancing.
Porto, of course, is best known for the production of port wines, with a cluster of cellars located on the south bank, in the area officially known as Vila Nova de Gaia. It’s an incredibly photogenic city, with historic architecture tumbling down steep hillsides and iron bridges spanning the river where the original wooden barges that were used to transport the wine to the cellars are still moored as relics on the water.
Porto is an incredibly photogenic city, with historic architecture tumbling down steep hillsides
Once we left Porto, the landscape became almost entirely rural, with a patchwork of vineyards decorating steep slopes where homesteads command enviable views. I saw no commercial traffic on the Douro, only tourist boats, and there are relatively few of those, compared with the Rhine, for example. It’s also forbidden to cruise the Douro at night (apart from in Porto) so you have have the advantage of seeing every bit of scenery in the daylight.
The river used to be more treacherous, but has now been tamed by a series of five locks. At 12 metres wide, they only just accommodated Miguel Torga, an average-sized river cruise ship, with inches to spare either side. For the lowest bridges, top decks have to be completely cleared of people and certain features collapsed to allow ships to pass underneath. Miguel Torga’s swimming pool can be hydraulically lowered.
A typical itinerary pattern is a morning spent scenic cruising and then an excursion in the afternoon, or vice versa, until you get to Salamanca. This beautiful Spanish city is a two-hour coach drive from the berthing point, and cruise operators make it a full-day excursion. With two cathedrals, narrow streets, medieval squares, Spain’s oldest university and traditional shops and cafes, it is a magical place to explore.
Other excursions uncover hidden treasures of rural Portugal, such as the castle and medieval village of Castelo Rodrigo and the picturesque town of Lamego and its Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies. I also encountered one very familiar sight – all operators visit Mateus Palace, which has graced the label of bottles of Mateus Rosé for years. The wine is not actually made on site, but there are opportunities taste the wine for which the region is famed. Saga’s Douro Discovery visits Quinta do Seixo; Riviera Travel’s Douro; Oporto & Salamanca itinerary includes dinner at Quinta da Pacheca and Viking’s Portugal’s River of Gold lunches at Quinta da Avessada.
Round-trip cruises tend to last for six to eight days, taking in the sights at a leisurely pace. Clients may be interested in making it a longer trip to see more of the Iberian Peninsula – Viking offer a 10-day itinerary that includes a hotel stay in Lisbon and Uniworld has an extended 13-day itinerary which book-ends a river cruise with both Madrid and Lisbon.
For something a little different, look out for Saga’s Jazz on the Douro cruise, which includes five live jazz performances. Saga also has a Douro Discovery tour that’s aimed at solo travellers. AmaWaterways offers a wine-themed Enticing Douro cruise, which includes a wine expert to lead tastings and discussions.
For those who want to experience a bit of history, the 30-passenger Spirit of Chartwell is now based on the Douro. The hotel barge carried the Royal family during the Diamond Jubilee river pageant before being sold to Douro Azul. Bookable through Titan Travel, guests are assured a “cruise experience worthy of its royal heritage”.
The Douro is an area where time has seemingly stood still. However you do it, it’s not to be missed.