“If you Google ‘Douro Valley,’ this is what we’re now going to see,” says our guide, Joanna, as our bus veers around the first of many corners on the most jaw-dropping stretch of scenery the valley has offered up yet.
Sitting beside Joanna, I’ve got a front-row seat as the panoramic view unfolds – rows of orderly grapevines marching across steeply terraced slopes – our driver leaning into the steering wheel and braking with each tight turn on a road that’s more suited to farm tractors than tour buses.
Later, back on board our cruise ship, Google also shows me I could drive the entire length of Portugal’s Douro Valley – from Porto on the cool Atlantic coast, to Barca d’Alva on the sun-drenched border with Spain – in just two hours and 47 minutes.
But where would the fun be in that?
Instead, I’m happy to spend seven leisurely days aboard the Viking Osfrid cruising from the twin cities at the mouth of the Douro (Porto and Gaia, which gave Portugal its name), upstream to the Spanish border and back again, with daily stops to explore sleepy towns with beautiful tiled mosaics, centuries-old churches and exquisite gardens. We’ll explore roughly the lower third of the Douro, which begins its descent to the Atlantic in northern Spain. But our tour actually begins in Lisbon, where we have a couple of days of sightseeing before busing to Porto where our ship awaits (with a leisurely stop at the ancient university town of Coimbra en route).
This tour, I quickly realize, is all about what’s ashore, rather than the river itself. This means we also have plenty of time to absorb a landscape that produces some of the world’s most storied wines – and to taste more than a few of them.
Not being an oenophile, I was a little concerned this journey might attract wine snobs, but as I get to know the mostly American, mostly age-60-plus, passengers on the ship, it’s evident we’re all figuratively, as well as literally, in the same boat; that is, we’re curious about wine but not consumed by it. No one’s going to be the unwelcome know-it-all on a captive cruise.
The history of wine, particularly port, is a big part of the history of this valley, with the Upper Douro designated as one of the first wine appellations in the world in 1756. For centuries, casks of wine were floated down the river on flat-bottomed rabelo boats. Destined for the port cellars in Gaia (more properly Vila Nova de Gaia), it was a treacherous journey. Rabelos frequently capsized on the narrow, fast-flowing Douro, which was also prone to flooding. After one major flood, “people were saying the fish were drunk for two weeks, so much wine got spilled,” our guide in Porto tells us as we meander through a maze of narrow streets and climb countless staircases on a walking tour of the old city one morning.
By the time the Douro was finally calmed with the construction of five hydroelectric dams (and more on the Spanish side), wine had already started to be transported by truck. So these days, it’s tourists that ply the river as cruise lines bring on more ships to meet the growing demand.
The first quinta – wine estate – we visit is Quinta da Aveleda on the outskirts of Porto and one of the largest wine producers in the country. This is Vinho Verde country, where “green wine” is made to be drunk young. The slightly sparkling wine is fruity and aromatic, but we spend half our time in the garden admiring exotic eucalyptus, dozens of camellias in glorious bloom, and a perfectly manicured rectangle of grass where family weddings are celebrated. Our guide points out a small building tucked into the trees: “They built it for one purpose – the honeymoon night!”
Early the next morning, our ship pulls out of Porto – now encased in fog – and we‘re hoping for warmer, drier weather as we move inland. “Nine months of winter and three months of hell” is how locals often describe the Douro Valley. But in May, it feels just right for lounging on the deck as we motor quietly upriver, surprised by how close we are to shore and how little headroom we have going under bridges. (Unusually heavy rainfall the previous month kept some cruise ships tied to docks and threatened to do the same with ours.)
Going ashore in Regua, the heart of the port-wine region, we recognize a familiar non-port name on our itinerary: Mateus. The previous evening, someone asked whether we’d ever heard of a wine by that name. Of course we had. And back in university days, when we all thought we were so sophisticated, we used the popular rosé’s short, stubby bottles for candle holders. To our amazement, Mateus is still being produced, and here of all places. Today, we’ll visit the Mateus Palace, the building shown on the wine labels.
“You will not find a bottle of Mateus rosé in the palace,” says Joanna with a chuckle, explaining that the current generation of palace owners don’t care for the down-market wine and don’t want their home associated with it. However, a previous owner sold the rights to the image.
Mateus wine may not be a winner but the palace, now partly open to the public, sure is. The white baroque beauty is perfectly reflected in a small lake in front and adorned inside with art, furniture, porcelain and silverware going back to the 17th century. In the garden behind, an old woman rakes hedge clippings, and as we wander through, it almost feels like we could be just more members of the family, up from Lisbon visiting for the weekend.
Another brand image we get reacquainted with this day is the Don, the black-caped silhouette that represents Sandeman brand ports. At the company’s Quinta do Seixo, ancient vineyards are etched into the curving contours of the land. More than half the vines grow on inclines of more than 30 per cent. “You can see why everything has to be done by hand,” says the Sandeman guide, explaining that it’s impossible to get machines onto the narrow terraces.
Basking in sunshine, we imagine the intense heat that will soon warm the all-important soil known as schist. Schist is so soft we can crumble it in our hands, and grape roots can penetrate it to depths of 150 metres to find precious water. (Irrigation here is forbidden.) It’s “the perfect womb for our grapes,” says Joanna, as we sip white port mixed with tonic water and admire the astonishing views.
Reaching Barca d’Alva the next day, we cross the border into Spain and the landscape changes yet again. Vineyards give way to olive orchards and almond trees. Thyme and rosemary run wild. The land flattens and we come to the “golden” city of Salamanca with its intricately carved sandstone buildings, including the oldest library in Europe and a 13th-century university considered on par with Oxford.
Two cathedrals – the old and the new – are simply stunning, and so enormous that three weddings are under way at the same time in one of them. And still there’s room for slack-jawed North American tourists to wander through unimpeded.
Most of this journey has been about experiences off the ship, yet we look forward to every evening on board. The executive chef – a large man named Daniel – announces with great gusto what’s for dinner: “Tonight we’re having Iberian ham with melon. It’s going to be brilliant.” So one day, when Joanna tells us the Portuguese are known as tripe eaters, I’m a little shocked.
“It’s from the days of discovery when we would send the best meat with the navigators, and we would have to eat everything else,” she explains. “Even today we eat every single piece of the animal.”
When our ship turns around and heads for the Atlantic once more, I think about that and feel a little bit like Henry the Navigator, the 15th-century prince from Porto who, like me, was neither a sailor nor a navigator, but was certainly well-fed and loved nothing more than exploring.
Portugal’s River of Gold is a nine-night Viking cruise/tour beginning in Lisbon and ending in Porto. The cruise portion itself is seven nights. Viking currently has three ships on the Douro River and will add a fourth in 2019. These ships are shorter versions of Viking’s Longships and were custom-built to navigate the river and the size of its locks. Each ship can accommodate 106 guests in 53 staterooms. Prices start at $3,499 a person, double occupancy. Flights are not included, but Viking can book flights on your preferred airline. For more details, visit vikingrivercruisescanada.com.
The writer was a guest of Viking River Cruises, which did not review or approve this article.