Travel: River of Gold
The once fast-flowing Douro is now a tranquil waterway, perfect for a relaxing cruise through historic rural Portugal
The Douro is a great choice for anyone who has already done the Rhine and the Danube, the most popular river cruise destinations. From the Spanish border, the Douro winds 125 miles through the lush landscapes of Portugal’s green north before meeting the Atlantic in Porto. It was here we boarded CroisiEurope’s gil
Eanes. The 132-passenger vessel is smaller than the river ships plying the other waterways of Europe, creating an intimate on board atmosphere where you quickly get to know your fellow passengers. On the Douro vessels are only allowed to sail during the day, so you never miss out on any of the sights.
As you cruise along serenely it is hard to imagine that before it was dammed in the 1960s and 70s, this was
a treacherous waterway
filled with rapids that
caused countless rabelos
– the flat-bottomed wooden boats once used to transport barrels of port – to
founder as they made the
perilous journey to the warehouses of Porto.
As a result of this
turbulent past, the Douro
is very different to other European rivers, as no large cities grew up along its banks. Instead the UNESCOlisted Douro Valley is lined
with dramatic wooded
slopes, vineyards and layers
of schist, the silvery stone
that helps create the heat
retaining soil on which the
port grapes flourish.
History and heritage
Each day brings new sights, and daily coach trips take passengers to places of
interest. In the 18th century, Regua was the capital of the port-producing region and a trading post where rabelos stopped en route to Porto.
Nowadays it’s the gateway for
excursions to Vila Real and a tour of the baroque Solar de Mateus manor house set in
beautiful gardens and depicted on the label of Mateus Rosé wine. In Lamego, we visited the sanctuary of Nossa
Senhora dos Remedios. Built in 1750, it is reached by a grand stone staircase flanked by fountains, statues and tiled murals, and after being dropped at the top there is the option to walk down and meet the coach at the bottom.
A highlight is the ‘golden city’ of Salamanca, Spain’s oldest university town. It’s fun trying to spot the tiny stone frog hidden in the university’s ornate exterior, which is said to bring students good luck.
A taste of Portugal
If you only drink port at Christmas, you’ll be in for a surprise. In Portugal, the fortified wine is drunk with meals and is a popular lunchtime apéritif – in particular chilled white port, which is also used to make refreshing cocktails. In medieval Porto, straddling both banks of the Douro, the names on the 18th-century warehouses in the Cais de Gaia neighbourhood read like a wine menu – Taylor, Cockburn’s, Sandeman, Symington and Croft to name just a few. We visited Ferreira, one of the city’s oldest wine lodges, and wandered through dimly lit cellars, stopping to marvel at a gigantic 15,800 gallon barrel as our guide told us about the history of port. In 1678, shippers from Liverpool added grape brandy to some nondescript Portuguese table wine to stabilise its journey to England and the end result tasted surprisingly good and led to today’s fortified wines.
Back on the ship, meals featured regional specialities such as the rich beef and pork cozido stew and mouthwatering tarts called pasteis de nata. On the last night we stood on deck as the sun dipped over the horizon and savoured a final glass of port, reflecting on a memorable week that provided a real taste of the Douro region, in every sense of the word.
Sample the local wine
Start and finish in lovely Porto
Visit pretty Vila Real Explore the spectacularSolar de Mateus