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A guide to Cruising Portugal's Douro River

Passengers can tour the cellars and sample the wine at Aliijo winery. [Photo by Tom Wuckovich]
Passengers can tour the cellars and sample the wine at Aliijo winery. [Photo by Tom Wuckovich]
Published Apr. 11, 2019

The Douro River was once wild and untamed, pulsing 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, traditional rabelo boats are used as sightseeing cruises on the Douro around Porto. They have been joined by river cruise lines such as Viking River Cruises, which offers the opportunity to explore this region on the Viking Hemming, a modest-sized ship designed to navigate this intriguing waterway.

Cruising on this fabled river became possible by a series of dams built from the 1960s to the 1980s to control flooding and harness hydroelectric power. Navigable for roughly 130 miles, 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 winemaking and the properties of grapes.

Portugal's most famous export is its renowned port wine. The Douro Valley is the only place in the world that produces the grapes blended into the authentic port. The quality of the port is due to the rocky, acidic soil, a warm, sunny climate and the sweetness of the grapes. It's matured in oak casks in special port lodges.

Roughly half 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 become 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.

Encounters along the river's course from Porto to Salamanca in Spain include the towns of Régua, Barca d'Alva, Pinhao and Lamego. Before boarding the Viking Hemming in Porto, guests can enjoy a two-day precruise stay in the capital of Lisbon, a fascinating, culturally diverse city with a storied 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 cafes and craft shops, lure visitors in droves.

Situated nearby is Jerónimo's Monastery, a 16th century Manueline architectural masterpiece related to the Discoveries period and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many such sites within the city create a passion for the streets. Walking is the most popular way to tour Lisbon, but there are guided bus tours, and a tram is another alternative.

The Rua Augusta is the main artery of the Baixa, the city's traditional shopping district, and the Avenida da Liberdade is home to exclusive international shops. The city's pavements are regarded as works of art, the calcada Portuguesa a traditional black-and-white stone mosaic embedded in many of the streets.

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-colored houses. It also is home to the Majestic Café, where J.K. Rowling reportedly enjoyed coffee and dreamed up the Harry Potter stories.

Around the corner from the cafe, a line formed to visit the Lello & Irmao Bookstore, which contains a staircase said to have inspired the one depicted at Hogwarts in the movies.

Porto lends its name to the port wine, and is its claim to fame. There are many wineries and cellars in and around the city. 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. Three wines are sampled during the excursion, including the region's most beloved vinho verde. The winery's setting has earned it an international Best of Wine Tourism award.

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 into the river, much to the delight of onlookers in the trendy Ribeira neighborhood.

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. This stunning baroque palace features a pinnacled facade, grand stairway, luxuriously appointed interiors and priceless art.

The Mateus Rosé brand has declined slightly in popularity from the '60s and '70s, but following a reboot and a small tweak of the original recipe, it has enjoyed a revival.

The wine continues to be sold in its distinctive flask-shaped bottle with the historic Mateus Palace label and real cork stopper. Most of the world's cork supply comes from Portugal.

The last Portuguese village along the Douro, just a mile 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 is the Castelo Rodrigo, listed as a national monument since 1922. Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo is known as the "white village" because of the almond trees surrounding it.

Throughout the centuries, Jews, Arabs and Christians have coexisted here and have created the social fabric of Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo. Sinagoga (Synagogue Street) is one sign of this peaceful cooperation. The street originated in the early 16th century when a Jewish community escaping the Spanish Inquisition lived with local Christians. Every year, the town also welcomes beautiful storks that stay for about nine months, perching on ancient rooftops. The bird has become the symbol of the village.

The location of the fortress so close to the Spanish border made it the scene of many frontier battles. The castle did little to deter the Spaniards, and so the fortification was under constant assault, besieged and rebuilt. Castelo Rodrigo and as many as 20 other fortresses survived the conflicts, becoming reminders of a long and bloody period of dispute between the two nations.

Salamanca is known as "La Dorada," or "The Golden City," for the glow of its sandstone structures.

The main plaza, the vast Plaza Mayor, is bustling with students and is often called the most beautiful plaza in all of Spain. The plaza is surrounded by baroque buildings that include its City Hall and the Royal Pavilion, a public marketplace where you can sample regional cuisine.

Salamanca 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.

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.