Passing a red phone box on the Porto city tour, our charming guide Miguel explained that there’s always been a very special relationship between the British and the Portuguese. That special union began with the Treaty of Windsor in 1386, he continued, when King John of Portugal married Philip of Lancaster.
A few of the group looked somewhat startled, and I adjusted the volume on my audio guide, scuttling to the front for a fact-check. Who was Philip of Lancaster and was this kind of marital liaison really permitted in the 14th century? Miguel hastily apologised for a critical missing syllable, clarifying that the bride’s name was in fact Philippa.
With that put straight, our tour continued past Livrario Lello, one of the world’s most stunning bookshops. Sadly there wasn’t time to join the long queue to enter, but local legend has it that the shop was the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. Our guide recounted the story of another more recent liaison, this one Scottish-Portuguese, between JK Rowling and local Porto journalist, Jorge Arantes. By the sound of things, this entente was not so cordiale; we can only hope that Philippa had a better time.
Onward across this beautiful city of multiple bridges (one of which is the work of M. Eiffel of the Tower fame), a stunning railway station which started life as a monastery (surely the ultimate example of building repurposing), and an abundance of churches and ornate tiled houses. Similarly, abundant are the cafés serving warm Pastel de Nata, which are what Waitrose might describe as Essential Custard Tarts.
Laden with irresistible but inessential calories, it was time to return to the port of Gaia where the MS Douro Serenity was ready to depart for an 8-day cruise, of which we were sampling the first two nights. I’d been told that the Douro is the most beautiful river in Europe with the greatest variety of scenery, and was not disappointed. Departing in early November brought an ever-changing palette of colours to match any New England experience, as well as clear blue skies and temperatures in the low 20s. Two months after the grape harvest, the vineyards on the banks of the river offered a visual intoxication with shades of red, orange and gold; as if basking in the sun after a job well done.
From the spacious top deck, each view was replaced by another but at a languid pace. There’s never that feeling that you’ve just missed something special, like you have on a train or in a car when a view rushes past the window, and you only wish you could have paused to enjoy it. And it’s not one static view as you would get from a bridge or the top of a hill. Instead, the gentle ripples of water and the passing landscape create a hypnotic backdrop. With a rug and a coffee, many guests simply curled up on a recliner basking in the autumn sun, contented and serene.
The MS Douro Serenity is, as the name suggests, built only to travel on that river. It’s one of the newest ships in the Nicko Cruises fleet, with a capacity of just under 130 guests. Her vital statistics are important: a length of 80m and breadth of 11m. Why important? Because one of the most interesting and exciting parts of the Douro cruise is going through the locks. Now the word ‘lock’ to me conjures up an image of a canal barge on the Thames, with Prunella Scales winding open the gate, and Timothy West steering carefully through. This could not be further removed from the feats of engineering and mechanics we marvelled at on the Douro. Goodness knows how many tonnes of concrete and mathematical calculations were involved in building the huge walls and doors. It’s awesome as you watch the imposing lock approach, then glide slowly in with the massive doors closing behind, emerging from the enclosure around 20 minutes later. Those statistics are indeed vital: there were only a few inches between the side of the ship and the wall.
On board, the cabins are comfortable and well-equipped (tip for British guests to bring a travel kettle). The middle and upper decks have floor to ceiling windows in every cabin which can be lowered considerably, enhancing the immersive (not literally!) experience. Larger suites are very spacious, and there’s a spa treatment room, gym, spacious bar, restaurant, upper and front decks and a small pool.
Not yet a familiar name in the UK, Nicko Cruises is a well-established German operator with 25 ships. Whilst most guests on board were German, English is spoken throughout, and UK guests enjoy free wi-fi and an unlimited drinks package from 9am until midnight.
Those custard tarts really were not essential, and the food served on board is plentiful and of high quality with an extensive breakfast buffet, and a la carte lunch and dinner.
The wines are special too, naturally with an emphasis on port as befits a Douro cruise. I’ll be honest, that port always makes me think of Hilda Ogden knocking back a port and lemonade, which is hardly an endorsement of sophistication. Consequently, our tour of the Sandeman port cellars was an education and a revelation. We learned about the differences between ruby, tawny and white port, the fortification process (an apt word as port is 20% proof), and when and how to enjoy drinking it. Following a detailed tasting session (it’s a tough job), I felt a lot more knowledgeable, and ready for a serious nap.
Talking of tasters, our short cruise was coming to a close, but fellow guests could look forward to 6 more days on board. Their excursions would include a visit to a local quinta with a well-earned dinner after a climb of 900 stairs to the church at Lanmego; a day in Salamanca with a flamenco show; a visit to the Mateus Palace (the word “Mateus” casts me back to my teenage years and a straw-clad bottle of the eponymous Rosé masquerading as a lampstand); and to Guimares, birthplace of Portugal, Castelo Rodrigo, the White City and almond liqueur tasting.
We enviously waved goodbye as the MS Douro Serenity calmly departed across the water, a metaphor for a peaceful nation (Portugal is the 4th safest country in the world according to Miguel), and for an enduring and harmonious relationship with the British; with grateful thanks to King John and Philippa.
Debbie was a guest on a 2-night taster of the 8-day Porto-Douro Valley Cruise starting and ending in Porto. Nicko Cruises are now sold in the UK with prices including return flights, transfers to/from airport/ship, the cruise, unlimited drinks package, four shore excursions, free wi-fi and onboard gratuities.