The river of gold and the golden city

On ‘An Iberian River Journey’ with Jules Verne, Pat Richardson cruised through Portugal’s Douro Valley, and enjoyed a full day excursion to the Spanish city of Salamanca.

It is late October and, as it winds through its steep-sided, vineyard-terraced valley, the Rio Douro – river of gold – is living up to its name, with leaves turning copper, bronze, gold or red. These colours, the bright blue sky we are blessed with most days and the intricate symmetry with which the vineyards are planted, combine to create a beautiful and carefully stitched tapestry.

Porto - old town cityscape on the Douro river with traditional Rabelo boats - Shutterstock, courtesy of Jules Verne The Douro was once a dangerous river, especially for the traditional wooden cargo boats, barcos rabelos. Then its turbulence was tamed by dams. On the upper reaches these have, in effect, created five very large lakes which produces an agreeably leisurely pace for cruising. Along the banks we see tiny chapels, and our guide explains that each marks a once-treacherous stretch of the river where lives were lost. The dams that now eliminate such tragedies are, by contrast, enormous concrete structures. We pass through the navigation locks at five of them, and our ship is lifted by between 46’ at the 316’ long Crestuma-Lever Dam and 115’ feet at the 313’ long Carrapatelo Dam. For some of my fellow-passengers, these events are one of the highlights of this voyage.

Our voyage began near the mouth of the Douro, in Vila Nova de Gaia, a town that faces Porto on the opposite bank, and is the centre of port production. There we visit Sandeman’s cellar for our first port wine tasting; we will enjoy another at their Quinta do Seixo on Day 6. After an informative tour during which the port production process is explained to us, we are given three to sample: a white, a tawny and a ruby. Later, as we stroll back along the waterfront to our ship, we are thrilled to see a number of barcos rabelos under sail.

Next morning, before setting sail on our 6-night voyage, we cross the imposing two-tier Dom Luis bridge, designed by an assistant of Gustav Eiffel (who himself designed the city’s Dona Maria Pia railway bridge) for a fascinating tour of Porto. Highlight sights include the immense cathedral, and panoramic views from its terrace; the painted ceramic tiles, called azulejos, that adorn the central railway station; the city hall and the Lello Bookshop, now famous for its neo-Gothic staircase which is said to have inspired the one at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, who lived here in the early 1990s.

Douro River - Shutterstock, courtesy of Jules Verne Then it’s back to our ship for lunch, during which we embark on our voyage. The pleasingly intimate Douro Prince has just 24 cabins; a cosy lounge bar; a restaurant; small gift shop, sundeck and casual dress code. That evening, over Welcome cocktails in the Bar Lounge, we are introduced to our Captain and the ship’s crew, and are briefed on the next day’s itinerary.             

We reached and docked at Regua late in the morning. It was from here that the rabelos once set sail for Vila Nova de Gaia laden with port barrels, which today are transported by road or rail. We visit the town’s attractive and excellent Museum of the Douro for an exclusive guided tour on which we learn more about this river and the port wine trade.

After lunch on board, we set off by coach for the Mateus Palace. The beauty of this manor house’s ornate baroque facade is mirrored in the placid pool that fronts it. It’s also familiar from the label on Mateus Rose wine’s flask-shaped bottles – but the famous wine isn’t produced here. Our guided tour reveals magnificently carved wooden ceilings and door frames, an impressive art collection and splendid furniture. There is also a charming chapel, and you can walk through the formal gardens.

This full day’s finale is an entertaining evening at the Quinta d’Avessada, famed for its muscat wines. After a musical welcome, drinks and nibbles in the garden, and a brief tour, we enjoy a delicious three-course dinner with wine, accompanied by stories from our host.

Landscape of Douro vineyards, Pinhao village - Shutterstock, courtesy of Jules Verne Next day we’re off to the hilltop border village of Castelo Rodrigo, with its tiny 12th-Century church, ruined castle and shops selling local crafts and deliciously coated almonds.

Then comes a day in Spain’s ‘golden city’ Salamanca, a UNESCO World Heritage site with one of Europe’s oldest universities and a wealth of sights to see, including its glorious main square, Plaza Mayor.  It’s just the place to find a table, order a drink and watch the world go by.

On the evening of Day 6, local performers come on board and we enjoy a traditional Portuguese show. Our last excursion the next day is to Lamego, famed for a church, fronted by a 686 step stairway. Some pilgrims climb to the top on their knees, our coach takes us up by road.  We also visit the town’s museum in the former bishop’s palace.

More information

Jules Verne offers a 7-night Iberian River Journey on the exclusively chartered Douro Prince, departuring regularly between April and October 2019, from £1,745pp (based on two sharing). There are no single supplement departures on 27 July, 31 August and 19 October. Price includes flights from London Gatwick, transfers, seven nights full-board accommodation on-board, complimentary tea/coffee on board, drinks at dinner, excursions, and the services of a cruise director, local expert guides and representatives.

Visit or call 020 3553 3722 for further information.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Jules Verne.

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Pat Richardson

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