Last year we travelled with a group of friends along the River Douro – Portugal’s River of Gold. The holiday began with an included two-night stay in Lisbon where we sallied forth to admire handsome monuments and lush baroque architecture and to ride the famous trams around the atmospheric old town. Early evening found us people-watching in one of the magnificent city squares whilst enjoying a sundowner and pondering the important question of which of the appealing local restaurants to choose for dinner. Next day we visited the nearby town of Sintra with its fairy-tale castles and turreted palaces – a magical place.
On the third day we headed for Porto and as we approached the town were entranced by the sight of its colourful old town houses and wine lodges tumbling down the hill to the river, where we would soon board the Viking Hemming, our home for the next eight days. After settling-in to our cabins we moved to the sun deck to watch the crew cast off for a sunset round-trip mini-cruise under the many bridges of Porto, escorted by some of the picturesque traditional rabelo boats used for transporting the town’s most famous export. Then it was time to head to the restaurant for the first of many delicious dinners, with a selection of well-chosen local wines.
Next morning, after enjoying a walking tour of the city, including the cathedral and the amazing Sao Bente railway station, bedecked with traditional Azulejo tiles, we began our cruise proper along the Douro. This must surely be one of the most beautiful rivers in Europe, meandering through glorious unspoilt countryside. Unlike the Rhine and the Danube there is no heavy industry on the river, just endless serried ranks of vine terraces on the verdant hills. The river is not wide and views of both banks can be enjoyed from the sun deck. Nor is it deep, so the sun deck also served as a good vantage point to admire the skill and aplomb with which our lady Captain, Carolina, navigated the shoals and sandbanks, not to mention several locks which often had a clearance of only a couple of inches each side of the ship. The next few days were a blissful combination of lazing on the sun-deck, thoughtful talks on Portugal and its history, yummy cookery lessons from the chef and delightful excursions, including wholehearted support for local commerce, in particular several regional wine Quintas. We also visited an artisan bakery which was considerably more interesting than it sounds – and the bread, served with local cheese, was scrumptious.
Our first Quinta, the famous Sandeman’s port house, was located high up in the hills above the river, affording wonderful views during a drive enlivened by a roller-coaster ride up the narrow track, which provided several opportunities for our coach driver to demonstrate his remarkable skills. The in-depth tasting of Sandeman’s range of ports was therefore particularly appreciated prior to the downward journey.
For those of us of a certain age, whose younger selves considered Mateus Rose to be the most sophisticated of alcoholic beverages (unless, of course there was a bottle of Blue Nun to hand) a visit to the Mateus Palace, which happily looked exactly like the label on the famous bottles, was a nostalgic reminder of our formative years, although oddly enough the wine itself did not seem quite so special to our adult palates.
On one memorable evening we dined in splendour at the medieval Alpendura monastery, where we were welcomed by several monks who, upon closer inspection, turned out to be the waiters from our ship, intent on ensuring we enjoyed the same wonderful service as we did on-board.
The riverside village of Pinhao was charming and from there we moved on to lunch at yet another Quinta, this time a picturesque estate set in the heart of the Douro Wine District. The eccentric owner welcomed us with a tour during which he appeared to be enthusiastically channelling Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean. Not sure if this was intentional, but it was certainly entertaining and after this diversion we were served lunch with several glasses of his excellent wines and a glass of port to finish. Hard work, I know, but someone’s got to do it.
Another interesting excursion was to Castelo Rodrigo, one of Portugal’s 12 historic parishes, located on a lofty hilltop overlooking the Douro Valley. The village houses date from the Middle Ages and are very evocative: reputedly St Francis of Assisi stayed here overnight whilst on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostela. It is a very special place, although our arrival there came as somewhat of a surprise to me as I had been expecting to spend the day in Ciudad Rodrigo, site of one of the famous battles of the Peninsular War. I had obviously not been paying attention to the briefing the night before or, as one of our group remarked, somewhat unnecessarily I thought, ‘Good stuff this port, isn’t it.’
Magnificent Salamanca, known as the Golden City, was a real highlight, with its handsome sandstone buildings shimmering in the sun. We had time to explore by ourselves, visiting the Art Deco/Nouveau Museum and the impressive gothic cathedral before re-joining fellow passengers for lunch at a nearby hotel followed by a guided stroll around this beautiful city. Some of our group chose not to go Salamanca as they had been there before but instead enjoyed an unexpectedly entertaining time on board the ship. This was the day chosen for a full-scale crew fire drill, so passengers who stayed behind were awakened from snoozing on the sun deck to see the team dashing about ‘rescuing passengers’ from cabins and carrying out a comprehensive overboard-in-life-jackets exercise.
So, the itinerary was great, the weather wonderful, every meal delicious, the wine exceptional and the ship perfect: but what made the holiday so very special was the crew of the Viking Hemming. They were all Portuguese, very proud of their country and worked so hard to make sure we were having a great time and really enjoying ourselves.