Tales of the River Bank

Douro River

Cruises come in all shapes and sizes. Chris Hurley joins a river cruise – the little sister of the ocean going variety – to explore Portugal’s Douro Valley and to find out whether small is beautiful

I am no stranger to cruises but a riverboat cruise was something completely new. A smaller cruise without sea sounded ideal. All the best bits of a holiday afloat – five star service, different places to see every day and unpacking just once – but possibly quieter, calmer and with no threat of seasickness.

Although The Douro Queen is a fraction of the size of any ocean going liner, she is rather tardis-like with a spacious reception area, bar and restaurant. And with just over 100 passengers on board it’s cosy but not crowded.

My cabin certainly doesn’t seem downsized, with a double bed and lots of wardrobe space but its real wow factor is the spectacular view through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors that lead out onto a narrow balcony.

Douro RiverTales of the Riverbank
As we start to move gently upstream the scenery becomes ever more dramatic and going further inland soft, grassy banks give way to steeply terraced vineyards, craggy rocks and deep gorges.

To make the most of the afternoon spring sunshine, I head for the sundeck. Maybe everyone else is napping in their cabins but there are plenty of empty sun loungers around the small pool.

Sailing on the open seas is also an awesome experience, but, for me, the 360 degree riverbank view scores much higher than a blank horizon and gliding through the shimmering green water is the antithesis of churning full speed ahead through the tide.

The peace is only interrupted by the occasional passing boat, which signals much waving and shouting and, periodically, the banging and clanging as we pass through one of the deep locks.

Those of a restless nature might be looking for more to do, but my fellow passengers seem content to just watch the world go by. The only distraction I can find is a lecture by the amiable Cruise Manager, Peter Rauch, who tells us that the Douro Valley is the oldest wine growing region in the world and that, at one time, the river would have been used to transport the port. Less than half of the Douro’s 580 miles is navigable by bigger ships, so it seems we will be travelling small distances.

Douro RiverService with a Smile
And so it was that we were moored up at Vega Terron at the Spanish boarder by early evening. This is as far as the Douro Queen can go – a kayak or canoe would be the best option from here. The Captain is just in time to host a cocktail party and guests have clearly made an effort to dress up for the occasion – although this is nowhere near as formal as the black tie affairs that are part and parcel of life aboard the big cruisers.

As one tends to expect with cruises, the crew are friendly and attentive and our five-course dinner confirms that the food is of a very high standard. Not surprisingly, on such a compact ship, all meals are taken in the same restaurant. There’s no seating plan so passengers get the chance to meet different people and the atmosphere is very jolly. This may well have something to do with the generous servings of wine and beer that are included in the cruise price.

Passengers are a mixture of Americans and Brits and, even as a fifty something, I am a good ten to twenty years younger than most. Everyone seems to be having a good time but this is not a party boat and I feel a little sorry for Dalmar, the resident singer and keyboard player, whose audience in the lounge bar rapidly dwindles after ten o’clock.

SalamancaA day in Salamanca
As well as wine, shore excursions are also included in the price. The one I found most enjoyable and interesting, was an all day trip to Salamanca, one of the best preserved medieval cities in Spain. It’s known as the Golden City as its elegant buildings, constructed in a unique stone, have taken on a honeycomb colour over the centuries. There’s plenty to see; the ubiquitous cathedral as well as one of Europe’s leading universities, founded back in 1218. There was also enough time to explore the colourful food market and stock up with saffron and the local speciality of pata negra ham at bargain prices. Add to that a delicious Paella lunch, some flamenco dancing (watching and doing) and finishing up with a beer in the very grand Plaza Mayor and it was a very good day indeed.

Returning from Salamanca, it seemed a long time since the waiters waved us off from the quayside and now they welcomed us back to a sumptuous barbecue.

And how convivial it was. Relaxing on deck sipping caipahrina while the sun shimmered on the dark water before finally disappearing was one of those memorable moments. For a while, even Dalmar had a full house.

PinhãoCastelo Rodrigo & Pinhão
The next day’s excursion was further down river to the medieval walled city of Castelo Rodrigo, perched high on a hilltop overlooking the river. Originally a Roman Citadel, it has been part of Portugal since the 13th century but now just 200 people live here.

Wandering through the narrow, steep, cobbled streets where many of the buildings’16th century facades are still intact, it feels like a ghost town but the occasional twitching of curtains suggests we are not alone.

The only sign of life is at the handicraft shop and tea-house where local produce is on sale and refreshments are served. The view from the cafe’s terrace is breathtaking but getting a cup of coffee wasn’t easy. Evidently the villagers haven’t caught on to tourism yet and the arrival of a coach load of thirsty customers equalled chaos.

Later our ship made its way back to Pinhão where we moored for the night and went ashore for dinner at the delightful 18th Century Vintage House Hotel. Shunning the courtesy bus, a few of us strolled through the tiny village, tasting some Iberico Ham at a local delicatessen enroute and also taking a look at the beautiful old railway station that is adorned with blue tiles depicting the Douro and its vineyards. And, after our excellent dinner, we did finally get to dance the night away at a local bar just two minutes away from our floating hotel. Here I was easily one of the oldest by about thirty years but it didn’t seem to matter and the locals welcomed us warmly.

LamegoLamego
By the time we docked the next day near the village of Lamego, I decided that this particular trip was more about the journey than the destinations. A couple of hours here was more than enough time to see the museum, the 11th century castle. and to walk down all 686 steps from the Baroque Pilgrimage church of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios that overlooked the town These villages are charming enough but it was the riverbank scenery along the way that was the main attraction.

The final leg of our journey took us back to Vila Nova de Gaia, a suburb of Porto and home to many of the well-known port manufacturers. Moored up in for the evening, the city lights tempted some of us to jump ship for a farewell dinner in a local Portuguese restaurant on the quayside. After feasting on the salted cod dish of baccalou and other regional specialities, we walked back along the river that was ablaze with reflected lights. Absolutely magical and much prettier than the inky blackness that surrounds a cruise ship making its way through the night.

Best Laid Plans
Next morning, when all packed and ready to fly home, the unexpected news arrived that the ash cloud had made an unwelcome appearance over Portugal and that Porto airport was closed until further notice.

TAP Airlines did a wonderful job in transferring us to flights out of Lisbon later that evening. Our planned itinerary was cut short but we still had time for a whistle-stop tour of Porto before the train tot he airport departed.

OportoPorto
Positioned high above the river and known as the city of bridges, Porto is Portugal’s second largest city. It also gave its name to Portugal and, of course, the famous drink. This is a place where I would have liked to have spent longer. Frustratingly, as it was Sunday, the wonderful array of craft and fashion shops in the slick pedestrian area were all closed and we could only peer through the window of shops such as Ello, a wonderful book store with an exquisitely carved staircase. We had a quick walk through the old part of town trying not to stumble on the cobblestones, a glance at the Cathedral and a tour of the majestic Palacio da Bolsa, or Stock Exchange Palace, with its splendid Moorish Hall. Even the transport was fascinating – antique trams and the beautiful train station with a mural of some 20,000 tiles depicting significant historical moments in the life of Porto.

Fact Box
Titan HiTours Elegant River Cruises (0800 988 5867) www.titanhitours.co.uk/rivercruises) offers ‘A Week on the River Douro’ with departures from May 2011-October 2011 from £2499 per person. Cost includes return flights from London Airports to Porto with TAP Portugal, transfers, 7 nights full board cruise on the NEW Douro Spirit in a category 4 cabin based on two sharing, complimentary wine with dinner, shore excursions with English speaking guides, all airport taxes and port charges and the VIP Home Departure Service.
For further information on TAP Portugal see www.flytap.com and for further information on Portugal including the Douro Valley and Porto visit www.visitportugal.com
Door to Door Service
The VIP Door to Door Service that is included with this cruise certainly deserves full marks. On the outward journey, I was happy enough to be collected by a very friendly and courteous driver who took care of my heavy luggage and even checked that I hadn’t forgotten my passport or sunglasses.
But this service really came into its own when my return flight was diverted from Gatwick to Heathrow, thanks to the ash cloud. Touching down near midnight, it was reassuring to know that my driver would be waiting to meet me in the right place, at no extra cost, and that I wouldn’t have to find my own way across London or worry that I had a car parked out at Gatwick.

Port Tasting
Our final stop was back at the quay at Vila Nova de Gaia where they once used to unload the barrels of port and you can see signs of the warehouses and tasting lodges all along the river bank. All the big names are here – Dow, Sandemans, Cockburns and the cellar that we were about to visit, Taylors.

Sadly this was also cut short but we crammed in a quick lesson about the origns and manufacture of port from which I was amazed to learn that, even in the 21st Century, they are still treading grapes. It would have been good to spend much longer tasting port on the terrace with its fabulous views of Porto, but our train was beckoning. Reluctantly, I drained my glass of Croft Pink, for which I had developed quite an affection, and headed for the station. And how lucky were we, to catch the very last flight out before Lisbon airport also closed?

And Finally
So how did the riverboat cruise match up against the big ships sailing out on the high seas? it was certainly a very different experience – much quieter and more sedate. On this particular trip, all the creature comforts were there but with little organised activity apart from tours. Great if you really want to get away from it all but could be boring for some.

That said, the Douro Queen is being replaced by the brand new Douro Spirit next year which offers facilities such as a fitness and massage room and beauty salon. There are also itineraries that take in more cities and have a higher level of interest. And for those looking for something more exotic there are journeys up the Nile and even the Yangtze in China.

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