The actual river cruise portion of our trip started on Saturday, October 12, 2019. Our ship, the Viking Torgil, left from city of Vila Nova de Gaia near the mouth of the Douro River at Porto and traveled about 200km to Barca d’Alva at the Spanish border (of course then returning to Porto) and along the way, some of the most beautiful scenery unfolds around each bend of the river. Due to navigation regulations, ships can only transit the river during daylight, which is perfect for sightseeing. At night the ship is docked at small riverside towns and various shore excursions are scheduled around these stops.
The river winds through miles and miles of the valley where steep man-made hillside terraced vineyards rise up from the river’s edge. These terraces were built centuries ago and grapes are still picked by hand. Wine has been produced in the area for more than 2,000 years, but it was not until 1756 that the industry became organized and internationally recognized.
As the ship moves further upstream, the true story of the area’s wine country begins to unfold. Here, in the Alto Douro Wine Region, winding roads pattern the landscape, leading up to wonderfully lush vineyards. Gleaming white quintas, or wine estates, are visible and offer a glimpse of a traditional way of life that has existed for centuries.
Sightseeing along the Douro
Dams and Locks
The trip up to Barca d’Alva requires passing through five locks that are connected with large dams. The dams were build in the 1970’s-80’s for flood control and hydro-electric power. The lock systems allow larger vessel traffic to navigate the Douro and, of course, opened up the river cruise tourism industry. Each lock raises the vessel above the dam and the lock at Carrapatelo Lock Dam is one of the highest locks in the world at 35 meters. The ship also passes under many bridges, some are very low and there is very little clearance. The ship’s pilothouse can be hydraulically lowered, and all masts are lowered. It’s quite a thrill to be on the sundeck when passing under low bridges. At one particular bridge, the crew required everyone on the sundeck to remain seated.
Going through the Crestuma – Lever Dam/Lock, Carrapatelo Dam/Lock, low bridges and narrow, rocky passages.
A stop in the area’s largest riverside town, Regua which is an important transportation crossroads and where the steep hills and terraced vineyards begin to rise above the river. In nearby Vila Real is one of the region’s most elegant houses—Mateus Palace. This 18th-century baroque house and gardens, once belonging to local counts. The house’s interior is an extravagant display of period furnishings and decor while its gardens, among the finest in Portugal, feature a 115-foot-long tunnel carved from fragrant cedar trees. Today, the estate enjoys celebrity status: It is depicted on the labels of Mateus Rosé, though the wine is produced elsewhere.
A visit and tour of the Favaios’ wine cooperative, Adega Cooperativa de Favaios, provided incite into this area’s very famous wine, Moscatel de Favaios. Our visit coincided with the end of the harvests season, where we saw lots of activity. The tour was followed by a tasting of this Moscatel variety, which is nothing like that fortified “Muscatel” wine we may remember from our youth.
After the winery visit we did a walking tour of the small town of Favaios with visit to a famous family run bakery that produces the local “four corners bread”. The baker, Dona Manuela, a grandmother, has been featured in Viking Cruise’s promotional videos.
When the ship docked at Barca d’Alva we had a full day excursion over to Salamanca Spain for a walking tour of that city, visiting several interesting sights along with free time for lunch. The coach ride was about 2-hours.
We started our tour with a visit to the main indoor market, Mercado Central, where Viking had arranged a tasting of the local cured hams, cheeses, olives, and of course, some wine. There were a number of carnicerías (butcher shops) with the famous Jamon Iberico hanging on display. You see many grades of Jamon Iberico (acorn fed aged black pig leg), and some were priced as much as EU499! Several fish markets featured a variety of fresh seafood, but also had lots of salted cod, the local staple of the Iberian Peninsula. Then there were plenty of fruits and vegetables, bakeries and some specialty shops featuring Spain’s famous saffron. We did buy some saffron, it was expensive, but not as much as we would pay here at home. We will need to get out our favorite paella recipe!
Our walking tour with a local guide was interesting, but the weather didn’t cooperate, with rain showers turning into more steady rain fall. This was the first bad weather day we encountered on the cruise.
A visit to the Salamanca Cathedral gave us a chance to get out of the rain. There are two cathedrals, the Old Cathedral and New Cathedral. Back in the 16th Century it was decided that the original cathedral was too small, so a new, larger cathedral was needed. Originally it was planned to demolish the Old Cathedral, but then it was decided the New Cathedral would be build adjacent to the existing one.
The Old Cathedral is Romanesque, dating from the 12th century, and is famous for its ornate Gallo Tower. Its breathtaking 15th-century altarpiece features no less than 53 panels depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus Christ and Mary, topped by a presentation of the Final Judgment.
The New Cathedral was constructed between the 16th and 18th centuries in two styles: late Gothic and Baroque. Building began in 1513 and the cathedral was consecrated in 1733.
Brief video tour of Salamanca’s Central Market, New Cathedral and rainy walk around town.
This medieval hilltop town, a bastion of the country’s heritage, provides a glimpse into the Portugal of yesterday. Due to its location near the Spanish border, it has been the subject of many frontier battles over the centuries. However, the structures did little to deter the determined Spaniards and so these fortifications were constantly under assault, besieged and rebuilt. It is a testament to their strength that as many as 20 have survived as lasting reminders of a long and bloody period of dispute between the two nations. The castles’ architectural styles range from medieval to Gothic.
The region around Castelo Rorigo has many almond orchards and as we walked through the medieval streets, local vendors were offering samples of everything almond; candied almonds, savory almonds, almond liquers. We couldn’t leave with purchasing several packages of various almond treats.
We spent a morning in the town of Lemego, starting at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remédios on a hill high above town. This is an important pilgrimage church with a staircase of 686 steps leading from the town below to the church. Landings on the stairway have statues and chapels and are adorned with beautiful blue tile mosaics. During the annual pilgrimage many penitents climb the steps on their knees. Needless to say, we didn’t walk the stairs.
With some free time in the town below we had our obligatory coffee with Pastel de Nata at a local coffee shop on the square. We also visited the Cathedral and the Lamego Museum. The museum is a must see, with an impressive collection of Portuguese and European paintings from the 16th to the late 18th centuries, plus pottery, sculptures, tapestries, and other artifacts dating back to Roman times.
What stood out on this trip was the amazingly beautiful scenery in the Douro Valley. It’s safe to say it is one of the most beautiful places we have visited so far in our world travels. Another thing that stands out is the friendliness of the Portuguese people. We have met some wonderful people and came away with new friends. This will not be our last trip to Portugal, must return!