Cruising on the Douro River

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
Sunrise on the Douro
Passing sister ship “Viking Osfrid”

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.

Shore Excursions

Mateus Palace

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.

Mateus Palace
Who remembers drinking Mateus?

Favaios

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.

Salamanca, Spain

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.

Castelo Rodrigo

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.

Lamego

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!

This slide show illustrates the natural beauty of the Douro Valley, please enjoy.

Douro Valley Panorama

Picturesque Porto

After two days in Lisbon our Viking Cruise itinerary had us heading to Porto where we would join our river cruise ship, the Viking Torgil. On the coach ride to Porto we stopped in Coimbra for a tour of the historic University of Coimbra, followed by some free time in the town and then a traditional Portuguese lunch at República da Saudade restaurant accompanied by Fado music. The university is the oldest in Portugal and one of the oldest, continuously operating universities in the world.

A video recap of our visit to Coimbra

Portugal’s second largest city, Porto holds a place of great traditional importance. The town lends its name to the port wine produced in the region and throughout the nation. Located along the Douro River, the city boasts picturesque neighborhoods, fashionable restaurants and cozy coffee shops. Like Lisbon, Porto has a rich past; its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A great walking city where you find narrow cobblestone streets brimming with romantic buildings spanning the centuries and a stunning Romanesque cathedral on a hilltop overlooking the river and city.

At the riverside, small barcos rabelos, boats once used to transport casks of wine, paint a charming scene. A major landmark on the river is the Ponte Luís I or Luís I Bridge. This iconic metal bridge, a true engineering marvel, built in 1886, connects Porto with Vila Nove de Gaia. The bridge has two levels, the lower level carries vehicle and pedestrian traffic while the high upper level is for street tram and pedestrian traffic. The upper level offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Douro, Porto and its surrounding areas.

Our ship, the Viking Torgil was docked across the river from Porto in Vila Nove de Gaia, where all the major Port makers have their warehouses. You see all the big names on these warehouses and tasting rooms such as; Sandeman, Taylor, Cockburn’s, Croft. The riverfront adjacent to our vessel is a very lively waterfront area with many restaurants, bars, shops and other attractions. A nearby cable car carries you up to the top of the hill where the upper level of the Luís I Bridge crosses over to Porto.

Some interesting facts about Porto:

  • Porto is one of Europe’s oldest cities, having been founded inBC as a Roman settlement.
  • With its six bridges that cross the Douro, Porto is known as the “City of Bridges”.
  • Two of Porto’s six bridges were designed by Gustave Eiffel before he began work on his famous namesake tower in Paris.
  • Porto is Portugal’s second largest city.
  • In 1996, the city’s historic center was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
  • The city is famous for its historic port wine trade, the center of which lies at Vila Nove de Gaia on the south bank of the Douro River.

Picturesque Porto Slide Show

Picturesque Porto

Lovely Lisbon

Lisbon, Portugal’s capitol and largest city is bursting with culture, history and  tourist attractions. The city is situated along the Tagus River very close to the Atlantic Ocean. This location by the sea is important to Lisbon’s rich history, the jumping off point for the Portuguese explorers in the Age of Discovery.

Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in Western Europe, having its origins as an indigenous Celts settlement around 800BC, also as Phoenician and Greek trading posts in the same era. Then occupied by Carthaginians and eventually become part of the Roman Empire as the city of Olisipo. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Visigoth German tribes occupied much of the Iberian peninsular, including Portugal. The invasion and occupation by the Islamic Moors from North Africa in the 8th Century lasted about 4 centuries until they were ousted by Christian crusaders. The influence of the Moors is still very evident throughout Portugal in the beautiful ceramic tiles (azulejos) that adorn palaces, churches, public buildings, even homes.

In 1755 a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated Lisbon and the surrounding areas.  The Secretary of the State of Internal Affairs at that time, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, popularly known as the Marquis of Pombal, lead the bebuilding efforts. Pombal employed new building codes and methods including earthquake-proof architectural design. Much of what you see in central Lisbon today are the results of this 18th Century rebuilding effort. A large monument at the Praça Marquês de Pombal square honors the Marquis of Pombal.

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From Edward VII Park, the monument to Marquis of Pombal can be seen in the distance. 

We spent the first two days and the last two days of our trip in Lisbon. This gave us enough free time to do some walking around. Lisbon is a hilly city with cobblestone sidewalks and streets, so walking can be a bit challenging for us older folks. Lots of stairs and steep streets will ramp up your FitBit numbers rather quickly. We found the public transit system in Lisbon to be excellent and very affordable. On our last full day we purchased a 24-hour Metro pass (about 6.00 Euros each) which covered subway, buses and the famous street trams.

Some of the sights we visited included Belem Tower, Jerónimos Monastery, Praça do Comércio, St. George Castle, Lisbon Cathedral and Edward VII Park.

Enjoying Food & Drink

Making Pastel de Nata

Some visited sights

One of the interesting features of Lisbon is the extensive cobblestone paving of miles and miles of sidewalks. These cobblestones are small, irregular shaped and are hand fitted. On the sidewalk at the southeast corner of Praça dos Restauradores (Restaurant Square) there is a tribute of the pavers who build these extensive works of art.

 Slideshow of LisbonLisbon

Montana Vacation – Part 1

Big Sky – Majestic Mountains – Huckleberries – Friendly People

This year our August vacation was to Northwest Montana. Our visit would include the towns of Missoula, Whitefish and Columbia Falls, touring Glacier National Park, the Bitterroot Mountain area and the Bison National Range.

Kathie and I met up with our daughter Jen, who flew in from DC. So this was a family vacation and during the week we celebrated both Kathie and Jen’s birthdays.

Our visit was during the first 2-weeks of August. The weather was good overall, albiet hot during the days (mid 90’s). At the very end of our visit there were some severe thunderstorms, but these didn’t interupt our plans in any significant way.

This “Part 1” blog will focus on our visit to the Missoula area. A “Part 2” will continue with our visit to Glacier National Park and the surrounding areas.

Missoula

Arriving in Missoula, we spent the first weekend there. Missoula is a fun town, home to the University of Montana. We explored the Saturday Street Market and Farmer’s Market, which were very popular and lively.

The Missoula downtown has some interesting late 19th – early 20th Century building architecture, great area for walking and exploring. 

Flying to Missoula

We flew United from Boston to Denver connecting with a United Express flight to Missoula, about a 2 hours flight from Denver. The window seat view flying into Missoula on a clear day is breathtaking as you follow the valley between mountains on final approach.

Walking around Missoula

Enjoying the street scenes and the riverfront area. This is Lewis and Clark country.

Saturday Morning Markets

Saturdays in Missoula feature an arts & crafts People’s Market on E. Pine St (closed to vehicle traffic) and a large Farmer’s Market on the riverfront next to Caras Park.

Food & Drink

Missoula offers plenty of food and drink options. There are many gourmet coffee shops and very good micro-breweries. The dining choices vary quite a bit from casual to upscale.

The Bayern Brewery was a real treat, serving excellent Bavarian style micro-brew beers and authentic German comfort food. The pilsner draft with a large, home made pretzel, bratwurst and warm German potato salad really hit the spot.

Our dinner choices included:

  • Plonk, a comfortable wine bar atmosphere featuring a wide selection of wines and a small plate menu ideal for sharing.
  • The Pearl Cafe, a French inspired menu with local ingredients. A very warm, cozy place and we had an excellent server, making it a very pleasant experience. My first Bison tenderloin experience, yum! Reservations are highly recommended.

Other favorite spots in Missoula:

Other Sites Around Missoula

Historical Museum at Fort Missoula

On the site of Fort Missoula, originally established in the 1870’s during the Indian Wars. The fort served as a US Army training base during WW1, then a Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) camp in the 1930’s. During WW2 it was an Alien Detection Center housing Italian, German and Japanese foreign nationals and resident aliens.

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

Located outside Missoula, it was a few minutes from our hotel. Very interesting and informative, dedicated to the conservation of Elk herds. The exhibition area has life-like dioramas depicting Rocky Mountain wildlife in a natural habitat.

Garnet Ghost Town

Garnet Ghost Town is about a 1-hour drive east of Missoula. The town is an abandoned gold mining site with preserved buildings and structures. There are volunteer guides on-site who provide historical information and stories.

Christmas Markets….Vienna, Bratislava & Zagreb

Zagreb

When we started planning this year’s Christmas Market trip back in October, we were looking to visit somewhere new. Our daughter suggested that Vienna is a must-see Christmas Market, so we decided that would be a good choice. We didn’t want to limit the trip to Vienna, so with the help of our good friend Google, we saw that Zagreb’s Christmas Market was voted Europe’s best for three years running (that according to Croatia tourist website, anyway). We also viewed an number of VLOG’s from folks who visited Zagreb Christmas Market in recent years and these VLOG’s seemed to endorse Zagreb as a good choice. So we added Zagreb to the itinerary and what also helped with that choice is the fact that Zagreb is less than an hour plane trip from Vienna.

When we did our advanced planning, we booked round-trip air with Austrian Airlines and found a conveniently located hotel using Booking.com. Our hotel, the Palace Hotel,  was about $300 for 3 nights, which seemed quite reasonable for a mid-city hotel. More about prices below.

After spending 5 days in Vienna, we flew to Zagreb on Monday December 3rd. Flight was on time, Zagreb airport was easy to navigate and we used Uber for the ride to the hotel. Our driver Boris spoke perfect English and he gave us lots of tips about foods to eat and things to do and see. The ride from the airport to downtown is about 16km (10 mi) and it took almost 30 min because of traffic. The Uber fare was $16, pretty cheap! By the way, Croatia does not use Euro’s, the local currency is the Kuna (HRK) and the exchange is about 6.5HRK to the dollar.

IMG_20181203_144623-01Welcome to  Franjo Tuđman Airport Zagreb

Our Hotel

I can’t say enough about our hotel choice. The Palace Hotel is a classic hotel in a Art Nouveau palace dating from 1891. The location is perfect, right across the street from Park Josipa Jurja Strossmayera and Park Zrinjevac, two of the Christmas Market venues and a 4-block walk to Ban Josip Jelačić square, the main Christmas Market and shopping area.

Our hotel room was ideal, large and roomy (for European standards) and my biggest measure of a hotel room is the size of the bathroom and shower, this one was spot on. Plenty of room in the shower and strong water pressure. Our room rate included breakfast and the breakfast buffet was huge. Plenty of hot and cold selections, fresh fruits, bread and pastries, it was an excellent spread.

The hotel Cafe/bar was a very comfortable space with elegant woodwork, high ceilings and cozy Christmas decorations. It was on the ground floor with large windows facing the park with stunning views of the Christmas Market lights and activities. We would have a glass of wine or cognac and the cost was less than $5.00 per glass!

The hotel had a health and wellness spa and I made an appointment for a one hour massage. That was very relaxing and the cost was equivalent to $38, quite a bit less than what we pay at home.

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Palace Hotel

Getting Around Zagreb

The convenient location of our hotel made it easy to explore the city and Christmas Markets. Everything was within walking distance. Our first morning in Zagreb, we decided to take the Hop-on, Hop-off bus service. This gave us a good overview of the city, plus the audio narration provided some history and context.

We walked to the upper city, some steep roads and stairs to overcome, but we made it. We ended up taking the funicular back down to the lower city, didn’t plan that very well, would have been better going up on the funicular and walking down, let gravity be our friend!

Zagreb has an extensive street tram system, but we didn’t use the trams. There was also a Christmas tram that toured the sights and Santa was the conductor.

010501db3b6ddf1f95d2dfdfd58515f9c60796a5ff The Funicular

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Ban Josip Jelačić Square

Zagreb Christmas Markets

The Zagreb Christmas Market is a bit different than what we saw in Vienna or from our previous trips to Germany, France and Switzerland. The vendor booths or stalls are different, all were white, in contrast to the German style which are chalet-like, dark wood. Another big difference is that the vast majority of vendor stalls were selling food and drinks. Not many crafts, clothing or other seasonal items like in Germany or Austria.

It seems that Zagreb is a party city, lots of people, many young adults, out for drinks and food. But there are also families, young and old. Everywhere you went, there was music playing, some Christmas music, as well as pop and rock. The main venues like Ban Josip Jelačić square had stages and bandstands set up where there was always some live entertainment, like local youth choirs, folk groups, traditional and contemporary musicians and artists. The Christmas Market scene in Zagreb is very lively, lots of energy.

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General Impressions

Some general impressions and observations about Zagreb and Croatia.

Croatia is very affordable, the US dollar goes a long way. When dining out, even at a more upscale restaurant, we never paid more than $50 for the two of us, that incudes the drinks.

The people are very friendly, most speak good English.

Zagreb seems very safe, we did not feel uncomfortable or threatened even when walking around at night.

There are many smokers in Zagreb. It seems that smoking is very popular with younger people.

Overall, we really liked Zagreb and we look forward to visiting other parts of Croatia in 2020 when we do a Mediterranean cruise.

More mages from Zagreb

Zagreb Croatia

Christmas Markets….Vienna, Bratislava & Zagreb

 

Saturday Afternoon in Bratislava

Our side trip to Bratislava was a last minute addition to our Christmas Market tour itinerary. After some online research we found that the train to Bratislava was a little over an hour from Vienna and the trains ran every hour. So off we went to Vienna’s main, bustling train station, Wien Hauptbahnhof. Our round-trip fare was very reasonable about EU10.00 each and it was open seating. We arrived at the main station in Bratislava around 1:30pm and took a street Tram into the city center. Our train ticket also covered city Tram and bus service in Bratislava, so this was a great deal. Train travel and public transportation in general in Europe are very convenient and the trains are comfortable and usually on time.

Bratislava is a quaint, charming small city. It had snowed the night before, a light (maybe 1-2 inches) covering on the roof tops added to the Christmas atmoshere. We left the tram at the city center but we didn’t know where to find the Christmas Market, so when in doubt, follow the crowd. The market was a couple of blocks from the city center at the city hall plaza complex.

The Bratislava Christmas Market was small but very festive, mostly locals attending, although we did see a couple of walking tour groups from nearby Danube river cruise boats. It was a fun Christmas Market, we sampled some of the local food like the palacinka, a crepe like treat with a sweet hazelnut filling. The pozsonyi kifli, or crescent shaped pastries, were delicious. These tasted like shortbread but had a center filling of nuts and spices. And yes, we did try the local version of Gluhwein, called Cierny Medved, or “black bear” which is a black currant mulled wine.

We stayed in Bratislava until after dark and were able to get the 7:30PM train back to Vienna. A fun day at a charming town and Christmas Market.

Enjoy a video recap of our “Saturday Afternoon in Bratislava”

 

Images from Bratislava

Bratislava Slovakia

Christmas Markets….Vienna, Bratislava & Zagreb

Our First Day in Vienna

It’s that time of year when we are off on another Christmas Market adventure. This was our 5th Christmas Market trip since 2013, four have been to Europe (Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia and Croatia) and one trip up to Quebec City last year.

Walking around these Christmas Markets, mingling with locals, smelling the different foods, having a hot cup of the mulled wine and just taking in the festive atmosphere is a perfect way to get into the Christmas spirt.

We left Boston on Wednesday Nov 28th and travelled to Vienna via Newark and Zurich, arriving on Thursday midday in Vienna. Our hotel, the Hotel Alpha Wien was a very nice, comfortable smaller hotel, perfectly located near the main Christmas Market at City Hall. Like many European hotels, the room was a bit small and the shower was really small. The hotel served our purposes and the staff was very friendly and helpful. Also, breakfast was included in our rate. We booked this hotel through Booking.com which we use quite a bit and have been happy with this online service.

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Cozy sitting area at Hotel Alpha Wien lobby.

Vienna

Vienna, the Imperial City, is one of Europe’s beautiful cities. It has magnificent buildings and architecture, broad avenues and many parks and palaces. According to the Vienna tourist website there are a dozen separate Christmas Markets. In our first four days in Vienna (we came back for one day at the end of our trip) we were able to visit five of the larger markets.

On our first night, we pushed through the jetlag and walked the two blocks from the hotel to the main, biggest Christmas Market at Rathausplatz (city hall plaza). It was a very cold evening, but when we turned the corner and walked onto the plaza the view was spectacular. Every tree in the park was covered in lights, rows upon rows of vendor chalet stalls selling all kinds of Christmas items and crafts, and, of course the food. We made a bee line for the first Bratwurst stand we could find and got on obligatory Brat. Delicious! Also, to warm up, we had to imbibe in some Gluhwein.

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Rathausplatz Christmas Market

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A video recap of our arrival in Vienna