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

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.