It felt incredibly indulgent: hopping from my cozy bed just long enough to toss the curtains open, then plunging back into the covers so I could sip coffee while watching the dramatic landscape of Portugal’s Douro Valley ease by the boat. Passing hillsides are carved with narrow terraces from 800 years ago, their singular purpose to provide level space in the impossibly vertical terrain for growing port wine grapes. The landscape looks woven and pleated, a textured view of the mountains as seen sparkling in the sunlight from the river.
We had a whole week on the Douro River, which seems to be marked by the contrast between trips to its historic shores and comforts of the easy, modern river passages.
Mountain climbs up and down restless switchback roads in extremely comfortable coaches led to wandering around in narrow, ancient streets so old you could hear the sigh of ages. You could put your shoes where others had walked wearing clanking armor and touch walls covered in hand-painted tiles centuries old.
Returning to the boat, life was filled with soothing movement along both narrow and wide parts of the peaceful river aboard s/v Hemming. The evening begins with cocktails, chatting about the day’s experiences, and news of tomorrow’s adventures from the brilliant program director, Alexandra. The organization of excursions is smoothly and professionally executed for a variety of activity level preferences and led by guides who make all transitions effortless.
Portugal may not be famous for its exotic cuisine, but Viking Hemming might be the oasis of inspired dining for all meals: luscious dinners in the handsome white linen dining room were exquisite (and frequently followed by live music and dancing in the lounge.
Our cabin was very comfortable for two, including a small living room where I tended to stretch out before dinner, pretending to read but actually just drifting with the passing scenery. The veranda off the sitting room became our pre-breakfast coffee nook while the French porch off the bedroom allowed us to open the sliding door and enjoy the warm evening breezes off the river at night without fear of taking an accidental swim.
We found ourselves in a new environment at every turn: from the vibrant twin cities of Porto and Gaia to venerable teeming universities; from ancient, whispering castles and fierce stone fortresses to small cozy towns of only a few farmhouses. Portugal is not a land of fences – most places, you can rest on a wall built during the Crusades or run your hands over the centuries-old carvings on a cathedral’s lintel. That removed, museum quality so frequent at historic sites is not here – instead, you can believe for a moment that you might have lived in this world.
And history abounds in Portugal. As it was not bombed during WWII, there are buildings still standing which were constructed in the 1400s. Time spent surrounded by these ancient beauties is time well spent. An afternoon at Castelo Rodrigo, for example, a fortress built in 1209, passed walking the shoulder-width granite cobbled paths and marveling at how much of this old stone place was still standing; more of it is being reconstructed by UNESCO.
The seemingly 100-mile view from the top made it easy to understand why this spot was chosen for the stone fortress some 800 years ago; how they built it, however, was much harder to imagine. Two churches, several homes and sheds all made of stone with narrow, winding streets between, a minaret, and a synagogue, all safely sheltered from invaders on top of this mountain, surrounded by endless stone wall. Quite a thing.
The modern Castelo Rodrigo has a few small shops selling local handmade sweaters and crafts, a tiny restaurant and café making sandwiches and pastries, and of course, the vendor offering a wide array of local port wines. All these are nestled in old stone structures that insist you duck to enter the doorways. Where there were hundreds of people here centuries ago, there remain only 16. While the restoration work progresses slowly, Castelo Rodrigo exudes charm and a sense of hand-built grace that you can feel in every stone you rest your fingers on.
Each day brought a new, magical experience. One evening found us boarding our coaches for a short ride to Convento de Alpendurada for dinner in the gothic vaulted cellars of a beautifully-kept monastery. The next morning’s late breakfast onboard turned into a race of sorts as a tiny, easter egg colored train chugged alongside the river.
Post-race, we visited Mateus Palace — that’s right, the one from the bottles of wine in which we all over-indulged during the 60s. It is still lived in by the same family that built it centuries ago and still guards the seemingly endless fields of grapes and flowers, formal and maze gardens. I found the reflecting pool I remembered from the bottle, still creating a magical illusion, perfect symmetry with occasional ripples.
The university town of Cuimbra was another highlight — this is the very town where J.K. Rowling studied and which served as the site for her Harry Potter’s magical school Hogwarts. Rowling was faithful in her depiction, right down to the hooded, floor-length black capes worn by the students. At one time, Cuimbra was the largest city in Portugal, until the cities of Porto and Gaia surpassed it as financial capitols, thanks to trade routes with China and South America.
Cuimbra is also famous for its unique brand of Fado, the Portuguese form of musical storytelling. Incredibly dramatic, Fado is almost like a one-person opera telling the story of love, loss or pride by highly revered singers, generally accompanied by one or two stringed instruments. This is very serious stuff to the performers, and in Cuimbra, the singers of Fado are akin to demigods.
The library at Cuimbra is divided into three segments on the subjects of Law, Medicine, and Natural Science & Astronomy. Impossibly tall tiers with more than 3,000 books each, accessed by rolling ladders, with sections painted in dark red, dark green or black and heavily trimmed in gold, each containing the world’s total knowledge of those three subjects on intricately carved shelves, gilded rails, and hard-carved wooden ladders – so invitingly beautiful you want to climb about and read them all.
Every day was filled with these adventures. From our start at Lisbon, where we walked the tiny, cobbled streets of Alfama (which remains an intimate community of families who have shared alleys so small you could practically shake hands with your neighbor across the street), to the old port of Belem where the wealthy merchants built enormous wooden fortresses after the devastating earthquake of the mid-1700s so they could watch their gold- and spice-laden ships come and go from the working harbor.
Port wine is an all consuming topic in Portugal, and they love their wines with a passion. We visited at least one winery each day, and sure enough as you went along you really did could discern the difference between the vineyards. Technically, in order to capitalize the “P” in Port Wine, it must come from the Douro Valley and have an alcohol content between 20-23 percent. Ruby Portos are not aged long, just 1-3 years. Tawny Portos can be aged for decades in huge wooden barrels while colors fade and sugars mellow. All are sweet though, and is meant to be enjoyed without further aging although an open bottle will stay tasty for up to a month due to its higher alcohol levels.
The Douro River trip is a peaceful one: once you get past the first lock, you travel from lake to lake with lazy elevator rides in the ship in between. The terrain is restless, lush, and dotted with farmhouses, vineyards, and small towns. The excursions are diverse and captivating, the staff professional. I am already looking forward to luxuriating on my next adventure on the river with Viking!
Viking River Cruises to the Douro River Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQK9xpwmFa4#action=share
Slideshow of the Meteus Palace: http://www.getportugal.com/en/poi-palacio-de-mateus-15281
Castelo Rodrigo: http://www.visitcentrodeportugal.com.pt/castelo-rodrigo/
Reviews of Portugal’s Port wines: http://wine.bestcovery.com/best-port-wines
SIDEBAR: Port Wines
Strange as it sounds, the sweet wine that we know as Port owes its popularity to the fact that the French and the British were squabbling in the 18th century, and the British blocked the French harbors to shipping which shut off french wine exports like a tap.
The British turned to Portugal for its requirement. The Portuguese began fortifying their wines with local brandy to raise the alcohol level so that the wine would not spoil as it was shipped in barrels to be bottled on site. This brandy stopped the fermentation leaving a higher sugar level than traditional wines, a sweeter taste and a higher alcohol level. Since it was shipped from the Douro River city of Oporto it became known as Port Wine.
There are three main types of port wine: White, Ruby and Tawny. White Ports are meant to be drunk young, although some of it does get aged. Ruby Port is barrel aged, also intended to be drunk while young and tend to have a more fruity flavor. Tawny Ports are aged in smaller barrels and have a tawny color.
Just because anything this rarefied could not possibly be so simple, there are dozens of sub categories to each of these type s including Vinho Verde, Vintage and LBV (Late Bottled Vintage).
While on the Viking Douro River cruise we visited a winery almost every day and sampled offerings from Burmester, Sanderman, Taylors and Croft as well as many blends. There is a very wide variety, really something for every palate. In addition, the portugese use these wines for desserts, as well as mixing lemon and seltzer with some which I found wonderful on a hot day.