There are plenty of reasons to experience a river cruise along the Douro. The Douro Valley in Portugal is a Unesco World Heritage Site thanks to the historic vineyards that cloak the twisting, turning river’s steep and hilly banks. And yet that’s only half the story, the half that runs up to the Spanish border from Portugal’s interior.
The section from the coast is a different kettle of fish, starting at the picturesque city of Porto with mighty bridges of iron and stone leaping the tall hills on either side that are swathed in historic buildings and cobbled streets. From there it winds past beaches and resort towns, extravagant, contemporary holiday homes and little villages.
The river is 560 miles long but only 130 miles of this is in Portugal, the rest of it increasingly canyon-like, first marking the border with Spain then disappearing into the country. Cruises run only in Portugal thanks to the Spanish dam without a lock that acts more efficiently than any border patrol to keep outsiders at bay.
How to do it
A number of week-long river cruises run from Porto or, more accurately, Vila Nova de Gaia, technically a town, on the opposite bank of the Douro (and a mile from the Atlantic) with its dock and historic port warehouses, many of them now restaurants and bars as well as places for port experiences and tastings.
These cruises have only been running since just before the millennium when the last of five huge dams made the waters navigable for bigger ships and even now cruise ships are smaller than those on other European rivers.
Douro day by day
Given the relatively short length of the Portuguese Douro, cruise ships can get from end to end in a couple of days, so this is slow and beautifully soporific, the chance to sit back on deck and appreciate the constantly changing panoramas. This cruise, on contemporary 121-passenger Douro Splendour, is an excellent way to do that while including excursions to places of interest.
After a 30-minute coach ride from Douro airport, we’re crossing the lofty Ponte da Arrábida bridge with views over the city and river, then snaking down tiny, winding streets lined with forbidding stone walls to the quay. A gin and tonic on deck as sunset on the Dom Luis 1 bridge, an iron giant with tram lines and a walkway at hilltop level, the road bustling with tourists at riverbank level, then dinner – I go for roast octopus, the first of the week’s many Portuguese dishes. In the warm October darkness, we stroll along the quayside, alive with revellers.
By daybreak we’ve left Porto for a leisurely cruise twisting through the forests and pretty towns – due to the difficult navigation, only daytime sailing is allowed so plenty of time to take in the scenery. By afternoon we’re at Régua, a town with its own set of stirring bridges – foot, road and motorway – clustered together. The coaches that shadow the cruise take us to Mateus Palace, the Italianate home mostly known for being pictured on the stubby Mateus Rose wine bottles, for a walk around the gardens. Dinner is special, at the hilltop Quinta da Pacheca winery; a glass of rich white port while we stroll outside then steak (and free-flowing wine) in the glass-walled restaurant.
Sailing again as the scenery turns into one port wine vineyard after another, famous names – Sandeman’s, Graham’s – shouted from the hilltops with Hollywood-style signs. In between there are rugged, rocky stretches and spots where the river narrows to a single lane as gannets swoop and herons stand motionless. While there’s no riverfront path, the rail line from Porto almost dips its wheels in the water. From tiny Pochino (the rail line’s end) there’s an afternoon jaunt to the medieval mountaintop village of Castelo Rodrigo. Pretty for a wander and with tiny store selling local produce – I buy a bottle of rather nice almond liqueur (around £9) and varied bags of almonds to nibble. Back on board we reach Vega de Terron, a dock actually in Spain, albeit barely. Dinner then watch the moon glint on the water.
Our big day out, a two-hour drive to Salamanca, a gorgeous Spanish city well on the way to Madrid. There are 12th-century university buildings, an extravagant cathedral, a Roman bridge across the Tormes river and the ornate Mayor Plaza, seen on a tour with a local guide. A particular treat is the tapas lunch (with wine) and flamenco show at Casino de Salamanca, a Renaissance icon just off the Plaza. On our return we find our ship is in Portugal, at the village of Barca d’Alva, although Vega de Terron is visible on the other side of the road bridge.
Pointing towards the coast we see the scenery in reverse and it’s like being in a different world. We see little wineries we hadn’t noticed, fishes dancing in the sunlight and splendid vistas. By early afternoon we’re back in Régua. No time to explore (and, to be honest, there’s not much to see) as we’re straight on the bus to head back where we’d come on the narrow, sometimes hair-raising road above the river back to the busy town of Pinhão. More port, at Croft’s Quinta da Roêda estate. The chance to wander among the vines before a swift glass of both white and red.
A delightful morning jaunt to Lamego, a town that sits under the grand gaze of 18th-century Sanctuary of Our Lady of Good Remedy church, 691 stone steps above a tree-lined avenue (we started at the top and worked our way down). There’s also a pretty ground-level cathedral and a castle on a hill, reached by what appear to be cobbled footpaths amongst ancient homes but which turn out to be roads.
Having neared Porto, evening entertainment on board is local fado folk music: a singer and three impressive guitarists.
We’re swiftly back in Porto/ Vila Nova de Gaia. There’s a coach/walking tour but we simply head off and wander the lovely streets. We pass the cathedral, then Livraria Lello, a 1906 bookshop with twirling wooden staircases that were an inspiration JK Rowling’s Harry Potter settings (and with a queue to get in that’s as unreal as the stories), and meander down to the river. For €7 return we get the ancient clackity (but with free wifi) tram along the bank to the beach at the sea. An ice-cream, a paddle and we head back. It’s a final celebration dinner on board.
Flight’s not until the afternoon so we take a breezy morning walk the two miles along our side of the river, sometimes a boardwalk hanging over the water, sometimes a wide promenade, to Afurada with its own beach and yacht marina, opposite yesterday’s beach. The perfect finale. Back on board for a coffee then head home…
Contemporary and cool on the outside – a subtle metallic green against the white of most ships on the river – Douro Splendour is comfortingly woody on the inside. Rooms have big beds, windows that slide down to open up the whole place like a balcony and walk-in shower. TV with some UK news and sports. The dining room on one level, bar and lounge on another. Small spa offering treatments and a little gym.
The sundeck has plenty of loungers and table and chairs, some in the sun, some under a large awning. There’s a nice pool, room for a few people albeit not for swimming. This is a cruise for adults but while the average age might be higher, it’s just as enjoyable for younger couples.
Four-course dinners with plenty of Portuguese cuisine including lots of fish. Full English breakfasts plus lots of fruit and pastries. Lunch involves a choice of pasta, varied hearty salads – niçoise, potato and olive – plus wraps and sandwiches.
Relaxing and stunning – the river trip for those who don’t want to simply get off and explore every moment, every day. And the five dams are stupendous, Valeira’s 109ft drop, one of two topping 100ft, in a massive funnel of steel and concrete. Ever-changing scenery and plenty of time to take it in.
What does a river cruise along the Douro cost?
Riviera Travel runs weekly cruises on Douro Splendour and its sister ship Douro Elegance from April to October 2024, from £1,699 including flights, meals, and excursions. And to mark the company’s 40th anniversary in 2024, all passengers get a Superior Drinks Package giving wine and beer with lunch, then open house from 6pm.
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