Sailing the Douro River In Search of Fine Port Wine
In the spring 2016, while sailing across the Atlantic Ocean on the way to Rome, three separate day excursions brought into focus the beauty and rich history of Portugal and Spain. First, we visited Funchal, Portugal, known for its rain forest and Teleferico cable car ride, which takes visitors up 1,800 feet to get to the forest. A return visit was a must, especially after getting a peak at the beautiful red tiled roofs atop vibrant pink and yellow buildings nestled into the mountainside.
Two more stops along the way included Malaga and Cartagena, Spain. Malaga is an ancient city known for forts, castles, and a 16,000 seat bull-fighting ring still in use today. Cartagena is an ancient Spanish naval city on the Mediterranean Sea with charming buildings and marble-covered streets. Both these locations and their sites assuredly secured a return visit to learn more about the region. Fast-forward to spring 2017 when the opportunity arose to visit both countries again, this time on a riverboat cruise down the Douro River. Make no mistake; this traveler was all-in.
The cruise itself began after a three-day land tour in and around Lisbon, Portugal. Lisbon is the capitol and the largest city of Portugal with a population of 552,700. Its urban area extends beyond the city’s administrative limits with a population of around 2.7 million people, making it the 11th-most populous urban area in the European Union. Lisbon is Europe’s westernmost capitol city and the only city that lies along the shores of the Atlantic coast, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Tagus River. The city is a mixture of old and new. Our first day began with a guided tour of the city and a view of old Lisbon. Belém Tower (named after the word Bethlehem) was built in the 16th century to guard its port. The tower has been used to house cannon, prisoners, and even royalty. Today, it is a must-see as its architectural beauty has withstood the sea, the salt air, and the test of time. Just down the road from the tower is a more modern monument, built in the 20th century, called the Monument of the Discoveries. Through vivid architecture, this structure depicts the voyages of Portugal’s founding patron, Prince Henry the Navigator. Both sites represent a part of Portugal’s history that is rich in exploration and navigation.
Perhaps one of the most unexpected and fascinating museums in the heart of Lisbon is the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, which houses art, furniture, sculptures, and tiles from Egypt, China, and Paris. There is even a small collection of early Lalique glass pieces. Calouste Gulbenkian was a British-Armenian businessman and philanthropist who traveled extensively and lived in cities around the world. While he rose to wealth and fame due to his oil operation business, he also became known for his extensive collection of art, considered to be one of the greatest private collections in the world. Today, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Museum, started in 1956, continues to promote arts, charity, education, and science throughout the world and is among the largest foundations in Europe. The museum and foundation buildings are nestled in the Parque de Santa Gertrudes, located on Avenidas Novas.
Another must-see just outside of Lisbon is the town of Sintra, known as a place to escape the summer heat of Lisbon. It has been frequented by Portugal kings as well as authors, musicians, and poets. Traveling to Sintra by bus was no easy feat, as the road twists and hairpin turns made for an interesting and, at times, nail-biting trip. However, once inside the city, the magic of the Moorish castle, the Castelo dos Mouros, with its Magpie room ceilings and double smokestack kitchen vents, made the trip well worth the effort. Sintra is also known for its embroidered table linens and tiles. It is a small slice of Portugal that is too good to miss.
The riverboat cruise began in Porto, Portugal, approximately 200 miles from Lisbon. To get there, we took a motor coach drive through Portugal’s countryside, which was remarkably like driving through the foothills of California. The highway was well maintained as we made our way through Coimbra, Portugal’s first capitol and the country’s third largest city. Today, Coimbra is home to one of the oldest universities and to the Joanina Library, gifted to the university by King Joao V. The library boasts more than 300,000 volumes and is considered to be one of the most exquisite architecturally appointed libraries in the world.
The city of Porto is at the mouth of the Douro River, which winds a path through the wine region of Portugal and our ultimate destination. Porto is a UNESCO designated site. Our guided city bus tour showcased the five bridges that connect Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia; the famous Clérigos Tower, said to have been used by sailors as a guide to navigate their way through the narrow estuary to the mouth of the Atlantic; and the 19th century Stock Exchange Palace, famous for its Moorish Revival style Arab Room.
As our riverboat set sail through the wine region of Portugal, we began a seven-day look at the history of wine making and the vineyards that are planted and grown on sloped or terraced land to enhance and encourage vine growth in a dry climate. Much like traveling through Central California wineries in the Paso Robles area, winery signs can be seen as one cruises down the Douro River. Each day of the cruise, our boat docked in a small town along the banks of the Douro and we headed by motor coach through green hills and lush valleys to visit local wine makers and sample their wines.
Two highlights included a tour of the Mateus Palace and Gardens and a catered dinner at the century-old Quinta da Avessada Winery, known for its Moscatels, the most popular wine in Portugal. If the name Mateus sounds familiar, it’s because its rosé wine and distinctively shaped bottle were quite popular in the United States in the 1970s. Today, a portion of the palace is a museum, which highlights its classic baroque architecture, carved wood ceilings, 18th century furniture, and exquisite Portuguese and Chinese ceramics, belonging to the Mourão family who built the palace around 1740. The descendants of the Mourãos still reside in a part of the palace today.
The Douro River begins to narrow at the town of Vega de Terron, making it impossible for the riverboat to proceed. Thus, our final land destination before we set sail back to Porto was a visit to Salamanca, Spain. As we drove along the Spanish countryside through small villages and green hills, we saw sheep, pigs, cattle, and even storks that were busy building their nests in high, abandoned electrical lines. The two-hour bus trip brought us to the heart of one of the oldest Spanish cities, Salamanca, which is known for its university, several historic churches, and two cathedrals built in the 16th century and the 12th century. The city’s center, the Plaza Mayor, is lined with beautiful baroque buildings that lead to a university that was founded by Alfonso IX in 1218. Finally, the food hall, said to be one of the best in Spain, boasts samples of chorizos, cheeses, ham, and olive oil, all of which led to a delicious lunch of tapas at a local restaurant known for its friendly atmosphere.
Our river voyage ended as it began in Porto with a flight to Madrid and then home. This was a journey that was rich in history, beautiful buildings and architectural design, and, of course, some of the most exquisite varietal port wines. And yes, perhaps even bringing home a bottle or two made for an unforgettable trip. n