We’re about to embark on a 10-day journey along the same route that for centuries, only skilled mariners dared steer their barcos rabelos (wooden boats), transporting casks of Port from esteemed wine estates to the city of Porto. In those days, the Douro was one of the most treacherous rivers in Europe, with many lives and barrels lost in its turbulent waters.
It has since been tamed by a series of well-engineered locks and dams, so we have no hesitation stepping aboard the Viking Hemming to begin our journey.
The trip begins on dry land in Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, where we spend a couple of days taking in the Moorish architecture and exploring the labyrinth of streets that overflow with food and craft stores, monuments, monasteries and museums, as well as restaurants and wine bars.
At night, we head to the Time Out Market (timeoutmarket.com), where every local restaurant worth its salt has a stand and you can sample their popular dishes at very reasonable prices. There are also wine bars and merchants, and some of the best pasteis de nata (Portuguese custard tarts) in town. Grab tapas and a glass or two before visiting the historic Chiado district for dinner.
At Sea Me Peixaria Moderna (peixariamoderna.com), select fresh seafood from the fishmonger’s counter and have it cooked however you like. Or visit the restaurant complex Bairro do Avillez (bairrodoavillez.pt) owned by hot-shot chef José Avillez, where there’s everything from wine, cheese, cold cuts and canned foods at Mercearia, hearty local food at Taberna, seafood at Pateo, or fine dining and a burlesque show at Beco.
For one last drink, the rooftop bar at Hotel Tivoli Avenida Liberdade (tivolihotels.com), our five-star base, has compelling panoramic views over the city and chilled background beats.
Viking River Cruises offers a comprehensive choice of guided tours conducted by good-humoured and well-versed locals.
A visit to Lisbon’s stunning old town and the ornate Jeronimos Monastery is included in the itinerary, or book and pay for your own optional trips, such as the National Tile Museum (museudoazulejo.gov.pt) to learn about the azulejos, the blue and white tiles so prevalent on buildings everywhere, or a walking tour of the Graça district to sample authentic regional food and wine.
Vila Nova de Gaia
Our vessel is waiting for us at Vila Nova de Gaia, a couple of hours north of Lisbon. The quayside is lined with warehouses that house ancient cellars excavated into the granite rock, belonging to the big names in Port. Many are open for tastings and sales. Take an organised tour of the cellars or participate in a lavish dinner at Graham’s Port (grahams-port.pt) hosted at the company’s 1890 Lodge.
Freewheelers should head to 1756 Museu Da 1a Demarcação, Museum of the Oldest Appellation in the World. It’s a good place to get to grips with the history of the Douro and its subregions, while upstairs there is a cigar room, a restaurant, a cheese room and a wine bar. The complex is a relatively recent initiative of Real Companhia Velha (realcompanhiavelha.pt), one of the oldest wine companies in Portugal, and owner of 550 hectares of prime vineyards and five impressive estates (quintas).
It’s an easy stroll across the Ponte Luis 1 bridge into the city of Porto and its historic neighbourhoods, mainly built with wine industry funds in the 1800s. This area is filled with restaurants and wine bars that you’ll want to explore, plus you might also stumble across the Livraria Lello bookshop (livrarialello.pt), supposedly an inspiration for JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which she started writing during her time teaching English in the city.
There are plenty of tours to choose from, including a city hike, the Panoramic Porto Tour (viator.com), or for a bird’s-eye view, book a helicopter ride over the city. Alternatively, head to the hills outside Porto to the town of Penafiel, where Quinta da Aveleda (aveleda.com/en), with its rustic architecture, lavish gardens and tutored tastings, is a drawcard.
Travelling upstream, you begin to appreciate the magnificence of the scenery. The river has carved its route through the rolling landscape, and on both banks terraced vineyards cascade down to the water’s edge, with gleaming white quintas dotted here and there and simple black signs identifying each wine estate.
Over the next five days we travel through all three regions and microclimates along the Douro. The cooler, wetter and fertile Baixo Corgo is home to the most vineyards, while, further east, Cima Corgo is the centre of fine Port production, as well as many of the now popular table wines. Douro Superior is the largest of the subregions, and is said to have two seasons — “winter and hell” — thanks to the scorching summer temperatures.
A huge variety of grapes grow in the Douro for both fortified and table wines. Some of the older vineyards contain a mixture, with tinta roriz (tempranillo), touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinta barroca and tinto cão the most common varieties for Port. But expect to encounter other reds, such as vinhão and tinta amarela, while malvasia fina, moscatel, gouveio, rabigato and viosinho are used in many of the new wave white wines.
Our first stop is at the peaceful town of Peso da Régua, the centre of the world’s oldest demarcated wine region. From here there is a shore excursion to Mateus Palace (casademateus.com), still inhabited by descendants of Count Vila Real.
Despite an image of the building appearing on the Mateus rosé label, the wine is made elsewhere. The story goes that the Guedes family, who created the wine, offered the estate owner a choice of receiving either 50 cents royalty on each bottle or a lump sum to use the image. The owner, infamously, chose the latter.
Later in the day, some of us go to Quinta do Seixo (sandeman.com), a state-of-the art operation accessed through ancient vineyards and a cacophony of fruit and olive trees that lead up to the main building. We are there for a tasting of the Founder’s Reserve Port. Others explore Quinta do Panascal (fonseca.pt), a winery perched high in the hills where a Port master holds a class in blending.
Between shore trips, life on board Viking Hemming is relaxed. Our cabins are small but well-appointed. There’s a good restaurant with a menu that changes daily and often showcases traditional dishes from the region. The bar is agreeably stocked, there’s a swimming pool, and evening entertainment. We learn about cork, attend a cooking class to brush up on making Portuguese tarts, and enjoy nights of flamenco and fado, with students performing the haunting songs.
Further upriver, there’s a chance to hop off for a picnic at the Castle of Marialva or simply enjoy a leisurely afternoon aboard the Hemming before arriving at Barca D’Alva, the last Portuguese town on the Douro and a short distance from the Spanish border. Secluded vineyards spill into the river gorges, and cherry, almond and olive groves line the banks. From here, you can roam the glorious countryside and visit Castelo Rodrigo, a medieval hilltop fortress town.
No passports are required to cross the border to Salamanca due to a longstanding arrangement between Portugal and Spain. The city is home to the 13th-century University of Salamanca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Plaza Mayor square is also a must-visit, as are the food markets with their fresh seafood, cheeses and mouth-watering jamon Ibérico. Don’t pass up the opportunity to buy the very well-priced local saffron or to dunk locally made churros in thick chocolate.
Pinhão and Favaios
Heading back downstream, we stop at the sleepy town of Pinhão, epicentre of the Port wine region and another world heritage site. The scenery is compelling with more gravity-defying terraced vineyards spilling down to the river. Here the pruning and harvesting is done by hand, and grapes are still gently stomped by foot to avoid crushing seeds into the juice.
Heading north, we tour the Favaios (adegadefavaios.pt) wine co-operative, formed by farmers to sell their moscatel, including Favaíto Moscatel do Douro. They claim to make 30 million bottles a year of this wine — which sounds impossible until it’s revealed bottles contain just 55ml and are sold for tourists to sample.
The little village of Favaios is also home to the last eight traditional bakeries in the Douro, most with wood-fired ovens. Each will produce 1,000 loaves a day, which are sold as far away as Porto and Lisbon. We visit the oldest bakery, belonging to Donna Rosalie. She uses pine wood from the forests nearby and old grapevines to fuel her 150-year-old ovens.
Down the road, the Bread and Wine Museum (cm-alijo.pt) is worth a visit to learn more about the region before continuing on to Quinta da Avessada (enotecadouro.com), an estate with its own museum, where vintners show you around the cellars and provide Port tastings.
As part of our lunch we are served a version of a soup made famous by Dona Antónia Ferreira. The vineyard owner and doyenne of Portugal’s wine industry created the soup to feed winemaking families when phylloxera swept the region in the 1800s. She was renowned for her tireless work battling disease and for developing Portugal’s wine trade. ‘Ferreirinha’, as she was known, left around 30 successful vineyards of her own for future generations to farm after she died in 1896.
From here, there are two options. You can climb the slopes to Quinta das Carvalhas (realcompanhiavelha.pt) for a guided tour through the vineyards to learn about a multitude of different grape varieties and sample yet more wine, this time in tandem with the famous, locally produced sausages. Or you can take a scenic drive to Casal de Loivos (casadecasaldeloivos.com) to learn about the region’s olive oil and honey and, of course, more wine.
The final days of the cruise are spent visiting the pilgrim town of Lamego and its Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, an 18th-century baroque church. Devoted pilgrims still climb the 686 steps of the grand staircase to the chapel on their knees. Most of us choose the easier option of a walk down to the town and the museum that houses a valuable collection of Flemish tapestries. There are plenty of shops selling local oils, salt and cork products.
On the last day, we have the chance to visit Saint John of Tarouca Monastery. Built in the 12th century, it was home to the Cistercian monks instrumental in the cultivation of vineyards here. Then it’s on to Casa de Santo Antonio de Britiande (casasantoantoniobritiande.com/en) in the heart of the Távora-Varosa wine region. The vineyards are off the beaten track, but it’s well worth a visit to taste their wines — especially sparklings and whites.
From here it’s a gentle chug back along the river to Vila Nova de Gaia. Take the chance to spend one more night in Porto and stock up on a few good bottles to reignite memories of a truly remarkable journey through the Douro.
Viking River Cruises run regular trips on the Douro. Visit vikingrivercruises.com.au GT WINE was a guest of Viking Cruises.