Travel Story Wooed by wine and more on Portugal’s Douro River

Photo of Suzanne Morphet

Lovely waterway offers bucolic charms and interesting history.

I’m half-heartedly browsing cork purses in a tiny shop overlooking the Douro River when I catch a sweet scent.

It’s not wisteria, whose purple blossoms cascade over walls and smother arbors everywhere in Portugal in spring. This scent is fruitier, and when I look through an open window I spot its source — an orange tree, peppered with tiny white blossoms.

“Would you like to go into my garden,” the male shopkeeper asks.

It’s nothing more than a small patch of grass in the dappled light of the orange tree. Yet I can immediately imagine spending an idyllic afternoon here, sipping wine from the Douro Valley, enjoying a picnic and watching boats cruise along what is surely one of the loveliest rivers in all Europe.

Instead, I happily accept an orange from the young man, wish him well, and head back to our ship where it’s time to learn what’s in store for tomorrow.

A cruise on the Douro River isn’t as languorous as I might like. There’s simply too much to see and do away from the ship, which is both a blessing and a bit of a curse.

In the six days of our Viking cruise we’ll visit four quintas — wine estates — and sail past many more, their terraced vines clinging to the steep slopes where workers still do the backbreaking jobs of pruning and picking by hand. We’ll visit one of the last traditional bakeries in the Douro Valley and sample crusty bread still warm from the woodfired oven. One day we’ll venture into Spain, exploring the “golden city” of Salamanca, where we stumble upon three weddings happening simultaneously in different chapels of the city’s massive old cathedral. Over the course of our journey, we’ll drink more wine and eat more Iberian ham than can be good for anyone.

The Douro River begins its 900km descent to the Atlantic in northern Spain. Once wild and dangerous, the river claimed numerous lives — not to mention untold litres of port — when small rabelo boats, once loaded with barrels of the fortified wine, would capsize in the swirling waters long before they reached Porto on the coast.

Dynamite opened the upper Douro for navigation in the 19th  century, while numerous dams constructed in the 20th century tamed the current and flow. Today, cruise lines are adding more ships as word of the Douro’s bucolic charms spreads, leading one of our guides to joke that soon you’ll be able to walk across the Douro on the backs of river-ships.

I expect wine-tasting, port in particular, to be the highlight of this cruise. But even before our ship pulls out of Porto, I’ve been wooed by another wine. Vinho verde doesn’t have the prestige of port, but it’s actually the largest wine-producing area in the country and Quinta da Aveleda is the largest producer within the demarcated region.

After exploring the estate’s gorgeous garden — which is enlivened by a pair of handsome swans and a few strutting peacocks — we head to the tasting room. Vinho verde is meant to be drunk young, says our guide, pouring a variety of samples with fruity aromas. “Once you try it for the first time you’ll fall in love with this wine,” she promises.

The next morning it’s overcast when we begin our journey up the Douro. A few hours and a couple of impressively deep locks later, we’ve left the cool coastal climate behind and emerge into bright sunshine. Locals complain about the “nine months of winter and three months of hell” they endure every year in this valley (the temperature can soar to 50C  between August and October). But in early May the weather is perfect for lounging on the ship’s upper deck as we squeeze through surprisingly narrow gorges, with brilliant yellow lichen encrusting the cliffs, and cruise past whitewashed buildings bearing the names of quintas in bold letters.

Further upriver we’ll admire almond and olive orchards but, for most of the way, grapes are the singular crop. Wine was being made here even before the Romans arrived in the first century AD and the valley became the world’s first wine appellation in 1756.

Of course, that doesn’t mean every wine here is a winner.

One afternoon we tour the Mateus Palace near Peso da Regua, a beautiful baroque building that’s recognisable from the label on bottles of Mateus Rose, a wine made in the region and something many of us drank in the 70s and 80s. “Even though it’s very popular we all know it’s not very good,” our guide Joanna admits, adding that the current palace owners don’t want to be associated with the brand, but “the rights (to the palace image) were already sold”.

Pressing on, we drive through a sea of vineyards etched into the curving contours of the mountainside, a voluptuous landscape if ever there was one. About two-thirds of the vines grow on steep inclines of more than 30 per cent. In a rare case of man and nature working together, traditional stone- walled terraces, known as socalcos, were built by hand over the centuries, imprinting the terrain and earning the area UNESCO World Heritage status.

High above the Douro, at Quinta do Seixo — home of Sandeman, the brand with the “Don” in the long black cape — we sip a port cocktail while enjoying the best view of the river yet as it snakes leisurely through the valley below. A couple of days later, at Quinta Avessada, we meet another fortified wine — muscatel — which we drink to both start and finish a family-style meal overseen by the sixth- generation estate owner. As we’re leaving, a few of us keener ones hang around for another taste of the honey- flavoured elixir, this one from a barrel made by the owner’s grandfather.

Wine is a daily pleasure, but thankfully, no one in this group of mostly Americans, mostly 65 and up, stands out as a wine snob. In fact, several people we get to know over meals tell us they picked this cruise simply because Portugal feels safer than the rest of Europe. 

And so it’s the unexpected experiences that make each day remarkable and remarkably different. Close to the border with Spain we explore the hilltop fortress of Castelo Rodrigo, where Jews found refuge here from the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century. Our guide points out small crosses etched into the stone walls of their houses after they converted — willingly or not — to Christianity.

Another day we emerge from the bread museum in Favaios to find ourselves smack in the middle of a road race. For more than an hour we watch as 4500 cyclists whiz by in a blur of brightly coloured helmets and spandex, delightfully delaying our departure from the village and upending the myth that the Portuguese only care about football, fado and Fatima. (Fatima is a village near Lisbon where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to three children six times in 1917 with a message for world peace).

On our final day we have our own encounter with Mary at the Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies, a hilltop church in Lamego, reached by an elaborate staircase of 686 steps punctuated with nine terraces, a little like the vineyards we’ve been admiring, and adorned with urns, statues, fountains and traditional blue tiles.

It turns out our guide back at Quinta da Aveleda was right. I’m now smitten with vinho verde, whose aroma will always transport me back to that lovely garden, while Portugal itself has worked its way into my heart in ways I didn’t expect and can’t deny.

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Disclaimer

Suzanne Morphet was a guest of Viking River Cruises. They have not reviewed or approved this story.

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