Experience the history and culture of port winemaking along the Douro River.
On a late July afternoon in Porto, I uncorked a full-bodied Portuguese Cortes de Cima red blend and stepped onto my balcony to take in the view of Portugal’s second-largest city. Ancient, pastel-hued houses with clay-tiled rooftops lined the riverfront, and slipperlike rabelo boats bobbed in the water below. I’d just returned from wandering the city’s medieval cobblestoned streets, where I shopped for handmade scarves and popped into a temporary exhibition of Picasso sketches at the Palácio das Artes museum – which ended, naturally, with a complimentary glass of port.
Portugal was named after Porto, where port winemaking is embedded in the history and culture. I was there in 2019 to board Viking’s Helgrim for a river cruise through the Douro Valley, one of the world’s oldest wine regions. Back then, the idea of a global pandemic was something found mostly in novels. But this summer, after a hiatus of more than a year, with new protocols in place – including vaccine requirements and an upgraded sanitizing air-filtration system – Viking’s European river vessels are set to sail once again, along with those of several other cruise lines.
The Helgrim is the newest “baby longship” in a fleet of four Viking ships that run this route along the Douro, the same one that winemakers have traveled for hundreds of years. We pushed off from Porto under milky skies, crossing beneath the massive Dom Luís I Bridge – designed by one of Gustave Eiffel’s students – past fishermen in small boats hoping to catch robalo (sea bass) for the night’s dinner. Our route would take us toward Spain through the Douro Valley, where the quintas (wine estates) are still growing grapes and making port as it’s been done for centuries – pruned and harvested by hand.
As early as the fourth century, Romans cultivated wine in this harsh, rocky region. Its hot, arid climate was good for growing grapes, but not for storing wine, so casks were transported by boat to Porto, at the mouth of the river, where the wine was aged on the lower banks. Back then, the Douro was wild and unpredictable, and to keep the wine from spoiling along the journey, a little brandy was added – which is how port came to be. Today, thanks to a system of locks, the river is as calm as bathwater, and our journey was smooth sailing.
With just 53 staterooms, the Helgrim felt like a boutique hotel with a make-yourself-at-home vibe. On such a small ship, friendships formed easily and passengers – who ranged in age from thirtysomethings to retirees – were soon saving seats for one another, like at summer camp. At dinner, we gathered at long, linen-covered tables and toasted with porto tónicos (white port with tonic water).
Menus showcased Portuguese flavors: caldeirada, a fish stew; regional cheeses, such as Limiano from northern Portugal and soft galvão covered in a smoky Portuguese paprika; charcuterie items, among them wild boar saucisson, chorizo, and morcela, a local blood sausage; and grilled octopus and sardines, served with crisp Vinho Verde. One afternoon, we learned how to make the country’s famous egg custard pastry, pastel de nata. “I think you should eat where you are,” said our Hungarian-born chef, Peter Benko, who makes breakfast jam from local apricots and sources ingredients along the way when he can.
As we crawled up the river, the hills grew taller, terraced with vineyards, cherry and olive trees, and, the closer we got to Spain, almond trees. We moved slowly along the ancient waterway at a mere eight knots (about nine mph) upstream, and about halfway to the Spanish border, we stopped at Pinhão in the heart of the Douro Valley’s wine-making region.
In the hills on the Douro’s south bank we learned about port-making at Quinta do Seixo, where some of the best and oldest grapes for the renowned Sandeman ports are grown. We tasted a young, sweet, and slightly citrusy white port; a rich, cherrylike four-year-old ruby; and different tawny and vintage bottlings with flavors ranging from toffee to chocolate. At the eighteenth-century baroque Mateus Palace in the nearby town of Vila Real, we wandered among the box hedges in its French-inspired gardens. Rather than its history, the palace is best known for its likeness, which appears on the label of the middlebrow Mateus rosé, still sold in its iconic World War I-inspired flask-shaped bottle.
Because the Douro is only navigable for about 130 miles inland from Porto, we made just two more stops along the way: Barca d’Alva, the last Portuguese town before the Spanish border, and Régua, first settled by the Romans. There, high up the steep hills, on switchback roads barely wide enough for our motor coaches, we passed cork forests on our way to the tiny pre-Roman hilltop town of Favaios, where we tasted the area’s rustic “four corners” bread, still warm from an oven heated with wood and old grapevines. A local co-op poured us glasses of golden moscatel, a jammy, fortified wine that’s even sweeter than port, produced in bottles small enough to be hidden in a pants pocket. Afterward, we ate lunch at the family-owned Quinta da Avessada, where port is produced from a vineyard so ancient that it’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the view reveals vineyard-covered Douro Valley hills as far as you can see.
Days on the Douro slipped by as easily as a second glass of port. Sometimes I stayed on the ship and read by the pool instead of joining a tour, or simply wandered around a port on my own. One afternoon, I took photos of an abandoned railroad station near Barca d’Alva and walked across an old bridge into Spain, watching from afar as women cooked fresh sardines over an open fire and hung the week’s laundry out to dry in the summer sun.
For me, the trip was about this as much as anything else – slowing down enough to observe life’s smallest moments, something that I needed to be reminded of then, and that we probably all do now.
Doing the Douro: A River Cruise is an Easy Way to Explore Portugal
Viking’s ten-day Douro River voyages on the 106-passenger Helgrim include days in Lisbon and Porto, with daily excursions that focus on the region’s rich viticultural history and port tastings along the way. Departures: Multiple dates through November 2021, and March through November 2022.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises
Eight-day Douro River round-trip sailings from Porto on Uniworld Boutique River Cruises’ new ship, the lavish, 100-passenger São Gabriel, are available with a Lisbon stay. Departures: Multiple dates through November 2021, and April through November 2022.
From city tours that showcase Portugal’s blue-and-white tiles to port tastings in local quintas, AmaWaterways’ eight-day Douro sailings on board the 102-passenger AmaDouro or AmaVida offer an authentic sampling of the region. Departures: Multiple dates through November 2021, and April through November 2022.