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  Part 2: Up the Douro River View Slideshow (Windows only) Part 3: A couple of excursions  

2017: A cruise on Portugal's River of Gold

1. Lisbon and Porto

Porto

Many bridges cross the River Douro in Porto

 

When two of our best friends mentioned that they were thinking of spending a week in Portugal on the River Douro (the "River of Gold"), we immediately replied that we had been having similar thoughts, and so in September 2017 we ended up travelling together on board the cruise ship Viking Hemming.

First we flew to Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal, and were taken to the fabulous 5-star Tivoli Avenida Liberdade hotel for the weekend. We would not normally have stayed at such a smart hotel and, much as would have liked to eat in their amazing restaurant, after seeing the prices we set off across the street in search of an alternative. Within just 5 minutes walk we found the most amazing local seafood restaurant, the Marisqueira de Santa Maria, where we had a wonderful meal with excellent service; indeed we liked it so much that we went back again the next night. After dinner at  the restaurant we returned to the hotel for a round of drinks at their amazing rooftop bar; that one round of drinks cost almost as much as the 3-course meal that we had just eaten!

 

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This beautiful floral display in the hotel foyer set the scene for a luxurious weekend
An impressive statue overlooks Lisbon Harbour
Mediaeval fort that once defended the entrance to Lisbon Harbour
A replica of the plane in which two Portuguese aviators flew from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro in 1922

We had plenty of time to explore Lisbon on a couple of guided tours, including the old town with its quaint narrow streets, and we also took a walking tour which promised "a taste of Portugal" that took us for food and drink at a number of small cafe's. Here we discovered Portugal's classic dish, Pastis de Nata, which is a type of custard tart. It was apparently devised by the occupants of a mediaeval nunnery, who started making them as a way of using the egg yolks that were left after they had used the whites for starching their wimples. I must say they were delicious!

 

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The tomb of Vasco da Gama shows a cross, a sailing ship, and an armillary sphere (a navigation instrument, which also appears on the Portuguese flag)
Walking around Old Lisbon. Could a street be any narrower?
Answer, yes it could be a lot narrower!

A long coach trip to Porto followed the next day, broken at lunchtime by a visit to the mediaeval city of Coimbra - the original capital of Portugal. The university library there is absolutely incredible, with its priceless collection of ancient books; we were amazed to discover that they keep a small colony of bats in the library because they feed on the  insects and bacteria that would otherwise damage the fragile paper pages. Unfortunately photography is forbidden in the library so if you want to see what it looks like it, you'll just have to visit it yourself.

While we were in Coimbra we had a disturbing phone call from England. Jessop had proved to be too strong for his latest dog-sitter, so he was being transferred to another family. However we were reassured that Jessop was just fine, and that the new family were delighted to be looking after him, so all was well. Thank you to Holidays4Dogs for making all the arrangements and ensuring that both we and Jessop would enjoy our holidays,

Porto was in a state of chaos when we arrived there, as the Red Bull Air Race was being held over the harbour. Our ship had been moved to a different berth for the duration of the race, but unfortunately the road to it was completely blocked by parked cars (as was almost every other road in the harbour area). The Police directed our coach to another route, but the road was too narrow for the coach to get down and our driver had to perform some amazing feats of driving skill to extricate us from the streets before finding another route.

Eventually we reached the ship, and were welcomed aboard with a Port wine and cheese tasting session. We quickly made friends with the bar-tender who looked after us extremely well throughout the week; particularly as we had pre-purchased a drinks package which enabled us to choose any drink at all, at any time when the bar was open, without further charge. This meant that we could choose from a range of excellent wines with our meals, and also allowed  us to compare different samples at the bar to decide which was our favourite (my favourite, I decided, was Tawny Port of either 10 or 20 year vintage)

 

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Our cabin on board the Viking Hemming
Another view of our cabin
A view of the ship from the heights of Porto
The unusual bow of the ship has an overhanging deck to give plenty of space for relaxing

The Viking Hemming is our type of cruise ship. Measuring 262ft long, she carries just over 100 passengers, and was custom-built locally to be the ideal size for the River Douro. Our cabin, although one of the smallest ones, was extremely comfortable and well equipped. The cabins on the upper decks have big, panoramic windows but ours had smaller windows just above the water-line which actually made us feel at home because the view across the water was similar to that from on board our own boat.

The next day, before setting sail, we were treated to a tour of Porto, the "city of bridges" from which Portugal gets its name and the centre of the Port wine industry. A tour of the Sandeman wine cellars was very impressive - and of course it included a brief wine-tasting session

 

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An impressive array of barrels in Sandeman's cellars
Each barrel is clearly marked with the Sandeman name and its well-known logo ...
... as is the hillside
Some of the barrels are rather large
The opportunity to compare the taste of two very different styles of Port wine

After a taste or two of Port wine we could easily understand why our tour had visited the wine cellars, but; we did wonder why this railway station had been included as a destination. However when we saw the magnificent tiled decorations on the walls we fully understood. Portugal has a history of tile production, since they discovered long ago that cladding a house in tiles is far more durable than painted wood, and they are absolute masters in the practice of tile art.

 

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The harbour at Porto,  by day ...
... and by night (not quite the same viewpoint, the ship had repositioned during the day)
This tree in one of the parks looked as if it was trying to eat somebody
Inside Porto railway station (no they aren't painted, it's all tile-work)
There are tuc-tucs everywhere for the tourists

There was always plenty going on beside the river in Porto. As I mentioned above, when we arrived the Red Bull Air Race was taking place; the following weekend there was a festival to celebrate the wine harvest with a flotilla of the traditional riverboats which would originally have been used for transporting the wine barrels down to the port. These beautiful craft were particularly characterised by their long steering arms, and made an elegant sight moored along the quayside. The quay itself was covered in market stalls selling all sorts of different things, including souvenirs such as a particularly fine range of cork products (hats, bags, purses, place-mats, and so on). Strangely there was also a gathering of motorcycles on the quayside.

 

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Traditional Douro River boats, which were used to carry the wine barrels from the up-river estates down to Porto. They could be rowed or sailed, and were designed to cope with the untamed rapids of the river. Note the unusual steering oar at the stern
Cork handbags for sale in the market
Having a drink at a waterside cafe

We had spent a few days in Lisbon and Porto so now it was time to travel up-river. The Douro Valley is simply beautiful, with steep banks covered in vineyards and wineries plus the occasional pretty bank-side village. It was very peaceful sitting on the top deck in the sunshine (or in the shade of the canopy, or in the small pool) and watching the scenery glide past, and we were soon feeling very relaxed (helped by plenty of wine).

 

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There was some interesting boating to come, as we continued our journey up the river ...

 

Porto

The ship occupies the entire width of the river

 

 

  Part 2: Up the Douro River View Slideshow (Windows only) Part 3: A couple of excursions  
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