Story by Barbara Angelakis
Photos by Manos Angelakis
Portugal’s River of Gold
Viking River Cruise
Viking River Cruises’ has some of the most appealingly seductive television ads and often when watching them I would wonder how accurate they were. Well, having recently returned from our first Viking Cruise, I can honestly attest to the fact that the ads are not exaggerations.
We choose to cruise on Portugal’s Douro River named “River of Gold” because in the day, the river was the method of transport for the fine wines, almonds and olives produced in the river valley, the primary source of the areas wealth. Portugal has everything we were looking for; a rich cultural history, renowned cuisine and world-famous wines... perfect. Once we choose the destination and date scheduling the trip was effortless. The touring options were generous with daily included offerings plus we were given optional extra tours for minimal addition fees.
Due to the size of the Douro’s lock system, our ship the Viking Hemming, is one of the smaller ships in the Viking fleet but it has every amenity one could hope for. The cabins are beautifully decorated with queen size beds, balconies in every stateroom, full baths with rain showers and abundant hot water, complimentary WiFi throughout the ship, nightly entertainment, and pool topside with a large deck for enjoying the passing scene.
Fresh local food with daily Portuguese specialties were on the menu and for those who wanted something more familiar, steak and hamburgers and other stateside staples, plus vegetarian meals, were always available.
The staff gets high marks for their friendliness and efficiency, kudos also to housekeeping for their constant attention and the spic and span cleanliness of cabins and public spaces. Even the floor-to-ceiling windows were spotless. At each stop the windows were washed allowing taking photos from inside - when weather did not encourage going outside - absolutely picture-perfect. Maps, bottled water, and umbrellas when necessary, were handed out every time we left the ship to tour, with a smile and “have a good time until we see you again”. Daily updates as to where we were and our next port-of-call including the all-important weather conditions were placed each evening in every cabin and a libation was offered when returning to the ship from a day of sightseeing.
And speaking of tours, the Tour Directors were amazing: knowledgeable, helpful - if you had a special interest they would happily research it for you - pleasant always with a smile and jokes. In order to guarantee personal attention and not to overwhelm the sites we visited, the 120 passengers were split into 3 groups. Our assigned tour director was Joana Lapes who kept us entertained with anecdotes and funny stories when traveling by bus to our destination of the day.
Our cruise actually began in Lisbon with a city tour and overnight at a five-star hotel, a mere five minute walk from the city center. Next morning we piled into our comfortable, spacious coach for the drive north to Porto, Portugal’s second largest city, and the port from where the ship departed.
On the way we stopped to visit the famous University of Coimbra. Established in 1290, the University is notable for the black capes the students wear and the colorful ribbons that determine each undergraduate’s course of study. A graduation tradition has friends and family removing all clothes from the graduate, leaving only their shoes and capes, and the festivities continue with the burning of the ribbons.
Coimbra’s library is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with access strictly limited and controlled and no pictures permitted. We were only allowed to stay a few minutes, hardly enough time to take in all the spectacular gilded decorative elements; exotic carvings on rare African woods; intricate marble laid floor; and painted ceiling that adorn the magnificent rooms. Initially only three subjects of study were offered: Theology, Law and Medicine, and the library has one room dedicated to each subject.
We had lunch in the República (house of students) and were entertained by students and ex-students singing Fado, the very emotional heart-felt form of singing usually accompanied by the Portuguese guitar. Originally in Portugal only men sang Fado but in 1891 female students at Coimbra began singing and now both sexes perform the mournful melodies.
On to Porto, made famous for the fortified Port Wine on which the city’s prosperity was built. The city of Porto, originally name Portoscali, is separated by the Douro River with Porto on one side and Scali (now Vila Nova de Gaia) on the other. Porto is referred to as the City Of Bridges for the six that span the river, two by Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame. The historic Old Town Center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia, we had the opportunity to learn about and taste Port wine at one of the many wine-shipper cellars along the waterfront.
No visitor to Porto should miss the São Bento railway station where one of the most romantic stories is played out in azulejo tiles. In 1386 King John, a infamous man-about-town was married to Philippa of Lancaster, eldest daughter of John of Gaunt, to seal a vital alliance with England. They did not know each other; in fact their marriage was by proxy as was the custom of the times and supposedly when they first met they did not like each other. King John was charming and handsome and Philippa apparently lost her heart to him. So the story goes, Philippa, a pious young woman, tried to lay down the law and told John to shape up and stop playing around. When he refused she returned to England. John realizing the error of his ways ran after her espousing undying love. She returned to Portugal, they had nine children, one of which was Henry the Navigator, and enjoyed a long, faithful and loving marriage. End of story. (Editor’s Note: I could not find reference to this story in a history book but our Porto guide assured me it was gospel and besides the tiles were beautiful).
Daily we visited charming small towns along the Douro River Valley, sailed in the afternoon when the light was best for viewing the hillsides covered by vineyards, and docked in the evening to explore on our own. Our last port of call was Salamanca in Spain, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its beautiful main square Plaza Mayor, which is often called the most beautiful in Spain. The Cathedral of Salamanca, both old 12th century, and new 16th century, is a must see. Another not to be missed site is the Museum of Art Deco & Nouveau behind the Cathedral. If you are a fan of French decorative art glass by Rene Lalique and Emile Gallé plus stained glass windows of exceptional quality and art from circa 1920s, this is the museum to visit. There is also a collection of about 300 porcelain dolls in a gallery on the second floor. Thankfully, we had the good sense to stop for a treat of the famous Spanish hot chocolate in the café on the first floor before visiting the gift shop.
Sailing leisurely back along the Douro River to Porto and passing through the five locks to navigate the different water levels on the river and canals was equally captivating on the return which we viewed with our new found friends courtesy of Viking River Cruises.
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