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River Cruise, Douro Valley, Portugal

by Camille Pepe Sperrazza 

Uniworld River Cruise aboard Queen Isabel to Douro Valley - April 2014 

Ideal for those with a passion for wine and port, this cruise takes passengers through Portugal and Spain - Port Country - one of the oldest wine regions in the world. 

Day 1: Board an international flight and arrive the next day. The ship docks in Porto, so I connect through Madrid for the short one-hour flight. It is also possible to connect through London, and if you prefer to fly on larger planes, that's something to consider because the plane from Madrid to Porto is small. 

Day 2: Everything is included on this river cruise - all drinks, tours, tips, and transfers. A Uniworld representative meets me at the airport with the news that one of the locks along the Douro River in Porto is not working. These locks allow the vessel to be raised or lowered so it can make its way along the river. Because of this glitch in the system, our tour must start in Lamego, a 2-hour drive from the airport. I wait for other passengers' flights to arrive - there are 5 of us - and we head to the ship. It is like we have our own private yacht all morning as the majority of the 86 passengers sailing this week are not here. They are on Uniworld's 3-day pre-cruise tour of Lisbon and are scheduled to arrive later. The bar is open, the sun is shining, and there are plates of gourmet cheese, fresh fruit, and sandwiches for us. 

Day 3: The lock is still not fixed, so our schedule is adjusted. In the morning, we tour Lamego, visiting Mary of Remedi church where a statue is said to bring miracles. People of the parish take turns creating handmade clothing for it. Then it's a stop at a quaint shop where we sample sparkling wine, local cheese, and ham. 

On a river cruise, touring is intense - but the schedule almost always allows for lunch aboard the ship, so after that "snack," it's lunch time. A different local wine is served at each meal and so far all are wonderful. It's always open seating, so guests have the opportunity to make new friends. I am traveling solo this time, but as this is a "no single supplement" sailing, there are other people traveling alone, and the intimacy of river cruising makes it easy to meet people. The afternoon tour is to Guimaraes, a Medieval town that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We see the castle of the first king of Portugal and walk the medieval streets. 

Day 4: The ship remains docked, and to make up for lost time, there are three tours. First thing in the morning, we visit the Sandeman wine estate, noted for its port, and it is delicious. The winery is beautiful, too - sprawling vineyards surrounding the mountains, overlooking the Douro River. The bus climbs high up the mountain, along winding roads, and we all hold our breath as it makes turns, half hanging over the cliffs. The tour guide greets us dressed in a black coat and black sombrero, bringing to life the company's mascot. The facility is very modern, a bit surprising considering the rural surroundings. 

At the Douro Museum, a lecturer provides an overview of the Douro Valley. The soil is comprised of pulverized stones. Roots are deep, and despite the mountainous terrain, somehow find the water from the river as the growers are not permitted to irrigate. I like to learn, but I guess it's not for everybody. I chuckle when overhear one of the passengers, in a deep Southern accent say, "I'm not goin' to the lecture; that's for sure. I get enough of that at home." 

In the afternoon we're off to Mateus Palace and gardens. It is recognizable as the castle featured on bottles of Mateus Rose wine, but the Portuguese do not pronounce the name as we do. The gardens of the castle are sculptured into lovely designs, and tended by volunteers. 

A "surprise" stop takes us to a local village and a tiny bakery where we are greeted by the enthusiastic owner; a man playing an accordion; and the baker who dances while balancing a bottle of port on her head. There is port, cheese, and fresh-baked bread, hot from the coal oven. The bakery seems humble, in the middle of nowhere, but the owner joins us on the bus, and we are soon at the wine estate of Quinta da Avessada that has been owned by his family for six generations. A reception awaits us in the huge backyard, overlooking mountains and vineyards. There are sausage sandwiches, snacks, and more port. We have plenty of time to linger before we are brought on a tour of the winery, another incredibly modern facility, so unexpected here on the hilltops. The wine tasting cellar is beautiful, and the owner, passionate about his trade, eagerly shares stories, pouring Moscatel (made from one grape) and port ( made from three different types of grapes), making toasts after each tasting. His enthusiasm is contagious; we laugh and join the fun. Eventually we are led to a huge dining area,surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass etched with the winery's name, that overlooks the mountains. We feast on a homemade meal and desserts like wine-soaked pears and creamy flan. The wine, port, and grappa flow. There's music, dancing, and at one point, a conga line. The owner encourages it all, and seems to be enjoying it as much as the guests. A flat screen television displays revolving photos of the winery, making the setting so ultra sophisticated, it is like being at Tavern on the Green in New York City - but we are high on a mountain top, and Central Park doesn't have grass this green. 

Day 5: The ship sails! We are finally cruising this morning, surrounded by stunning mountainous views. I have a seat at the front of the ship as we make our way through one of the locks. It appears as if we suddenly face a concrete wall beneath the river. It takes around half an hour to slowly raise the ship, with the assistance of pullies, and we are at sea level again. 

Later, we visit Castelo Rodrigo, an historic village of Portugal. The small church of the same name contains a tiny statue of St. Sebastian. Rub its head to find a husband for you or a friend. There is a small shop selling local jewelry and pocketbooks made of cork. Portugal is the biggest producer of cork in the world. 

Day 6: We spend the day in Salamanca, Spain and visit Salamanca University, the country's oldest college. Then it's tapas at Plaza Mayor Square, and a flamenco show at the Almeida Palace Hotel. Storks are common in this area, and we spot one in its huge nest on top of a cathedral. But the most intriguing part of the day - that everyone seems to be buzzing about - are the mirror-covered rest rooms of the hotel. Inside the stall, we could look to the side and see ourselves reflected numerous times, not necessarily at an angle one wants to see at all. It's like being in a mirrored funhouse. 

Tomorrow we are sailing all day, so tonight the lounge is lively, and many of us are twisting the night away. 

Day 7: It's a beautiful day sailing the Douro. This morning I am upfront as we pass through a lock that takes us to a lower level. Local people come to watch, and we are so close to them, one man chats with the crew as we descend. Apparently there are no security concerns here. What a site as the wall of the lock rolls opens, revealing the river before us. But as it does, overflow from the part of the river above us creates a small waterfall and we have to leave our prime seats or get soaked. 

The Captain allows guests to join him in the control room today. I get to sit in the Captain's chair and pose for a photo. 

At dinner vintage bottles of 1987 Calem port are opened for us, with great fanfare. We watch as a metal tong-like instrument is heated. The waiter then applies this to the neck of the bottle, twisting it so the glass snaps. It is a clean break that allows the port to be poured without removing the cork. It is probably the best port we have had yet. Our table is especially lively tonight, and we enjoy many laughs. We tell the musician on board we want to dance again, and he accommodates us. Maybe it's the port, but this time a few men join the fun. 

Day 8: We finally make it to Porto, and it's bustling compared to where we've been, a very scenic city, with old houses, and beautiful bridges along the river. By sheer chance, I notice a sign with the name Gustavo Eiffel, and realize that one of these bridges, which does resemble the Eiffel Tower, was designed by him. 

It's port-tasting in the morning at the Ferreira Winery, and this is more like the type of winery I expected to see this trip - the entrance is cave-like and dark, with lots of wine barrels. 

There are little shops along the river, with handmade crafts. One woman makes unique scarves from colorful cloth. They are cut into strands so that the scarf can be braided or twisted, and wrapped around the neck in various ways. Each has a unique ornament that holds a loop the scarf can be pulled through. I love them and buy three as well as some leather jewelry. 

A walking tour takes us to the Livaria Lello book store. Out guide tells us it is the third most beautiful book store in the world and that J.K. Rowling used to write here. I have no idea where she gets this information, but it is an old- fashioned shop, with beautiful wood carvings. Later, we take the funicular - a cable railway that runs down the mountain. The drops are as steep as a on roller coaster, but the car makes it's way down slowly, so there's no funny feeling in the stomach. 

It's an early early evening for most guests as we disembark in the morning. I exchange emails weigh several people and we plan to stay in touch. 

Day 9: The story is supposed to end, but my flight to Madrid is canceled. The only availability is on TAP to Newark tomorrow so I am sent to a Holiday Inn by the airport in Porto for the night. Two other women from the ship are in the same position as I am so we stick together. 

Day 10: There was never supposed to be a Day 10 - and there was almost a Day 11. Two hours into our new flight - while we are flying over the Atlantic - the captain announces technical difficulties which necessitates us flying two hours back to land. This time we land in Lisbon, wait for another plane, and eventually make it to Newark. 

For more information or to book a trip, 
contact "Commodore" Camille today. . 

This article was accurate when it was written, but everything in life changes. Enjoy the journey! 

Copyright: Camille Pepe Sperrazza 

Douro River Valley, Portugal: