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13 June 2019

On board our privately chartered vessel, the MS Spirit of Chartwell, our recent tour group occupied the best possible vantage point from which to appreciate the picturesque and everchanging landscape surrounding the River Douro.

Port to Porto: A Week on the Douro River Cruise

By Lauren Throup

As surprises go, the opportunity to join ACE’s Douro River Cruise was a particularly good one. On board our privately chartered vessel, the MS Spirit of Chartwell, our group occupied the best possible vantage point from which to appreciate the picturesque and everchanging landscape surrounding the River Douro. This area of northern Portugal is characterised by rolling hills and undulating valleys covered by row upon row of neatly planted grape vines, vineyards carved into steep slopes by winemakers in pursuit of that most famous regional export: port.

Departing Porto early on Saturday morning, the first leg of our cruise took us through the first two of five colossal locks and dams that make travelling the once-wild Douro River possible, including the Carrapetelo Lock, which, at 35m, is the deepest lock in Europe. As well as providing a vital source of hydroelectric power, the dams of the Douro have also succeeded in taming a river that was once notorious for rapids and devastating floods, creating smooth sections, separated by these behemoth works of engineering.

View from the top of Valeira Dam in the Alto Douro

Evidence of the River Douro’s mercantile past was on full display in the vibrant blue azulejo tile paintings adorning the walls of the small train station in Pinhão, including images of the traditional rabelo boats and bull carts used by merchants to transport barrels of port up and down stream in times gone by. These understated works of art sit so naturally on the station walls that it would be almost too easy to overlook them, but their uniqueness in combining the traditional azulejo tile art form and with snapshots of local history made our short visit truly special.

Azulejo tiles in Pinhão station

Whilst the Douro’s dams are concrete evidence of the modernisation which Portugal has undergone in recent decades, our tour also provided an opportunity to delve further back into Portuguese history. Stops along our route included a visit to Lamego, where Portugal’s first king, Afonso I, was proclaimed in 1139, and to the hilltop medieval town of Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo. The views of the Spanish and Portuguese borderlands from Castelo Rodrigo’s lofty walls were breath-taking, and the sense of stepping back into history as we explored the town's rustic cobbled streets was made all the sweeter by the samples of regional goods such as candied almonds and sheep’s cheeses on offer.

View from Castelo Rodrigo

From our mooring in Barca d’Alva, the furthest point upriver on our voyage, we enjoyed an day’s excursion to Salamanca. Just over the Portuguese border and into Spain, 'The Golden City', so named because of the colour of the sandstone used in much of its construction, was resplendent in the afternoon sun as our local guide illuminated the history of the city’s ornately decorated buildings and the symbolism of the plateresco stonework. These included a frog perched on a skull as a warning to centuries of university students about the dangers of illicit romantic entanglements, as well as a more recent addition, an astronaut, who was added onto a renovated section of stonework on the outer archway of the New Cathedral’s main entrance in 1992.

Plateresco stonework, Salamanca

Our return journey allowed for fresh appreciation of the stepped valleys surrounding us, particularly as we had chance to enjoy an evening barbeque on deck at sunset. On our way back down the Douro, our Tour Director Martin Symington shared personal stories and experiences of growing up in the Douro region, and we had chance to reflect on all that we had learned on our travels upstream with a fresh and newly informed perspective.

My trip to Portugal was an unforgettable experience. Fond memories of the food, other group members, and spectacular landscape (and weather!) from my time on the Douro are sure to stay with me through the British summer.

ACE are pleased to announce a second departure of our Douro River Cruise on the Royal Barge in 2020. Full details for this departure can be found here.

Sincere thanks to ACE traveller, Victor Lunn-Rockliffe, for sharing his wonderful artwork of the Douro River and landscapes with us.