DAY 1 EMBARK IN OPORTO
Arrive in Oporto, where your five-star floating hotel is moored. Here an attentive crew will welcome you aboard, ensuring you settle into your comfortable and extremely well-equipped cabin.
DAY 2 LAMEGO
As dawn breaks the ship slips quietly away from Oporto and you will awake to the gentle sound of water lapping against the sleek hull and that most relaxing of travelers’ joys as you witness the ship’s stately progress upstream. Your first breakfast, you will be welcomed in the restaurant and immediately spoilt for choice, with the omelette station being a real favourite of many! Even on the first day it is so apparent that the Douro is one of Europe’s most photogenic river valleys with tourism being almost completely undeveloped.
Late morning, the ship approaches its first port of call at one of the river’s few small towns, Peso da Régua. The observant will have already noticed that the lush covered hillsides have largely given way to an intricate patterned landscape of steeply terraced vine covered slopes, as we enter port wine territory. The climate has evolved too; leaving the Atlantic behind it is noticeably warmer and dryer. The topography has a much more Mediterranean appearance with browns and ochres replacing verdant greens.
This afternoon, we take a short drive along sinuous roads to historic Lamego, home of Portugal’s sparkling wine Raposeira and one of the first places to be re-conquered from the Moors in the 12th century. Situated on top of the hill overlooking this lovely town is the ancient Sanctuary of our Lady of Remedies church, its stairways adorned with attractive azulejos, the country’s famous painted tilework.
We then enjoy a little indulgence as we visit one of the region’s best quintas (vineyards) learning how legendary port is produced – culminating in a tasting of the delicious final product!
DAY 3 CASTELO RODRIGO
The Douro was once a precariously wild river, rendering navigation extremely tricky for the traditional flat bottomed boats which often foundered. Today the river has been tamed by a series of locks and we navigate several of them; always intensely fascinating, the resultant almost loch-like river topography really enhances the valley’s charm. Cruising into evermore rural territory towards the Spanish border, the river here is at its most peaceful, a perfect time to take a refreshing dip in the pool, or catch up on some reading perhaps with a cool pre-lunch glass of local vinho verde white wine. It’s worth mentioning Portuguese wine is really outstanding but as the production is not huge, the higher quality wines tend to be consumed locally, so if you are a wine aficionado, experiment a little – you are in for a real treat! We are now on the River Duero, as we have crossed into Spain, however the northern bank remains in Portugal!
This afternoon we visit Castelo Rodrigo, a delightful 12th century walled village tucked away in the peaceful border hills, whose church was a resting place on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela – indeed it is said that St Francis himself stayed here. Perched on a hill, the views are simply stupendous - stretching across almost deserted ochre-coloured hillsides.
This evening we have a delicious, typically Portuguese barbecue, served on the sundeck (weather permitting) as the unmistakable sound of crickets and scents from the surrounding hillsides pervade the warm evening air.
DAY 4 SALAMANCA
Today we visit historic Salamanca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, acknowledged by many Spaniards as one of the country’s most beautiful cities and once seen it really is difficult to disagree. Renowned for the gorgeous rose-coloured hue emanating from almost universal use of local sandstone for its construction, the city appears to glow. Perched on a small hill on a bend in the serene River Tormes, it is a picture of tranquillity but, founded by the Romans, who built the still used 400 yard long bridge, Salamanca was repeatedly fought over by Hannibal, the Moors then the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon.
Salamanca is dominated by its two cathedrals and Spain’s oldest university founded in 1215, which for four centuries was one of the civilised world’s most important seats of study. The Spanish Inquisition’s records are still kept here, and as early as the sixteenth century it boasted some twelve thousand students. You can see beautifully preserved lecture halls with their vaulted ceilings and you can imagine Christopher Columbus addressing the most learned men of the day or legal experts constructing the international laws originating here.
Over lunch you enjoy a traditional flamenco show, then explore as you wish. Whilst the buildings themselves dominate the skyline, their internal decoration is just as exceptional. Visit the two cathedrals – the more recent dates from the 16th century! Salamanca is a wonderful place to just wander through: tiny streets, medieval squares, traditional shops, gardens and marketplaces all add to its atmosphere. The main square, the Plaza Mayor, is widely acknowledged as Spain’s finest and the hub of Salamantine life, with plenty of cafés and places to sit and watch the locals go by whilst absorbing the lovely atmosphere.
DAY 5 PESO DA REGUA
During breakfast, the ship slips its moorings, cruising towards Peso da Régua. One of the benefits of life aboard a river cruiser is the sheer sense of relaxation it brings: time to catch up on some reading on the sun deck, perhaps enjoy a dip in the pool or simply sit and watch the ever changing scenery gently pass by from the comfort of the lounge, drink in hand!
Late afternoon there is time to wander along the quayside, watching the occasional river traffic or enjoy a coffee in one of the many cafés. This evening we drive through the heart of this stunning wine-producing landscape, the steeply terraced vine covered slopes creating an intricately patterned and breathtaking vista.
We enjoy a delicious dinner at Quinta da Pacheca, an 18th century manor house with spectacular views overlooking the serene waters of the mighty Douro. The Quinta, dating back to the 1700s, is one of the most famous and beautiful properties in the region. It was named after its aristocratic owner, Mariana Pacheca Pereira and was the first quinta to bottle wine under the owner’s name in April 1738. At one time the vineyards belonged to an order of monks and there is time to wander through some of the 51 hectares of this fertile estate before sampling some of their excellent produce over a delectable dinner.
DAY 6 MATEUS PALACE
This morning after a leisurely breakfast we visit the magnificent Mateus Palace. Anyone familiar with Mateus Rosé, the wine with its characteristic “squashed” bottle shape, will have seen the palace featured on the label. Whatever your opinion of the wine, the palace is an impressive 18th century Baroque edifice beautifully mirrored in the stunning “reflecting pond”, and the extensive “French” gardens are beautifully landscaped and decorated with elegant statues. We return to the ship for another superb lunch on board and the ship departs towards Entre-os-Rios.
This afternoon is spent cruising so there’s the opportunity to truly unwind whilst the skilful captain and his crew navigate the ship effortlessly through the winding bends of this truly magnificent hilly hinterland. Head up on to the Sun Deck for spectacular viewing; as the invigorating river breeze revives you, you’ll be captivated by the ever-changing riverbank scenery slipping past – it really doesn’t get more relaxing than this! This evening is the Captain’s Dinner, hosted of course by the Captain himself, a delightful experience featuring some superb local specialities. After dinner, we are entertained by a cultural group performing traditional Portuguese folk music.
DAY 7 OPORTO
This morning we arrive in Oporto, on quite a spectacular passage which takes us under many of the city’s famous bridges. Originally Roman, Oporto’s wealth derived from its knowledge of the sea routes to India. Spices, silks and other fine goods made the fortunes used to build Portugal’s second largest city. The city is obviously synonymous with Port wine and we will be guests of Cálem – one of the best known port brands in Portugal, learning the fascinating history of port wine and its close British connections. The wine is made from grapes still staggeringly trod by foot, then lovingly tended, sometimes for decades, before you can enjoy its subtle flavours. Of course you’ll get the chance at the end of a fascinating visit to sample various styles.
We enjoy lunch on board before starting our sightseeing tour which unveils some of the city’s major and more surprising sights. You’ll experience the tangled lanes of the medieval quarter, the splendid Praça da Ribeira square, with its characteristic tiled town houses and fine views to the wine lodges across the river. One of the river’s bridges was designed by Gustav Eiffel – and you can immediately see the connection with his more famous Parisian creation! You’ll gaze up at the city’s imposing fortress, its fine cathedral and baroque Clérigos Tower. Wonderfully free of the chain shops dominating other countries, enjoy the tiny antiquated shops specialising in fine art, antiques, ceramics and some of the most wonderful cakes you’ll ever taste.
This evening and after a final delectable dinner then perhaps the bar beckons and a chat into the evening with new-found, like minded friends, reflecting on the splendours of the remarkable River Douro, from its busy lower reaches to those beautifully peaceful terraced hillsides and the tiny unspoilt villages of the river’s delightful heartlands - over a glass of port of course!
DAY 8 COIMBRA & FATIMA
For those choosing to extend their holiday with our three night tour to Lisbon, we depart the ship and leave the fascinating terraced hillsides of the Douro Valley behind. Heading south our journey gradually takes us inland as the wild seascapes of the Atlantic coast gradually give way to a different landscape of fertile fields and lush pine forests.
Our first port of call is the ancient city of Coimbra, renowned for its impressive Roman aqueduct striding across the city and its historic university, ranked one of Europe’s oldest. Once a capital city, Coimbra became a major cultural centre during the Middle Ages with the university at its heart and it’s not hard to imagine the cloak-clad learned of the age wandering its tiny medieval streets. With its charming Moorish quarter and pretty squares, Coimbra is a lovely place in which to immerse yourself in the old city’s labyrinth-like lanes. We have the privilege of enjoying a visit to the university - the huge walls of its superb library, rich in baroque giltwork and exotic woods are lined with a staggering 300,000 leather-bound, centuries-old volumes. Gaze up at the amazing gold leaf ceiling, then wonder at the dramatic contrast between the prison and the chapel - so exquisitely decorated it would be considered a cathedral in most places! Situated on a hill, the views are simply stunning.
We drive on through olive groves and wheat fields to Fatima, once an unremarkable small town, until three children experienced an apparition of the Virgin Mary and it suddenly became one of the most important of Catholic pilgrimages and a national shrine. Whatever your religious views, the extraordinary sanctuary complex is certainly impressive and well worth the visit.
Heading further south we arrive in Lisbon at the mouth of the River Tagus, the country’s finest natural harbour. Nestled amidst seven hills the city’s striking skyline is a colourful mosaic of pastel and ochre shades, peppered with elegant domes and soaring spires. We stay three nights at the centrally located five-star Real Palacio hotel, close to the historic centre. Creatively constructed around the sympathetic renovation of a historic seventeenth century palace this excellent hotel has an equally modern yet timeless feel; the large public areas are sumptuously furnished and it boasts a well-regarded restaurant and atmospheric bar, health club and spa. All the stylish bedrooms are elegantly and classically decorated in rich colours and superbly appointed.
DAY 9 LISBON
We start with a fascinating tour taking in Lisbon’s magnificent sights such as the impressive Terreiro do Paco, its wide tree-lined boulevards, the characteristic architectural style of the splendidly graceful 17th century Baixa quarter, the majestic castle and Sé - the 12th century Romanesque cathedral. Plus Alfama, the Moorish quarter of timeless narrow cobbled streets and the wonderful belvedere at São Pedro da Alcântara with its expansive views across the rooftops.
Lisbon’s eclectic charm is its mix of ancient, modern, bustling and peaceful, so this afternoon is free to explore, discovering this delightful contrast for yourself. You might be tempted by the chic shops of the Baixa or decide to seek out a tiny café and enjoy a “bica” - a strong espresso often taken with a “nata”, the city’s famous moreish custard tart. Discover the incredible Gulbenkian Foundation founded by an Armenian oil magnate who bought art from St Petersburg’s Hermitage after the Russian Revolution for bargain prices. This truly world-class institution displays extensive exhibits from Ancient Egypt and Rome, Chinese porcelain, fine art from throughout the ages, priceless furniture and antiques. Take a ride on one of the city’s clanging, rattling, yellow trams; seemingly well past their sell-by date, they’re still the best to negotiate the sharp bends of the delightful historic quarter.
DAY 10 SINTRA
We take a short drive to the lovely town of Sintra; spectacularly perched on a hillside with panoramic views towards the nearby Atlantic coast, where Henry the Navigator grew up and doubtless gazed out to sea not knowing where his destiny was eventually to lead him. The narrow winding streets of the old town wind their way to the wonderful main square with the famous Royal Palace, its huge white conical chimneys soaring above. This extraordinary landmark, once the residences of the Portuguese monarchy, today is a wonderful museum with grand rooms and priceless collections. You can also see the romantic 19th century Pena Palace.
Built as a summer residence, it is a living fairy tale; its colourful turrets, ramparts, gargoyles, domes and Moorish arches are a mystical mix of styles, while the interior is extravagantly decorated with a superb ballroom and a magnificent Arab Room. The surrounding park and lakes displays an equally eclectic mix of ferns, magnificent rhododendrons and exotic plants from the former Portuguese colonies.
We return to Lisbon along the stunning coastline where Atlantic rollers crash onto infinite stretches of sandy beach. We stop at the famous riverside Monument to the Discoveries then visit the wonderfully preserved16th century Jeronimos Monastery. Founded by Henry the Navigator, it contains the tomb of Vasco da Gama, one of the finest ever maritime explorers. Today’s enormous edifice in classic Portuguese Gothic style looks like a giant wedding cake, dazzling in the bright sunlight.
Lisbon has an amazing old quarter which still follows the centuries old Phoenician street grid, so spend this evening wandering through its charmingly tangled, cobbled lanes, lined with ancient bars and restaurants, decorated with the colourful ceramic tiles so typical of this fascinating city. Many will be buzzing with the sound of ‘fado’ - a unique and infectious musical mix evolved from traditional folk, colonial African and Brazilian styles. Don’t leave Lisbon without experiencing this.
DAY 11 EXTENSION - CHECK-OUT
Today we check out of the hotel at the appropriate time after a truly fascinating and memorable tour into one the most unspoilt corners of Europe.