DAY 1 EMBARK IN OPORTO
Arrive in Porto, 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 DOURO
Strategically sited overlooking the Douro as it empties into the Atlantic, Portugal’s second largest city was originally a Roman town, but its wealth is derived from its knowledge of the sea routes to India, with fortunes made from trading spices, silks and other fine goods. This morning our guided tour of this interesting city unveils some of its 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 townhouses and fine views to the wine lodges across the river. Gustav Eiffel designed one of the bridges, 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. Porto is wonderfully free of the chain shops prevalent elsewhere, and it’s a joy to see what the many traditional traders have to offer, from fine art, antiques and ceramics to some of the most wonderful cakes you’ll ever taste.
We return to the ship and there’s an air of expectancy on board as during our first delicious lunch, we’ll slip our moorings and begin our stately passage upstream. The Douro is one of Europe’s most captivating rivers and you can enjoy a leisurely afternoon up on deck or watching the glorious scenery drifting by from the comfort of your own cabin. Tonight, as you enter the restaurant for the Welcome Dinner, feel free to choose your table. All are expertly set with four or more seats and have excellent views through the large panoramic windows. Later, we will see a celebratory vintage port wine opened in the traditional way. We are moored overnight in Porto Antigo at the confluence of the River Bestança.
DAY 3 CASTELO RODRIGO
As dawn breaks, early risers can witness the ship’s graceful departure. Relax over a leisurely breakfast whilst the ever-changing scenery idly slips by through the restaurant’s superb panoramic windows.
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 MATEUS PALACE GARDENS
One of the benefits of life aboard a river cruise is the sheer sense of relaxation it brings; our elegant ship slips its moorings during breakfast, after which there is plenty of time for a spot of pampering in the on-board spa, or simply watch the seamless changing of the riverbank scenery passing by from the comfort of a cosy seat in the lounge. We’re in port wine territory, where the lush hillsides have largely given way to a patterned landscape of terraced vineyards. Inland from the Atlantic, the climate has changed, too; it’s noticeably warmer and drier, while the area has a Mediterranean appearance with orangey, earthy colours replacing verdant greens.
After another superb lunch on board, we cruise into the small town of Peso da Régua, from where we visit the grounds of the splendid Mateus Palace. Anyone familiar with Mateus Rosé and its characteristic ‘squashed’ bottle will recognise the palace from the label. Whatever your opinion of the wine, it is an impressive 18th-century Baroque edifice, mirrored in its stunning pond, surrounded by landscaped French gardens.
This evening we take the short drive to the 126-acre Quinta da Pacheca for dinner. Enjoying dramatic views over the Douro, it dates back to the 18th century and is simply one of the most beautiful and distinguished properties in the region. It is also notable as being the first quinta – in 1738 – to bottle wine under the name of its owner, the aristocrat Mariana Pacheco Pereira. You have time to wander through part of the estate before sampling a selection of its finest wines at dinner.
DAY 6 LAMEGO
This morning after breakfast we take a short drive to historic Lamego, home of Portugal’s sparkling wine, Raposeira, and one of the first places to be reclaimed from the Moors in the 12th century. Situated atop 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 characteristic painted ceramic tiles. Later we enjoy a little indulgence as we visit one of the region’s best port quintas, or estate-vineyards, to learn how the legendary fortified wine is produced. This experience culminates in a much-anticipated tasting of the delicious final product.
By the time we return to our ship, our chef and his team will be adding the finishing touches to another delicious lunch, ready to be served as we depart for Entre-os-Rios. After lunch there’s the perfect opportunity to take to the sun deck to enjoy the kaleidoscope of Douro views – or perhaps a spot of reading in the lounge over a cup of tea.
This evening is the Captain’s Dinner, a truly memorable experience featuring exquisite regional specialities, followed by a colourful performance of traditional Portuguese folk music by a local cultural group.
DAY 7 PORTO
There’s a perfect opportunity to avail yourself of some of the ship’s range of five-star facilities this morning – maybe a little gentle exercise in the fitness room before heading up to the sun deck to enjoy a coffee whilst chatting with newly-made friends as our ship makes a graceful arrival in Porto once more, passing under the city’s spectacular bridges. Porto is of course synonymous with wonderful port wine and all the famous port producers are here, such as Cálem, Sandeman and Ferreira, so a visit here would not be complete without a tour of one of them. You’ll learn about this fortified wine’s fascinating history and its close British connections. Port is made from grapes still pressed in the traditional way – by feet – then lovingly matured, sometimes for decades, before you can enjoy its subtle flavours. Of course, you’ll get the chance to sample various port styles at the end of our visit.
After lunch you’ll have the rest of the afternoon at leisure to explore this truly fascinating city; so perhaps return to the terraced streets of the old town and wander the sloping maze of winding, cobbled alleyways, soaking up the atmosphere whilst stopping to admire the lovely architecture, soaring bell towers, fine baroque churches, golden rooftops and beautiful tiles of this slice of traditional Portugal. Stop for a drink in a cosy café and be tempted by an array of delicious cakes and pastries – perhaps sample a pastel de nata, the traditional Portuguese custard tart.
This evening, enjoy a final dinner on board expertly served by our restaurant staff under the supervision of the maître d’. Afterwards, perhaps settle into the lounge to chat into the evening and reflect on the splendours of the remarkable River Douro – over a glass of port, of course.
DAY 8 COIMBRA & FATIMA
We depart the ship and leave behind the terraced hillsides of the Douro Valley. Heading south, our journey takes us inland as the wild seascapes of the Atlantic coast gradually give way to a hinterland of fertile fields and pine forests.
Our first destination is the ancient city of Coimbra, renowned for the impressive Roman aqueduct striding across the city and the historic university, one of Europe’s oldest and a rival to Salamanca’s. With its labyrinthine lanes, charming Moorish quarter and pretty squares, this city is a fascinating place to explore and its many historical buildings are collectively classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once a capital city, Coimbra became a major cultural centre during the Middle Ages with the university at its heart. We have the privilege of a visit to the university, which is situated on a hill overlooking the city. Its Baroque library – rich in giltwork, exotic woods and with a dazzling frescoed ceiling – contains over 200,000 leather-bound, centuries-old volumes. Equally extraordinary is the chapel, so exquisitely decorated it would be considered a cathedral in most places, and in complete contrast to the university prison, which is suitably austere and dates back to the mid 16th century.
We drive on through olive groves and wheat fields to Fátima, an unremarkable small town until 1917 when three children experienced an apparition of the Virgin Mary and it suddenly became an important Catholic pilgrimage site and a national shrine. The original chapel built to mark the site of the apparition is now part of a large and impressive Sanctuary Complex, which is well worth exploring.
Later we arrive in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal and the country’s finest natural harbour, situated at the mouth of the River Tagus. Nestled amid seven hills, the city’s skyline is a mosaic of pastel and ochre shades, peppered with elegant domes and soaring spires.
We stay three nights at either the Hotel Marques du Pombal or the Real Palacio Hotel. The Hotel Marques du Pombal is located on the famous Avenida de Liberdade at the very heart of this vibrant capital. The hotel has a contemporary feel with stylish public areas, elegant restaurant and bar, plus a gym sauna and hairdresser’s salon. The Real Palacio Hotel is creatively constructed around the renovation of a historic 17th-century palace giving the hotel a modern yet classic feel, with elegantly furnished public areas, restaurant, bar, health club and spa. Well-located in close proximity to plenty of restaurants and cafés, it provides the perfect base from which to explore the city.
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 LISBON
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.