A river cruise experience through scenic Portugal. For someone who never thought she'd want to board a cruise ship.
DOURO VALLEY, Portugal — Not so long ago, Spain was attracting all the attention on the Iberian Peninsula. Today, it’s Portugal’s turn to shine, in no small part due to the hillside vineyards and vibrant cities that make it a destination worth swooning over.
Having already visited Lisbon and neighboring Sintra, I was eager to discover more of Portugal’s cultural riches on a journey farther north to learn about the country’s varied history. I booked a Viking river cruise along the Duoro that would place me center stage in an unspoiled landscape of bijou villages, terraced hills, and acres of vineyards that produce the wines and port that are among the country’s most treasured resources, and which we would have many opportunities to taste.
My Viking journey began in Lisbon where I joined an animated group of adventure-seekers on a trip to 16th century Belém Tower, a fortified tower I had yet to visit in person. From there, our scholarly guide led us to nearby Jerónimos Monastery, another UNESCO World Heritage Site that impressed me for the European, Moorish, and Eastern influences throughout the cloister. The next stop was the Alfama District, the city’s oldest quarter, which reveals well-kept secrets of its own, especially when you know where to look.
Fascinated by the azulejos tiles adorning so many of the buildings in Lisbon, I joined the visit to the National Tile Museum in the Madre de Deus Convent, where I learned the difference between Spanish and Portuguese tiles, and how the latter tell a completely different tale. And I got to paint my own tile!
While this was an organized voyage of roughly 100 travelers, the various daily excursions by bus resulted in a more intimate experience. My husband and I were among the youngest, joined by several multi-generational families. We quickly befriended many of the older cruise-savvy passengers, swapping tales from both land and sea. I could barely wait to board the ship and settle in, but first a trip to The University of Coimbra, one of the oldest institutions in the world dating back to 1290. (And a rich source of inspiration for Harry Potter.)
Arriving to Porto by bus from Lisbon in the early evening, I was immediately smitten with the rainbow-colored buildings lining the Duoro River. It was here that my husband joined me, on the upper deck of the ship, the sun setting in the distance. Yes, it was that picture perfect. It was time to set sail.
After an introduction to life aboard the Viking Torgil, our home for the next six days, we sat in awe on the balcony of our stateroom, watching lush green landscapes expand before our eyes. I couldn’t imagine a better way to experience this panorama. I was excited for the scenes that were to come.
Our first stop was the picturesque town of Regua. We visited the Mateus Palace, home of the last Count of Vila Real. Collections of worldly antiques filled the regal chambers; the manicured gardens reminded me of Versailles.
There was a lot more Portugal to discover, but it was time to cross the border into Spain. After lunch at a medieval castle in the charming hilltop town Ciudad Rodrigo, we boarded a bus to Salamanca, a captivating city from the Middle Ages. (Because a few of the locks on the river were closed, we couldn't go by ship.) The Golden City is home to another of Europe’s oldest universities, dating back to the 13th century. Our docent led us from the Old Cathedral to the adjoining New Cathedral, Salamanca’s masterpiece of a Romanesque-Gothic cathedral, combining centuries of craftsmanship. We caught a stellar view from within the House of Shells, another medieval treasure that’s now a public library.
Back aboard the Torgil, we stopped at the tiny village of Favaios, where a local led us to one of their traditional bakeries. It was these unexpected encounters — when time appeared to stand still — that made my Viking journey so memorable.
Life aboard the boat was fun and games. Literally. The crew, who quickly felt like extended family, provided nightly entertainment from dancing to live local music. With a glass of porto in hand, we took it all in with our new friends. Dining was the best treat of all, with a full menu that included traditional Portuguese dishes presented by a masterful chef. Adult entertainment took on a whole new meaning.
The following day we uncovered another layer of Portugal’s mystique with a visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies in Lamego, a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary set 686 steps above the village. We walked down them all, taking in the painted azulejos along the way.
After what felt like weeks, our senses fully stimulated by so much culture at every twist and turn along the Duoro, we returned to Porto for the last few days with Viking. It was time to discover this mystical city, second in size to Lisbon, yet completely diverse in character. Taking time to explore the nuances of each neighborhood, both with the Viking guide and on our own, we became smitten with the insouciant vibe of the city.
Guided explorations took us from the French Beaux-Arts design of the São Bento railway station, where 20,000 azulejos tell the story of Portugal’s past, to Rua de Santa Catarina, the pedestrian shopping street that is very rooted in the present. It was the tangle of streets lining this touristic hub that charmed us the most. Our affection for Porto grew deeper as we sat at a café high up on the Duoro, the lights of our boat glowing in the distance. Crossing the impressive double decker Dom Luís I bridge – all 60 meters of it — we savored the sunset vibes that would remain with us long after the journey ended.