Irene Middleman Thomas 2017-12-25 01:27:26
Rolling on the Douro The beauty of Portugal is witnessed from ship to shore and back again in 10 days on and off the river. At the welcome orientation of Viking’s river cruise Rolling on Portugal’s Douor River, return guests were asked to raise their hands. Nearly everyone did, some calling out that they had been on six or seven Viking trips. As newbies, we were duly impressed. And during the trip, we came to understand the devotion. These trips are refined, elegant and appeal to sophisticated “empty nesters,” mostly from the United States and the United Kingdom. Guests love the beautiful scenery and the on-shore excursions as well as gourmet cuisine, stimulating conversation with new friends and tasteful, well-appointed cabins. Our vessel, the Hemming, is one of three identical 106-passenger Viking ships traveling the Douro. Custom built to fit the river’s five sets of narrow locks, the ships offer a variety of staterooms, all 53 with river views. The interiors are what Viking calls “streamlined Scandinavian.” Passing through the locks was not only fascinating but quite fun (I loved getting wet with a new English friend as we giggled through one lock’s brief shower). At times, we were so close to the damp lock walls that we could touch them. The 10-day itineraries begin in Lisbon. Drowsy from the time change, we explored the striking black-and-white tiled sidewalks on foot, with the main plazas just a comfortable stroll away. Seeking a quick bite, we entered a tiny local bar. With my Spanish and the affable owner’s basic English, we managed to have him fix us an enticing plate of tapas (hard-boiled eggs, four types of cheese, salami, toast and olives) along with two cold beers for a typically low Portugal price of U.S. $10. We loved hearing the local workmen coming in for a quick drink, chatting with the regulars. While striking out on our own was fruitful, one of the highlights of the trip was that the tours were led by knowledgeable, informed and enthusiastic local guides and Viking staffers. We visited UNESCO World Heritage sites as well as small villages with cobblestone streets, winding alleyways, intricate wrought ironwork, tumbling bougainvillea and lush geranium-filled windowboxes. We spent a day in Salamanca, Spain, where we visited the impressive centuries-old university. In small towns, we met entrepreneurs, such as the traditional wood-oven baker in Pinhao and the flavored-almond roasters of Castelo Rodrigo. The Douro River Valley’s dynamic wine production has blossomed over the past 40 years. It is the world’s oldest demarcated wine region, with its warm, continental climate spreading over steep terraced vineyards. As Portugal is famed for port, the itinerary includes two nights docked in the wine’s hometown, the truly charming city of Porto. Porto is a gorgeous, enchanting gem, with orange-red clay tiled buildings rising on the hills hugging the river, filled with boats and the historic, pretty gondolas traditionally used for transporting wine. Several dramatic bridges join the city with Gaia, its neighbor across the river, and both towns feature bistros and wine shops, tucked-in little gardens, twisting pathways, monuments and statues, and fabulous examples of glazed tiles and panels. Yes, there are many tourists in Porto, but the crowds are not overwhelming, except notably at the famous Livraria Lello bookstore where J.K. Rowling found some of her inspiration for the Harry Potter books. As for those glazed tiles, they are found in tiny villages as well as in cities. Some of the most impressive ones are actually in and on train station walls. The exquisite azulejos, as they are known, are typically blue and white, but there are other colors as well. When all the sightseeing gets to be too much, we lounge on the ship’s comfy sun deck with its small swimming pool, tables and cushioned lounge chairs. Gazing at the crazy quilt of terraced, rocky slopes rising from both riverbanks is quite relaxing, with the groves of olive trees and small, ancient villages of pastel-painted cottages. We barely could roust ourselves for dinner. The meals, however, are quite good. White vinho verde and red wines, as well as local beer, are included, and there are always at least three entree choices. Viking is meticulous about accommodating special diets, and the waitstaff is extremely solicitous. Fresh fruit and vegetables are abundant at every meal, desserts are as they should be (delectable). Sample Portuguese dishes such as francesinha sandwiches and charcoal-grilled sardine salad. A special Spanish dinner of paella, crema catalana and gambas al ajillo was offered on the eve of our day in Salamanca, Spain. While couples can opt to sit alone in the dining room, most of us chose to sit with others. The conversations were stimulating, lively and very enjoyable. Indeed, on our last night, a man whom we had only seen, never actually met, sought us out in the dining room where we were lounging over dessert and coffee. “I know you like to take pictures, and you just have to get up on the sun deck now. The moon looks incredible!” We followed him up, and it truly was gorgeous, an October Hunter’s Moon rising next to a glowing peach-tinged bridge and the ancient tiled roofs of Porto. THE DETAILS Viking River Cruises Portugal’s River of Gold trip travels from Lisbon to Porto (including one day in Salamanca, Spain). Rates start at $2,799 per person; airfare not included but discounts available when booked with Viking. Viking River Cruises, 877-705-7631, vikingrivercruises.com. For general information, go to visitportugal.com.
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