This is the third article of a three-article series on Portugal. The first article covered Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon, with tips on visiting the city. The second article covered the city of Porto, along with a primer on port wine. This article is going to cover traveling to the Douro River Valley region, as well as river cruising, which is a popular (and easy) way to visit the area.
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The Douro River Valley Region
The Douro River starts in Porto. As you make your way east on the river, the landscape will quickly change and you will be treated to beautiful views. As we traveled on the Douro River this past April, I was amazed at how many grapevines there were. I kept saying that the only things that appear to grow in the Douro River Valley region are grapevines, cork trees and olive trees.
There are a couple of ways to travel through the region. Driving in Portugal is quite easy (for those of us in the U.S., they drive on the same side of the road). If steep, winding, narrow roads bother you, be prepared, as that is what you will run across through much of the region. The nice thing about driving, is that you can go at your own pace. There are some beautiful wine estates in the area that also have small inns, so you can spend the night along the way.
Tip #1: On our recent trip, we visited Quinta da Pacheca which includes The Wine House Hotel. This was an absolutely beautiful property and the hotel was lovely. The property includes the vineyards, hotel, tasting room, and restaurant. If you stay during the off-season, rates are extremely reasonable for this level of quality of a hotel. Check their website at www.quintadapacheca.com for rates and availability.
Another popular way to travel through the region is by train. The train tracks run right along the river, and offer picturesque views as you travel through the region. You can catch the train at the Sao Bento train station in central Porto and travel all the way to Pocinho. The trip takes a total of 3 ½ hours, and a one-way ticket is just over 13 euros.
Tip #2: If you want to do this as a day trip from Porto, catch the 9:10 a.m. direct train to Pocinho. It will get you into Pocinho at 12:40 p.m. You will then have 45 minutes or so to explore the village of Pocinho, before catching the 1:26 p.m. train back to Porto.
Tip #3: If you want to break up the trip, be sure to stop and see the train station in Pinhão, which is famous for its beautiful tile work.
You can also travel through the region by boat, which allows you to have views of the region that you would not be able to have by car or train. There are both extended river cruises (which I’ll talk more about below), or day boat cruises. From Pinhão, there are short boat cruise trips leaving regularly. Some will even have you cruising in rabelo boats, which are made in the style of the boats that were originally used to ship the port wine down the Douro River to Porto. Most of these cruises last about 2 hours and cost about 20 euros per person. Check out www.magnificodouro.pt for just one option.
Things to Do and See
There are plenty of things to stop and see along the Douro River. Below is a listing of the places we visited to give you some suggestions when planning your visit.
- Casa de Sezim: Beautiful family-owned winery and estate located about 45 minutes outside of Porto, near the town of Guimarães. The estate has beautiful views and their wine is outstanding. The wine is also very reasonably priced. If possible, see if you can get a tour of the manor house. The rooms inside the house contain one of a kind, handmade wallpaper. As an example, one of the wallpapers is one of only three that exist in the world – one at Casa de Sezim, one at the White House (Jackie Kennedy rescued and restored it from a house in Boston) and one in Bavaria. Check out their website at www.sezim.pt.
- Quinta da Aveleda: Located near Entre os Rios, this is a wine estate with beautiful gardens. Take a walk through the gardens before sampling the wine. For more information, go to their website at www.aveledaportugal.pt.
- Régua and the Douro Museum: The Douro Museum is in Régua. The museum shows the history of wine making in the region, as well as explains the winemaking process. While the museum is fairly small and doesn’t take a long time to go through, it does a good job of giving you a good overview of the history of winemaking in the Douro Valley.
- Quinta da Avessada: Another beautiful wine estate in the region. The main attraction here, however, is the owner. A lot of people compare him to the British character Mr. Bean. He clearly loves what he does, and it shows in the energy he exudes when talking about his family’s estate and the wines. They also care for a number of stray dogs on the property, so if you are a dog person, this place is for you.
- Quinta da Roeda: Just outside of Pinhão, this is the estate where they make Croft port wine, which is one of the larger producers and exporters of port wine.
- Quinta do Seixo: Again, just outside of Pinhão, this is the estate where they make Sandeman wines. Sandeman is probably the most well-known producer of port wine.
- Castelo Rodrigo: One of the eastern most destinations within Portugal on the Douro River, Castelo Rodrigo is about 45 minutes from the port of Barca d’Alva. Castelo Rodrigo is one of twelve historic villages in Portugal. You can visit the town in just a couple of hours, but it is definitely worth taking a side trip to see it.
For more information on visiting the Douro Valley, I recommend checking out Rick Steves’ book on Portugal. I always find his books to be very helpful. You can buy Rick Steves book on Portugal here.
River cruising has become extremely popular in recent years. With cruise lines like Viking, AmaWaterways, Tauck and others adding new ships and new itineraries all the time, there is something for almost everyone out there.
We have done two river cruises – both on AmaWaterways. Our first river cruise was a few years ago in Germany. Our second was this past April on the Douro River in Portugal. While I haven’t been on any of the other cruise lines, the ships of all of the top cruise lines look similar. Pricing is also similar. We have had very good experiences on AmaWaterways. We’ve found the ships to be nice, the food to be excellent, and the staff to be extraordinary.
Tip #4: When choosing a cruise, it’s often about the itinerary. We are into wine, so cruises that have a wine-themed itinerary are what appeal to us. AmaWaterways has specific wine cruises that you can book. They are slightly more expensive than the standard cruise, however, many of the excursions are centered around wine. Additionally, they bring on board a winemaker from a region (our winemaker was from Sonoma County, CA on this past cruise), who does tastings of their wines throughout the cruise, which we find to be a great addition to the cruise.
Most of the cruise ships are set up the same. Our ship was the AmaVida. The ships that go down the Douro River are a bit narrower than the ship we took on our previous cruise, due to the width of the locks they you have to go through. The standard rooms have an entranceway, a desk, a table with two chairs and a large bed. The bathrooms have a walk in shower and separate toilet area. The rooms also have a very small deck – just room for a table and two chairs. I’ve always found there to be plenty of storage in the room (slide your suitcases under your bed so they don’t take up space).
There are also several common areas on the ship. There is a large dining room where all of the meals are served. There is also a lounge with lots of seating. That’s where any evening activities/entertainment is held. It’s also where the bar is located. There is a front open deck with seating. There is also a sun deck on top of the ship with plenty of seating and a small pool. Additionally, there is a spa and a gym.
Typically on river cruises, your meals and all of your excursions are included in the price. They serve a very nice buffet breakfast in the morning. You can also order some breakfast standards from the menu. At lunch, there is another buffet featuring a different entrée each day. Beer and wine are also included with your lunch. Additionally, you can also order a few items off a standard menu. Dinner is always a very nice, multi-course sit down diner. Wine and beer are also included with dinner each night. The dinner menu changes daily, with a few standards always available.
Tip #5: Unless it was something I really didn’t like, you can’t go wrong with the chef’s recommendations at every meal. The quality of the food on AmaWaterways is very good. In fact, they are the only river cruise line to be inducted into La Chaine des Rotisseurs, which is one of the world’s most prestigious culinary organizations.
Tip #6: Most river cruise lines do allow you to bring your own alcohol on board. However, you can only drink it in your room. When you are in a wine region like Portugal, where you can get very good wine at a very reasonable price, it makes sense to buy some bottles while you are in port and bring them back on the ship with you. We typically open a bottle while we are getting ready for dinner, or enjoy a glass while sitting on our deck while we are cruising. Be aware that anything you order at the bar will be charged to your room, so to save money, limit the amount of drinking that you do at the bar.
As mentioned before, your excursions are also included. Keep in mind that the demographic of people that river cruising seems to appeal to are retirees. On both cruises we’ve been on, we were one of the few “younger” couples on the ship (and we are in our mid-forties). Because of this, the pace and the number of activities available tends to be a bit slow. Each excursion has a “gentle walker” version available, for those who have difficulty walking. If you are a more active person, pack your patience. It can be a bit frustrating. There will be multiple breaks for bathrooms, a lot of waiting around for people to catch up on walking tours, a lot of set up at the start of each walking tour to make sure everyone has their audio tour boxes set up correctly, etc.
Tip #7: Don’t be afraid to go out on your own rather than going with the cruise’s organized excursion. While many of the excursions say that you’ll have some time on your own, it’s typically only 15 or 20 minutes. If you don’t care about hearing the tour guide and aren’t worried about getting lost, wander on your own. This lets you see what you want to see at your own pace.
On several evenings there is entertainment in the lounge after dinner. The entertainment is typically a local group that comes onto the ship and performs – usually singing or dancing. The “stage” is really the small dance floor, so the type of performances they can have are limited. There is also a resident musician on board who plays the keyboard in the lounge in the evenings.
Most of the cruises also have a pre and post cruise package. On the cruise we just did on the Douro River, the pre-cruise package was visiting Lisbon and the post-cruise package was vising Madrid. These packages will cost you additional money, but they include your hotel, excursions and your cruise director being available to assist you.
Tip #8: If you aren’t comfortable with traveling, doing the pre and post cruise packages are probably a smart way to go. Additionally, you can even pay for transfers to and from the ship/hotel through the cruise line. However, if you are comfortable with traveling and don’t mind taking some time to figure things out yourself, I highly recommend skipping the transfers and the packages. It can save you a lot of money. I booked our stay in Lisbon myself, and we did it for less than half the cost of the package the cruise line offered. I was able to book a train from Lisbon to Porto on my own, and we just took a taxi to the port. It takes a bit more effort, but it can save you a lot of money.
Tip #9: Check with the cruise company to see what sort of electrical outlets they use. The ship we were on had U.S. outlets, but not all of them do. In any case, it’s a good idea to bring a converter with you. You can get them for under $20 and they are small enough to fit in your carry on bag. You can buy a good travel adaptor here.
While I am typically not a “cruise” type of person (I hate the idea of those huge cruise ships), the river cruises are a great way to see a lot of places while having one home base – your cabin. You can unpack once, which is a big advantage to moving from hotel to hotel. The downside is that you are confined to the ship and the cruise itinerary. This will definitely limit you from exploring as much as you might like, and experiencing the local culture. I look at river cruises as a chance to see a region, so that I know which parts of it I want to return to some day on my own.
Have questions about the Douro Valley or river cruising? Comment below or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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