Jan 152016
 

Highlights of our Viking cruise on the Douro River

“Portugal’s River of Gold”, Viking River Cruises’ itinerary from Porto to the Spanish border showcases the Douro region of northern Portugal, capturing the essence of its people, history, culture, and gastronomy. Portugal and Viking River Cruises also captured my heart. It was the first cruise ever for my husband and I and we feel that we couldn’t have chosen a more ideal cruise because it had so many elements that make a trip special for us. On our cruise, we made our way on the Viking Hemming along the peaceful Douro River enjoying smooth sailing, beautiful vistas, cultural experiences, traditional food and wine, and steps back into history.

View from the top deck of the Hemming on our Viking cruise on the Douro River

View from the top deck of the Hemming on our Viking cruise on the Douro River

Mr. TWS and I have got much more we’ll show and tell in future posts, but here’s a glimpse of what we loved about our Viking cruise on the Douro River.

An itinerary for all seasons

The “Portugal’s River of Gold” itinerary really is one for all seasons operating from March through December. Keeping our tradition of ending the year on a European note, we traveled in early December, but this itinerary is not seasonal. Rather, it encompasses attractions and activities to be enjoyed year-round, and this cruise would be a pleasure any time of the year.

Among the vineyards on a hilltop overlooking the winding Douro River

Among the vineyards on a hilltop overlooking the winding Douro River

After a wonderful two-day pre-cruise stay in Lisbon (included in the 10-day Viking itinerary), we were transported by coach to Porto to begin our river journey. For the next several days, we took advantage of all land excursion opportunities (both included and optional) while other passengers opted to select just a few or stay on the ship to relax and enjoy on-board amenities and additional cruise time. The flexibility of the daily itinerary is perfect for choosing your own pace and experiences.

The ship and accommodations

The Viking Hemming at port in Barca d'Alva across the river from Spain -- Photo credit: Joaquim de Sousa

Viking Hemming at port in Barca d’Alva, one of our overnight port stops — Photo credit: Joaquim de Sousa

The Viking ships that cruise the Douro — the Hemming and the Torgil — are new members of the Viking fleet, making their first sails in 2014. An even newer ship, the Osfrid, will begin service in 2016. They are somewhat smaller than the lines’ longships that sail other rivers in Europe because of the Douro’s particularities — it’s not as wide or deep as other rivers and there are several impressive and tightly-configured locks through which they need to pass along the waterway. It’s pretty exciting to be on the upper deck to get a real sense of what happens and see the activities of the crew in the process.

From top left: Relaxing in the lounge with a view; our private stateroom veranda; top deck lounge chairs and shuffleboard; dining room on the Viking Hemming

From top left: Relaxing in the lounge with a view; our private stateroom veranda; top deck lounge chairs and shuffleboard; dining room

With 53 staterooms accommodating up to 106 guests, the Hemming has a more intimate atmosphere than found on large ocean liners. We found that the size and configuration was perfect for maintaining privacy while still mingling with and meeting other guest over meals and in common areas. As weather permits, there is also a small pool on the upper deck, shuffleboard, and a terrace for dining or enjoying the view.

Our accommodations were in a Veranda Stateroom on the 3rd level which was very comfortable and nicely-appointed. The room’s 185 sq ft was designed with an excellent use of space with space-enhancing mirrors, a roomy closet, and numerous electrical outlets, both 220V and 110V. The two of us, each with multiple devices, never had a problem recharging. We found the wireless connectivity throughout the ship to be very good, only being without service when there was no carrier availability on the more isolated portions of the cruise. (During our excursions on land, we were happy to have our XCOM Global Mobile Hotspot by our side as we have on several international trips.) Although we rarely flipped the “on” switch, the room also had a 40-inch flat-panel TV with major channels and movies on demand that might have more appeal for some.

Relishing the comfort of our lovely and well-appointed Veranda Stateroom on the Viking Hemming

Relishing the comfort of our lovely and well-appointed Veranda Stateroom

I was pleasantly surprised by the bathroom and shower arrangement. In what is a smaller space than found in some hotels, it was so well-designed that there was actually more shelving and counter space than I find in many of them. The water pressure of the dual shower heads was great and I really liked the L’Occitane bath products that were provided.

Housekeeping (provided for us by Lili) kept our room ship-shape and replenished with bottled water each day. Lili also provided a whimsical towel arrangement each day that always made us smile, especially a special cake and candle design for Mr. TWS on his birthday.

Crew, guides, and guests

I’ve often heard praise for the crews on Viking ships in Europe, and my first-hand experience was certainly consistent with that. The Hemming crew was amazing — friendly, helpful, and fun. We also enjoyed the camaraderie of other guests, particularly those like the lovely people in the photo below (photo courtesy of Bill Lui) with whom we often shared great meals and many laughs.

From top left: Maître d' Claudio Pires (left) and Captain Ribeiro join our group of fellow passengers; Marta at Reception; Mr. TWS and Hotel Manager, Joaquim de Sousa; Antonio, our waiter

From top left: Maître d’ Claudio Pires (left) and Captain Ribeiro join our group of fellow passengers; Marta at Reception; Mr. TWS and Hotel Manager, Joaquim de Sousa; Antonio, our waiter

It was noteworthy that all the staff and guides were Portuguese and many were from the Douro region. Many of them had spent time abroad attributing to their excellent English skills, but also attesting to their love for their country in choosing to live and work in Portugal. They were great ambassadors for Portugal and the Douro region and we felt this was an important plus for the cruise.

Our Viking Hemming guides Élia, Henrique, Carlos with Program Director Jorge Leitão

Our guides Élia, Henrique, Carlos with Program Director Jorge Leitão

For guided tours, there were three groups organized to keep the size manageable and comfortable as we explored on shore. Élia was our friendly guide who in additional to showing considerable knowledge and pride in her country regaled us with entertaining and informative stories.

We were also very impressed with the local guides that Viking arranged to show us around their cities, villages, historic sites, and wine estates. It’s clear that Viking staff are carefully chosen and trained.

On-board activities

There were numerous educational sessions and insider tours offered on the ship. Program Director Jorge Leitão gave interesting presentations about the history of Portugal, Portuguese food, and the topography of the Douro region. We also had a Portuguese lesson by Carlos, one of our Viking guides, which was fun and quite helpful as some of our on-shore interactions were with native Portuguese who did not speak English and were eager to communicate. Mr. TWS and I did quite well with our greetings to locals — bom dia (good morning/day), boa tarde (good night, also used as a greeting in the evening), obrigada/obrigado (thank you fem/masc), but we definitely need a lot more practice on other phrases.

In the wheelhouse of the Viking Hemming with Captain Afonso Ribeiro at the helm

During a wheelhouse tour, we watch Viking Hemming Captain Afonso Ribeiro at the helm

A guest preparing Pastel de Nata, a favorite Portuguese egg custard pastry, during a demonstration with Executive Chef Carlos Silva

A guest preparing Pastel de Nata, a favorite Portuguese egg custard pastry, during a demonstration with Executive Chef Carlos Silva. Try his Pastel de Nata recipe.

On a galley tour with Chef Carlos, we developed an even better appreciation for the work performed by the chef and small staff in preparing and serving our meals. In such a small space, this staff works long, hard and as a team to create an excellent dining experience for the passengers.

Down the steps into the galley kitchen with Chef Carlos Silva and staff

Heading down the steps into the galley kitchen with Chef Carlos Silva and staff

Delectable meals

To fuel up for the morning activities, we indulged in the full breakfast buffet (with an incredible selection of fruit, cereal, bread, pastries, meats, cheeses, eggs, and more. Made-to-order omelets were hard to resist, too.

Each lunch and dinner prepared by Chef Carlos and staff was eagerly anticipated with high expectations and we were never disappointed. The menu choices included fresh traditional or specialty Portuguese dishes as well as more universal options. Because it was December, some of the dishes were quite hearty — meats (pork and beef) or seafood (often cod, a plentiful and popular fish in Portugal). Desserts were amazing and irresistible.

A selection of beautifully-presented and delicious entrees and desserts aboard the Viking Hemming

A selection of beautifully-presented and delicious entrees and desserts aboard the Viking Hemming

The Viking crew is well-prepared to accommodate special diets. As a pescatarian, Mr. TWS had no trouble finding delicious seafood and vegetarian options on board (and throughout Portugal) as seafood is plentiful, especially cod which is traditionally a Portuguese favorite.

Although premium wines were available for purchase, we really enjoyed the variety of house wines that were included with each meal. They were all local Portuguese wines, both whites and reds, and there were special port wine pours at certain meals.

Shore excursions

Docked in ports such as Pinhão, we walked a short way from the ship to the village center for shopping and sightseeing. For more distant shore excursions, we were driven in new, immaculate, comfortable, roomy coaches for distances ranging from very short (across the bridge to Porto city center) to the longest of a little over an hour (to Salamanca, Spain). Most were about half an hour. Water was readily available on board and our guides provided commentary and history about the sights we were passing. Being so accustomed to driving ourselves, it was nice to sit back and enjoy the ride with complete confidence in the Viking drivers, especially on a few extremely narrow, winding, edge-of-the-cliff kinds of roads. We’ll have further posts about these and other places we visited, but just to give you an idea of the wealth of tour opportunities we had, these are a few of our spots along the Douro and beyond.

  • Porto — Porto is one of oldest cities in Europe and the second largest city in Portugal. Although there was some light rain when we visited, the beauty and romantic ambiance was not diminished as we strolled the maze of steep, narrow streets and plazas past tiled churches and houses in Porto’s historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Over the rooftops of the colorful buildings of Porto, the tower of Clerigos Church is visible from many points in the city and surrounding area

Over the rooftops of the colorful buildings of Porto,  the tower of Clerigos Church is visible from many points in the city and surrounding area

From top left: Porto street scene; ornate altar in Clerigos Church; murals in the São Bento Railway Station depicting the history of Portugal

From top left: Porto street scene; ornate altar in Clerigos Church; murals in the São Bento Railway Station depicting the history of Portugal

  • Guimarães — Originally settled in the 9th century, Guimarães is known as “the birthplace of the Portuguese nation” and was Portugal’s first capital in the 12th century. We visited the 10th-century castle as well as the town’s medieval quarter.
Guimarães medieval quarter, statue of Portugal’s first king, and Guimarães Castle

Guimarães medieval quarter, statue of Portugal’s first king, and Guimarães Castle

  • Pinhão — Another UNESCO World Heritage Site and the center of the Douro wine region is the or peaceful town of Pinhão. One of the attractions is Pinhão’s railway station with 24 murals made of azulejos (blue and white tiles seen throughout Portugal) depicting life in the Douro region. The village also has many shops including ones where you can find diverse items made of cork (including clothing and accessories).
Murals of azulejos tiles at the railway station in Pinhao; strolling through the village, we found unique items made from cork, such as the dress (bottom center)

Murals of azulejos tiles at the railway station; strolling through the village, we found unique items made from cork, such as the dress (bottom center)

  • Favaios — This small village has a deep history of producing bread and wine (moscatel, in particular). Halfway up a steep cobblestone street, we stepped into the modest bakery where loaves of four-cornered bread were being made and baked in a wood-fired oven. We sampled some of the right-from-the-oven hot bread with jam and accompanied with a glass of moscatel. We also visited Quinta da Avessada, a century-old winery, and enjoyed a fun and delicious dining experience. Emphasizing Viking’s strong relationships with local businesses and communities, the winery had built a special large dining area for the Viking tours to wine, dine, and entertain the Viking passengers.
A Favaios specialty, four-cornered bread -- from loaves to the wood-fired oven and ready to eat

A Favaios specialty, Trigo de Quatro Cantos (four-cornered bread) — from loaves to the wood-fired oven and ready to eat

  • Lamego — In the bustling city of Lamego, we visited the Santuario de Nossa Senhora dos Remedios (Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies) at the top of a baroque double staircase with nine terraces and 686 steps from the town center. The terraces are adorned with beautiful azulejos.
Gorgeous azulejo tiles adorn the terraced staircase from the city center to the the Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies at the top of 686 stairs in Lamego, Portugal

Gorgeous azulejo tiles adorn the terraced staircase from the city center to the Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies in Lamego — seen here in the morning fog

  • Casa de Mateus (Mateus Palace) — You may recognize the ornate Baroque building from the labels of Mateus Rosé, the famous Portuguese wine export very popular in the 1960s and 1970s. The palace was built during the first half of the 18th century by Antonio Jose Botelho Mourao and is still used as a summer home by his descendants.
Reflections in the pond at Mateus Palace

Reflections in the pond at Mateus Palace

  • Wine estates — The sweet grapes used to make authentic port wine, Portugal’s most famous export, are only grown in the Douro Valley. There are many styles of port, several of which we sampled at wine estates throughout the Douro region and on board the Hemming.
The view of the Douro Valley and hills in the distance from Quinta do Seixo, a renowned wine-producer and home of the Sandeman brand

The view of the Douro Valley and hills in the distance from Quinta do Seixo, a renowned wine-producer and home of the Sandeman brand

  • Side trip into Spain: Salamanca — This was the farthest from a port that we got and it was well worth the trip for the rural Spanish scenery we saw along the way (including a farm with a very large Iberian pig) and the gorgeous university city of Salamanca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On our own and in a guided tour we walked around the historic center getting an architectural feast for the eyes as we visited key attractions, including the new and old cathedrals and Plaza Mayor.
Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

  • Fado — Longing, yearning, regret, and nostalgia…. these are some of the intense emotions that characterize the soulful lyrics and singing of fado music, Portugal’s deep folk music tradition. We were treated to two live fado performances during our Viking River Cruises tour.
Left: Fado singer performing at the 11th-century Alpendurada Monastery near Bitetos, Right: Fado performance in Coimbra

Left: Fado singer performing at the 11th-century Alpendurada Monastery near Bitetos, Right: Fado performance in Coimbra

Scenes along the way

Of course, a favorite part of the cruise was the ride itself, enjoying the abundant natural beauty of the region as we watched the topography change passing terraced hillsides, vineyards, rocky cliffs, olive groves, and forests. Since the river itself is actually quite narrow, we were very close to the shoreline and canyon walls on both sides at numerous times along the way. The river was quite peaceful during the entire cruise, with only a bit of waterway traffic in Porto.

Scenes along the way on our Viking Hemming cruise

Scenes along the way on our Viking Hemming cruise

 

Rowing crews pass alongside the Viking Hemming on the Douro River, Portugal

Rowing crews pass alongside the Viking Hemming on the Douro

Prelude to our Douro River cruise: Lisbon

I fell in love with Lisbon right away. It’s a beautiful city with topographical features similar to San Francisco — hilly landscape, long waterfront, colorful buildings and even an impressive suspension bridge, the 25th of April Bridge that resembles the Golden Gate Bridge. During our free time and on a guided Viking tour, we took in as many of the sights and sounds as we could. The Hotel Tivoli on Avenida da Liberdade was convenient for exploring the neighborhoods and getting to the main squares and waterfront.

Fountain on Rossio Square in Lisbon

Fountain on Rossio Square in Lisbon

After walking miles around Lisbon on our first day and still a little jet-lagged, we stopped at a cafe along the waterfront. It was a special moment to relax with a glass of Portuguese red wine while we watched the sunset over the 25th of April Bridge and looked forward to our upcoming cruise.

Taking a moment to enjoy a glass of wine and the progression of the sunset along the Lisbon waterfront

Taking a moment to enjoy a glass of wine and the progression of the sunset along the Lisbon waterfront

We were impressed at the number of repeat Viking customers on our cruise. For many, it was the second or third cruise, for others it was more, and for one couple it was their ninth cruise with Viking. Now having had our own Viking River Cruises experience, I completely understand.

Disclosure: Viking River Cruises sponsored our wonderful Portugal’s River of Gold experience, but our opinions and perspectives are totally our own — as always.

  42 Responses to “Cruising Portugal’s River of Gold: Our Favorite Things”

  1. […]   Cruising Portugal’s River of Gold: Our Favorite Things […]

  2. This just looks so lovely. I’ve never had a desire to be on an open ocean cruise, but I think I’d enjoy a relaxing river cruise. We fell in love with pretty much everything about Porto, such an amazing city, five nights was just not enough for us. While there we took a day trip on the Douro River. We took a train from the city for 2 hours up the river and then enjoyed a wonderful lunch cruise on a gorgeous day. That was just one day on the river, so I image multiple days would be such a treat! A nice way for Mr. TWS to celebrate his birthday!

    • Please do try a river cruise, Patti. All itineraries are different, of course, but on this one we really had quality port time exploring UNESCO sites, villages, wineries, etc. each day. We enjoyed that aspect. And yes, it was a wonderful way for Mr. TWS to celebrate his birthday –he’s been in Europe for his special day for the past several years.

  3. This cruise sounds great. I have only been on one cruise -on a much larger ship in the Caribbean. I enjoyed it, but have also wanted to do a European river cruise. I like how this cruise offered sessions on Portuguese history, food, and topography, as well as serving some dishes. So often one gets only a very cursory look at the stops on a cruise.

    • There was a wonderful mix of activities and opportunities on this cruise and we were very impressed. It was a great way to learn about Portugal and get to know some of its people with a crew that was all Portuguese and the people we met on shore. Oh, and the food — fresh and fanstastic! 🙂

  4. What a wonderful journey you experienced! I am so happy you finally sailed with Viking! Aren’t you in love now? I haven’t done the Douro yet but look forward to the day I sail especially on the ships that differ from the Viking Longships in that they’re smaller and more intimate! I love the wheelhouse tours and the onboard demonstrations as well. Talk about cultural immersion!!!

    • Yes, I’m in love! In fact, I may be addicted to Viking cruises after just one journey. They do everything first-class. The cultural immersion was a big positive on this cruise. Loved our excursions to both small villages and more populous places like Porto and Salamanca — there was something to learn and enjoy in all of them.

  5. It looks like you had an amazing time on your river cruise. I’m glad to learn that Viking uses local knowledgeable guides for shore excursions. Good guides can make all the difference on a trip. Thanks for sharing!

    • Yes, I agree. The local guides were super. For example, in Favaois, it was wonderful to see the pride our 3 local guides took in showing us their small off-the-tourist-radar village which is seeing economic benefits of the Viking passengers making visits..

  6. I love Viking Cruises, that company really knows how to hit all the right notes. 🙂

    • They absolutely do. There was an incredible combination of experiences arranged for us as you read in the post. That’s why I feel that we really got a wonderful introduction to the Douro region’s culture and character.

  7. This looks incredible. SO MANY experiences – what a trip!

    • Although, as I mentioned, some people opted to relax and enjoy the sailing and dining (which was awesome), we were quite busy every day taking advantage of the tours and excursions. We didn’t wnt to miss anything!

  8. I’m not surprised that this Viking Cruise was as spectacular as you describe it. I’ve been on two and am awed by the quality and consistency of the service and excellent training of the staff. I’d love to travel on this itinerary having dipped my toe in the waters in Lisbon. Great review!

    • Another repeat Viking passenger! 🙂 On our first night during the welcome briefing, the program director asked how many had cruised with Viking before — I was amazed at how many hands went up. Then to find out how many times they’d cruised really impressed me. But with itineraries like this and a high level of quality, it’s no wonder, I guess.

  9. How wonderful! I shall be spending 5 weeks in Porto in March / April myself and have to research the region for a guidebook update.
    I shall certainly look into doing one of these trips – thanks for sharing!

    • Wonderful that you’ll be spending five weeks in Porto — I’d love to do that! Enjoy your stay and I hope you’ll get to sail the Douro, too.

  10. It’s been too long since I’ve visited Portugal, what a wonderful way to explore the rivers there and in style. On my bucket list for 2016

    • This cruise really gave us a chance to not only travel in style, but be transported to new, interesting places to visit each day without packing/unpacking. Great way to explore.

  11. This is amazing Catherine! I love your summary of the cruise. Such a detailed report with helpful indications. I have never been to Portugal before but this country is definitely worth a visit. While I was thinking about walking the Way of St. James from Portugal the cruise looks like a very interesting alternative. A hundred people is a nice group to stay with. I found the photo of the rooms very nice! And most of all, winter time makes Portugal so much more interesting! With the fog and clouds! I hope to get there someday!

    • Winter is a fine time to visit Portugal. There were gray days which added a nice dramatic ambiance to the landscape, there were also sunny days (especially pre-cruise in Lisbon and on our final sail day back to Porto), and only a little rain on a couple of days. Weather never diminished the experience for us. So yes, go to Portugal in winter! 🙂

  12. There’s just something about Portugal, isn’t there? We have yet to visit the Douro Valley or take a cruise along the Douro River but it looks like an activity that needs to be taken in a leisurely fashion and Viking Cruises seem to provide an excellent experience. Can’t wait to visit Porto either and I’ll be using many of your suggestions when we go!

    • Yes, there is something about Portugal. From the very start of our trip in Lisbon to the end, we enjoyed the people and the places. I’d like to head south from Lisbon next time and discover that part of the country, too.

  13. What a lovely trip. I’ve been told river cruises are the future of water travel, and I can see why. I like that your ship had only 106 guests — as compared to the 3,000 or so now boarding ocean cruises. Love the four-cornered loaves that look like gigantic dog biscuits.

    • Ha! That’s a good observation about the four-cornered bread. Let me say that bread was so delicious right out of the oven. A touch of moscatel as an accompaniment was nice, too.

  14. I just did my first Viking River cruise on the Danube and I loved it. I’m a true convert.
    I’d love to do the one you did as I grew up in Porto. You’ve motivated me even more!

    • Porto is so beautiful — even in the rain, as we saw it. I’d love to spend more time there. Must have been an interesting place to grow up.

  15. What a fabulous cruise. We went on a coach trip with Expat Explore and saw quite a few of the cruise ships embarking and disembarking at various places and wondered which we’d choose if we ever did one. So thanks for the heads up about Viking Cruises 🙂

    • We’d been wondering about cruises for a long time and now we know that at least when it comes to Viking cruises — we’re ready for more!

  16. What a wonderful trip and great way to see Portugal. Love your tradition of ending each year in a European destination. When I saw the picture of shuffle boarding on the ship I thought this time of year would be too cold, but your other pictures showed it wouldn’t be so bad. I think doing a river cruise would be so much nicer (and not as hectic—large number of passengers) as on big cruise ships. Something I would consider!

    • The weather was fine — a mix of sun, overcast skies, a little rain, temps 50s, 60s. I really liked the size of the ship and number of passengers, too. Of course, as you read, we liked a lot about this cruise. 🙂

  17. I’m not into boats, but the Viking River Cruises are getting me to change my thinking. If I do a cruise, it will be on one of their boats. The River of Gold cruise looks wonderful. Not sure which river cruise I’d opt for. So many great options.

    • I’ve never been a water person myself, but as you can tell this Viking cruise suited me wonderfully. I always felt comfortable on the boat and included many of the things that Mr. TWS and I love about travel as I mentioned in the post. And you’re right — there are so many great Viking cruises to chosse from.

  18. What a stupendous experience! The more I hear about Viking River Cruises, the more I want to take one!

  19. Looks like a beautiful region to explore. Also good to hear that the onboard activities sound really interesting, and not cheesy games like Bingo, which I would have expected on a cruise.

    • Oh my gosh, Bingo wouldn’t have worked for me! From my cruise and the other cruises I’ve heard about, I think Viking cruises are on a whole different level. And Portugal is wonderful. I’ll be sharing more about the places we visited.

  20. The river cruises look like such a lovely way to travel through parts of Europe – I have wanted to take one for so long! I hadn’t considered cruising in Portugal before but now I have added it to my list – your photos are lovely!!

    • Although I’d be thinking about a river cruise for a while, I didn’t realize that Viking had one in Portugal. It quickly came to the top of my list for this first cruise since we’d never been to Portugal. Of course, now I’m keen to try other itineraries, too.

  21. […] As much as Mr. TWS and I were excited about taking our first cruise, the fact that the Viking River Cruises “Portugal’s River of Gold” itinerary included a two-day stay in Lisbon prior to ever stepping foot on the ship was one of our favorite things. […]

  22. […] you picture Portugal in your mind, what do you see? Prior to our trip to northern Portugal in December, I had seen many wonderful photos, particularly of the main attractions — trams […]

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