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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.