I’ve been on a number of river cruises over the years, mostly in Europe traveling along rivers in Hungary, Austria, and France to name a few. With these experiences under my belt, I thought I knew what to expect before joining Viking River Cruises on a cruise along Portugal’s Douro River. I did not. No, due to the peculiarities of the river and the very special destination that is Portugal, a river cruise experience on the Douro is a singular event, totally unlike its cousins across the continent. Since I was surprised by, well, almost everything, I thought today I would share what some of those differences are and what makes the cruise experience not just unique, but incredibly special as well.
Pre-Cruise in Lisbon
Several river cruise companies operate on Portugal’s Douro River, but few include time in Lisbon beforehand. Sure, they have options to pay for a pre-cruise experience, but on the cruise I took with Viking it was part of the total trip and, therefore, wasn’t an extra charge. For me, that time in the capital city was essential and a highlight of the trip. It was my first time in Lisbon and I couldn’t wait to get out and explore the city. What I discovered quickly became a new favorite destination, from the incredible architecture to the food and the remarkably kind people. Viking made my time there easy as well with transfers, lots of staff on-site to help and answer questions and a 5-star pre-cruise hotel on one of the city’s major thoroughfares. No matter how you ultimately decide to experience the Douro River though, having that time in Lisbon is, I think, important.
Recurring Theme of Porto
Cruises start and end in Porto, making this popular tourist destination an important part of anyone’s cruise experience. I didn’t know a lot about the city before arriving, but I had read dozens of accounts by fellow writers all lauding the ancient city, many even naming it the best in Europe. A natural skeptic, I went into my time there with some initial detachment, but I too fell for the allure of Porto. Porto is one of Europe’s oldest cities, founded in the 300s by the Romans and it’s Porto that eventually lent its name to the country of Portugal itself. Walking around the hilly city on a guided Viking hike, I found it impossible not to be charmed by the colors and sights of the historic center, while also trying to catch a view of the important Douro River whenever possible. I had plenty of time on my own in the city as well, and I used that time to delve even deeper into Porto’s neighborhoods and history, while also eating a fair amount of local delicacies along the way. Yes, Porto was another highlight of many for me on my Douro River Cruise, but I know I’m not unique in that feeling.
I have sailed with Viking many times in all corners of Europe, and I have come to know and love the design and amenities onboard their signature Longships. So it was with a lot of surprise that I first stepped onboard the Longship docked in Porto, because, while beautiful, this was not the Longship I have come to know so well over the years. The Douro River is navigable only due to a series of locks, not unlike many other European rivers. The key difference in Portugal is the size of these locks. They’re different than on the Danube or Rhine, which means the ships must also be different. The result is a fleet of “Baby Longships” that only sail on the Douro River. They have the same general layout, the same design aesthetic and other amenities as one would find across Viking’s fleet, but they’re decidedly smaller, or intimate.
At once though I was a convert; I loved almost everything about these particular Longships. They carry fewer people than the traditional European river cruise ships, about 100 people or so, and this decrease in the manifest made the experience a lot more fun. I became friends with more people on this river cruise than any other, and I attribute that entirely to the more intimate setting. Add to that the same size staterooms and a pool on the Sun Deck and I was almost immediately won over.
Food & Wine
A big reason why many people choose to take a river cruise on the Douro River is for the wine, and Porto provides a hint as to why. Although wine has been produced in Portugal for more than 2,000 years, Port wine didn’t come about until the 1600s. I won’t go into what is ultimately a long story about the relationship between England and Portugal, but suffice it to say that their diplomatic friendship is the oldest in the world and Port wine has played an important role in this relationship for centuries. I’d like to say that fortified Port wine came about in some romantic fashion, but the truth is that the Portuguese developed it to better match the tastes of the English consumers. Eventually this wine, which was shipped from Porto (hence, Port wine) had brandy added to the juice during fermentation, creating a stronger and sweeter wine that was a perfect match for the palate of wealthy English clients.
That history of Port wine is well-celebrated not only in the city of Porto, but all along the Douro Valley. Naturally, Viking provides plenty of opportunities to experience this unique wine in both included experiences as well as optional excursions. Food and wine isn’t only relegated to Porto, throughout the week passengers learn about the other wines produced in Portugal, along with the delicious food traditions that, when paired together, create meal experiences that are truly unforgettable.
Yes, Lisbon and Porto are amazing, but there’s a lot more to Portugal than its largest cities. The opportunity to visit small towns and villages isn’t just a perk of a Douro River sailing, it’s a reason why I love river cruising in general. Many times we visited spots I would never have discovered on my own, and my trip was made all the better for having experienced them. A great example on my sailing was the morning spent in Favaios. A very small community, it has long been known for its moscatel wines, which is where the Viking passengers started the day. Visiting a local winery, we learned all about the wine making process, before tasting some of their best vintages of course. From there we visited a local bakery to learn about and try the town’s equally famous four-cornered bread and ended our visit with a walk through the village and a stop at the local wine and bread museum (yes, really). Afterwards the Viking passengers were taken to another local winery for a long and leisurely lunch that was as much fun as I’ve had in a long time. Put all together, that day spent in a very small village was special, certainly unique and nothing I would have discovered on my own.
European river cruises have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years for a variety of reasons and, from my experience, it’s well deserved attention. The cruises on the Douro River though are completely unlike others I’ve experienced, in all the best ways possible. So if you’re considering a river cruise but also looking for something a little different, I highly recommend learning more about the itineraries and programs Viking has put together on the Douro River.