The River of Gold cruise was our second Viking River cruise; Châteaux, Rivers & Wine from Bordeaux the first. We also took the fabulous Viking Ocean cruise, In Search of the Northern Lights; a thrilling display right from our veranda. We opted for this cruise after the Lyon & Provence cruise was cancelled by the pandemic in spring 2020. The October 2021 Douro cruise was our first travel experience after the lockdown, and we were ready to get back. What a delight! While Porto can be cold and rainy, we had beautiful weather—sunny and mild, with burnished vines adding to the lovely landscape. You will miss nothing at night since, by law, no ships are allowed to cruise at night; it’s too dangerous. All captains must be specially certified to navigate the river as some areas are very narrow and channels must be carefully followed. Our (very handsome) Portuguese captain has some 10 years’ experience on the river.
I begin with a Caveat – Portugal is our favorite destination even though I lived in France for two years! Over 26 years, we’ve enjoyed the gracious hospitality of this beautiful country during some 17 journeys totaling over 52 weeks. Obviously, we are somewhat biased! While the country has indeed changed since my first visit in 1996 (my husband’s first was in 1962!), the warmth and generosity of the Portuguese never wavers. I want to extend that compliment to the Torgil multinational crew as well. Our program director, Tamara, was an absolute joy to know. I wish I had kept a list of all the crew members so each could receive the compliments they so deserve. Covid didn’t slow anyone down; it may have curtailed onboard entertainment, but the crew stepped up and delivered some great evenings!
Our desire to return to Portugal often is enhanced by TAP’s direct service from Boston – approximately six hours and no connections needed. The only drawback (if it can be so considered) is that the standard flight arrives before 6 am (there is also a later one currently). While we had to search around for a way through customs, there were no crowds hampering a quick exit. We always add in days before and after cruise dates – time to decompress and unwind. On this trip, we spent three days in Cascais before traveling on to Lisboa. Note for those early arrivals: if you can swing it, reserve the extra night before your arrival; the room will be ready when you get there.
We chose a Veranda stateroom on the Upper Deck (third level), halfway down. The staterooms are smaller than on Viking’s longships due to the ship’s smaller size, which is governed by the Douro locks. However, the ship and staterooms are superbly designed, comfortable, and feature all the amenities offered by the longships.
We enjoyed the National Tile Museum in Lisboa (our second visit), an underrated hidden gem. The museum is slightly off the beaten path, but highly recommended, especially for the magnificent panorama of Lisboa – a 75± -foot-long panel of more than 1,300 tiles, created in 1738 before the 1755 earthquake destroyed most of the city. Many surviving historic monuments can be found. Our tour didn’t include that floor as the elevator wasn’t working, but those who trekked up the long staircases said it was worth the effort. I specifically chose this excursion since, as an artist, I could create my own “azulejo” – a unique experience. You can craft your own design or choose from a selection of stencils offered by the staff. It’s not as easy as it appears – you need to use a lot of paint to achieve vibrant color. The tiles are then finished by museum staff and delivered to the ship during the week. We also highly recommend the Belem tours. Central Lisboa is very walkable with charming funiculares and trams for the hills, but transportation is required to get to Belem.
Mateus is a beautiful Baroque palace we enjoyed many years ago. We had the ship and crew to ourselves while all the other guests participated in the tour. On the return journey, we did opt to learn the art of port blending at Fonseca’s Quinta do Panascal. Up a winding contributary river valley in a lovely hillside manor, four of us learned just how port is blended from different years’ harvests. We then blended our own and created our own labels. We also recommend the excursion to Lamego, almost a mini-version of Braga, for those who do not elect the post-cruise extension.
Salamanca is a beautiful small city dripping with Spanish charm. It is a long, winding drive from the ship’s docking at Barca d’Alva but so worth the trip. We were pleased that Viking now offers a “leisure” guided walking tour for those who wish to see the highlights at a slower pace.
Porto: Our fourth visit to this ever-changing but very historic city, it is a joy to see how a somewhat down-trodden city is rebuilding and preserving its culture and working-class character. An oft repeated saying in Portugal is "Coimbra studies, Braga prays, Lisbon parties…and Porto works." After disembarkation, we settled into Gaia for another two days to re-explore and found beautifully restored architecture, more pedestrianized streets, and new attractions that highlight this “second city.” On previous trips we dined lavishly at Vinum at Graham’s port lodge. We passed this time after the very filling lunch but still recommend it. Be prepared for a “port high” by the end of the evening; a fortified wine, it does pack a punch.
Most of the excursions in Porto are offered at the end of the cruise. There are several from which to choose, a good example of how Viking tries to cater to different desires. The only one we chose was the trip to Quinta da Aveleda since we became enamored with vinho verde on our second trip when we stayed at an historic 18th-century quinta known for its excellent vinho verde production. The drive also allowed us another opportunity to view the countryside we love so much! Aveleda is an architecturally delightful estate with extensive gardens.
We would not call “Porto on Foot” a moderate excursion – it’s more like a demanding hike as both Gaia and Porto are built into very steep sides of the river. Try to see the highlights and definitely opt for the water taxi back. We did that after the cruise was over and it’s quite an experience riding against the Douro’s current. “Guimarães” is another lovely excursion. We loved the city both times we were there.