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  • Writer's picture5 Senses CulinaryTours

Up River on Riviera

Updated: Aug 25, 2023

The Douro is one of the longest rivers in the Iberian Peninsula flowing west for 577 miles and draining into the Atlantic Ocean. It is a very important watershed throughout its course, and for 80 miles it forms the frontier with Spain. Over the years it has been dammed to control its wild behavior benefitting the population with hydro-electricity and flooding controls. One of the fascinating moments is when the tide comes in and you can literally see the push of the sea move up the river even though it is flowing down, it forms a mesotidal estuary. The Douro estuary features a salt wedge whose behavior is controlled mostly by the river inflow. During low river discharge periods the salt wedge is permanently installed; it is entirely pushed out of the estuary when the discharge is higher than that. You need to be aware of the tides, but any fisherman will know and be prepared heading out to sea. Though fleeting it is very interesting to watch if you are along its banks.

Porto is built on both sides of the Douro River, a stone’s throw from where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean. It is one of the oldest cities in Europe rich in history and culture. The Ribeira area along the northern riverfront with its pastel-colored houses and winds up cobblestone streets to the medieval parts of town; this is all a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996. Unique places like a former site of a Benedictine monastery, the São Bento Railway Station was inaugurated in 1916, most people are standing there looking up and its not to see the train schedule, it’s because of the amazing 20 thousand blue and white azulejo tiles with the scenes of the history of Portugal. And then Capela das Almas which has tiles on an entire side wall as well as its front façade, there 16 thousand tiles in all dating back to the 18th century, this is something you will only see in Portugal. Perched on a hilltop standing watch over the city is Sé Porto (Cathedral) from the 12th century. The terrace gives way to a magnificent view over a sea of red tile roofs that top every building. It also gives you easy access to the iconic arching iron bridge, Dom Luis which connects Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia. Besides being longest iron bridge at the time of its construction 1886, it is known for a student of Gustave Eiffel, Theophile Seyrig who designed the two-tier structure. And don’t miss Igreja de São Francisco, which looks rather plain on the outside, but step inside and you'll see gold in abundance; reportedly 800 pounds gilding wood carvings making up the columns, vaulted ceilings and walls of this church, which started to take shape in 1245. Coming out of the church, you are luckily right by the No.1 tram stop – nothing better than riding the vintage tram called Infante out to the beautiful Foz beachfront of Porto.

I think above all, this is a casual and easy walking city (with some good inclines).There are plenty of museums, music houses, theatres and monumental buildings. But you are not going to be rushing around not to miss any tourist attractions, because they are all right in front of you. Cafes are everywhere, for a few moments of reflection have a coffee or a lovely glass of Portuguese wine or port.

Remember this is the city that gave its name to Port wine with a long 300-year history with British wine merchants. The best wine tastings are in Vila Nova de Gaia, here the wine lodges are lined up along the river, where the barrels were unloaded, stored and aged before shipping. Though the narrow barco rabelo sailboats no longer race down Douro rapids laden with wine casks (now they use tanker trucks). But there are plenty afloat along the river to give the illusion. You cannot come to Porto without port tastings offered at all the lodges, do remember that port is a fortified wine…thus you will need to eat along the way. Three suggestions for you are: Enoteco 17.56, Uva by Calem, both have amazing views and excellent food….also must recommend going to Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalhau for the most delicious codfish croquette stuffed with PDO Serra da Estrela Cheese that just oozes! That to me is the essence of Portuguese cuisine. Even more so than the egg custard Pasteis de Nata, which I learned to make.

But what I was here for was a luxury cruise up the Douro Valley on the Riviera’s Douro Elegance, a beautiful sleek river ship awaiting its guests right on the Vila Nova de Gaia embankment. Though I arrived early I was warmly greeted, and my luggage was whisked on board. The interior was modern, my cabin spacious with a French balcony (some have full balcony with chairs), was very well designed, plenty of storage and interactive media with excellent Wi-Fi. Riviera posts the daily activities and times are on your TV screen, thus being green and save on printing. On this sleek floating hotel, we were facing a weeklong cruise punctuated by plenty of winery visits. Many people book hotels that have panoramic views to enjoy their well-deserved vacations, but on the MS Douro Elegance you have those panoramic views 24//7, changing to another beautiful setting from sunrise to sunset at a slow pace. The Douro roughly translates from Portuguese as “river of gold.” When the setting sun catches it right, you can see why. The waters gleam like liquid bullion bars. Nothing better than swirling the local nectar on deck watching the sun settle colorfully behind the hills.

The Douro is a much-laid back cruise – it has absolutely gorgeous views as you head into one of the world’s leading and oldest democratized wine regions. As with any river cruise you can do as much or as little as you would like. The delight of sailing the river is that you stop in towns along the river, and you can explore on your own or venture to unique places on well-organized excursions of historical importance. One of my favorite differences I had not come across before we had the same tour guides with us all week.

Out of all the rivers in Europe the Douro is probably the most dramatic scenic river. This is an immersion into almonds, olives and grapes once you leave the city behind. Pretty incredible are the cascades of vineyards anchored by olive or almond trees and further upriver closer to Spain is the cork territory. Your sailing takes you through deeply cut canyons, around sharp bends that were carved when the river was wild. Now there are five locks, the first built in 1965 and the largest is Barragem do Carrapatelo, a gravity dam with a single lift chamber. Plus, it is the highest rise in all of Europe at 187 feet.

The dining was beyond of my expectation and probably one of the only cruises that really offering true creative local cuisine. All of the wines offered were local wines as well. But you have choices there are additional entrées as well as an additional wine list if you couldn’t dine without you favorite Bordeaux. I was truly thrilled the first dinner was a Portuguese octopus dish that set the bar as far as cuisine – and they served a wine that was well paired. Bartenders knew your favored drink within a day. Both Hotel Manager, Salvador and Cruise Director, Kassima were the epitome of specialists going above and beyond to bond with fellow cruisers, keeping everyone comfortable. I personally found them to be charming asset for Riviera. Have to applaud Riviera River Cruises who truly excelled beyond my expectations.

For this sailing, who could not be impressed by so many UNESCO World Heritage sites, culture, history combined with all that unspoiled scenic beauty. From Renaissance architectural splendor, meticulously groomed wine terraces, prestigious wine cellars, sunset dinner surrounded by vines and even walking a small hilltop medieval town. We also had fabulous weather!! My favorite night was sleeping with the window open moored at pristine Barca d’Alva with nothing around us but birds chirping and trout jumping. Pretty much the pinnacle!

Do Not hesitate to sail on Riviera River Cruises! Casa Portuguesa Pastel do Bacalhau

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