ENTRE-OS-RIOS, Portugal – Under terraces of vineyards and olive groves in the hilly landscape of northern Portugal so alluring that the area has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, crowds of locals gathered to watch our boat weave through one of the five narrow locks on the Douro River.
Parents lifted the children over their shoulders while others greeted and cheered from a bridge over the lock as the Scenic Azure headed east toward the Spanish border. I watched the scene from the glassed-in wheelhouse of the boat and expressed surprise at the size of the crowd to the captain. Did all these people come just to watch us go through a lock?
“It’s like a party for them,” said Azure captain Paulo Jesus, who has been piloting ships on the Douro since 2012. “The Portuguese love to watch the boats.”
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After a 20-month hiatus caused by COVID-19, river cruising is back in the Douro Valley. And like the next fall harvest of the grapes that produce Portugal’s famous port wine, it brings an infusion of hope to the small villages along the river that rely so heavily on tourism.
Scenic Cruises and some of the other major river cruise lines resumed navigation on the Douro in July, although demand is still far from pre-pandemic levels. The Azure, which started sailing on the Douro in 2016, has a capacity of 96 passengers. Our 10-day sailing in early August had just 40 passengers – a mix of Americans and English – outnumbered by the 41 Portuguese crew.
Maria Andrada, Scenic’s general manager of operations in Portugal, who was on board for part of our navigation, said bookings on Azure for the remainder of this year’s Douro cruise season – which runs until ‘in November – are at about 50% of their capacity. Typically, she said, the boat is full.
“We are in the European Union, but each country has a different policy regarding COVID, which is very difficult when you set up an operation,” she said. “It was difficult to get passengers on the ships. But Andrada said Scenic expects full occupancy for its Douro crossings during the 2022 season, which is scheduled to start next March.
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Douro Valley: cobbled streets, hilltop castles
Our cruise started and ended in the picturesque town of Porto, on the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Douro River. Porto is the second largest city in Portugal; it is 195 miles north of the capital Lisbon.
From Porto, we sailed 130 miles east through five locks – crossing the border with Spain halfway through the trip – before turning around and sailing downstream to Porto.
The climate has changed radically during navigation. Porto’s proximity to the ocean makes it much more temperate during the hot summer months. Temperatures rose about 25 degrees Fahrenheit – sometimes reaching triple digits – as we cruised inland.
Along the way we stopped at several Portuguese towns in the Douro Valley where we walked through narrow cobbled streets, visited hilltop castles, walked through fish markets and paddled past the town of Pinhão on a two-hour kayak excursion.
One of the highlights was a day trip by bus from Azure to the historic Spanish city of Salamanca. We came across a wedding ceremony on Saturday at the 14th century Santa Maria Cathedral, with Castilian folk music and lots of confetti.
We were immersed in various facets of Portuguese culture through onboard lectures, language courses and cooking demonstrations – sausages and seafood are an integral part of Portuguese cuisine. I especially enjoyed a euphonic performance of the country’s famous fado music, characterized by its melancholy tunes and lyrics.
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“Wine culture is absolutely dominant here”
The Portuguese love their wine. They’ve been making it for about 2000 years. In 1756, the Porto Douro vineyards became the first wine region in the world to be legally demarcated, meaning that only genuine port can be produced here.
And they appreciate the fruits of their labor. According to the American Association of Wine Economists, the Portuguese are the world leaders in per capita wine consumption, drinking even more than the French.
Over 110 varieties of grapes are cultivated in the Douro River Valley. About half is used to make cognac-infused port, perhaps Portugal’s most famous export.
Port, which comes in red and white varieties, is usually sweet and served with dessert. It is best to sip it slowly because the brandy gives it a much stronger punch than the table wines produced in the region.
We visited several wineries, some of which have been family owned for centuries. I was surprised to learn that the “treading of the foot” – trampling the grapes on foot to extract the juice – is a tradition that still continues in some cellars.
While Portugal is known to be a football mad country, our cruise director didn’t hesitate when I asked him what was most important to the Portuguese – football or wine.
“Wine culture has been absolutely dominant here since pre-Roman times,” said Filipe Nunes. “The average Portuguese drink two glasses of wine a day, while football (soccer) only takes place once or twice a week.”
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COVID-19 protocols on board Scenic Azure
We had to pass three COVID-19 tests during the trip – one before boarding flights to Portugal, a quick test just before boarding the boat in Porto, and a test administered by nurses on board two days before. to go home. All passengers on the Scenic Azure had to have been vaccinated.
Our temperatures were checked every time we boarded the boat, and we were asked to wear masks throughout the trip, except for eating and drinking. During the guided tours, we observed that most of the locals wore masks, even outdoors.
Cruising on the Douro offers a more relaxed – and less crowded – experience than on the busier European rivers like the Danube, Rhine and Seine. While architecture tends to be more interesting in towns located on these rivers, the natural beauty of the Douro Valley is what makes it an attractive choice for travelers looking for a relatively quiet getaway.
Lounging on the deck and sipping a glass of port while slowly cruising along the hilly terrain teeming with terraced vineyards and quintas – shiny white farms with signs proclaiming the brand of wine produced on site – is never become monotonous.
“It feels like you are in the middle of nowhere,” said Andrada. “You can sail the Douro River and you don’t see another ship. You don’t see any buildings. You don’t see any cars. You are there alone watching the beautiful landscape.
Resources: Douro Valley, Portugal
Dan Fellner of Scottsdale is a freelance travel writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at https://global-travel-info.com.
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