The Douro River: One of Europe's Last Frontiers

We have long wanted to sail Portugal's river of history, the Douro, but time constraints meant we skipped the Lisbon part of Uniworld's cruise and flew direct to Porto, the second largest city in Portugal.

We have long wanted to sail Portugal’s river of history, the Douro, but time constraints meant we skipped the Lisbon part of Uniworld’s cruise and flew direct to Porto, the second largest city in Portugal. The other passengers are heading from Lisbon in coaches. Uniworld greets us at the airport as we flew in under their timelines and we are dropping off our bags and out exploring Porto before the middle of the day.

The scene around the river boat is busy and the colors as bright as Curacao or Copenhagen. We find another passenger, a Chattanooga realtor and watercolor artist Gini Thompson, already working on a painting of the scene around us. She later sends an image to show Physician’s Money Digest readers her impressions of Porto.

Top: the Technicolor city of Porto. Bottom: Gini Thompson’s watercolor.

We had read about the little rabelo boats that in the past brought the fresh wine down from the upper river so it could mature in the Porto lodges — they are seen in so many paintings but it is fascinating to see them flitting about like grasshoppers in the breadth of the Douro.

Boy! Porto is busy! We find San Diego harbor a sleepy scene but Porto is like Seattle or Vancouver, a frenzy of activity.

The colorful homes are not unlike Copenhagen’s but its people are friendlier and — a great boon to travelers – the city is less expensive.

Some European river cruises are a bit contrived. An interesting city is chosen as the lead destination, for example, and a coach drives passengers to it and ultimately moves on to a river port itself. But Uniworld’s Douro River cruise is a cruise created in heaven. The Douro runs for 557 miles all the way down from north-central Spain. It has its own fascinating history. The cruise has a reason for going upstream because all the vineyards are up there and there’s a reason for coming back down again because all the “lodges” that mature the port wine are down in Porto. And the river’s rapids have been tamed by a series of dams, all of which add to passengers’ interests and to their safety.

Furthermore, the entire river valley is a declared UNESCO World Heritage Site as are some of the individual jewels along the chain, including Guimaraes, Portugal’s first capital, and Salamanca in Spain, close to the river’s origins. And Uniworld is taking us there.

The Queen Isabel is, like all the river boats on the Douro, small. It has to be to get past the locks on this narrow river. With room for 118 passengers and a staff of 33, it has a useful sundeck and a small swimming pool. Like all Uniworld boats it has a popular complimentary coffee and tea bar and free internet and wifi access. Uniworld now leads the river boat industry with complimentary wine and alcohol, shore excursions and all gratuities including shore guides.

Uniworld does not own its boat on the Douro but rents it from DourAzul, an exclusive national company as does Viking and all other river boat corporations. A similar situation exists in Russia where a monopoly with strong national connections rules the rivers. This does not impact passengers although some who have made multiple Uniworld river cruises may feel Uniworld on the Douro does not quite have the feel routinely found on this boat collection.

The Queen Isabel does not have a self-service laundry but the laundry onboard is surprisingly inexpensive and once you’ve sailed with Uniworld you are qualified for a free bag of laundry per person every week. Cool! Hair dryers are provided as are robes and slippers. Dining is open plan. Excursions are offered in different degrees of activity including “Gentle Walking.” Uniworld pioneered the state of the art of the VoxBox communication system for shore excursion guides. Of the European river boat companies, Uniworld has been around the longest for Americans and probably has snagged the best English-speaking guides. There is value to staying with the same travel company. Subsequent cruises are offered with discounts and guests are made to feel special. They are. Repeat business is the life blood of any business especially the cruise industry.

There is no sailing at night on the Douro. Says our tour director, “We don’t sail at night. You get daylight savings. That way you can see all four UNESCO sights from this one cruise.”

The town of Regua comes up on the first day of sailing, a mere 17 miles short of Pinhao with guide books making the point those miles are the most attractive on the river. We are excited to know that soon we will be in the Douro Museum in Peso da Regua. The museum was created in 2008 in a government building put up by Portugal’s beloved Marquis of Pombal in 1756, the politician who did so much to help Lisbon recover from its earthquake of 1755.

The museum honors the history of port wine before dams tamed the Douro.

The Douro Museum is comfortable with passenger photography but neither the Livraria Lello bookshop nor the Bolsa Palace in Porto is that accommodating nor even, after a long coach trip, the Mateus Palace because it chooses, as a private building, to deny photography to its interior.

The Mateus Palace is a gingerbread-style baroque house with beautiful gardens built in 1745. It achieved fame when its promoter sold the rights of the palace image and its name to a Portuguese wine maker although no grapes are grown. If Palacia Mateus seems churlish to photographers, the Quinta da Avessada and its delicious Moscatels is the opposite, a hoot. Its owner also has a bakery in the nearby village of Favaios (and taught the Uniworld passengers how to bake bread). The village is on a plateau 2,000 feet high, the highest point in the Douro Valley. The pace is frantic at the Quinta da Avessada: music, singing, dancing, wine and at last fine country dining.

The dams are an interesting distraction on the voyage. The river and the locks are narrow and we soon see why the river boats on the Douro cannot be broad-beamed.

A trip into Salamanca in Spain gives us a chance to experience flamenco, to sample this busy, wild exciting dance. Said our tour director, “Whenever you see the dancer raise her skirt get ready to watch her feet!”

Uniworld realized if it tried to feed lunch to a group of 130 passengers in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Salamanca, even a city of 150,000 might not be able to handle it quickly. Uniworld’s solution was to give each passenger 15 € and make suggestions to spread the load. A neat gesture and it worked. Most of the passengers said they made a profit! We will have more to say about Salamanca and its famous university later.

We’ll have more to say about two other shore excursions, one to a hillside village Castelo Rodrigo that lies along the border with Spain. Its ruined castle has been a national monument since 1922 but it has produced its own wine since the Cistercian monks established the village in 1297. More famous is the historic town of Guimaraes, “the birthplace of a nation,” where, around the year 1128, the young 18 year-old Alfonso Henriques raised an army to battle his mother’s forces and those of the king of Leon and Castile. With his victory the boy won independence for a new nation, Portugal.

It really has been seeing this part of northern Portugal the easy way. How special to be delivered to attractions by boat or comfortable coach and even taken right to the door of what will interest Uniworld’s passengers. More than any river boat line, Uniworld caters to Americans. Its president is an American and knows his clientele and what might appeal to them.

Uniworld has its regular musicians who either match the age and culture of the passengers or the very opposite locals who provide the color of their own fada (the mournful folk music of Portugal that goes back to the 1820s).

There’s something very satisfying about coming back full circle for another night in town and a second impression of a great city. And it sure facilitates air travel when one flies round trip.

All photos by the authors.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.