Team Select's Cruise Master and marketeer, Amy, recently discovered the beauty of Portugal's UNESCO-listed Douro Valley on a river cruise with Emerald Waterways, enjoying Port, Fado, and channelling her Inner Jane McDonald - read about her experiences here...
They call it the ‘Golden Valley’, and its river, ‘the Golden River’, although nobody knows for sure quite where the word Douro actually came from (there are three main schools of thought, each deriving its name from Roman, Germanic, or Celtic origins, highlighting the diversity of some of the region’s earliest influences). The city of Porto – the second largest in Portugal – sits at an elevated position at the river’s mouth, and it was here that our Douro river cruise experience began (and, sadly – like all good things – came to an end).
Until relatively recently, it was not possible to go on a river cruise along the Douro –and even now, the Spanish side cannot be traversed by a river ship, because of the lack of locks – unlike many of the other popular river cruise destinations of mainland Europe (my mum went on her first river cruise, along the Rhine, at just 18 months old!). It is thanks to the five locks and dams, which were built into the Portuguese side of the Douro between the 1950s and 1990s that made river cruising along the Douro possible, although travellers have long been aware of the scenic beauty of the region since the arrival of the railway to the Valley in the 1880s, and a substantial section of the Douro Valley was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. However, the views afforded of the Douro Valley from its waters are simply breath-takingly incomparable. Particularly from the comfort of your Panorama Balcony Suite, or the Sun Deck of the Emerald Radiance!
My friend Lauren and I were lucky enough to experience the Douro for a week’s cruise onboard the Emerald Radiance with Emerald Waterways. A sister brand to Scenic, they’re a relatively young river cruise line, with their first river ship launched in 2014, and the Emerald Radiance herself was launched just two years ago, and she’s still fresh and gleaming as if still new. (Interesting side note if, like me, you’re a bit of a river cruise geek: Emerald Waterways are one of the few river cruise lines to fully own and operate their own ship on the Douro; other river cruise lines’ ships on the Douro are in fact operated by DouroAzul, a Portuguese-based company which in fact owns most of the river’s cruising infrastructure.) The ship was featured in the first episode of the most recent series of the popular and (somehow) BAFTA Award-winning Channel 5 series, Cruising with Jane McDonald, and, whilst I’m not a TV critic, Jane the ‘Wakefield Wonder’ and national treasure did not quite do this magnificent ship the justice I feel it deserves! Our river cruise experience of the Douro and of Emerald Waterways was simply magnificent, and an unforgettable trip, with so many fond memories and wonderful experiences, both ashore and onboard.
Bom Dia Emerald Radiance!
Our journey began at an ungodly hour on Saturday 27th July with a taxi to Luton Airport, and possibly just two and a half hours sleep! It was an early flight – possibly the worst time of day to fly out of Luton – and I was anticipating awful queues at bag drop and security, so decided to set off about three and a half hours before our flight (rather than allowing for two hours), and whilst my plan to avoid queues was successful, breezing straight through, we were a little early for the bar and restaurant! Upon arriving at Porto, we were met by our Emerald Waterways transfer and taken to the ship, a short journey from the airport of about 20-30 minutes. With such an early start, we must have been amongst the first onboard (if not the first), and we were greeted by the friendly crew, including Alex, one of the tour guides, and the hotel director, Cornell, who quickly arranged for some pastries for us. We were immediately struck by the friendliness, warmth and professionalism of the team onboard, and this was something we enjoyed throughout our cruise. I’d seen an Emerald Waterways ship before at a river cruise conference – the Emerald Dawn, which cruises through the heart of central Europe on the Rhine, Main, Moselle and Danube rivers – and the glossy, modern style onboard was instantly familiar to me, with the trademark Emerald Waterways’ chandeliers of spherical spikey glass that hang down from the ceiling, and the vast expanse of panoramic views, and glass and mirrors enhancing the ship’s airiness. However, the Emerald Radiance is built for the Douro and is smaller and more intimate than her sister Star Ships built for the rest of the rivers of Europe; she is just 89m in length with 56 cabins for a total capacity of 112 guests, rather than 135m long for 180 passengers in 92 cabins. Blessed with the Mediterranean climate of Portugal, there is no need for a retractable roof above the swimming pool, and instead the Emerald Radiance boasts a serenity pool on her Sun Deck, which I can personally attest was an ideal place to keep cool and refreshed under the sun as we cruised along the Douro! Like the ship, the pool was small and inviting. (You can view our ship tour here.)
Once we could check in from 3pm, having spent a very relaxed morning enjoying the light lunch in the Horizon Lounge and a brief snooze on a sun lounger, we were soon shown our cabin, an Emerald Panorama Balcony Suite on the Horizon deck (conveniently close to the lounge/bar!). Like the rest of the ship, the room was modern and well-appointed, featuring twin beds, a flat-screen TV (which has Bluetooth for playing music in the cabin), plenty of mirrors (which also made the most of natural light for applying make-up), and a chic bathroom featuring a walk-in shower that was a comfortable size, and toiletries. The highlight, of course, was the wonderful view from the floor-to-ceiling panorama window which could be opened to allow for plenty of fresh air, effectively transforming the sitting area by the window into a balcony! I loved enjoying a quick pre-dinner drink while getting ready, soaking up the incredible views from those chairs by our panorama balcony window.
The crew's passion and pride in their country was as evident as their dedication to excellent customer service
I wonder what our cabin steward, Bruno, thought of our cardboard Jane McDonald face masks, which we’d left in our cabin. But he seemed to join in with the joke, putting the masks on our pillows when we returned to bed on the first night. This was just one of the small, personable touches a member of crew did during our cruise which put a smile on our faces, and made our cruise so great. Likewise, I was touched when I found that all the cruise menus had been printed out and put in my cabin after I’d mentioned to our waiter João that I’d forgotten to take photos of the previous few nights’ menus. These are just a couple of the small gestures that we personally experienced, but there’s so much more that goes behind the scenes too, and everything worked seamlessly like clockwork. The Emerald Radiance boasts a crew to guest ratio of 1:3, which – in addition to the lower guest capacity – added to the intimate ambience onboard. Most of the crew are Portuguese, and their passion and pride in their country was as evident as their dedication to excellent customer service. Guests were encouraged to get to know the crew, and there was a ‘name game’ competition to get to know each of the 38 crew members’ names. Hand on heart, this was easily the friendliest cruise I’ve gone on, from the top to the bottom, and all members of the crew were approachable. With river ships being far smaller than ocean ships, and the bridge easily viewable on the Sun Deck, there is always a natural curiosity about what the Captain’s doing, and the Captain onboard, Afonso (or, ‘The Fonz’), was happy to let people pop in to the Wheelhouse, and ask him questions. The Cruise Director, Natalia, also very kindly agreed to let me interview her. When one of the ship’s First Mates slipped and broke her arm, many of the guests were concerned and asked after how she was doing. The guests themselves were a mixture of English-speaking nationalities: a few Brits, some Aussies, Americans (including a large group of about 20, who were apparently ‘Jojo’s Cruising Gang’ and enjoying their 23rd Annual Cruise, according to T-shirts worn on the first day), and Canadians. Generally, most of the guests were in the 50+ age bracket, but were amiable and easy to talk to, especially when discussing the shared experiences of the river cruise.
And what experiences! Whether onboard or ashore, we were treated to some fun, insightful, interesting, and just generally wonderful experiences. Our first introduction to the Douro river cruise experience was a sunset cruise through Porto, sailing under the iconic double-decked Ponte de Luis I and past its historic Ribeira quarter on one side and the myriad Port wine cellars of the Vila Nova de Gaia on the other, with a glass of white Port in hand. A week later, Lauren and I were enjoying some Mateus wine and dinner at a bar by the Luis I Bridge when we saw the Emerald Radiance pass us; to say we wanted to be back onboard is an understatement!
No Wonder They Call It The Golden Valley!
Our first full day onboard, the Sunday, was a visual delight of the Douro Valley’s glorious landscapes, as we cruised for most of the day. Cruising began early in the morning (6.30am, according to the Programme, not that we noticed as we were sound asleep, and even slept through the first lock at ten to eight), as river ships on the Douro are not allowed to sail overnight, and are generally docked – at the latest – by 9pm. However, this affords the unmissable opportunity of fully appreciating the magnificent views. For many people, land on both sides rather than vast expanses of ocean makes river cruising preferable to ocean, and the Douro river does not disappoint. I might even go as far as to argue the Douro river offers the most scenic river cruising in Europe. From the vantage point of the waters, you’re surrounded on both sides by the mighty hills of the Douro Valley. These ancient hills are luxuriantly green, and they tell the tales of centuries of human interaction and agriculture, inhabited even for thousands of years, even before the Romans. Some of the earliest legacies of mankind amongst these hills can be spotted with traditional stone walls and strange hilltop stone carvings. The vineyards for which the region is so famous are stacked in terraces in defiance of the steepness of the hills, which no doubt would’ve given settlers many challenges over the years. Yet the vineyards, the low stone walls, and the occasional chapel or quinta (farmhouse), which almost seem to cling, showcase how nature and mankind have worked beautifully together to enhance the ever charming scenes we enjoyed as we cruised along the Douro. Sometimes, we would spot small villages at the bottom of hills, with beaches by the river banks, where locals would be swimming or playing water sports, waving cheerfully. As the Douro cuts through these ancient hills, it continually wends through a twisting path, with many river bends, each one inviting yet another magnificent view. At times, the river was almost dramatically narrow. But always breath-taking. Add to this picture a light breeze, azure skies, and a refreshing Aperol Spritz or Super Bock in hand, and you might as well be imagining heaven, or something like it. No wonder they call it the Golden Valley!
In the afternoon, we watched the cooking demo in the Horizon Lounge, where the Executive Chef Nuno Gomes and the Pastry Chef Fernando Garrido showed us how to make Portugal’s most famous tasty treat, Pastel de Nata (from which I am already exhibiting withdrawal symptoms). This was a fun demonstration which also included some interaction with guests, who were invited to try their hand at pressing pastry into the tins, and a couple of plucky volunteers (including myself) attempted to out-whisk the maestro Nuno. It’s fair to say that my attempts at whisking the pastry were pathetic as (we shall see again later) I have the arms/upper body strength of a kitten, and am much more used to an electric whisk to make up for my shortcomings! That, and I’m not a professional chef. However, I got a signed chef’s hat for my efforts, so it wasn’t a total loss. What was possibly more exciting was that afterwards, we had a galley tour, which was a surprise. I’ve seen a galley on an ocean ship, and even the galley of an unfinished river ship whilst in the dockyard, but it was really interesting to see a working galley on a river ship. To say that it must be cosy for 8 members of staff working in the kitchen would be putting it mildly, yet despite this, the kitchen team consistently delivered delicious meals onboard. The first dinner was a buffet, as were all breakfasts and lunches (although you could order steak, salmon or grilled chicken breast from your waiter if you preferred), but after that first night, dinners were all waiter-service, with a set menu for the Captain’s Welcome Gala Dinner, and a la carte the rest of the week. There would always be a choice of a local treat, for lunch and dinner. We also enjoyed an al fresco Portuguese Barbecue on deck as we cruised one day. Nuno was always a bit of a feeder when he was at the carving station or the barbecue: ‘one more!’ The ice creams were absolutely delicious, and it was an extra special treat when Innes, one of the bar tenders, brought everyone up a bowl of lemon sorbet on the Sun Deck one afternoon whilst cruising. (For those who are wondering, wines, beers and soft drinks are included with lunch and dinner onboard Emerald Waterways, and there are drinks packages available to buy onboard. However, the one Lauren and I were considering as potentially most suitable would’ve been around €22.90 a day, and – as it turned out – the drinks prices are so reasonable onboard, we didn’t spend that much in total.)
The cookery demonstration was just one activity offered onboard which proudly showcased Portugal’s culture. During my interview, Natalia the Cruise Director said that those activities which shared Portuguese culture with guests were amongst her favourite experiences on offer, and I think it’s fair to say that they were amongst our highlights, too. That morning, there was also a cork presentation and workshop – although this was the one activity which required signing up, as there were only spaces for about 30 guests – and a Portuguese lesson in the Horizon Lounge on another.
Lauren and I both enjoyed the tile painting class (as seen on Cruising With Jane McDonald, with the same local lady showing guests how to paint tiles), where we attempted to steady our hands and follow the stencil outlines neatly for our very own azulejo tiles, and – of course – the Port cocktail demonstration. Wilson, the chief bartender, and his team (Innes and Filipa), showed us how to make Pale (a simple mixture of white Port wine and tonic water, and flavoured with orange peel) and Pink Lemonade (this time using Rose Port Wine with tonic water and sweet & sour, and flavoured with a lemon slice), giving various volunteers the chance to have a go at making their own. Plus, with the opportunity to win a bottle of Port, I volunteered – along with an Aussie named Burt – to take part in a Port tasting challenge. Blindfolded, we were given seven different glasses, and told to guess which were Port (and which of those were white, rose, or Tawny). I think I can still taste the first two I had: olive brine (turned out to be water with salt, so I was close), and this disgusting, textured, spicy concoction, which was later revealed to be tomato juice. By the time I got to the Ports, I wasn’t really sure of my taste buds any more! However, it was all worth it for the prized bottle of Port.
There were, of course, other activities available; light stretching exercises or yoga on the Sun Deck (usually while we were still asleep!), I had a sneak peak at the gym (that was about as far as my actual exercising went onboard), and Rute, the Activity Manager, usually had some fun quiz in store for us most evenings (we won two bottles of Mateus after two tie-breaks). One night, they showed The Greatest Showman on the onboard cinema by the pool; the Captain told us he had seen it ‘many times’. It was nice to see many of the other passengers taking part in the post-dinner activities (which also included a Fado concert in the Horizon Lounge on the penultimate night), as sometimes, on occasion, river cruise ships can become quite quiet after dinner. The Emerald Radiance, on the other hand, had a sociable and lively atmosphere.
Let’s Go Lamego! – And other adventures ashore
What the Douro lacks in big-name cities (like the Danube or Rhine), it makes up for in rural and small town charms, and gives you a tantalising taste of Portugal’s culture (and, of course, its famous Port and wine products). Furthermore, unlike the busier rivers of central Europe, the Douro has yet to become overpopulated, and its villages and small towns retain an authentic charm of their own, without many other hordes of tourists. While some of the excursions tend to require travel by coach (particularly the two-hour transfer to Salamanca in Spain), rather than simply a steps away from the ship, most of the places we visited weren’t more than 20-30 minutes away, and the Emerald Waterways-liveried coaches were modern and comfortable, and our tours were more than worth the journey!
After spending much of the day sailing on Sunday, by about 4pm, we had arrived at Pinhão, our first port of call, where we’d stay overnight. It’s a small, yet charming town, which is surrounded by vineyards; even the azulejo tiles in its railway station depict harvesting the grapes. Our first tour set off from where we were docked on Monday morning, where we all headed in smaller groups to the vineyards of Quinta do Tedo, a small Port producer of just about 50 hectares which boasts quality over quantity. There was the option to do ‘active walking through the vineyards’ (funnily enough, we didn’t fancy that!), or the option to learn about Port production at the vineyard, before all groups reunited for a Port wine tasting. Our local guide was fabulous, and it was really enjoyable learning about the vineyard and the cellar’s history (it dated back to the 18th century), the differences between a Vintage and LBV, how Port is made, and even a demonstration of how the grapes are still picked and stomped by foot. Apparently, it leaves your feet purple for about a fortnight! Although there were local guides, the Cruise Director Natalia, and the other tour guides (Alex and Marta), always joined us on each of the three busses, which was a nice touch of continuity and coordination with the ship.
After our morning at Quinta do Tedo, we spent most of the afternoon cruising until we docked at Vega de Terrón, just on the Spanish border, which meant that we had already travelled the stretch of navigable river by Monday evening. For us, Vega de Terrón was our starting point for the Spanish city of Salamanca, one of the highlights of the trip, and the only full-day excursion. Most of the excursions are in the morning (ideal before it gets too hot under the July/August sun), while afternoons are often spent cruising, leaving opportunities for relaxing and enjoying the onboard activities. Luckily, we felt that most of the morning starts weren’t unreasonably early, so this really was a relaxing yet engaging itinerary, which was well balanced.
Salamanca is a beautiful, beautiful city, that’s been kept clean and well-preserved. Its buildings are almost uniformly etched in golden sandstone, giving rise to its nickname ‘the Golden city’ (another ‘Golden’ reference on this cruise; you’d think it had inspired Kylie’s most recent studio album!). In many ways, Salamanca is the Spanish equivalent of Oxbridge, as it’s arguably best known for its University, and its thousands of students give the city a youthful vibe – all through the year, as the university remains open even during the summer. Admiring the façade of the old University, which dates back to the early 12th century, is one of the highlights of the tour, particularly once you’ve found the legendary ‘frog’ that’s supposed to bring you luck. This frog is just one of the quirky carvings the city is known for, as the ‘new’ cathedral features an astronaut and a dragon eating an ice cream; cheeky additions to the archway of one of the entrances which were added when the cathedral had a bit of a renovation in the 1990s. We went in through the ‘new’ cathedral, which was built in the fashionable Gothic style in the 15th century, but then we continued through into the ‘old’ cathedral, which dates back to the 10th, and was built in the typical Romanesque style of its time. The city in the 15th century was enjoying a prosperous golden age, and was rich enough to build the new cathedral, but refused to get rid of the old, because its artwork was considered too beautiful. Today, the old cathedral is held for special occasions, such as weddings. The most striking and memorable artwork in the old cathedral was its depiction of Heaven and Hell, which – you might recall if you watched Cruising with Jane McDonald – was designed to ‘keep you on the straight and narrow’, with those going to Heaven shown fully clothed, and those condemned to Hell, depicted naked. Our tour of Salamanca also showed us the famous Shell House, built by a man to celebrate his sudden upwards mobility when his child married into one of the country’s most prominent aristocratic families, but before we enjoyed all this history, we visited possibly the one exception to the golden sandstone rule: the Central Market. Unlike virtually everywhere else, the Central Market stuck out because its upper half was red brick, and it had dark panes on its windows. I always enjoy visiting markets, especially when they’re as bustling as the one in Salamanca, and even more so when I’m given a bit of smoked ham and local cheese to try! After our tour, we enjoyed a bit of free time, before returning to a square by the cathedral where we treated to a performance by a traditional tuna band (all of whom pretty much featured in Cruising with Jane McDonald, and some of whom may have been triggered by flashbacks when I put on my Jane McDonald mask for a photo opportunity as they didn’t ask me to join them for a dance!). Continuing the age-old tradition, these young medical students perform traditional songs (and you could buy their CD for €10!).
By the time we returned from Salamanca, the Emerald Radiance had changed docking position to Barca D’Alva, back on the Portuguese side, and our return journey had officially begun. It’s a small, but beautiful, stretch of river that’s cruised along the Douro, and it’s bookended by two fascinating, historical cities. The pace of the rest of the cruise is slower for the ship itself, but our days were just as filled with activities onboard and ashore, as well as plenty of time for relaxing. We didn’t sail again until early on Wednesday morning, and then only for a very short time; I think I even slept through it! Once we did dock, we’d arrived at the small village of Pocinho, where Emerald Waterways offer two choices of very different activities: kayaking on the Sabor River, a tributary of the Douro about 20 minutes’ drive away, or a Rock Art Tour, where guests visit the Côa Museum and Workshop, as the Côa Valley was the site of some fascinating prehistoric artwork. These were two very different options, not only from each other, but were unique offerings from the other excursions available, which helped make sure that every day was different along the Douro. On some rivers, guests will joke about ‘ABC’, but there was great variety to be enjoyed. The Douro’s short stretch of navigable is deceptive in its variety! Lauren and I chose the EmeraldACTIVE option, the kayaking, which is complimentary but is restricted to just 30 guests, so we made sure that we signed up as soon as possible. I’d never kayaked before, but we were told that no experience was necessary. Arm muscles and upper body strength (stronger than a kitten’s, anyway), were probably more useful than experience. Nevertheless, Lauren and I survived, without capsizing, even if we did end up getting ever slower and further behind, and the promise of beer waiting for us at the picnic, which helped spur us on towards the end, turned out to be just fruit juice.
Wednesday was a busy day; after burning all those calories kayaking, it was followed by both the Portuguese barbecue on deck and the Port Cocktail demonstration in the afternoon. We had more gastronomic delights awaiting us in the evening, for the one exception to dinner onboard. Quinta da Pacheca is a family-owned vineyard which is not only known for its excellent wines, but for its innovative B&B, offering guests the chance to sleep overnight in a giant wine barrel (Lauren and I have already decided to return!). Here, we enjoyed a rural dinner experience with live entertainment in the old wine cellar, and it was fabulous. Almost as fabulous as I was at karaoke when we were back onboard the ship.
During our dinner, the ship had sailed to Regua, the streets of which were lit up with decorations in anticipation of their Douro festival held in August. This was our penultimate stop, and on Thursday, we set off for the small town of Lamego (others went on the optional tour of Mateus Palace). It was in this town, that the ascension of Portugal’s first King, Afonso Henriques, was first announced, but Lamego is arguably best known for its stunning Shrine of Our Lady of the Remedies. While the exact numbers of steps tends to differ – the official answer online is 686 – its many series of 17th-century staircases ascends devoted Pilgrims (ideally on their knees) both spiritually and physically to the hilltop Shrine, which overlooks the town from high above. Luckily (unlike Jane McDonald), we took the bus up to the top, and Natalia gave us a tour of the famous church, which was beautiful in its Baroque style. We were then free to either get back in the bus and take the easy way down or go down via the staircases, before enjoying some free time. Going down the staircases isn’t too bad (particularly as there was plenty of shade on half of them), and you’re certainly rewarded with brilliant views of the town below, and the equally brilliant azulejo tiles depicting the life of Our Lady. Having enjoyed so many beautiful tiles, it was only fitting that we painted our own on the ship as we cruised back to Porto, our final call.
As we had begun, so we ended back at Porto, staying overnight here for the final two nights before disembarking on the Saturday. On Friday, our afternoon was free while those who opted to go to Guimarães enjoyed the one afternoon tour on the cruise. We went on our final tour with Emerald Waterways in the morning, joining Alex the tour guide on the Porto Active Walking Tour (the alternative was a Panoramic Porto city tour, but we felt we’d get to see more the city by foot). Portugal’s second-largest city is as rich in history as its capital, and dates back over millennia, before even the Romans. Alex was an incredible tour guide with a keen interest in history, but also made it engaging and interesting, and had a knack of bringing the streets of the middle ages to life. We learnt more than just notable buildings, we discovered how the Napoleonic Wars, the flight of the Portuguese royal family, and tensions between Royalists and the (ultimately successful) Constitutionalists brought about Portugal’s first Constitution in 1834, with a great deal of influence from Porto’s powerful Port wine producers. We learnt how the Bishop of Porto had many different challenges to his supreme power, including from the King. The streets of Porto are steep and cobbled, but there’s so much history to tread, and lots of beautiful buildings to admire. Particularly from some excellent vantage points which offered great views of the city roofs, and the river down below, where we could spot the traditional rabeiro boats, which were inspired by Viking longships.
An incredible cruise which went beyond my expectations
But sadly, all good things come to an end, and all that remains of my Douro cruise is a ridiculous amount of photos and film, a bottle of Port, a slightly dodgily painted azulejo tile, and so many wonderful memories of what was an incredible cruise which went beyond my expectations. I knew the landscapes would be picturesque, but they blew me away with their beauty. The tours were brilliant, with excellent guides (both local and from Emerald Waterways), and offered an interesting variety, as did the onboard activities. It was a fabulous way to dive into Portugal and enjoy its culture, its natural beauty, its history, and its cuisine. Salamanca, too, deserves its nickname, ‘the Golden City’. The ship was beautiful, and it was familiar to me as I’d previously visited the Emerald Dawn, but the crew onboard the Emerald Radiance truly brought the cruise alive, and were absolutely top-notch. The service onboard (and during the tours) made the cruise, and I cannot recommend a Douro cruise with Emerald Waterways strongly enough.
If you would like to find out more about cruising the Douro or enjoying a river cruise with Emerald Waterways, contact our cruise specialists today
01234 326 758
Douro river cruise facts:
Overall length: 557 miles, making it the Iberian peninsula’s third-largest river (after the Tagus and Ebro). The Douro flows through both Spain and Portugal; it rises in Spain, but its last 130 miles are in Portugal, and it’s this Portuguese section which has been navigable for larger shipping (including river ships) since the 1990s.
Locks: On a Douro river cruise, you’ll sail through five locks with hydro-electric power-stations, which were built between the 1950s and 1990s; it’s these locks which enable river cruising on the Portuguese section, although of course their primary purpose was to generate hydro-electric power, and to encourage commercial traffic on the river. The first lock to be built on the river was on the Carrapatelo Dam, and the difference in the water lock of the lock is about 35m, making it one of the highest dams in the world! This was the second lock we cruised through (having slept through the first on the way out, although we did see it on our return journey!). Thanks to the locks, the level of the Portuguese stretch of the Douro has been raised to give it a consistent depth of just over 12 ft.
Duration of river cruises: Our river cruise was 8 days/7 nights as a round trip from Porto, which is the standard duration of a river cruise. Some longer itineraries of about 11 days/10 nights will include a couple nights’ land stays at either Madrid or Lisbon, before transferring guests to their ship in Porto. With only 130 miles of the Portuguese stretch of river being navigable, river cruise itineraries will generally visit many of the same places, with highlights including Lamego (famous for its baroque Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies, which we visited from the town of Regua), and the Spanish ‘Golden City’ of Salamanca (ships usually either dock in Vega de Terrón just on the Spanish side of the border, or Barca D’Alva on the Portuguese). Additionally, river cruises will also likely include the charming village of Pinhão (best known for the traditional blue-and-white azulejo tiles on its railway station, as well as being a great place to visit some of Portugal’s best producers of Port wine, and you simply can’t do a Douro river cruise without a visit to a Port producer!), the ancient city of Guimarães, which is often called the ‘cradle city’ or ‘birthplace of the Portuguese nationality’ (and Portugal’s first King, Afonso Henriques), due to its role in the foundation of Portugal, and – of course! – the instantly recognisable Baroque palace of Mateus. On our cruise, visits to Mateus and Guimarães were offered as optional extras (for €38pp and €44pp respectively), although if you have your heart set on going to Mateus, be sure to snap it up quickly, as the Palace itself sets restrictions on group numbers.
Time of year: The Douro cruise season generally runs from March to November, with some sailings in December (for 2020, Emerald Waterways will be sailing between April and November), with the most popular months to cruise being the springtime months of May and June, or during the harvest of September. The less popular months – the shoulder seasons of March to early May, or November, and the mid-summer months of July and August – may be preferable for those looking for the best value pricing or even some cheeky deals, although of course the pricing reflects that the weather is considered to be less advantageous, as it’s potentially cool and rainy in the shoulder seasons, or very hot in the Douro region in July and August. We cruised at the very end of July and beginning of August, but we found the weather to not be too uncomfortable overall, but we definitely got caught out with sunburn a couple times when we were not as thorough as we should have been. There was often a nice breeze on the sun deck when we were sailing, and thank God for air conditioning!
Time difference: Most of the river cruise is in Portugal, which is the same time zone as the UK. However, excursions to Salamanca cross the border into Spain, an hour ahead. Emerald Waterways keep to Portuguese time, so there’s no need to change your watches for one day, although you should probably check your phone isn’t set to automatic time changes!