The future is bright for river cruise holidays. Credit: Emerald cruises

Douro delights: Experience a river cruise with everything from wine to wildlife

Author: Lesley Bellew

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Emerald Radiance is back on Portugal’s river of gold. World of Cruising sailed on the cruise ship to review what Douro cruises are like post-Covid.

Red, gold and green vines weave a tapestry of autumn colour across the interlocking hillsides of the Douro Valley.

It’s a magical sight, and as Emerald Radiance glides past the centuries-old port estates of Northern Portugal – the oldest wine region in the world – we drink in the views as well as the local produce.

With the Marao mountains offering shelter from Atlantic winds, the Douro Valley’s hot, dry summers are ideal for vines.

And although unseasonal coolness made 2021 a less than vintage year, there is still cause for celebration – because river cruise ships have finally returned to the Douro after an 18-month pause.

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Captain Afonso Ribeiro, 72, has been at the helm of the 112-guest Emerald Radiance since her maiden sailing in 2017. And he stayed with the ship during her pandemic- enforced spell in dry dock, "to ensure everything was kept in top condition".

As a merchant seaman on cargo vessels, and a trawlerman in Canada, Captain Ribeiro has spent his working life aboard ship. But the Douro is the waterway closest to his heart – and to his home, near Porto.

"My crew are almost all Portuguese – we are a family and I like to look after them and my ship," he says. "When we came back on board, we hugged and I cried. I still cry."

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The captain’s warmth radiates throughout the ship. Greeting guests on arrival in Porto, tour guide Carolina Andrade, 23, is delighted to be back at work, while her senior colleague Miguel Costa, 27, is looking forward to sharing his vast knowledge of the Douro valley.

"We are so happy that people are returning to Portugal," he says, "and we love the fact that visitors from overseas want to come to Porto."

A historic tram ride is a great way to see Porto. Credit: Emerald Cruises

In Portugal’s second largest city, the starting point for our journey, most river ships dock on the Vila Nova side of the Douro. Emerald Radiance’s quiet berth on the Ribeira side – at a mooring owned by parent company Scenic – is a real bonus.

From here it’s easy to explore the hilly, cobbled streets lined with distinctive architecture and charmingly old-fashioned family-owned shops, bars and restaurants.

On our week’s cruise – sailing upstream to Vega de Terron, near the Spanish border, and then back to Porto – we marvel at mile upon mile of vines, fringed by olive and almond trees on rocky terraces that have been carved out by man over the centuries.

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Alongside whitewashed quintas (estate farmhouses) we spot giant signs bearing the names of legendary port producers – Sandeman, Dow, Cockburn’s, Taylor’s and Graham’s – and we become experts on the three Douro wine sub-regions.

To the west, high in the hills, lies Baixo Corgo, where relatively high rainfall and milder temperatures produce wines more akin to Vinho Verde. Then there is Cima Corgo, the centre of fine port production, where our cruise reaches its midway point at Pinhao.

Finally, there is Douro Superior in the east, the hottest and driest region, which produces excellent red table wines.

Captain Ribeiro on the bridge of Emerald Radiance. Credit: Emerald Cruises

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To get a feel for (and a taste of) how they do things here, we visit Quinta do Tedo, one of the first port producers in the region to implement sustainable agriculture. Here, grapes from 37 acres of vines are picked by hand and then pressed by foot – a tradition that guests staying in the Quinta’s accommodation can experience for themselves during late summer (note to self: book in for next year).

Later, at Quinta da Pacheca in the village of Cambres, we dine in a vast wine cellar bathed in golden candlelight.

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And then at Mateus Palace we admire the rose gardens alongside the baroque-style mansion that stars on the famous wine label (first produced in 1942, Mateus Rosé is just about to celebrate its 80th anniversary, although the wine is no longer produced on the palace estate).

Back onboard Emerald Radiance, lunch and dinner are naturally accompanied by plenty of the Douro’s finest, and over the course of a week we become devotees of the local crisp, fruity whites and rich, ruby reds.

Dining on Emerald Radiance is a joy, with enticing regional buffets and table-service choices that change every day. The waiters are super-efficient and their friendly banter adds to the warm atmosphere.

Take in the surrounding scenery and views as you cruise along the Douro. Credit: Emerald Cruises

The ship is immaculate, too, gleaming inside and out with polished granite, glass and chrome in all the public areas. Cabins are kept spotlessly clean and they’re very pleasant places to be, thanks to full-width floor-to-ceiling windows with electrically operated drop-down glass that maximises views and our connection with the river.

Not that we spend much time in our cabins. On a Douro cruise, the place to be is the sundeck, admiring views of the steep banks and green water, and marvelling at the huge locks that have tamed this once ferocious river since the 1950s.

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For the ship to pass through just one of these, 980,000 cubic feet of water must be drained – and it’s quite a spectacle as the captain eases us into position with a clearance of about six inches on either side.

Our cruise reaches its northern-most point at Vega de Terron, and from here we take a coach trip across the Spanish border.

Our destination is Salamanca, home to one of the world’s oldest universities, but first we drive through the Douro International Nature Park, craning our necks to see eagles and griffon vultures (they are around, though on this occasion we see only a solitary swooping red kite).

Drop-down windows maximize views of the river. Credit: Emerald Cruises

Then, under the bluest of skies, we enter La Dorada – the golden city – its ancient sandstone buildings seeming to glow in the sun.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ancient centre of Salamanca is pedestrianised and delightfully easy to explore. Don’t miss the university’s 16th-century facade with its intricate carvings (if you can spot a small frog, it is said to bring you good luck).

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The city also has not one but two cathedrals: the original 12th-century Catedral Vieja and the adjoining 16th-century Catedral Nueva, with a beautiful cupola that soars into the sky.

In the nearby Plaza de Anaya, a band dressed in outfits from Renaissance times entertains passers-by with traditional music.

It turns out they are actually medical students, and they tell us that poor scholars once played to earn money for food. In these more enlightened days, donations go towards helping the students travel to further their studies.

Salamanca offers two cathedrals and a traditional food market, perfect for solo exploration. Credit: Shutterstock

One day in Salamanca is not nearly enough to appreciate its beauty, and we all make private vows to return. But on this cruise the best is yet to come, and as Emerald Radiance turns round for the journey back to Porto, we discover why our itinerary is called ‘Secrets of the Douro’.

Back in the 1980s, construction workers on a dam project uncovered rock carvings in the Coa Valley, between the river and the Malcata mountains. Amounting to thousands of images of cows, horses, goats and deer, all etched into the rock, these have since been dated to between 12,000 and 24,000 years old.

During a 4x4 ride into the valley from the futuristic Museum of Art and Archaeology of the Coa Valley, our guide Antonio talks us through the history of the find. Had the dam project gone ahead, the drawings would have been lost forever.

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But after a national and international outcry, the Portuguese government halted it, and UNESCO enacted its fastest-ever classification to ensure this amazing discovery was saved for future generations.

We give thanks for that wisdom as we marvel at such intricate depictions, some drawn with long, thin lines but others made with broader, deeper marks using flints that must have been brought from hundreds of miles away.

The majestic scenery, the wines and our beautiful ship were enough to make this Douro cruise truly memorable. But to see such stunning evidence of man’s creative genius during the dawn of human cultural development – that was the headiest experience of all.

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