Douro river cruise

Shimmering sparkle of the Douro


Getaway host, David Reyne discovers the highlights and hidden gems of Portugal’s Douro River as it winds its way through beautiful towns that have managed to preserve their distinctive culture.
Douro. It’s a word that sounds beautifully dozy. A name given to a river you’d expect to snake its way through the historic valleys and plains of Spain and Portugal in a most languid manner. This sparkling slick of shimmering delight appears to be dazed by the surrounds, soporific in demeanour and in no mood to be hurried but… don’t be fooled.
 
A truly exhilarating moment occurs as Scenic Azure rises to the full throttle to negotiate a narrow slice through plunging terrain of granite and schist. The current dashes forth in a torrent. The river narrows. It requires a glorious thrust of power to calmly and decisively navigate the channel between. It not only leaves me marvelling at the authority and effortlessness of Scenic Azure, it causes the ice blocks in my gin and tonic to dance and shimmy.
 
Our ship plies the navigable 208 kilometres of the river which spans the width of Portugal and, like the country itself, the Douro is part passion, part siesta. Like the feverishly fanned skirt of a flamenco dancer, the Douro teases. Then pleases. The Douro drains into the Atlantic at Porto, a city with a whiff of past grandeur and glory and a captivating essence of ruin. Shadowed alleys hint of forgotten conquests. Bells clang in cathedral towers. Staircases glistening with moss lead to the cobblestoned banks of the river.
 
Scenic Azure leaves Porto to head west. Tame, gently forested countryside gives way to more rugged terrain. The banks steepen. Occasional villages etched into the severe landscape swelter in the heat. We dock in Regua, a town which seems out of place. It’s a modern, concrete, bitumen and brickwork comparison to the Douro of the past. Multi-storey apartment buildings cast shadows upon the river.
 
Regua is best seen from the interior of the Douro Museum where the fascinating history of the back-breaking, heartaching determination of the wine producers, and the daredevil derring-do of those responsible for delivering wine across Douros rapids in shallow boats, comes to life.
 
Regua is the departing point for two fabulous Scenic excursions. One is to the Monastery of Tarouca, so dripping with gold leaf, the glow emanating from the entrance suggests the Good Lord is within. The other is to Mateus Palace, the fancy, stately home a certain generation of wine guzzling romantics remember as the one on the bottle of that romance diesel, Mateus Rose. I can picture the label now, obliterated by wax left from the candle thrust into the bottleneck once the lights were dimmed and the passion took hold.
We slip further west, swathed in magnificent luxury, cruising beneath rows of precipitous vineyards, past whitewashed farmhouses with tiled roofs the colour of sun damaged oranges, to dock at Pinhão. Here we drive a vertiginous route to a tiny village where time, rather than wait to stand still, marched off.

Provesende is where you’d expect to find Clint Eastwood riding in on horseback, an echoing whistle as his soundtrack. This is exactly the kind of place I’d like to tie my mule, kick off my spurs and soak in a tub of Provesende’s famed wine, hat on of course.

Eventually the opulent Scenic Azure purrs up against the border and we make a side trip into the Spanish city of Salamanca. Here the sun smooches the honey hued sandstone in such a manner, the buildings glow like a lipstick sunset earning Salamanca the title of The Golden City. This is home to one of the oldest and greatest universities on earth where Christopher Columbus had to bow before church appointed academics, convince them that God’s earth wasn’t exactly flat as preached, and ask their permission to prove them wrong.

Although we’ve arrived where the Portuguese length of the Douro flows to its ultimate ebb, it isn’t where this fascinating, sensory epic of a cruise comes to an end.

Just as the riches of the Douro Valley threaten to seep gloriously into the memory, Scenic Azure points her shining bow towards the rising sun to glide us back down the Douro once more. It’s like getting back to an interrupted dream.