Meera Kamra-Kelsey, October 2015
Two landmark birthdays and a special anniversary to mark, we booked a Douro River cruise in Portugal on an acclaimed line well over a year in advance. We got the last available balcony stateroom. Seemed early but reasons became clear later.
European river cruising is wildly popular as a relaxed way to cruise and see places. We had shelved Portugal to visit later. It was mildly interesting as seemed mainly about the Algarve and us not into beach vacations. Also thought river cruises would be sedentary and we’d consider later in life. Wrong on both counts.
Located on the Iberian Peninsula, it is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and Spain with whom a love/ hate relationship has long existed. Attacked and occupied over the centuries by Celts, Romans, Goths, Spaniards, Moors, Crusaders, even Napoleon. During WWII, Dictator Antonio Salazar was pals with and admired Hitler and Mussolini, but remained neutral. Borders were sealed.
Portugal was a major seafaring colonizer of history, seeking new lands and trade. Magellan accurately postulated the earth was not flat and named the Pacific Ocean. Vasco da Gama set out for India and Pedro Alvares Cabral for Brazil. Portuguese explorers traded with and colonized Goa, Malacca, Macau, East Timor, Angola, Sao Tome, Mozambique, Brazil and possibly reached as far as Newfoundland and Labrador. As a result, the population of Portugal is ten million but several hundred million worldwide speak Portuguese. Those of us who speak some Spanish can understand a little written Portuguese but are lost in the spoken ‘sh’s. Kids learn English as a second language, so there is welcome help for tourists.
This is a Euro-employing member of the European Union, currently in a serious financial crunch. Burgeoning debt, high taxation and unemployment, bailouts, lack of confidence in either of two Socialist political parties. But public spending has provided modern infrastructure and people seem positive, preferring to focus on the country’s strengths of tourism, viticulture, cork, olives and ceramics.
UNESCO World Heritage sites are selected for cultural or natural significance. Many are located in Portugal. UNESCO has also named the Portuguese music genre Fado as culturally unique and significant. Sung by a skilled individual accompanied by musicians on guitar, often a Portuguese version resembling a lute. Lyrics are mournful, evocative of a tough life at sea or in the field.
Azulejos or decorative ceramic tiles are ubiquitous. Individual or in panoramic murals, historic or modern, predominantly blue, white and yellow. Inside or on outer walls of all types of structures, residential, public or business. They tell tales, record history, culture, regulate temperature and reflect the wealth of owners. Due to UNESCO designations and to attract tourism, much renovation is underway but most is stalled for lack of financial resources.
We began with two days in the largest, beautiful city of Lisboa (Lisbon), population about 550,000. It lies on the Tagus River and the Atlantic. Everyone talks of the earthquake, tsunami and fire of 1755 which destroyed and after which Lisbon was gloriously rebuilt.
Some neighbourhoods we experienced – Baixa is all business, Bairro Alto is cafés, entertainment, nightlife and superb people watching. Alfama is the oldest district, hilly, once housing many fishermen and for a time, the Jewish Quarter. The district of Belem is famous for its namesake tower, other seafaring monuments and gorgeous architecture of Jeronimos Monastery. Elsewhere, elaborate limestone and basalt sidewalks, tree-lined wide public spaces, architectural influence of all occupiers and fun graffiti on buildings awaiting renovation.
En route to Porto by bus, we had a day in Coimbra. Another UNESCO site, a venerable old university, a spectacular library, its own version of Fado and quirks.
Students walk about the University carrying or wearing a black cape over black lower clothing and white tops. These capes were originally introduced to equalize the social classes. Now rife with riotous meaning, they are never laundered, personalized with fabric badges on the inside (think scout or guide badges) and may be slit strategically along the bottom, all indicating good wishes of family, friends and lovers.
The 18th century baroque Joanina Library houses rare manuscripts in a gilded, art-laden building. Tables and shelves are of exotic wood and marquetry. Sadly, the tomes are tasty to insects and the building is often open for tours. An invisible secret opening known to few humans, allows bats entry to feast on bugs in the night. The lovely wood tables are covered overnight to protect from inevitable leftovers!
Our river vessel was moored on the south shore of the Douro River at modern Vila Nova de Gaia across from Porto where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean. Six engineering marvel bridges connect the cities over the river, essentially uniting them. Hard to miss for signage, both cities house ‘Port Lodges’. Renowned names such as Sandeman, Taylor, Graham and others are here but vineyards and processing facilities called Quintas are upstream. A huge caped and hatted Sandeman ‘man’ holding a glass of ruby red on a hillside is a nod to Coimbra University capes and ultra important port wine.
On the first evening, we enjoyed a short lovely, leisurely cruise, returning to moor in Porto. Pre-‘blood’ waxing gibbous moon, bridges, rabelo gondolas that once transported barrels of port, reflected lights and buildings. Snapping away from our balcony, I swung my camera over to show husband a pretty scene. Slipping from my hand through a 3- inch opening between glass and metal, it made a wee inaudible splash in the dark water two levels below. A convenient point-and-shoot that fit in a pocket, been around the world, with attached strap obviously not around my wrist. All was not lost as I had already downloaded some snaps and husband had a small video camera able to take passable stills. Snap-happy pals will imagine my shock and commiserate. The Douro ate Coimbra!
Central Porto is another UNESCO site, with narrow cobbled streets, tile murals, cathedrals, castles, monasteries and pretty pastel or tile-fronted residential buildings. We enjoyed our first visit to a port wine lodge, later followed by a delectable feast of local foods accompanied by Fado at an 11th century monastery.
Photo Log: By Meera Kamra-Kelsey
River of Gold:
For most of the next week, we sailed upstream then back on the Douro River as it alternated between wide and impossibly narrow. We entered and executed three locks including one at 35 meters deep is one of Europe’s deepest. Our vessel just fit inside the locks. Topside shade structures and upper half of the wheelhouse are hydraulically collapsed during lockage to fit the lock. The captain pilots via a skylight in the roof of the wheelhouse! Lock side wall were inches from our balcony. Aha, that explains the vessel’s relatively small size and just 53 guest cabins.
Our vessel was built near Porto just to cruise the Douro and will never leave this river. During a later tour of the wheelhouse, we learned all equipment is state-of-the-art and all navigation is manual. Many variations in the width and depth of the river deem auto-pilot impossible. We were just 104 passengers mostly from North America, the UK and Australia, ranging in age from their 40s to 70s, one honeymooning couple, a few celebrating other life landmarks. An excellent chef and support in the compact galley laid our scrumptious local and international specialties and 100% on-board baked goods every day. We met for daily briefings, occasional lectures and local cultural presentations in the comfortable lounge where Luis also tickled the ivories nightly. Three dedicated coaches and tour guides matched our progress by road and we enjoyed daily excursions.
Spectacular vistas, soaring granite gorges, vineyards and olive groves covered the slopes all around us. Vines are planted to the top of hillsides along painstakingly constructed granite terraces. Harvesting is manual. Some machinery was visible on hills but most harvesters climb, cut and carry their juicy loads. Our timing was good to see some of this as well as early processing. Vines were beginning to turn autumn hues, lovely at sunset. Most grapes are now sorted, tested for sugar content, stemmed and macerated mechanically. It is too financially crucial an industry to abide much variation.
The ‘terroir’ or combination of soil, topography and climate is perfect for specific wines produced here. Port is the most produced and best known wine of the Douro Valley though excellent table wines and moscatel (a sweet wine, not the erst-cheapie brown-bagger) are produced in some zones. White port is made from white grapes and ruby from red varieties. After crushing and addition of yeast, fermentation is halted between one and three days later, before most natural sugars have been converted to alcohol. The halting agent is ‘neutral’ brandy or aguardiente distilled from grape skins and stems. They use every little bit! Aging white port makes it darker, aging ruby port makes it tawny. Early aging can be in steel or French oak barrels up to 80,000 gallons in size. Older ports are aged in progressively smaller oak barrels which are later shipped off to age scotch. Alcohol content hovers around 20%.
We saw evidence of the late 19th century outbreak of phylloxera, an accidentally imported tiny aphid and related fungus that destroyed tracts of vines and decimated whole communities. Apparently no chemical solution is available even now but grafting with imported vines has been successful. Fear of infected soil lingers and some hillsides stay bare or terraces planted instead with olives.
Cork oaks are visible here and there but most groves are in the south. They stand out as lower bark has been skillfully removed and a number indicating year of removal is chalked on. Bark is removed after the tree is at least 25 years old and can only be harvested every 9 or more years. The bark apparently grows from the top down. There is ample respect for this product in which Portugal leads the world. So corks for wine bottles, sure. But all sorts of products employ cork – flooring, furniture, footwear, insulation, sound-proofing. Now fashion jewelry, handbags and clothing are created from cork veneer backed with fabric.
Memorable Places and Moments:
Regua and Pinhao: Vila Real, site of the baroque Mateus Palace, depicted on Mateus Rosé wine labels. Now a well-preserved small museum among sculpted and well tended gardens, it is still partially occupied by the family of the Count of Vila Real. The estate never produced wines, just sold the palace image to a producing conglomerate. The distinctive Mateus bottle shape is a nod to water flasks once carried by Portuguese soldiers. Later, a hair-raising drive to Quinta do Seixo, one of Sandeman’s vineyards, processing facility, barrel and port tasting room!
Castelo Rodrigo: One of Portugal’s twelve historic parishes, photogenic preserved stone building facades, 2,200 feet above sea level, surrounded mainly by olive and almond groves. Streets are cobbled, narrow and steep. Once welcomed Jewish refugees escaping the Spanish Inquisition and mainly left them in peace to maintain their traditions. Sampled a variety of sweet and savory coated almonds and port.
Salamanca (Spain) aka The Golden City: Our vessel was unable to continue upstream into Spain due to a low bridge, half in each country, without controlled border. A day trip by comfy coach to this historic and vibrant city. Well–preserved Plaza Mayor, university, public market, ‘House of Shells’, brass shell-marked pathway for pilgrims en route north to Santiago de Compostela. Golden sandstone, lovely ‘churrigeresque’ lacy style of architectural ornamentation. We were urged to seek the frog, shell and astronaut in facades; found and fun! We enjoyed a lunch of Spanish specialties – tortilla, paella, pata negra (from black pigs raised on sweet acorns), rioja wine, accompanied by a fiery flamenco show. Later, we moored overnight on the Spanish shore at Vega de Terron, population 2!
Favaios: Another coach trip to visit a tiny town in the hills. The normally good major roadway was unexpectedly closed for repairs on a segment. So fingers crossed and breaths collectively held as our driver negotiated some of the scariest, narrowest, winding back roads imaginable, reversing downhill on esses to allow approaching vehicles to pass. Once this was a truck loaded with propane cylinders and we really forgot to breathe!
The destination was worth it. We visited a traditional bread bakery. The whole neighborhood smells delicious and cooperates in this venture. Our first reward that day was to try hard-crusted bread fresh from wood-fired ovens, with butter, cheese and apple jam. We later toured and had delicious lunch at century old Quinta da Avessada, gem of a family vineyard producing sweet Moscatel wines. Thoroughly entertained by the descendant and current owner who could double as a young Mr. Bean.
Lamego: Another UNESCO site famous for its baroque 14th century ‘Our Lady of Remedies’ cathedral, a favorite of cure seekers, 686 steps up from the town centre. The Pope supposedly provided special dispensation for a couple of statues here of Virgin Mary suckling Baby Jesus which make her seem far too normal and human. Some pilgrims make their way up the gorgeous staircase on knee but we opted to descend on foot.
Thought we had seen enough old stuff to last a long time but were pleasantly surprised at the variety and quality of displays at the museum in the attractive city centre.
Ship’s chef gave a walk and talk through the public market as he shopped for our menus.
Soup is often on the menu and is a symbol of hospitality. Caldo verde is made of potato, kale and spicy sausage. Bread is outstanding and chewy, usually made just from flour, water, yeast and salt. Plenty of seafood – Grilled octopus and sardines, latter small or large, make a lovely lunch with a salad. Cod is a staple – Bacalhau is dried salt cod imported from Norway, Iceland and eastern Canada. Cod sides are soaked for days to soften and then cooked in a variety of ways. We heard that there are at least 365 ways to cook bacalhau so rarely the same way. Pork and veal are less often on the menu, in stews or as cutlets.
Dang their desserts! Famous Pastel de Nata is egg custard in phyllo pastry tarts, best warm out of the oven sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar. There are other tarts, dense, sweetened breads and cakes, chocolate, puddings and ice creams. Many sweets use egg yolks, harking back to when egg whites were used to stiffen religious vestments, leaving yolks to be used as monastery bakers could! More about the wine of the Douro here!
Adeus e somos muito agradecidos!
We briefly intruded upon an ancient world and way of life that is fast morphing. It will surely be increasingly toured and life mechanized. Good for the country and industries but we are glad to have an early peek. Our cruise line currently has two vessels plying the Douro and a third is being built fast. Locks and dimensions of the river will prohibit other lines from entering this itinerary. But highways are being modernized, roads straightened, guest lodging and facilities established.
It is said that vintage port must be consumed in one day when uncorked, which means we will invite a select few when opening our marriage-year bottle of 1985. Thoughtful guests have recently gifted us a nice bottle of ruby port, sure to evoke memories of autumn-hued vine-covered hills, lazy cruising and warm Portugeño hospitality.
We saw, learned and tasted. Calorie counting returns as does the search for our next adventure…and a new camera!