Where to go Next: Portugal’s Douro River Valley
By Bobbie Leigh
Portugal is a must-see destination. Think world-class food and wine, fortified border towns, lovely uncrowded Atlantic beaches, and excellent rail transportation. Lisbon, the Portuguese capital that never goes out of favor, is crowned with cultural riches and is a snap ten-minute metro ride from the airport.
What is relatively new is that laid-back Porto and the Douro River Valley are reemerging as another dream destination for discerning travelers. An excellent option for exploring this region is a land and river trip. One of the best this spring is jointly sponsored by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harvard Alumni Association, National Trust Tours, Smith College, and Yale Educational Travel.
Rightly named “The Enchanting Douro River: Aboard M.S. AmaVida,” this spring cruise features guided tours in Portugal and Spain. It begins with flights to Porto on April 16 and ends in Porto, April 24, 2018. As you would expect, the lecturers are all notable professors from Harvard, Smith, and Yale as well as Nadine Orenstein, a distinguished curator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art who has taken Met members on various cultural journeys.
The AmaVida is exactly the right size for a river cruise: 51 cabins with a maximum of 75 passengers. River cruising is one of the fastest growing trends in travel, primarily because you don’t have to pack and unpack as you shift from hotel to hotel; on-board meals are often locally sourced, and the land excursions would be difficult if not impossible to plan on your own.
The Enchanting Douro excursions are all quite special — private visits to wineries, exclusive dinners and tastings at family owned wine estates, private concerts, tours of Baroque churches and gardens, and a visit to Salamanca, a UNESCO-listed city across the border in Spain.
Dubbed La Dorada, the Golden City, due to its glowing sandstone buildings, Salamanca is one of the most spectacular cities in Europe.
It was first settled by the Romans in the third century BC, but it is best known and loved for its university, founded in 1254, whose buildings are a virtual time line ranging from Romanesque and Gothic to Moorish, Renaissance, and Baroque.
The same could be said for Porto, where the M.S. AmaVida docks with ample time at the beginning and end of the voyage to discover this historic city. Also settled by the Romans, Porto offers centuries-old buildings, excellent seafood, and Port wine shopping. The Douro is one of the oldest wine region in the world, famous for its fortified wine. What distinguishes Port from other wines is that spirits are added during the wine-making process to stop fermentation. This increases its sweetness and alcoholic content. Several producers invite visitors to tastings of the city’s eponymous drink – even a frozen version.
Should you visit Lisbon first and then go to Porto by train ,don’t leave the Såo Bento station in a hurry as it is a marvel. Decorated with azulejos, the celebrated blue-and-white tiles ubiquitous in the region. The station’s 20,000 blue -and –white, tin-glazed ceramic tiles depict Portugal’s 800 plus years of history. Like the painted church facades of Romania, many churches here have blue-and-whites on their exteriors as well as within.
Porto is a great walking city, a cultural center crammed with galleries, boutiques, art museums, and some stunning contemporary architecture such as Rem Koolhaas’s Casa da Musica. Its lively Ribeira riverside is full of buzzy places to eat and drink. Many of the small boutiques and restaurants in the Rua Miguel Bombardas arts district sell colorful tiles as well as a variety of ceramics wares. Porto is often referred to as a “shopper’s paradise,” because of the clothes, leather goods, and accessories from local designers available in the vibrant Rua Santa Catarina shopping district.
If there were a star system for travel, the meandering Douro with its terraced vineyards and famous sunlight (Douro means river of gold) would surely be worthy of five as it has preserved its heritage, natural beauty and charm.
For further information about the “Enchanting Round Trip Aboard the M.S.AmaVida” (April 16-24, 2018) please contact Christine Echeverri at Arrangements Abroad at 212-514-8921.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.