Wind Through the Ages: Cruise Portugal’s Striking Scenic Routes and Step Back in Time
Wind Through the Ages: Cruise Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes and Step Back in Time - Explore Portugal's Rich History Along the Douro River
The winding Douro River has carved its way through the rugged terrain of northern Portugal for eons, serving as a conduit for commerce, culture, and history. A cruise along this fabled waterway offers a journey back in time, with opportunities to delve into Portugal's storied past at every bend.
As your ship glides along, behold the rolling hills blanketed with orderly rows of vines that produce the grapes for Portugal's iconic port wine. This is port wine country, where for over 300 years winemakers have crafted the nation's most famous export. Stop at one of the many quintas, or port wine estates, for a tour and tasting. Marvel at the ancient stone walls blanketing steep hillsides, built by hand to terrace the rugged slopes and make them suitable for viticulture. It's humbling to realize you're walking in the footsteps of generations who carved out this unlikely wine region.
The Douro was once treacherous to navigate until dams were built to tame the river in the 20th century. Gaze up at the massive concrete arch of the Valeira Dam spanning the canyon, one of the many locks and dams that finally enabled reliable transportation along the river. Before then, traditional Rabelo boats were the only vessels that could shoot the perilous rapids.
Many sleepy villages dot the Douro's banks, seemingly unchanged for centuries. Stop in Pinhão, known for its lavish 18th-century manor houses from the wine industry's heyday. Stroll the quaint cobblestone streets and sample local wines made from historic grapes like Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz. Soak up the vintage atmosphere of this traditional winemaking hamlet.
The Douro meets the Atlantic at Porto, the city that gave port wine its name. Porto enchanted visitors long before port wine was even invented, with origins dating back to the 4th century. Here is where you'll find Portugal's largest collection of historic buildings classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Explore picturesque plazas flanked with Baroque churches and neoclassical structures. Tour ancient wine cellars carved into hillsides above the river. As you stroll Porto's postcard-perfect streets, you may come to appreciate port as not just a drink, but a conduit that connects you to Portugal's deep history.
What else is in this post?
- Wind Through the Ages: Cruise Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes and Step Back in Time - Explore Portugal's Rich History Along the Douro River
- Wind Through the Ages: Cruise Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes and Step Back in Time - Sail Through the UNESCO-Listed Douro Valley Wine Region
- Wind Through the Ages: Cruise Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes and Step Back in Time - See the Hills Dotted with Vineyards and Quintas
- Wind Through the Ages: Cruise Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes and Step Back in Time - Marvel at the Craggy Cliffsides and Sleepy Villages
- Wind Through the Ages: Cruise Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes and Step Back in Time - Stop in Porto to Sample Port Wine in its Birthplace
- Wind Through the Ages: Cruise Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes and Step Back in Time - Cruise Down the Coast to Discover the Alluring Algarve
- Wind Through the Ages: Cruise Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes and Step Back in Time - Dock in Albufeira to Soak Up the Sun and Surf
- Wind Through the Ages: Cruise Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes and Step Back in Time - End Your Journey in Lisbon, Portugal's Captivating Capital
Wind Through the Ages: Cruise Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes and Step Back in Time - Sail Through the UNESCO-Listed Douro Valley Wine Region
As your ship glides along the winding curves of the Douro River, take in the breathtaking vistas of the UNESCO-listed Douro Valley wine region. This stunning landscape is characterized by impossibly steep, terraced hillsides blanketed in orderly rows of gnarly vines. Generations of winemakers have crafted world-class wines in these seemingly inhospitable conditions. Sailing through this fabled valley provides a one-of-a-kind perspective on the ingenuity and artistry behind Portugal's iconic port wine.
In 1756, the Douro Valley became the world's first defined and regulated wine region. The rugged terroir and hot, dry summers were found to be ideal for growing grapes destined for port production. Yet farming these ridiculously steep slopes was treacherous work. People hand-built thousands of miles of stone walls, called socalcos, to terrace the hillsides and make the vale suitable for viticulture. These socalcos form a jaw-dropping mosaic of cascading vineyards that seem to defy gravity.
As you cruise along, stop to tour one of the many wine estates, known as quintas. Here you can taste Portugal's famous export and learn the nuances between styles like tawny, ruby, and vintage. Tour the estate cellars, some with vines carved directly overhead, for a firsthand look at how port is aged and stored in barrels. Marvel at the ancient stone lagares where grapes are still crushed by foot according to tradition.
Don't miss a stop in Pinhão, nestled on the banks where the Rio Torto meets the Douro. Wander the quaint streets and admire the ornate 18th-century manor houses built by prosperous winemakers of the past. Pop into a cozy local restaurant for an authentic taste of Portuguese cuisine paired with local port straight from the source.
For the best perspective on the valley's vineyards, take the zigzagging road up to the village of Provesende high above the river. From this lofty vantage point the magnitude of the valley hits home, with waves of vines rolling across impossibly steep slopes down to the snaking river. Have your camera ready for that perfect shot.
Wind Through the Ages: Cruise Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes and Step Back in Time - See the Hills Dotted with Vineyards and Quintas
As your riverboat glides along the winding curves of the Douro, your gaze is drawn to the impossibly steep hillsides blanketed with orderly rows of twisted vines. This is port wine country, where for over 300 years vintners have crafted Portugal's most prized export from these unforgiving slopes. Generations of winemakers have toiled to hand-build the thousands of miles of stone walls, called socalcos, which terrace the precipitous hills into cascading vineyards. These socalcos form a patchwork quilt of earth tones morphing with the seasons. In autumn, splashes of red and gold signal the grapes are nearly ready for harvest.
Keep an eye out and you're sure to spy one of the many wineries, known as quintas, sprinkled across the hills. With stately manors and rambling outbuildings, these quintas are rich with history. Many date back generations and have been passed down through port wine dynasties over the centuries. When the ship stops, don't miss the chance to tour one of these iconic wineries to see where the magic happens.
At Quinta de Vargellas, you'll step back in time as you stroll through cool, dim cellars with impressive barrels carved from chestnut and oak. Learn how pipes extend from the ceilings so wine can be poured directly from upstairs fermentation tanks. Marvel at the ancient stone tanks, called lagares, where grapes are still crushed by foot to this day. Tour the musty aging cellars stacked with row upon row of dark wood barrels. The rich aromas of aging tawny port cling to the damp air.
After the tour, retire to the elegant manor house to sip ruby port while gazing out over the plunging vineyards. The gracious hospitality and refined ambiance offer a window into the prosperous past of port wine production.
Or visit Quinta do Tedo, perched high on a hillside in the heart of the valley. This quinta offers hands-on workshops in the vineyards, allowing you to try your own hand at the generations-old craft of dry stone wall building. Lay stones and pack rubble under the guidance of local winemakers whose families have been working these vineyards for over a century. Gain an appreciation for the backbreaking labor of those who carved out this unlikely wine region.
Wind Through the Ages: Cruise Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes and Step Back in Time - Marvel at the Craggy Cliffsides and Sleepy Villages
As the Douro flows, it carved a path through ancient granite and schist, leaving sheer cliffs looming above the river’s shimmering waters. Craggy precipices give way to sloping hills blanketed in orderly rows of vines. Nestled amid this dramatic landscape, sleepy villages have clung to the Douro’s banks for centuries.
Wandering the narrow lanes of these picturesque river hamlets offers a glimpse into Portugal’s rural past. In Pinhão, purported to be the prettiest village of the region, admire the grand 18th-century manors flanked by meticulous gardens. These stately homes belonged to prosperous winemakers from the port trade’s heyday. Pop into a local shop adorned with hand-painted tiles and pick up some smoked ham, olives, and sheep’s cheese for the perfect Douro picnic.
The best perspective on the river and valley is from Provesende, perched high above the Douro. Make the steep climb up, past vineyards and crooked oaks, and be rewarded with a vista like no other. From this eagle’s nest, the village’s tile roofs form a mosaic of terra cotta and cream at your feet. Across the gorge, the river glistens like a winding satin ribbon. In the distance, miles of terraced vines blanket every visible hillside in intricate patterns of earth tones.
Upstream near the Spanish border, pretty towns like Miranda do Douro seem frozen in time. Wander quiet lanes dotted with crumbling stone houses in need of upkeep. Chat with an elderly local reminiscing on the backbreaking labor of harvesting grapes on near-vertical slopes before modern machinery. Around each turn, discover ancient chapels, arched bridges, and bleached stone huts that make you question what century you’re in.
Wind Through the Ages: Cruise Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes and Step Back in Time - Stop in Porto to Sample Port Wine in its Birthplace
No trip along the Douro would be complete without a stop in Porto, the city that gave port wine its name. Porto enchanted visitors long before port was even invented in the 1600s, with origins dating back to the 4th century. Here you’ll find Portugal’s largest collection of historic buildings, earning it UNESCO World Heritage status. Beyond the postcard-worthy plazas and steeply stacked houses tumbling down to the river, Porto holds a myriad of opportunities to sip port straight from the source.
Pop into one of the many wine shops lining the narrow streets of Ribeira, Porto's riverside district. Chat with the shopkeeper and try a few samples of the ports available. Opt for a chilled white port as a refreshing aperitif before dinner. Or experience the dazzling range of deep reds, from the bold ruby styles to the complex nuances of aged tawnies. Far too many tourists limit their drinking to the cloying syrupy ports without realizing the diversity available.
Don't leave without touring one of the many port wine cellars carved into the hillsides above the Douro. Companies like Taylor's Fladgate offer tours of their sprawling facilities giving insight into the production of port. Walk down cool, shadowy aisles stacked with enormous barrels used to age the fortified wine for decades. Breathe deeply to experience the musty aroma that permeates the cellars, like entering a cathedral dedicated to Bacchus.
Finish with a tasting of a few vintages, highlight by their prestigious 40 Year Old Tawny. Only 50,000 bottles of this rarity are produced each year. Let it coat your mouth with luscious flavors of brandy-soaked fruitcake and candied orange peel. Savor the astonishing persistence on your palate along with a soothing burn. Its complexity and sophistication may forever alter your impression of port as a mere dessert wine.
Another atmospheric option is the port wine cellars at Quinta da Roêda in Pinhão, one of port’s most celebrated estates. Founded in 1906, Roêda pioneered single vintage ports and still crafts iconic ports today. Tour the estate and historic manor house for insight into a renowned port producer in the heart of the Douro Valley. Cap it off with a reserve tasting to appreciate Roêda's impressive range of ports and vintages.
Wind Through the Ages: Cruise Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes and Step Back in Time - Cruise Down the Coast to Discover the Alluring Algarve
After exploring the captivating Douro Valley, continue sailing south down Portugal's coastline to discover the alluring Algarve region. This southernmost stretch of coast has drawn visitors for centuries with its Mediterranean climate, golden beaches, and azure waters. A cruise along the Algarve provides opportunities to dive into the distinct cultural heritage and natural beauty of this sun-soaked region.
The Algarve's 100 miles of coastline is dotted with colorful fishing villages seemingly frozen in time. Docking in Albufeira, the largest resort town, you can soak up the laid-back beach scene and relish the fresh catch of the day. Dig into sizzling sautéed shrimp, grilled sardines, or cataplana (seafood stew) teeming with the bounty of the sea. Late afternoon is the ideal time to wander the warren of whitewashed houses and cobblestone streets as the sun casts a golden glow over the village.
Venturing west leads to the dramatic cliffs and grottos carved out by the pounding surf over millennia. Tour the wondrous sea caves of Benagil, only accessible by boat, to witness an otherworldly cathedral with a dazzling oculus open to the sky. Or admire the precarious arches and sea-sculpted rock formations of Praia da Marinha, considered one of Portugal's most beautiful beaches.
For an immersion into the history of Portugal's Age of Exploration, which propelled early globalization, visit the historic port city of Lagos. This was an early hub for the slave trade and the home port of the legendary Prince Henry the Navigator, who launched Portugal's golden age of discovery. Stroll the medieval walls enclosing the old town and see the sites where caravels once docked to unload riches from foreign lands.
Don't miss the opportunity to take a glass-bottomed boat tour along the remarkable Ponta da Piedade. Viewing these towering ochre and gold cliffs from the sea provides an appreciation for the forces that sculpted this stretch of coastline. Gaze down through crystalline waters at underwater caves and archways teeming with colorful fish. With a little luck, you may catch glimpses of playful dolphins.
Nothing evokes the essence of the Algarve more than its groves of twisting cork oaks. Portugal produces over 50% of the world's cork, with the bulk coming from the Algarve. Visit a local cork farm to learn how bark is sustainably stripped from the trees. Watch craftsmen transform crude cork bark into a mind-boggling array of products from wine bottle stoppers to cork purses. Sip Portuguese wine at an on-site tasting to fully appreciate this iconic tree.
Wind Through the Ages: Cruise Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes and Step Back in Time - Dock in Albufeira to Soak Up the Sun and Surf
After exploring the captivating Douro Valley, set your sights on the sun-soaked Algarve region in southern Portugal. Albufeira, the largest resort town on the coast, is a perfect place to soak up some rays and catch a wave. With temperates in the 70s and 80s Fahrenheit nearly year-round, you can count on superb beach weather.
Wander through Albufeira’s charming tangle of whitewashed houses blanketing the cliffs above pristine sandy beaches. Work on your tan while relaxing on golden sand with the soothing sounds of waves lapping at the shore. For the more adventurous, there are water sports galore. Surfers flock here to ride those perfectly peeling waves, from beginner breaks to more advanced reef waves for experienced surfers. Several excellent surf schools like Smart Surf School Algarve offer group or private lessons for all levels. Learn to pop-up and hang ten from friendly local instructors. Or try your hand at stand-up paddleboarding, ideal for gliding across crystalline waters while taking in dramatic cliffsides and coves.
Need a break from the sun? Take a charter boat tour of the unique sea caves carved into the Algarve’s cliffs over millennia. Cruising into the massive cavern at Benagil is otherworldly, with an enormous oculus open to the sky that blankets the grotto in ethereal light. Or for those who prefer dry land, tee up at one of the Algarve’s many championship golf courses boasting stunning ocean vistas. Afterwards, relax those sore muscles with a massage or body treatment at one of Albufeira’s many beachside spas and wellness centers.
When the sun goes down, Albufeira heats up. Famous for its vibrant nightlife, the streets come alive after dark with live music spilling out of bars and nightclubs. Sip refreshing sangria or pisco sours at a seaside lounge while grooving to acoustic Portuguese fado music and contemporary tunes. Culinary delights also await at the string of beachside restaurants along Fisherman's Beach. Savor traditionally grilled sardines fresh from the sea, or dig into Cataplana, a famous Portuguese seafood stew teeming with mussels, clams, shrimp and more. Wash it down with local Vinho Verde, whose bright acidity pairs perfectly with the bounty of the sea.
Wind Through the Ages: Cruise Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes and Step Back in Time - End Your Journey in Lisbon, Portugal's Captivating Capital
After sailing along Douro's wine country, cruising the clifftop towns of the Algarve, and docking in historic Porto, cap your voyage by stepping ashore in Lisbon, Portugal's dynamic and enchanting capital. As a crossroads connecting Africa, South America, and Europe, Lisbon has woven a unique tapestry of cultures into its arts, architecture, and soul.
Wandering Lisbon's postcard-perfect pastel streets, one may forget this was once a mighty global empire. But the riches of the world shaped the face of Lisbon. Moorish designs borrowed from 700 years under Arab rule grace Lisbon's Alfama district. The imposing São Jorge Castle looming above the city is a reminder of Portugal's territorial battles with the Moors. And the Belém district abounds with ostentatious Manueline architecture funded by the boom from Portuguese exploration.
Art aficionados flock to Gulbenkian Museum to view its remarkable collection spanning 5,000 years from ancient Egyptian to Impressionist masterpieces. For a more macabre artistic twist, descend into the Catacombs of Carmo, chilling crypts lined with jawless skulls and bones of over 25,000 monks.
To soak up Lisbon's vibrant street life, join locals at a kiosk to chat over bica, the powerful espresso that fuels city life. Grab a fresh pastry like custard-filled pastel de nata from an ornate belle epoque cafe. Lisbon's bakeries showcase Portugal's Arab roots with delicacies like almond cake and fig tarts.
Don't miss Lisbon after dark when sizzling fado music spills frombars and restaurants. Savor tender Portuguese pork with whiskey at Cervejaria Ramiro while weeping fado singers channel wistful longing and fate's cruel twists. Or take a tuk tuk pub crawl and sample inventive cocktails and street food as Lisbon's night owls come alive.
Of course, no visit to Lisbon is complete without riding the iconic yellow trams clattering up and down its steep hills. Board Tram 28 and grip the polished wood seats around bone-jarring switchbacks for expansive views over terra cotta roofs tumbling down to the Tagus River. See laundry flapping in the sea breeze and glimpse locals' lives through open windows.
For magnificent vistas, hike or ride the Santa Justa Lift up to the ruins of Convento do Carmo. Survey the undulating cityscape of clay tile and church spires leading down to the 25th of April Bridge. Time it for sunset when the Tagus glows golden under a pink-streaked sky.