Viking River Cruises ‘River of Gold’- A Perfect Introduction to the World of Port and to Portugal itself
By Monte Mathews
In 1756, the Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro was founded making the Douro River Valley the third oldest protected wine region in the world after Hungary’s Tokaj-Hegyalha (1730) and Italy’s Chianti (1716). Its product: Port, or Vinho do Porto, the fortified Portuguese wine that has devotees the world over. The Douro River Valley is its home. The river itself flows from Soria Province in north central Spain until it empties into the sea at Porto, Portugal’s second largest city. It is from Porto that Viking River Cruises carries its passengers into the world of port on its beautifully designed, Scandinavian-inflected ships. We were invited to sample the newest of these four vessels, Viking Helgrim, on an 8-day itinerary that brought us to every Port Wine grape region along this overwhelmingly beautiful river.
Viking River Cruises have rightfully earned their place as one of the world’s great travel companies. They do this by combining an extraordinary level of comfort and cuisine afloat with unmatched land tours that delve into the essence of the places their ships travel. These tours, led by local guides, are included in every stop along the way. And there are also optional excursions that delve even deeper into their subjects. On the Douro, the subject is Port.
Viking’s “River of Gold’ actually begins its journey in Lisbon. Two days there are spent in an immersion of Portuguese history and culture. The Portuguese capital beguiles visitors with its colorful, often tile-clad buildings built on 8 hills. Viking’s passengers are lodged in a 4-star hotel. On the third morning, luxury coaches emblazoned with Viking’s logo leave Lisbon en route to Porto and the Viking Hilgrim. Along the way, a stop is made in the University town of Coimbra. It was in Coimbra that J.K. Rowling, creator of Harry Potter, lived for a time and where the robes of the Gryffyndors were copies of ones worn by the University’s students.
Docked across the river from Porto in the town of Vila Nova de Gaia, or simply Gaia, Viking Helgrim is awash with light from floor to ceiling windows. Shorter than the Viking Longships used on most European rivers, its length is dictated by the series of locks that allow the ship to travel the length of the river. At 262 feet, it carries just 106 passengers in staterooms and suites that are an ode to its Scandinavian heritage both in their interior design and brilliant use of space.
There’s a Lounge used for port talks and just plain fun. There’s a Dining Room that provides one of Viking’s culinary hallmarks: A complete menu of local specialties that changes daily. And at meals, local beers and wines are part of the inclusives. A step up is the Silver Spirits package which includes absolutely everything you can drink on board. This writer noted that one of the wines on offer was priced at over $50. in his home city of New York. On deck, in front of the Lounge, is the Aquavit Terrace, a comfortable perch to view the river and the locks. The Sun Deck has both covered and open areas and contains a real surprise for Viking River veterans. There’s a swimming pool that’s just deep enough to provide a refreshing dip in the Portuguese sun.
“The first thing Viking Helgrim’s passengers note about their surroundings is the extraordinary number of Port Wine companies whose warehouses dot the hillside of Gaia. The town has been the center of port production since the 13th century. It was here that port wine produced up river was brought to the town in half-filled barrels. Until the early 1980s, all port was brought down river by ‘rabelos’—flat bottomed boats that had to endure rushing rapids and frequent turnovers, hence the half-filled barrels which could be rescued from the river instead of sinking to its bottom. Now that the locks are in place, Tanker trucks have replaced the rabelos. One can’t help but notice that the overwhelming number of names gracing billboards, warehouses and rabelos themselves are English. There’s a story there which you will be told on a visit to your first Port wine cellar.”
Broadbent, Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Gould Campbell, Graham, Osborne, Offley, Sandeman, Taylor and Warre attest to Britain’s long-term fondness for port. It all started in 1678 when a Liverpool wine merchant sent two of his people to learn the wine trade. They were impressed by the “very agreeable, sweetish and extremely smooth wine.”
They liked it so much that they purchased the entire production and shipped it home. Its popularity grew when the British, at war with France, instituted a treaty that allowed it to import Port at a low duty. Deprived of French wine, this Portuguese import became immensely popular.
“While Viking Helgrim spends its first two nights in Porto, passengers have their first opportunities for the multiple tastes of port. At an optional dinner held at W & J Graham’s Lodge high above Gaia, diners taste 8 ports from the winemakers’ 2007 Vintage Port to their 40-year-old Tawny. This is accompanied by a traditional Portuguese meal at “Vinum”, which routinely is mentioned on Ten Best Restaurant lists for all of Portugal.”
Leaving Porto early the next morning, Viking Helgrim travels the Douro reaching the first vineyards about 43 miles upstream near the village of Barqueiros. This is the Baixo Corgo the first of three zones where the port vines are grown. This is the wettest port production area where there’s an average of 35 inches of rain and where temperatures are coolest. Here inexpensive Ruby and Tawny port grapes are grown. It’s also the home of Mateus Palace, familiar to Americans of a certain age as the home of Mateus Rosé. A port blending class is on offer here that immerses passengers in port wine making. With an experience port master, a workshop of guests produce their own blend. Their tasting of the results is accompanied by regional sausages, cheese and the ‘bola de carne’ a celebrated local delicacy that translates to ‘meat bread’.
Next, the ship travels into the Cima Corgo, centered on the utterly charming small town of Pinhāo. The temperature here is several degrees hotter and the rainfall is much lower than it is down river. The grapes in this region are highly prized and thought to be of the higher quality used in Vintage, Reserve, Aged Tawny and Late Bottle Vintage ports. A visit to Sandeman’s confirms the impression that port from this area is truly extraordinary.
Finally the ship arrives at its turning around point. Barca d’Alva is right on the Spanish border. It is in the final growing area called Douro Superior. It’s the least cultivated area of the three. Because rapids here were difficult to navigate, this stretch of the river provides stunning wilderness views from Viking Helgrim and the starting off point for a day-long foray into Spain. Salamanca, the 6th UNESCO World Heritage site on this single voyage, is appropriately called “La Dorada”—the Golden City—because of the golden glow of its sandstone buildings. Home to one of Europe’s earliest Universities, founded in 1134, Salamanca is breathtaking.
What goes up must come down. Viking Helgrim begins its descent back down the Douro with more spectacular vistas, wine tastings, culinary outings, extraordinary service on board and the final days of immersion into Portugal’s River of Gold. It does not disappoint.
For full information on all of Viking’s River Cruises go to www.vikingcruises.com