While it’s not exactly in a forgotten corner of Europe, Portugal’s Douro River does tend to be off the beaten river cruising track in comparison to the popular Rhine, Danube and Rhone. Yet, a week spent cruising the Douro is full of unforgettable experiences that may surprise those unfamiliar with this region. As well as a day at either end of the seven-night cruise in the wonderful, UNESCO city of Porto (known for its historic centre, graceful bridges and world-famous port wine houses), there are long, blissful spells on the water without seeing other boats, cruising narrow stretches of the upper Douro between steep, rocky slopes on which thousands of hectares of port wine grapes are cultivated.
Although a Douro cruise sets a pretty leisurely pace, there are some wonderful experiences along the way. We wandered around medieval hilltop villages that have barely changed over the centuries. We visited the cellars of some of the big port-growing dynasties and saw their names gracing the steeply terraced vineyards along the river in huge letters. And we ventured outside the area, too, spending a day across the border in the magnificent Spanish university town of Salamanca, one of the best-kept secrets in the whole of Europe, thanks to its exquisite beauty and history. And then there are the simpler pleasures like eating freshly-grilled sardines at a deck barbecue organised by the crew.
While many cruise travellers have yet to stumble across the Douro River, U.K. operators have been plying the river for years. After all, it was the Brits who started the port wine industry 300 years ago with their Portuguese allies, and strong ties remain between the two countries. British operators include Titan HiTours, Saga, Page & Moy, Noble Caledonia and Cosmos.
The Douro is increasingly popular with international river lines and companies like AmaWaterways, with its AmaVida and Uniworld with its Queen Isabel, have added new and upgraded ships in the region. In spring 2014, Viking River Cruises christened two new ships — Viking Torgil and Viking Hemming — in Porto. CroisiEurope also offers Douro cruising — the French line has three ships in the region.