This is no time to worry about the diet, I realise, as I tuck into the banquet laid on by Quinta de Avessada, a winery high on a hill above the Douro valley.
Stuffed bread, pork, chicken sausage, a thick vegetable soup, cod fish, all washed down by far too much vinho verde, a highly-quaffable green wine (green as in young, not the colour) and a glass or three of port, the fortified wine so revered by the Portuguese they named it after Porto, their second city.
Thank goodness I only have to sit back and enjoy the scenery – and indulge in a drop more port if you really insist – once I’m back on AmaDouro, my floating home for this one-week cruise on Portugal’s Douro River with AmaWaterways.
This is my third time on the river, and before you ask, yes it really is that good. It might not bear the scars of two world wars like the Rhine and Danube (Wellington was in Porto during the Peninsula War but that doesn’t figure on most people’s radars), there are no fairytale castles, and Mozart was not here.
Instead, it is a tale of two cities – Porto and Salamanca (of which more later) – and a wine and food-fest punctuated by some gentle sightseeing, invariably of the grape-ish sort. The story of wine-growing in the valley at the excellent Douro Museum in Regua. Selfies in front of the Mateus Palace, the manor house depicted on the Mateus Rosé bottles.
Even the scenery has a wine theme, with verdant vineyards, some no bigger than a handkerchief, as far as the eye can see that now and then give way to forbiddingly sheer cliffs. Spring is generally warm and sunny; summer is sizzling. “Three months of hell,” say the wine-growers. No wonder most river ships have a top-deck pool. You can stay cool and still enjoy the views.
There is only one way for river ships to go on the Douro – from Porto on the Atlantic to Vega de Terron on the border with Spain, and then back, passing the same five locks in each direction. Carrapatelo, the deepest in Europe, never fails to thrill as it lifts or lowers vessels a vertiginous 35 metres.
From Vega de Terron, excursions visit Salamanca – a gorgeous city with grand squares and an authentic Spanish vibe. Not that you want to know that given Brits can’t go there now Spain is on the government’s no-go list because of a rise in Covid cases.
That’s worrying enough for Riviera Travel, a British river cruise line restarting on the Douro now quarantine restrictions on UK travellers returning home from Portugal have been lifted, to be planning an alternative to Salamanca (and also finding a new name for its Douro, Porto and Salamanca itinerary) in case the Spain ban is still in place by its September 18 start date.
A-Rosa Cruises, Nicko Cruises and CroisiEurope are already back in action on the river, and AmaWaterways has pencilled in a mid-October restart, but there is no word what any will offer – if anything – as an alternative to Salamanca for Brits who can’t go there.
It is a shame to miss the city but there is plenty more to love on this cruise. Porto has blossomed after years in the wilderness and deserves more than the morning tour most companies accord it. Sleepy Guimaraes is an excuse to learn about Alfonso I, Portugal’s first king, crowned there in 1097 after defeating his mother and her lover in battle.
In Lamego, I climbed 686 steps to Nossa Senhora dos Remédios (Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies) to atone for all the food, wine, port and almonds I’d been eating and drinking (almonds are grown all over here and gorgeous roasted in everything from cinnamon to chocolate) at the quintas and villages we’d visited.
The climb was exhausting but AmaWaterways had thoughtfully laid on a spread of bacon-y bola bread, ham and wine for those who made it up and back down again. Oh well, since it’s there. After all, it has been at least two hours since lunch.
Riviera Travel offers an eight-day Douro, Porto and Salamanca river cruise round-trip from Porto departing September 18 from £2,299 per person including all meals, flights, daily excursions and Wi-Fi.