River Douro boat trip
Rio Douro means ‘River of Gold’, but a more apt name would be River of Port, as the river has become synonymous with this wine. The boat trip we decided to go on came recommended by a friend who had done it a few years earlier and said it was one of the best trips she had been on and you can’t argue with that! There were several different options to choose from: a boat both ways; a train upstream and a boat downstream; a train both ways; or, the one we opted for, a boat upstream and a train downstream.
It was an early start, as the boat was due to leave at 8 am and we had to walk from our hotel near São Bento station to the quay at Vila Nova de Gaia, on the other side of the river. Thankfully boarding was very organized and we were allocated a table for breakfast, which was served as soon as we were seated and we were able to watch Porto slipping away as we ate. Breakfast was nothing special, a couple of bread rolls with jam and butter and orange squash, but the coffee was good and the waiters did refill our cups. Once breakfast was finished everyone rushed up to the top deck where rows of metal chairs had been set up. Naturally the best-positioned seats, near the sides of the boat, had been taken, but as the boat motored along the river and the sun got higher in the sky people started moving away from these prime positions into the shade and even below deck, where there was air-conditioning, and so we were able to move into a seat at the side of the boat. It was a very hot day and there was no breeze, but to me it seemed a waste to view the scenery through a window. From my new seat I was able to look down into the crystal-clear water and watch the fish swimming around. Luckily waiters were walking around the upper deck taking orders for drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) and I must say that some of our fellow passengers may have made a bit too much use of this service. As the drinks were flowing their voices got louder, their stories more raucous and I don’t think they were taking any notice of the scenery. Once we had cruised out of Porto, the scenery soon became one of trees on hilly banks, interspersed with the odd village and occasional man-made river beach on the river’s edge. A guide gave some information about places of interest that we were passing from time to time. If the truth be told, the scenery became a bit repetitive after five hours of cruising, but the repetitiveness was broken up by, what for me were the highlights of the trip, namely the locks at the two dams that we passed through. Not only did they provide some much-appreciated shade and cool air, but they were magnificent examples of large-scale engineering. Built between the 1960s and 1980s the Crestuma-Lever Dam and the Carrapatel Dam are huge constructions which are essential to the navigation of the River Douro. They are also hydroelectric power stations. The dangerous rapids in the river meant that in the past transporting port by river was a very hazardous process. At the end of the nineteenth century, when the railway was built, the transportation of port changed to rail and later road. The construction of the dams has resulted in a serious of ‘ribbon lakes’ and means that there is no danger on the river today. In fact the water was as smooth as glass. As we passed through the second lock, at the Carrapatel Dam, the boat climbed an impressive 35 metres, making it one of the deepest locks in Europe.
After passing through the second dam and enjoying a temporary moment of shade I was quite relieved when lunch was announced. The cool air below deck and the chilled water served with lunch, along with most-welcome bottles of wine on the table, almost made up for the terrible food. When we went on deck again after lunch, to my amazement the scenery had completely changed. It was no longer tree-lined hills, but vineyards as far as the eye could see, climbing up the hills in terraces. We were approaching official port country, which I was surprised to learn only starts at Barrô (a few kilometres west of Peso da Régua). We were also nearing the end of our journey. The official demarcated port-producing area is on both banks of the Douro between Barrô and the border with Spain, so only a short part of the river cruise is in actual port country.
Peso da Régua
Peso da Régua has a long history with the port industry and everywhere we looked there is a reminder of its former role as the centre of port production, from the large Sandeman silhouette cut-out on the top of a hill, the pretty azulejos lining the streets showing scenes of the production of port wine (including picking and treading the grapes, transporting the wine on ox-drawn carts and on barcos rabelos), the Casa do Douro (the headquarters of the organization of port growers) to the barco rabelo outside the Museu do Douro. There isn’t much to do in Régua (its more common name), but the two hours we had to spare before the train back to Porto departed gave us enough time to wander through the town, along a quiet shopping street, admiring a couple of pretty churches and having a drink in the peaceful garden of the museum, overlooking the river. The town was refreshingly untouristy. The museum is dedicated to the history of the Douro valley, the river and the port industry and if we had had more time we would have invested in the €6 per person entrance fee to visit the museum.
The train back to Porto was crowded and we were unable to get a seat on the desirable left-hand side of the train. The railway line follows the river for half of the journey before turning inland before Liveração, so this is the best side to sit on for views of the River Douro. The journey back to Porto took 2 hours and we arrived back at São Bento station at 7 pm. Once back in Porto we decided that we had to plan a port-tasting tour at one of the port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia.
Port lodge tour
All the main port producers are located in a small area of Gaia and they all offer tours followed by a tasting. We chose to visit Cockburn’s, but we could equally have chosen any of the other lodges. We were advised to book ourselves on a tour in advance, but as we were in Gaia we decided to just turn up. Tours are in English and Portuguese and luckily for us the next English tour was due to start in 45 minutes, so we passed a pleasant 40 minutes in the peaceful botanic gardens (Parque da Quinta das Devesas) behind the port lodge. The tour of the wine cellars was informative, giving a brief introduction to port production, beginning with where the grapes are grown and the September harvesting. The guide talked about the barrels, which are made by hand and repaired by a team of coopers. She also showed us a rather self-indulgent video of the Symington family (the owners of Cockburn’s) on their beautiful quinta (wine estate) in the Douro valley. We learnt that the juice, along with the seeds, skin and pulp, is semi-fermented and then fortified by adding a spirit to it, which arrests the fermentation. The resulting port is then matured in wooden casks and this is what there are rows and rows of in the port lodges of Gaia. The smell of maturing port was literally intoxicating. The guide also explained the difference between ruby port and tawny port. Ruby port is a fruity, less complex port which is aged for 2-3 years in tanks, while tawny port is aged for many years in oak barrels. The tawny colour comes from the subsequent oxidation. An aged tawny is a top-quality wine which has been aged in the barrel for a long time. A tawny port stops aging when it is bottled, while a ruby port will continue to age in the bottle. The oldest barrel in this port lodge dated from 1940. The guide also explained that a ‘vintage’ year is only declared after the best wine from all the vineyards is monitored and a decision is made whether they are of a high enough standard to be a vintage. Therefore not every year is a ‘vintage’ year. With all this information swimming around in my head I was happy to be able to put my new-found knowledge to the test in the form of a tasting. We were each given a glass of young ruby port and a 10-year-old tawny port (served chilled) and we were left to enjoy the tasting with thankfully no hard-sell, despite the fact that the display area is next to the tasting area.
The River Douro boat trip costs £62.50 per person, which includes breakfast, lunch (with wine) and the return train journey. The boat leaves from the quay in front of the Ramos Pinto port lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia. The boat trip lasts 7 hours and the return train journey takes 2 hours. There is a 2-hour stop in Peso da Régua. We bought the ticket for this trip in advance from the Tourist Information Office in Porto.
The Cockburn’s port lodge is located a short uphill walk from the riverfront on Rua Serpa Pinto, Vila Nova de Gaia. The tour and tasting is free, but it is advisable to book it in advance.