Last December we booked a cruise on Portugal’s Douro River that was named “River of Gold” because, back in the day, the river was the method of transport for the fine wines, almonds, and olives, produced in the river valley—the primary source of the area’s wealth.
Portugal has everything we were looking for: a rich cultural history, renowned cuisine, and world-famous wines.
CoimbraOn the drive to Porto we stopped to visit the famous University of Coimbra. Established in 1290, the university is notable for the black capes the students wear and the colorful ribbons that determine each undergraduate’s course of study. A graduation tradition has friends and family removing all clothes from the graduates, leaving only their shoes and cape, and the festivities continue with the burning of the ribbons.
Coimbra’s library is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with access strictly limited and controlled and with no picture-taking permitted. We were only allowed to stay a few minutes, hardly enough time to take in all the spectacular gilded decorative elements, exotic carvings on rare African woods, intricate marble-laid floors, and painted ceilings that adorn the magnificent rooms. Initially only three subjects of study were offered: theology, law and medicine, and the library has one room dedicated to each subject.
We had lunch in the República (students' community house) and were entertained by students and ex-students singing Fado, the very emotional, heartfelt form of singing usually accompanied by the Portuguese guitar. Originally only men sang Fado, but in 1891 female students at Coimbra began singing and now both sexes perform the mournful melodies.
PortoOn to Porto, famous for the fortified port wines on which the city’s prosperity was built.
The city of Porto, originally named Portoscali, is separated by the Douro River with Porto on one side and Scali (now called Vila Nova de Gaia) on the other. Porto is referred to as the “City Of Bridges” for the six that span the river—two designed by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame.
The historic old town centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia we had the opportunity to learn about and taste port wine at one of the many wine-shipping cellars dotting the waterfront.
No visitor to Porto should miss the São Bento railway station where one of the most romantic stories is played out in azulejo tiles. Legend has it that in 1386 King John, an infamous man-about-town, married Philippa of Lancaster, eldest daughter of John of Gaunt, to seal a vital alliance with England. They didn’t know each other previously—in fact, their marriage was by proxy as was the custom of the times, and supposedly when they first met they didn’t like each other.
King John was charming and handsome and Philippa apparently lost her heart to him. A pious young woman, she tried to lay down the law and told John to shape up and stop playing around. When he refused, she returned to England. John, realizing the error of his ways, ran after her and professed his undying love; she returned to Portugal. They had nine children, one of which was Henry the Navigator, and enjoyed a long, faithful, and loving marriage.
I couldn’t find reference to this story in a history book but our Porto guide assured me it was gospel. And besides, the tiles were beautiful.
Douro River Valley & SalamancaDaily, we visited charming small towns along the Douro River Valley, sailed in the afternoon when the light was best for viewing the hillsides covered by vineyards, and docked in the evening to explore on our own. Our last port of call was Salamanca in Spain, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its beautiful main square (Plaza Mayor), often called the most beautiful in Spain.
Our leisurely return back along the Douro River to Porto, and passing through the five locks to navigate the different water levels on the river and canals, was equally captivating, which we enjoyed with our newfound friends courtesy of Viking River Cruises.