There can be few river cruises throughout the world which allow the traveller to experience the very essence and spirit of a people and their way of life. A trip along the River Douro in Portugal can be said to do just that.
The river flows through the famed Alto Douro wine region, declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2001, and with good reason, too.
According to UNESCO, the world heritage status was deserved because the cultural landscape found there was an outstanding example of a traditional European wine-producing region, and reflected the evolution of wine making over time. All the components of the landscape were representative of the full range of activities associated with wine making – terraces, quintas (wine-producing farm complexes), villages, chapels, and roads.
Wine has been produced in the region for at least 2,000 years, archaeological evidence has indicated. Indeed, grape seeds have been discovered at other archaeological sites of even greater antiquity than Roman sites dating from around the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. Later, Cistercian monks developed the wine making story even further, with their medieval activities centered around the monasteries of Salzedas, São João de Tarouca and São Pedro das Águias.
By the 17th century, the production of Port wine – named from the northern seaport city of Porto where the wine was brought to market and exported – had reached such proportions in the region that it became an important part of the Portuguese economy. In fact, the area became the first in the world to be defined formerly in terms of the production of wine through the granting of a Portuguese royal charter in 1756.
Britain had much to do with the historical spread of Port and thus its consequent rise in popularity across the world. It is interesting to note how the influence of this early trade with Portugal has lingered on, even to today. The majority of Port wines are blended and aged in Vila Nova de Gaia, located in the Porto District, south of Porto on the other side of the Douro River. Many of the wineries there have well known English names, for example, Croft, which was one of the first big shippers of Port wine. Other well known names include Cockburn, Niepoort, Graham, Warre, Taylor, Krohn, Dow and Churchill.
No visit to the area would be complete without a trip to the city of Guimãraes, regarded as the birthplace of the Portuguese nation. Its historic centre is also a UNESCO world heritage site. Guimãraes was the first capital of Portugal and was also where Afonso I, the first king of Portugal, was born.
A cruise up the Douro River takes the traveller to the small village of Bitetos, fairly remote and once a prosperous Roman village. Well worth visiting for its medieval lanes, alleys and baroque churches dating back centuries. And, of course, the area has many wineries well worth sampling, too!
Further along the river is the town of Regua, the official centre of the Port wine growing region, where historically barrels of wine were transported downriver in wooden sailing ships called rabelos to Vila Nova de Gaia.