PORTUGAL -- One of Portugal's most scenic regions, infrequently visited by American tourists, is the Douro Valley.
We toured the area recently, sailing on a Uniworld Grand River Cruise. Our floating hotel, the Douro Queen, meandered lazily past vineyards and quintas (farms) on both sides of the Douro River.
The weeklong cruise, sailing round trip from Vila Nova da Gaia (across the river from Porto), included visits to medieval castles, universities and picturesque towns. As a bonus, we discovered the delights of port wine and savored the culinary specialties of this relatively unspoiled part of Europe.
Most of the Uniworld guests participated in a two-day visit to Lisbon before embarking. We met the group Sunday morning as they
prepared to leave Lisbon by bus for the trip north.
Part of the extensive gardens at Mateus Palace. (Ruth Taber / Special to the Times)
A stop in Coimbra allowed us to visit one of the oldest universities in Europe. We popped into the beautiful Biblioteca Joanina, whose collection of more than 300,000 books includes some dating to the 12th century.
A typical Portuguese menu was on tap for our lunch at the local O Observatório Restaurante. Sardine paté, an appetizer that we smeared on our fresh-baked bread, was delicious, a great prelude to our caldo verde. The soup, whose name translates to "green broth," originated in northern Portugal but is now a mainstay of all Portuguese cuisine. Its ingredients include potatoes, finely shredded cabbage or other greens, onion and, optionally, a few thin slices of garlic
Arriving in Vila Nova da Gaia, we had just enough time to unpack and enjoy a short walk along the waterfront before the sun went down. We were introduced to the crew and staff at a welcoming cocktail party, which was followed by a superb dinner. Meals onboard the Douro Queen were exceptional every day of our cruise. We were offered numerous choices presented beautifully and -- the bottom line -- everything was delicious.
The next morning, Uniworld offered a city tour of Porto and
Vila Nova da Gaia, returning in time for lunch. (All excursions and tours were included in the cruise price.) Afterward, we were invited to the Ferreira Wine Lodge, a short walk from the ship, for a wine "primer" and tasting. The lodges, or port houses, lining the waterfront are warehouses where port producers age the wine brought in from the Douro Valley.
View of Taylor and Vargellas Port quintas lining the Douro River. (Ruth Taber / Special to the Times)
Late in the day, we sailed to Biteto, where buses were waiting to take us to dinner at Alpendurada, which was a Benedictine monastery in the 14th-century.
Today, Alpendurada's converted buildings serve as a private hotel with lavish gardens, but the look and feel of medieval times remains. Old furnishings and sculptures were scattered along the long stone corridors leading to our dining room, which glowed with candlelight. A Douro Valley red wine, Quinta Aciprestes Tinto 2004, was a fruity and flavorful accompaniment to our hearty dinner.
While our ship was berthed at Regua, we had a glimpse of upscale Portuguese living when we visited a former "country home" (read: palace) built by the 3rd Morgado of Mateus in the early 18th century. The building was donated to the Casa de Mateus Foundation in 1971 by a descendant. Today, it functions as a museum and venue for concerts, seminars and exhibitions.
The bus ride from our ship to the Mateus Palace near Vila Real was awesome; the road climbed and wound around mountains dotted with vineyards and orchards.
The stunning pool that mirrored the building entrance was just a prelude to the beautiful interiors. After the guided house tour, I took a walk through the extensive gardens, considered among the most beautiful in Europe. Many people know about the home because it's featured on the label of Mateus Rose wines.
While we were sightseeing, our ship sailed to Pinh o, so our bus took us there. It provided even more breathtaking views of the area as we snaked down the hilly roads to the river. Pinh o is the heart of port wine country, and most of the great port houses have quintas along the river from here to the border.
The ship remained in Pinh o overnight. After breakfast, we walked to the Wine Academy at the elegant Vintage House Hotel. Unaccustomed to sipping port wine midmorning, I succumbed easily after a fascinating lecture on Portugal's most famous export.
Wine has been cultivated on the steep terraced slopes on both sides of the Douro River for close to 2,000 years. The cold winters, hot summers and poor, rocky soil provide favorable growing conditions for hundreds of native grape varieties.
Port wine was created in the 17th century through a happy accident. Trying to keep table wines from turning rancid while exporting them from Portugal to England, the shippers added spirits (brandy) to each wine cask to stop the natural process of fermentation. The English loved the result and quickly became fans of this delicious new beverage.
Port has an alcohol content between 19 percent and 22 percent, and its color ranges from golden amber to deep, dark plum red. Like table wines, port wines have an extensive flavor vocabulary -- from sweet summer fruit to decadent dark chocolate.
Uniworld Grand River Cruises has scheduled 2009 Douro River cruises, from March 26 through October. The luxurious Douro Queen accommodates up to 126 guests. All staterooms have river views, and the sun deck has a small swimming pool and hot tub.
Great news for single travelers: If booked before Jan. 31, Uniworld will waive single supplement charges on select 2009 departure dates in April, May, July and August.