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Portugal & Spain Review

Cruise Line: Uniworld Cruises
Ship: Douro Prince
Itinerary: Douro River Porto-Salamanca-Porto
 
For those of you who have “been there and done that” here is something totally different. Riverboat sailing offers access to cities and sights unavailable to the “Regular” cruise ships.
 
The Douro Prince has room for 48 passengers. On our sailing there were 26 passengers. Most of them had sailed on many cruise lines. The river cruise was something new to them. Some of the passengers had selected the river cruise for their first cruise as a protection against seasickness and to avoid the large number of passengers on the cruise ships.
We arrived in Porto in the middle of a local Port Wine festival complete with fireworks display. We thought it was just for us but alas no! The ship has recently been refurbished. The cabin is 130 sq. ft. and well laid out with plenty of hanging space and draws. Some of the cabins had small balconies. One person could turn around in the bathroom. No telephones in the cabins. You put your name on a list to be “knocked up” in the morning. No computers. There are televisions in the room which had CNN, Sky News and a local channel. They only worked occasionally. The ship had a lounge with a small dance floor in the middle and a restaurant that sat all passengers in one sitting. A small reception area and a little shop.
 
The whole of the top of the ship was open with a covered area at the front. There was comfortable seating for viewing and sunning.
Breakfast and lunch were served buffet style with a great selection. Breakfast included eggs, bacon, cheeses and meats along with many cereals. There were also many fruits, yogurt, fresh breads, croissants, fruit juices coffee and teas. Lunch included local Almonds, Olives, Soup, meats, fish and cheeses. Freshly baked breads and cakes were available each day. Dinners were a fixed menu that was different each day. We had vegetarian and Kosher requirements for passengers. This caused no problems.
River cruises offer an up close view in different way to cruise lines. All excursions are included at no extra cost. There was an air-conditioned double-decker bus waiting for us when we needed it. We had a wonderful guide who was with us everyday and gave  us a narration on the sights we passed on the river. When we visited a city we also had the services of a local guide.
On the second day we were provided with a tour of Porto including the magnificent Cathedral.
Each of the major Port producers have replicas of the original boats that were used for transporting the barrels of Port down the river. This is a great sight to see from the many bridges.
 
The night’s dinner was served in a hotel high on the hillside that had been converted from a monastery. The food was cooked in the stone ovens and accompanied by local wines.
 
Day 3 brought us to the beautiful 18th century gardens of Mateus Rose which included excellent gardens and a 100 ft cedar tunnel.
 
Day 4 was an all day trip to the city of Salamanca in Spain famous for its 12th century Romanesque church and University. Plaza Major is one of the most beautiful squares in Spain. Lunch was served in a City center hotel and included authentic Paella and local wines.
 
Day 5 Pinhao with its great railroad station.
 
Day 6 brought us to Lamego home to the gothic church located high above the city that has 700 steps to reach it. Once a year pilgrims come here and climb the 700 steps on their knees. Yes, we started at the top and walked down! At the bottom 2 Coffees and two pastries cost $1.80. There was a local leather merchant cutting belts, wallets and purses.
 
The sides of the river are covered in tiered wine terraces from top to bottom. These terraces are blasted from the granite hillsides and receive no irrigation except rain during the year. Along the river we passed through may locks one was 150 ft deep. Going through some of the locks the top of the wheel house had to be taken off and we had to lie on the deck chairs to pass under the bridges after the docks. This was a fascinating experience.
 
With the small number of passengers it only takes a small amount of time to start new friendships. On the last night the passengers got together and created a comic review of the cruise. It was very enjoyable. All passengers signed up for an after cruise e-mail list.
$10 per person per day was requested for tips which were divided among the crew.
This form of cruising is a very relaxing way to travel and with the shore excursions included represents a good value. For any questions contact me at 800-640-4899
 

Douro Queen Review Dec 2008
 

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

Part of the extensive gardens at Mateus Palace. (Ruth Taber / Special to the Times)
prepared to leave Lisbon by bus for the trip north.

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

sausage.

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

View of Taylor and Vargellas Port quintas lining the Douro River. (Ruth Taber / Special to the Times)
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.

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.

Future cruises

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.

 

                       

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