Porto and Vila Nova da Gaia developed from settlements on the banks of the Douro river. Indeed it was one of the settlements, known in the fourth century as Portus Cale, from which the word Portugal is derived: Portus Cale evolved into Portucale and hence to Portugal.
Vila Nova da Gaia is the centre for port wine production, but the wine actually begins its life many miles inland away far away from the cooling Atlantic breezes at the mouth of the river Douro.
The Douro, or River of Gold, for that is what its name means, has carved its way through rock from its birth place in Spain, creating a stunningly beautiful riverscape of nearly 560 miles before reaching the sea. Along its banks terraced vineyards cling for dear life to slopes so sheer it takes your breath away. Today much of it has been tamed but it can still be a wild river with many rocks and rapids.
Taming the river
Because of the rugged terrain the only way to transport wine had had to be by the river, but even that was restricted as one particular channel, the Cachão da Valeira was so narrow and obstructed that the majority of the vineyards were confined to the west of the gorge. But with the expansion of the wine industry something had to be done and in 1780 the first steps to clear the rocks began and nine years later boats were able to pass through. However, it was still a hazardous undertaking because of fast flowing rapids. Great skill was needed to negotiate the rapids and to aid the boatmen flat bottomed boats (barcos rabelos) with raised platforms were built. With the aid of the platform and a long oar designed for steering the vessel it became just possible to navigate through the water and deliver the wine barrels to Vila Nova da Gaia.
With the completion of the railway along the Douro in 1887 an alternative method of wine transportation became available, to be followed in the 20th century by the building of roads and the advent of tanker lorries. Today the photogenic rabelos are used for advertising purposes and for occasional races.
Between 1961 and 1986 dams were constructed under the National Hydroelectric Project and the River Douro was tamed.
Today the river has become a popular choice for river cruise aficionados. It’s a delightful way of exploring the Douro. The ships leave Porto and sail under the spectacular bridges towards Spain passing through three massive dams. The scenery as the ships sail into demarcated port wine country where carefully sculpted vineyards bear the names of the relevant estate is stunning. Along the river the ships call in at delightful small riverside towns, such as Bitetos, Régua, and Pinhão, or takes in visits to places like the romantic-looking Casa de Mateus for a tour of the house and garden as well as wine tastings.
Portuguese hotel-ship cruise line Douro Azul provides a number of river cruises: www.douroazul.pt
Titan (0800 988 5867 www.titantravel.co.uk) offers an eight-day ‘A week on the Douro’ river cruise on board the Queen Isabel, the latest vessel in the Douro Azul fleet. The cruise begins in Porto, travelling west through Bitetos and Pinhao to the Spanish border, with highlights that include a city tour of Guimaraes, a visit to the Mateus Palace and Gardens and a traditional Flamenco show in Salamanca. The cruise costs from £2,319 per person and includes seven nights full board accommodation, excursions, international flights and Titan’s VIP Home Departure Service, transferring travellers from their front door to the airport and back, wherever they live in the UK.
Titan is also offering a series of exclusive arrangements enabling to sail on one of the most famous river ships in the world – Spirit of Chartwell. The cruises are travellers available on selected dates in June, September and October and costs from £1,595 per person for either a three-night cruise (full board), and four-night stay in the Pousada de Amares – Santa Maria do Bouro (half board) including flights, the services of a Titan tour manager and Titan’s VIP Home Departure Service, transferring travellers from their front door to the airport and back, wherever they live in the UK.