Late this October my Mother and I embarked on Grand European Travel’s Portugal and Spain River Cruise. We have been lucky enough to travel to Europe several times but this was the first time in a few years and we are so thankful we went.
We selected this cruise because for its location and the opportunity to see parts of Portugal and Spain that are still very untouched hoping for a chance to experience the true culture of the places and the people. The cruise began with 3 nights in Lisbon and then we drove north through Portugal, to Porto where we boarded our ship and sailed along the Douro River. The trip by far exceeded our expectations and also fulfilled our needs for relaxation and fun.
The trip started with 3 nights in Lisbon at a lovely hotel within walking distance of downtown. We had a fantastic local host, Pilar, who was from Lisbon and shared her love and insight of this unique city with us. She not only gave us guidance on restaurants and shopping but she was also one of our city guides and amazed us with her knowledge of the history of Portugal and Lisbon.
Lisbon is a city of museums and unique neighborhoods. A 15 minute walk from the hotel was the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, one of the most outstanding in Lisbon. We saw Degas, Rembrandt, Rodin and a world-famous collection of Lalique Art Nouvea. It was the perfect way to spend our arrival afternoon in the city.
As for the neighborhoods, the Alfama is the oldest section of the city and has winding cobblestone streets filled with the life and passion of Lisbon. We wandered past local fish markets and meat markets and saw a glimpse of the local day to day life. Many residents of the Alfama rarely leave their neighborhood, finding their church, their produce, their meat and fish, and their entertainment within these winding streets that are over 800 years old.
From Lisbon we traveled north to Porto to join our river cruise. Porto was fantastic with one of the most breathtaking cityscapes I have ever seen. Our ship was docked across the river from Porto so during the day and night you could look out at the city with one historic building after another rising from the hills. There was little damage by war or natural disaster to the city so the town is dotted with cathedrals and city structures dating back to the 11th century. Everywhere we turned there was a picture perfect scene. We could walk within 15 minutes into the oldest part of the town, the Riviera district and enjoy the cafes and shops along the river.
In Porto we also got our first opportunity to learn about and taste Port. The cellars we visited were a 3 minute walk from the ship. The guides gave us a great tour with a wealth of information about Port as well as many fun stories about the history of the drink. Throughout the trip we had other opportunities to discover the Quinta’s that grow the grapes and see the incredible landscapes that the grape vines create.
The cruise proved to be a wonderful way to see a very untouched portion of Portugal, the Douro valley. Along the river was terrace after terrace of grape vines that created a blanket of reds, oranges and yellows with their leaves. It was fall foliage at its best. As we traveled we spent time on our balcony taking in the colors and the natural beauty of the country side.
One of my favorite days on the cruise was the day we went to Salamanca. We arrived in Salamanca mid-morning and quickly got on our way exploring the many cobblestone streets and pathways. We went to the Mercado first which is the market where the locals go for their meat, fish and produce. We were fascinated by all the different types of sausages, meats and the fish galore! It was a very colorful sight and a good glimpse at the local lifestyle.
From there we wandered to their famous town square that is surrounded by beautiful sand stone buildings and the town clock. As we made our way back to our meeting point we took little streets here and there and marveled at how architecturally unique each building is. It was one of the best picture taking opportunities we had. The most eye catching building of all was the cathedral. It rises out of the center of town with a very unique combination of Gothic and Baroque styles and is breathtaking. It reminded me of Notre Dame but it is much more dramatic because it is built in so close to all of the other buildings making if feel more immense and intriguing.
The cruise itself was very luxurious and tested our will power when it came to all the decadent food. One of my favorite meals was the Captain’s dinner. It was 6 courses and each course was better than the previous. How they manage to get beef tenderloin done so perfectly for everyone is still a mystery to me but I was just happy to enjoy it all.
We of course fit in a bit of shopping, finding beautiful ceramic tiles, jewelry and port. The ceramic shops in Sintra were by far the best we found anywhere with very rich colors and designs depicting the beauty of the countryside there. We brought back a bit of port to share with our family and some very precious ceramic boxes and bracelets.
If someone asked me to pick a favorite part of the trip it would be very hard to do so. Porto, Lisbon and Salamanca were a wonderful set of historic and scenic cities and I am thankful I had the opportunity to see them and experience the local flavor. However the river and the cruise were so relaxing, beautiful and luxurious I loved that too!
I brought home memories to last a lifetime, plus many photos, a few keepsakes and the desire to travel again, both back to Portugal as well as to other countries and cultures. There is nothing like discovering the lifestyle and history of other countries, there is so much history and beauty around every corner, it leaves you ready to book the next trip before you even return, what a wonderful addiction, travel!