The Douro and Guadiana

In the far western part of the European continent, nestled in the corner, are the countries of Portugal and Spain, home to the Douro and Guadiana rivers. One of the major rivers of the Iberian Peninsula, and the third longest, the Douro flows from its source near Duruelo de la Sierra across north-central Spain and Portugal to its outlet in the Atlantic Ocean at Porto, the namesake of Port Wine, and a thriving and traditional city. Literally the ‘river of gold’, the 897 km Douro is considered to be one of Europe’s most beautiful and unspoiled rivers. For a portion of its path, the Douro forms a natural border between Spain and Portugal and as the river unfolds, the scenery is that of narrow canyons, steeply-terraced vineyards, ancient villages, and hilltops dotted with impressive manor houses. In addition to Porto, a Douro river cruise will usually include Peso de Régua, Vila Real, Lamego, Pinhao, Barca d’Alva, and Vega de Terron.

Destination Highlight on a Douro River Cruise

Porto

Situated at the great gorge before the Douro enters the Atlantic Ocean is Porto, the country’s second largest city and the center of the Port wine trade. Porto is a thriving commercial city with a variety of architectural styles, striking bridges, delicious cuisine, and plenty to see and explore. The highlight of a visit to Porto includes Ribeira, the waterfront district and historic center of the city, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. Located within the center is the Sé do Porto (Oporto Cathedral), which is the oldest surviving structure and one of the most important Romanesque monuments in Portugal. The cathedral is a fortress-like monument built on the highest point of the granite rock upon which most of the old town of Porto was built.

A number of other churches are worth a visit, including the Romanesque Igreja de São Martinho de Cedofeita (Church of Cedofeita), the Gothic Igreja de San Francisco (Church of Saint Francis), and the Baroque Igreja dos Clérigos (Church of the Clerics) with its 18th century bell tower, Torre dos Clerigos, which has become the symbol of Porto.

There are some interesting monuments which sprung from the neo-Classicism and Romanticism periods in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the marvelous Palácio da Bolsa, or Stock Exchange Palace, which is well-known for its neo-moorish reception hall; the Hospital of Saint Anthony, the train station of Sao Bento, and the lovely gardens of the Palácio de Cristal, or Crystal Palace.

Across the river Douro from Porto is the city of Vila Nova de Gaia, which is home to the lodges where Vinho do Porto (Port wine) is blended and aged. It is the perfect opportunity and place to taste and compare some Port wine, as well as to peruse the ceramics, soap, and glass, which are produced here.

Peso da Régua

East of Porto is Peso da Régua, the official center of the Port wine-growing region and gateway to steep hills with lavish manor house, terraced vineyards, and some lovely wooded valleys with almond groves and sleepy villages. A peaceful town itself, it is from Peso da Régua that barrels of wine were transported to Vila Nova de Gaia on rabelos, or wooden sailing ships. Highlights of Peso da Régua include Casa do Douro, which has great stained-glass windows depicting the history of Port wine.

Vila Real

Vila Real, established in the13th century, is a thriving agricultural town located on a plateau surrounded by mountains and was the first place in Portugal to install electricity in 1895. In addition to the 16th century church Sao Pedro, with its Baroque façade, and the Gothic cathedral in the center, there are many interesting buildings to see, exhibiting elegant stone façades and portals decorated with coats of arms from the original proprietors. Birthplace of Diogo Cao, the explorer who navigated to the mouth of the Congo River in 1482, Vila Real is ideally situated near the exceptional Casa de Mateu or Mateus Palace, which is a fantastic Baroque country house with truly lovely gardens and a serene pond, made famous because of its presence on the labels of Mateus Rosé wine.

Lamego

Lamego is an ancient Episcopal city and delightful Baroque town in the lush valley and Port wine area of the Upper Douro. The town center is a public garden surrounded by elegant 17th century buildings. There are two hills in the town upon which are the two most important sights: the pilgrimage church of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, reached by a fabulous Baroque staircase comprised of 600 steps; and the 12th century castle, with a well-preserved 13th century keep and vaulted Moorish cistern.

Pinhao

Pinhao is a quaint, rustic town located at the spectacular confluence of the Douro and Pinhão rivers. It is truly the epicenter of the Port winemaking area, due to the perfect soil and climactic conditions, and the home of the major quintas, the largest names in Port wine production. This is a fine-wine lover’s mecca and every year the autumn grape harvest brings the sleepy town to life with a flurry and frenzy of activity.

Sao Joao da Pesqueira

A wine-growing village, usually offered as an excursion from Pinhao or Ferradosa on Douro river cruises, Sao Joao de Pesqueira is situated on a plateau surrounded by quintas. There is a lovely town hall, with an array of magnificent tiled murals depicting winemaking scenes. The scenery is that of valleys and vineyards and is truly picturesque.

Barca d’Alva

As the river approaches the Spanish border, it passes through Barca d’Alva, a mooring spot and stopping point. Though the scenery changes from strictly vineyard covered slopes, and settles into groves of almond, cherry, and olive trees, there are still some vines to be found.

Vega de Terron (for Salamanca)

Once the Douro crosses the border of Spain, riverboats typically moor up at Vega de Terron, providing their passengers with an opportunity to visit the university town of Salamanca. Founded in pre-Roman times, Salamanca is the capital of the province of the same name in the region of Castilla y León, or Castile-Leon. Considered one of the most wonderful Renaissance cities in Europe, the main sights include: Plaza Major, which is the main square surrounded by shaded arcades, and the 12th century Romanesque cathedral. The sandstone buildings have given the city the nickname, La Ciudad Dorada, and in1996, Salamanca became the designated home to the official archives of the Spanish Civil War, Archivo General de la Guerra Civil Española.

The Guadiana River

The Guadiana, also one of the longest rivers in the Iberian Peninsula (778 km or 486 miles), flows west from its start near the Spanish border across the Toledo Mountains, forming part of the Spain-Portugal border, and then continues to the southwestern part of Portugal in the Algarve. The river has 1,824 dams resulting in a small navigable section, where olives, fortified towns, and hilltop villages persist and prevail in the indefatigable sun. A relative newcomer to river cruises, the ports of call on a Guadiana river cruise include: Vila real de Santo Antonio, a town on the border of Spain at the Golfo de Cadiz; Alcoutim, a 14th century town with a lively center; and Mertola, an inland port used by the Phoenicians, Romans, and Moors. The scenery on the Guadiana is a combination of olive groves, stony soil, and arid hillsides, where the remnants and influence of Moorish occupation remain.

Destination Highlights on a Guadiana River Cruise

Vila Real de Santo Antonio

Originating as a fishing port and dating back to Phoenician times, Vila Real de Santo Antonio is a sprawling town at the edge of the Algarve on the frontier between Spain and Portugal. Rebuilt after the terrible earthquake of 1755, the town has little of historical value and is declining somewhat. Many visitors opt for a stay in the popular beach resort of Monte Gordo, with sea-washed beaches lined with pine trees, or they take the bridge across the Guadiana, which provides rapid access to Seville and further points in the rest of Spain.

Alcoutim

A charming and unspoiled town on the Spanish border, Alcoutim has been an important river port since Phoenician times. The town now offers a lively square with restaurants, bars, and cafés, some lovely beaches along the river, and an impressive medieval church, considered to be one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture in southern Portugal. The setting is lovely and the stretch of river between Alcoutim and Foz da Odeleite is reputed to be the most scenic in the Algarve.

Mertola

Founded by the Phoenicians and used by the Romans and the Moors, Mertola has been an important trading post and significant commercial axis for thousands of years. The town is the most northern inland port on the river Guadiana, exceptionally located on a rocky spur, famous for its fortifications. Throughout its history, Mertola has been known as a Roman and pre-Roman city, the capital of a Moorish Kingdom, and the seat of the Knights of the Order of Saint James. Though the historical significance and importance of its past may not be readily perceptible, examples of Moorish architecture abound and various monuments and landmarks are scattered all over the city. The main sights include the kilometer long wall surrounding the town and the 12th century Church of Santa Maria, which was built on the site of a former mosque. The ruined fortress affords lovely views over the town and the rivers beyond.