The Douro is synonymous with Portugal’s port wine industry as the river cuts through the heart of the country’s remote and rugged wine region.
It runs along the border of Spain and Portugal for 70 miles, before turning into the country at Vega de Terron, which is where it becomes navigable for the final 125 miles as it flows towards Porto.
Unlike other European rivers that are notable for the major cities along their banks, the Douro has a completely different flavour.
The so-called River of Gold is more of an exotic backwater as it winds through the Douro Valley which has UNESCO World Heritage status as the world’s first demarcated wine region.
As so little of it is navigable, vessels sail from Porto to the Spanish border before turning around and retracing their route – a journey that takes just four or five days. The pace of sailings is slow and sleepy with beautiful scenery of rocky gorges and precipitous slopes covered by vines and dotted with Portuguese wineries or “quintas” that are the focus of port tastings.
There are trips to tranquil villages brimming with history and rich Baroque architecture, hikes up steep hillsides and, with river ships mooring for two days in Porto, the chance to explore this historic city.
Cruises run from March to November. Summers can be blisteringly hot, making the shoulder seasons the best time to visit, especially in autumn which coincides with the harvest season.
Most activities focus on port, from vineyard tours and visits to wineries for port and wine tastings to private lunches and dinners where local specialities are served. There are cocktail-making and port blending classes and visits to the port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, plus hiking trips and cycle tours. Main points of interest are Porto, Regua, Castelo Rodrigo, Lamego and Salamanca in Spain.