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Cruising Portugal’s Douro River teaches 2 friends about wine and resilience

Sunset over the Douro River and the city center in Porto, Portugal Sunset over Porto and the Douro River, Portugal. Photo by ppohudka/

The contessa was not what I expected her to be. On a perfect summer morning in Portugal’s Douro Valley, I stood at the Hotel Rural Casa dos Viscondes da Várzea in a black dress and heels, waiting to meet her.

The night before, during the maiden-night briefing aboard AmaWaterways’ AmaDouro, Cruise Manager Fintan Kerr had informed us passengers that this contessa, Maria Manuel Cyrne, was “larger than life. She’s simply unforgettable.”

That much I could surmise after touring a few of the 150 acres of the contessa’s estate along with some 63 other AmaDouro cruisers, including my close friend and cabinmate, Sophie. The palace was replete with 27 bedrooms, a gold-leafed family cathedral, and a pigeon mansion (yes, a manor where feathered messenger birds reside).

A fantasy image of the Portuguese royal was fixed in my mind—that of a Chanel-clad, coiffed beauty who no doubt spoke with an Oxbridge accent.

Instead, Contessa Maria was a brassy bottle blonde, wearing a bright blue Zara shirt (“19 euros!” she cooed) and worn black slacks. When we caught up with her in the palace kitchen, she was doing the dishes.

Born into an aristocratic family, Maria grew up “like a princess in a palace,” but a coup—the 1974 Carnation Revolution—stripped her elite clan of its palatial property and sent Maria, suddenly a pauper, into hiding as a university student.

Eventually, Maria transformed a love of fashion into a retail empire, married another fallen noble, and finally snagged the palace. But even fairy tales come with bills, and Maria was determined to pay them.

When Sophie and I broke away from the group to chat with her, Maria grabbed a soapy wineglass, looked me in the eye and declared, “My darling, I will do what I need to do—even if it means working until 5 a.m. like I did last night. I am not going to lose a palace again.” She toweled off her hands and handed us flutes of sparkling wine. “Now let’s make a chin-chin and celebrate life!”

Vineyards growing in the hills along the Douro River

Vineyards along the Douro River. Photo by Simon Dannhauer

Welcome to the Douro Valley—a lush, expansive dreamland of sprawling vineyards and red-tiled quintas (wine-growing estates), gleaming palaces like Maria’s, and hushed medieval towns.

The 557-mile Douro River, which connects the valley’s villages and cities, not only sweetly ferried us up some 131 miles of navigable water but also offered us a window into the Alto Douro Wine Region, the world’s first demarcated wine zone.

This is where the Portuguese—and, notably, the British—have been making port wine for centuries. In the Douro, grapes are still hand-plucked from vines and squashed in vats by local and Romanian feet. With each stop on our weeklong cruise, we ventured deeper into the country’s beating heart.

A boutique ship built for the Douro River

I had journeyed from Los Angeles to the Douro Valley to check out the AmaDouro, a boutique luxury vessel specially designed to sail the Douro River.

For one, the length of the ship was reduced from the typical 443 feet to 260 feet so it could fit into the river’s locks and maneuver its shallows and narrows. These leaner dimensions meant scaling back the number of passengers to a mere 102 shipboard revelers. As a result, AmaDouro cruises sell out quickly.

Fast friends aboard the AmaDouro

With a smaller group, the daily excursions and nightly dinners took on a charming, intimate ambience. Indeed, we cruisers quickly learned each other’s names.

Paso Robles winemaker Steve Cass (a former Charles Schwab vice president who transformed himself into a much-lauded vintner) and his lovely piano-playing wife, Alice, even hosted 2 wine talks about Portuguese and California wines—and shared bottles of Cass Winery’s excellent cabernets and viogniers at curated wine-paired dinners. “Come join us!” became my favorite refrain each evening as Steve and Alice beckoned us to their table.

Every night, we indulged in sumptuous 4-course meals—one favorite offering was beef medallions with béarnaise sauce, and a shockingly satisfying banana split. On a Portuguese-themed night, we had braised farinheira sausage, cabbage soup with chorizo, and ovos moles pastries.

Kerr told me that the AmaDouro’s Portuguese executive chef had crafted a menu that delivered his country’s terroir on a plate. “These meals are not spontaneous,” said Kerr. “The chef wants to give cruisers the broadest possible experience of his country—so that means rustic stews and locally sourced fish.” This was not just a “moveable feast.” It was a floating one.

Sharing an unexpected journey

This weeklong cruise could not have come at a better time—for Sophie or for me. Like the contessa, neither one of us was in the place where we thought we’d be at this stage of life.

I met Sophie in Hong Kong in the late 1990s. There, we were journalists and close friends but also, strangely, social rivals. She had divorced her lawyer husband, whom she’d met in the former British colony decades ago. But now she was tussling between 2 handsome suitors who, conveniently, lived in different countries.

I had just left a 23-year-marriage to an Indian aristocrat. My oversize suitcases were stuffed not only with my favorite dresses, evening clutches, and too many novels, but also memories and regrets, which I hoped the ever-constant river and the sight of its pastoral shores—lined as they were with white-washed farmhouses, chestnut and olive trees, and horses and vineyards—would gently soothe. 

Discoveries along the Douro River

A map showing the path of the Douro River through Portugal and Spain

Map by Eric Van Eyke

Truth be told, I was skeptical about taking a river cruise. I had been a foreign correspondent who (more than once) had ridden a yak through a small Chinese village on a quest for a story.

Would cruising at 10 mph on a stunning but uneventful river prove to be a snooze? What could an adventurous traveler like me take away from such a manicured experience? More importantly, what could I learn about life? 

“Ocean and river cruises are very different,” explained Cruise Manager Kerr. “On a river cruise, you can always see something interesting on the nearby shore—you’re never very far from the culture you came to explore. We are always passing through some special place—a hamlet, a village, a quinta, a vineyard. And because we sail right up to the villages, it’s easy for us to launch into really special excursions, sometimes deep into the heart of the valley.”

Every morning on the AmaDouro, I could count on 3 things:

  1. My custom-ordered mushroom omelet served by my ever-cheerful waiter at my favorite sun-streaked table near the picture windows.
  2. Sophie in her white tank top and tennis skirt coming in from the pool deck. “I watched the dawn fog roll off the water, then did some yoga, meditation, and spontaneous dancing,” she’d say as I tried hard not to reply with a frozen smile: “Okay, crazy person!”
  3. The sudden 8:30 a.m. rush of excursion-goers, toting water bottles, hats, and audio headsets that allowed us to hear our guide’s insightful commentary as we fanned out to the valley’s palaces, topiary gardens, and wineries.

Sometimes, to reach our excursion destinations, we would journey for an hour or more in AmaDouro’s luxury coaches, during which our impeccably educated Portuguese guide, Ines Mira, who had lived in the Douro for years, would dazzle us with her regional knowledge. I loved learning that Mira’s multigenerational family not only kept a yard full of working chickens but also made their own olive oil every year using pickings from their backyard trees.

On the third day, we docked overnight at Pinhão.

A woman twirling in the Mateus Palace Topiary Garden

Mateus Palace’s topiary garden. Photo by Alison Gee

In the morning, we visited the iconic Mateus Palace, where we idled in the topiary garden and learned about port: The sweet red wine is usually made by adding a concentrated wine spirit, like brandy, to a port wine base. The resulting libation has a higher alcohol content, which is one reason port is generally served in small glasses—and also why Sophie and I were often passed out on the ship’s chaise lounges in the afternoon.

Plaza Mayor

Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor. Photo by Alison Gee

On day 4, we rode a luxury coach for 2 hours to Salamanca, Spain, a medieval town north of Madrid. Walking around the Plaza Mayor, where the town’s families still stroll every evening, suddenly transported us to the 1600s. Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes attended university here, and the town squares were the scene of many medieval duels. In fact, on the granite churches and university buildings, you can still see the slash marks where knights had sharpened their swords. 

Deck with a view

Cruisers relaxing on the AmaDouro deck

Aboard the AmaDouro. Photo courtesy AmaWaterways

While our excursions were educational and eye-opening, some of our best moments took place on the ship’s deck, where Sophie and I met every afternoon. Case in point: “What’s that?” Sophie gestured to a fuchsia rose pinned behind my ear, as we tossed our towels, lip gloss, and books onto a pool chaise.

“It’s from one of the cruisers. He gave it to me and just said, ‘Beauty.’ ” Sophie raised her flawless brows.

“Oh, don’t get your knickers in a twist,” I said, rolling my eyes. “He’s like 78—only slightly out of my range.”

Sophie grabbed my hand and pulled me to the ship’s rails. This was our afternoon ritual—to gaze out onto the water and beyond, into the middle distance.

The verdant banks, with their wooden plows, brick wells, and medieval churches, were a tableau of human ritual and resilience, the sky a canopy of eternity. The river’s green waters teeming with European sea bass flowed briskly past us and, as I lifted my face into the wind, an earthy whiff of brine filled my lungs.

I thought about what the contessa had shared earlier: There is no use clinging onto something that is no longer yours. You have to take action if you want to move forward. I loosened the rose from my hair, tore it into petals, and let them float like pink teardrops into the wind.

Santuario de Nossa Senhora

Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios. Photo by Sergey Peterman/

During one of our final excursions, to Lamego, we followed an ancient trail up 686 stone stairs to the stunning hilltop Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios. Although not everyone made it to the pinnacle, Sophie and I did, bounding up like lithe gazelles in our sundresses and sandals. On our audio headsets, Mira told us that pilgrims braving the climb prayed to be healed from polio, cancer, infertility—the list went on.

So when we entered the church, I went straight for the electric prayer candles, dropped a euro in the slot, and as the lights flickered on, claimed 10 prayers.

“So, Ali, what did you wish for?” Sophie inquired, as she sashayed up to me. “World peace, of course, robust health, and ... everlasting love,” I answered. “Fine choices,” she said, winking a sparkling green eye. “Now be a darling and move over, so I can use those other 7.” And I did.

Alison Gee is the author of the memoir Where the Peacocks Sing: A Palace, a Prince, and the Search for Home.

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The AmaDouro cruising the Douro River

Sail aboard the AmaDouro

AmaWaterways runs Douro River cruises from March through December, when passengers can enjoy Portugal’s charming Christmas markets. Rates for the Enticing Douro 7-night cruise start at $3,399 per person based on double occupancy. AmaWaterways also offers a cruise/land package that includes 3 nights in Lisbon.

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