Destination spotlight: Douro River Cruise – where I tried my hand at tile making

Everywhere in Portugal you’ll see azulejos. These distinctive blue and white tiles were first made in the 14th century and originally depicted stories of the great Portuguese explorers as they sailed around the globe. I learned about their fascinating history during a tile-making workshop which was one of many unusual highlights on a Douro river cruise.

My journey started in Porto, a colourful, vibrant place with the Douro running through the centre towards the Atlantic Ocean where those early navigators set sail on their voyages of discovery. The city is now one of the most popular destinations in Europe and is protected by UNESCO. Churches, plazas and colourful shop front facades are a few of the features of this historic gem.

My ship: the Scenic Azure

The beautiful Scenic Azure river ship was waiting for me, and I settled into my balcony suite, my home for the week. We were docked right in the centre of this enchanting city. It’s worth noting that Scenic – and sister line Emerald Cruises – has an exclusive docking spot on the Cais de Maragaia side of the river, just a five minute walk from the Ribiera Street seafront promenade and close to Porto’s UNESCO-listed historic centre. Other ships moor on the opposite bank. I’ve been to many cities around the world but rarely had views like this from my hotel.

The cafes and riverside restaurants were buzzing with activity in the autumn sunshine. A historic tram ride takes passengers to the sea front and a cable car provides stunning views in all directions. Our tour included the incredible Palacio da Bolsa, stock exchange palace, a neoclassical-style building that started construction in 1842 and took over 65 years to complete. It is a national monument that’s also classified as World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Vibrant colours and a warm breeze greeted me as I took in the beautiful scenery along the Douro valley, with vineyards lining the riverbanks along the so-called ‘river of gold’. River cruising must be the best way to explore this often overlooked region of Portugal. But then I am biased, I am already a big fan of this method of traveling. I love the fact that I only have to unpack once and can keep the same room but get to travel and explore the countryside. A Douro river cruise itinerary includes lots of daytime sailing. Unlike other European rivers, ships are not allowed to sail at night so you never miss any of the passing scenery.

As we travelled, I joined the traditional, Portuguese tile painting class held in the ship lounge. It was an opportunity to chat to my fellow travellers and to discover my creativity as well as taking part in a traditional art form. Plus, I got an unusual souvenir to take home.

The amazing Carrapatello Dam

A highlight of this itinerary is the incredible combination of the river’s natural beauty and human engineering capabilities. The Carrapatello Dam has a lock with a water level change of *35 metres, making it one of the tallest in the world and the deepest in Europe. With just enough space for the ship, it was like sailing into a


cave, the scale is awe inspiring. Water poured in and the ship quickly rose to the top. The gates were lowered, and we continued on our journey along the beautiful river Douro.

The Douro wine region

I joined an excursion to Provesende, one of the most picturesque villages in the Douro wine region. Tasting delicious traditional Folar de Chaves (Portuguese meat bread) and visiting the village bakery with its bread oven and tempting aromas were highlights. We also sat in an ancient wine cellar, surrounded by barrels and sampled the local Port.
We heard about rural life and why so many young people have exchanged village life for the cities. The local guide shared many interesting stories about her life, growing up in the area and returning with her own family.

Other excursions included a chance to travel to the beautiful, ancient Spanish city of Salamanca, known for its ornate sandstone architecture and the historical University of Salamanca, where it’s fun trying to spot a tiny stone frog hidden in the ornate facade. We also went on a visit to the Portuguese village, Freixo de Espada à Cinta for a guided tour and visit to their silk museum and ‘Tastes of the Côa Valley’ excursion where guests sample some of the regions traditional produce including jams, marmalades and sugared almonds.

Every day, the cuisine on board was first class, with opportunities to taste locally inspired, regional specialities. One of my favourites being Pastéis de Nata – have you tried one of these? It’s a delicious, crispy, custard tart…yummy. The beautiful weather enabled us to enjoy a Portuguese BBQ on deck to celebrate the captain’s birthday and thank all of the fantastic, Scenic Azure staff.

One of the great things about river cruise is the opportunity to explore different places but return to the same room each night and only have to pack and unpack once. It was a very relaxing week with opportunities to go on interesting excursions or stay onboard and enjoy the ship. The Douro River has a special place in my heart, and I will return.

If you would like to explore this beautiful region of Portugal, then get in touch and I can help you find the perfect option.


Jenny Cookman