This past April, we had the pleasure of leading a group of 28 on an exciting two week journey in Spain and Portugal. The journey incorporated hotel nights in Madrid and Lisbon and a wonderful seven nights onboard AmaWaterways lovely ms AmaVida.
As we visited the resplendent Royal Palace in Madrid, and later the immense, ornately appointed, spectacular cathedrals, one more magnificent than the other, as well as the monasteries and public buildings not only in Madrid but also in Toledo and Salamanca, we began to realize how incredibly wealthy and powerful Spain and Portugal had once been. They had indeed been history’s first great global “superpowers”. First Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries, and then Spain in the 16th and 17th.
Madrid is a large, vibrant city. There are many granite quarries nearby. Many of the public buildings as well as private homes are clad in beautiful granite.
We visited Toledo, once an important Muslim city during the Muslim occupation. The Muslims, Jews and Christians lived here side by side in harmony. One of the oldest Jewish synagogues outside of Israel is in Toledo. The city is famous for its marzipan. A day trip took us to the town of Salamanca, known particularly for its ham, often hanging in various shops. Salamanca boasts the third oldest university in the world, built in 1134.
In Salamanca, we boarded the elegant ms AmaVida docked on the Douro River. For the next seven nights, we were pampered by Ama’s attentive on board staff.
200 kilometres of the Douro River lie in Portugal. It flows in a westerly direction through a series of stunning gorges on the way to the city of Porto and the Atlantic Ocean. Once a raging river, this section of the Douro has been tamed by five locks. There are a number of bridges across the river, some crossing over the locks.
As we sailed down the Douro River Valley we were inspired by the magnificent scenery on each side of the river, and the endless rows of terraced vineyards which produce world famous port and other fine wines. We stopped en route to travel narrow and tortuous roads to get to various mediaeval mountain top fortifications. There was limitless wine at all our meals on the boat and wonderful port, to follow dinner. We disembarked at various wineries to tour and taste port and some of the special local wines. The Douro River region offers exceptional conditions for vineyard cultivation.
We visited the Mateus Palace, the lavish home of the family who established the internationally famous “Mateus” brand of rosé coloured wine. Now publicly owned, the Palace is regarded as one of the finest “private” houses built in Europe.
On board, in the evenings we were treated to wonderful evening programs, including performances of Portuguese folk music, flamenco dancing and “Fado”.
7,200 square kilometres of land in Portugal is dedicated to the cultivation of cork oak trees. The climate is ideal. The bark can be harvested every 9 years. Cork represents about 70% of Portugal’s export trade. Cork purses, shoes, hats, etc. were available at various outlets along the way. En route, almond trees were in bloom and groves of olive trees. Amazingly, olive trees can grow to be more than 2,000 years old, as in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem.
We stopped at various religious complexes, including a large former monastery perched on the edge of the river. It had originally been built around the 13th century to house travelling pilgrims. More recently, it was converted to a tourist location. We were served a wonderful meal at the monastery.
Because of the high water levels in the Douro River, we experienced difficulty with some of the low bridges and locks. We sailed in daylight. Before attempting to go under one of those bridges, the captain lowered the wheelhouse hydraulically with his head sticking out as he attempted to pass underneath the bridge. We crouched on the sun deck. He made several attempts. The river boat cleared the bridge by a mere 1-2 centimetres. At another bridge we could reach up and touch the undercarriage of the bridge. It was exciting to watch our boat enter the locks with little room to spare. The locks were very deep and one of them is one of the highest one-lift locks in all of Europe at 35 metres.
Porto, Portugal’s second largest city, marked the end of our river cruise. Upon arrival, we had an interesting city tour. We watched the TUNA show; Porto University students and graduates, sang and played their instruments for us. They wore their “Harry Potter” frock coats and capes. The author JK Rowling drew inspiration for her books during her time in Porto. Some of us walked to the “Harry Potter Bookstore ” - Livaria Lello, with its impressive huge spiral staircase.
The next morning, we had an excursion to Guimarães, some of it built in the 10th century. We enjoyed its charming café-filled plazas and ancient narrow streets and squares. It is one of the most historic towns in Portugal, and the birthplace of the Portuguese nation.
We travelled southward to Fatima, the famous 20th century Portuguese pilgrimage site. And then it was on to the capital of Portugal, Lisbon, a charming city of “seven hills” and beautiful, wide pedestrian avenues on the Atlantic Ocean. Lisbon is essentially a “new city” of about half a million. A devastating earthquake with its epicentre in Northwestern Africa destroyed much of it in 1755. Fires and a huge tsunami continued the destruction. The city was then almost totally rebuilt.
Our hotel was right in the heart of the Old City. There was a mediaeval fortification on one of the hills overlooking our room. Old trams/street cars rumbled lazily up and down the hills, with wheels screeching. We enjoyed driving along the main avenue (Avenida Da Liberdade, the “Champs-Élysées of Lisbon”). We walked along one of the wide pedestrian avenues towards the Tagus River to watch the boat traffic on the Tagus River and admire the huge monuments to Portugal’s past in the main square “Praca do Comercio”. There were open air restaurants and delicatessens serving customers at tables along the pedestrian walkways and sampling some of the most delicious Portuguese “Pastéis de Nata” (small, round, sweet custard tarts) was a treat!
The gargantuan Jerónimos (Jerome) Monastery, a complex built in the 1500’s, another of Spain and Portugal’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites is fascinating. In the church, we saw the tombs of famous Portuguese writers as well as the famous Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.
Our final excursion took us on two very bumpy, fast and exciting shuttle bus rides to a spectacular mountain top “fairy” castle, situated high up on a rocky peak. Serra de Sintra had first been a cloister/monastery, but had then been converted to the summer residence of the Portuguese royal family.
We have not stopped reminiscing about our many experiences and Spain and Portugal’s warm and welcoming atmosphere. We think of all the delicious meals and wonderful wines. We think of the spectacular, rugged scenery of the Douro River Valley. We continue to be amazed by memories of the many colossal and opulent palaces, cathedrals, monasteries, castles, and public buildings. We return with a far greater appreciation of Spain and Portugal’s storied past and its hopes for the future.
Craig Travel is very pleased to offer once again an exciting itinerary unveiling the great maritime city of Lisbon, the Douro River and delightful...