Douro cruise

Guess what we did today?


This is a rabelo, a boat native to the Douro River, which in yon olden days was used to haul wine casks from the inland vineyards down to the Porto wine cellars. The railroad rendered this usage obsolete, so these days they’ve been repurposed. Instead of wine casks, they carry tourists.

Ten euros gets you a 50-minute cruise on the Douro, from the first bridge to the last (and there are six in all, which is why Porto is famous for its bridges). It’s a great way to get acquainted with the city. Or cities, since Porto is only on one side of the river. The other side, Vila Nova de Gaia, is where the port wine cellars are located. (Quick historical note: the wine cellars are on the Gaia side because 1) the environmental factors, including humidity, are better over there than on the Porto side, and 2) back in the day, Vila Nova de Gaia didn’t have to pay taxes to the Bishop of Porto. So, Gaia was cheaper and that’s where the cellars were built. And here I thought porto came from Porto.)


The river offers great views of the gloriously haphazard crush of buildings that comprises Porto’s riverfront. Some of these reminded me of dominoes stacked against each other. Seriously, look at these — the narrow ones are barely five meters wide!

Ponte Dom Luis

Another advantage of cruising: unusual views of the bridges. This is the Ponte Dom Luis, one of the best known bridges in the city, which was designed by Téophile Seyrig, a partner of Gustave Eiffel. (The two of them had already constructed one bridge in Porto, the Ponte Dona Maria Pia, which carried the railroad and at the time of construction was the longest single-arch span in the world.) The arch of this bridge holds up two decks, in addition to the third deck at its base. These days the top deck is reserved for public transit and pedestrians. And are there ever pedestrians! It was seeing heavy usage today. We’re heading back for a full day in Porto on Monday, and crossing this bridge is definitely on the list.

It just so happens that the owner of our rabelo was Ferreira, a very old and revered port wine maker…and that a cruise ticket includes free admission to the wine cellar. (Otherwise, you’d pay 4.50 euros.) So we capped off our lazy Saturday afternoon with a cellar tour, which was very interesting, and a free tasting of white and tawny ports. I would love to go back with a tripod and permission from the staff to loiter. The photographic opportunities in this dark, stone-floored, ancient space are endless, but it was impossible to snap anything while being hustled along with a large tour group.

Ferreira cellar

The only photo I managed was this, taken at the rope barrier as we waited for the tour to start. Don’t you just want to start walking?

Ferreira port is one of the brands we often buy, so I quite enjoyed the opportunity to see where it comes from and how it’s made. One thing I learned was that I really don’t want to mess with the vintage ports, even if we could afford it. Those things take planning to drink, with the instructions including “stand the bottle upright a day in advance, decant it, let it breathe two hours, and drink it all within 24 hours.” No way could we drink an entire bottle of port in 24 hours. We’d have to have a party for 10 to accomplish that.

The other thing we both learned: white port should be served slightly chilled, like any white wine. Oops. Guess it’s a good thing we prefer tawny and ruby. Also, ruby port is best paired with strong cheeses and dark chocolate, which makes it the perfect port for me.


About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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19 Responses to Douro cruise

  1. Sandie says:

    Great photos, beautiful place.

  2. Lisa Shaw says:

    And here I thought porto came from Porto.

    Hehehe. Is *anything* that simple in your fine adopted country? I thought you learned your lesson at the “Cork Museum.” 😉

    But I agree with Sandie: Beautiful all around.

  3. Paulo says:

    Hey hey hey, don’t go blurting out our secret now. People can’t know that Vinho do Porto is made 100 kms up river, aged in Gaia and shipped from Leixões or Pedras Rubras!
    No, seriously: It’s complicated.

    I’m glad you found your way towards the bridge-cruises on the rabelos. A brain f… malfunction prevented me from adding that to the suggestions.

    True story + confession: while seeing the photos I started singing The Boss’s refrain:

    This is your hometown, this is your hometown
    This is your hometown, this is your hometown…

    Darn. Miss it.

  4. Paulo says:

    P.S.: Reports that a party of 10 is required to down a bottle of vintage are greatly exaggerated. But regardless of how many people you generously decide to make part of the experience, do not forget: the decanter needs to be passed to the left. Clockwise, always.

    (I’ve heard several explanations, my favorite is the following – maybe because it sounds quite far-fetched:

    Why the port should be passed to the left is also lost in time, with some suggesting it is a naval tradition – the port side of the boat is on your left if you are facing the bows. Most people in the port trade believe it came about to allow the majority right-handed people to keep their sword-hand free. )

  5. xenatuba says:

    That cruise looks like a dream. I would love to do something like that…and the winery…yep, just cries for more pictures. Karyn was a bit dismayed that the Port needed to be consumed that quickly. She is still working on her white Port we brought home. Party of 10 sounds right to me. As does the strong cheese and dark chocolate part!

    • Paulo says:

      Xenatuba (may I call you Xena?), the 24 hour rule only applies for vintages, the tawnys and the whites can go on for a couple of months at least.

      There are a couple of cruise ships that go for a week up and down the river, right to the Port Wine vineyards. That’s something I would definitely recommend… if you are a cruise type of person.
      It’s a great way for understanding the geography and the history of the region, but a road trip can be pretty exciting as well.

      • xenatuba says:

        Anybody can call me Xena! My name, however is Ally, And yes, a cruise type person, but I’d hate to tie up a week that way unless I had WAY more time for a visit.

    • oregon expat says:

      No need to worry: the vintages are the only ones with the short deadlines. The blends — which is what most of us drink, meaning white, tawny, and ruby — have much longer shelf lives, ranging from two months for the ruby to six for the white.

  6. Jorge says:

    Hete’s a little tune that goes well as a soundtrack to such a trip. Also, it joins your country and mine in a subtle way. Or not so subtle.

    • Paulo says:

      Grande memória, Jorge.
      Como se diz na nossa terra… ‘Ós anos que não ouvia isto.

    • oregon expat says:

      Wow, Portuguese blues! I had no idea. Thank you for the introduction!

      • Jorge says:

        It isn’t just the blues. The lyrics are all about the Douro River and everything that takes place in it and in its banks (including mentions to the Rabelo boats… and comparisons with the Mississippi).

        At the time, the river was being threatened by a spanish project to build a nuclear power plant in a town called Sayago, not far from the Portuguese border, hence the title.

  7. Golan Trevize says:

    Don’t forget to visit Guimarães, it’s the European Culture Capital in 2012 and the birthplace and first capital of Portugal. It’s a 30 min car ride from Porto.

    • oregon expat says:

      I would love to, but we’re going to have to put that on the list for our next trip. We’ve got at least half a dozen things we weren’t able to do this time around. So many wonderful places to visit, so little time…

  8. restlessjo says:

    Didn’t know that about passing port to the left. That cruise company do day trips so I may be opting for one of those, and a train trip, I hope. Certainly will be visiting Guimaraes.

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