(All photos by the author. Click on them to enlarge and read the captions. Forgive me for not switching to a Portuguese keyboard so the text is missing proper accents and diacritical marks).
I spent four days in Lisbon in May 2016 and it sparked my interest in seeing more of Portugal. Additionally, my bio says that I am conversational in Portuguese and that was leaning toward a falsehood; I needed to refresh. (That said, English is widely-spoken in all tourist areas). A discounted Duoro-River cruise received by email fit both my goals. I received excellent and timely backup and I booked with www.vacationstogo.com. The timing was perfect for my usual May travel dates. The offer I booked was for a French-balcony cabin on CroisiEurope’s MS Miguel Torga from Porto to Porto for seven nights. http://www.croisieuroperivercruises.com. Prices vary with dates and cabin category and there is a single supplement.
Sat. May 20 PORTO, PORTUGAL
I thoroughly enjoyed three nights in Funchal Madeira prior to landing in Porto (see the post below this one). TAP gave me a choice of flights from Funchal to Porto at 7 am or 5 pm, the latter meaning I would lose the whole day in Porto, so I had to be up at 4:30 am. The hotel arranged a taxi the previous night and the driver spoke slow, clear Portuguese and my conversational confidence was improving. I had a quick check-in, an executive security line, and use of the executive lounge where I got coffee and a sandwich. Arriving in Porto my luggage was on the carousel by the time I was out of the restroom and there were plenty of taxis waiting. It took about 25 minutes to get to the hotel Ribeira do Porto, right on the Duoro river. I paid 129 USD per night, a fair price for its superb location adjacent to the riverfront with its many restaurants and activities. It had good reviews on booking.com but I should have read more carefully since it had only three stars. There is virtually no lobby, just a small entryway with a loveseat and the receptionist’s desk, no bar, and the only amenities free breakfast and internet. The web access was the slowest I have experienced since the days of dial-up. The single room was very small without enough floor space to do pushups, but it had a large bath and two windows overlooked the riverfront. It was adequate for two nights and I loved the location. The receptionist was extremely cordial and helpful with advice on local tour sites and transportation.
Check-in was at 3 pm so I stored my luggage at 10 am and trekked to the Yellow Bus stop for a city tour. (There are three other tour-bus services and a tram tour). This was perhaps the worst tour-bus experience I have had anywhere since the bus stopped frequently for people to board and pay the driver. One stop was delayed 15 minutes, then it stopped again within a few blocks for another ten minutes while I baked on the upper deck. I wasn’t tempted to get off at any of the stops, too tired for a cathedral or climbing a tower, and preferred to just orient myself to the city layout and decide where to go the next day. Below are some scenes from the bus.
Later I walked along the riverfront and found a crowded restaurant. Porto, along with Lisbon and the coast, is experiencing a huge tourist boom. With such heavy tourist traffic, restaurateurs don’t worry about return diners. After a mediocre lunch I was fortunate that my room was ready by 2:45. I enjoyed a siesta before checking the news headlines online and uploaded some photos. I walked a lot near the hotel at night and ate at another unremarkable restaurant, not in the mood to take a long cab ride to the many deluxe restaurants recommended in the travel literature. (The New York Times published two “Thirty-six Hours in Porto” articles on its travel pages).
Sun. May 20: PORTO, PORTUGAL
Breakfast in the hotel is a small but adequate buffet offered in a very tiny room on the second floor. Both mornings I enjoyed a Dagwood sandwich from the cold cuts, cheeses, and assorted breads. Reception told me how to find the purple route of the Yellow Bus that goes out to the suburbs along the Atlantic beaches and through residential areas without all the stops of the inner city. It took a 20-minute walk uphill but, luckily, as I turned the corner the bus was waiting for boarding or I would have had to wait another hour for the next one. It was a relaxing ride but I didn’t get off at the beaches or any of the shopping areas. The route ends in the inner city with a long walk back to the riverfront hotel.
I was pleased to find a reasonable seafood restaurant, Ribeiras, on the upper wall very near the hotel where I enjoyed sea bass with spinach and a salad. I had a nice siesta, went online, and relaxed until walking about again in the evening, settling for another small outdoor café near the hotel. Knowing I had an upcoming cruise, I didn’t seek out the gourmet restaurants that usually mark my travels.
Mon. May 22: First day aboard the Miguel Torga.
I couldn’t board the ship for the cruise until late afternoon so I had to fill up the day with more time in the city. Not ready to face palaces and churches, I opted for what a web-article called an underrated garden worth seeing, Jardim do Palacio do Cristal. It is a tranquil oasis in the busy city. Local mothers were pushing strollers and enjoying the fresh air and joggers were huffing and puffing up the hillside. Alas, the flower beds had not been well-attended and most were beyond their peaks. The highlight was the view from the bluff over the river. After an hour’s stroll, I sat on a bench and watched people before heading off to flag a return taxi.
Returning to the riverfront I found a nice-looking restaurant claiming fresh-caught fish of the day, but the display case had already been emptied by the crowd and I settled for a hamburger in an outdoor café. I had to vacate my room by 1:30 (a 90-minute grace period thanks to the nice receptionist) so I stowed my luggage and, tired of touring, I took my novel to a nearby park. After two hours I needed a restroom and figured the museum adjacent to the park would work. The Bolsa Palace charged admission and allowed entry only in guided groups, but the entry fee for my age group was only 5 euros. The tour in English was fine but having done at least 20 palace tours in Europe, I found this one mediocre except for a sensational “Arab room” inspired by the Alhambra in Granada Spain. At least the plumbing functioned and I went back to reading until 5 pm. The CroisiEurope instruction sheet said we could board by 6 pm, so I took a cab to the wharf at 5:30. The ship was docked across the river in the adjacent city of Vila Nova de Gaia where most of the port wine cellars are located. Most passengers were already aboard and I could have boarded by 4 pm had the ship’s information not been misleading.
Porters came to the taxi for my luggage and led me aboard. I surprised the welcoming personnel by speaking in Portugese and told them I needed more practice, something they promised I would be able to do with an all-Portuguese speaking staff. Later I would be introduced to two charming Brazilian passengers, women my age. To my surprise, almost all other passengers spoke French except an Australian couple with whom I would be seated at all meals. I have survival French but poor pronunciation so I would not have been welcome at the tables of the French groups who turned out to be rather insular anyway. (Remember the line from My Fair Lady, “The French don’t care what they say actually as long as they pronounce it properly.”)
When I booked the discount fare the opening was for a cabin on the upper deck with a “French balcony.” I assumed that meant French doors opening onto a small balcony. To my delight, the cabin was one of the largest I have had on half a dozen cruises and the balcony was an enormous furnished veranda. I was especially happy with my “value for money” when I looked in on the standard cabins that are quite small with just a picture window.
After unpacking and a shower, I went to the lounge for the 7 pm welcome greeting from the captain and staff. Since all spirits were included (except on some group fares) I over-indulged at the bar where I got free language practice nightly from two attractive women and a young man who should be in Hollywood. They were a delight, so helpful with making subtle corrections, laughing at my jokes, and keeping me entertained. With the relaxing lubrication of the spirits, my speaking got better with every passing day and I was euphoric about accomplishing one of my goals so early in the voyage.
Within a few days I felt comfortable at joining the welcoming Brazilian women, Nadia and Nubia, in the lounge (the former from Brasilia, the latter from Petropolis). They spoke the lilting Carioca version of the language which I had first learned 33 years ago during a sabbatical leave in Rio de Janeiro. The staff didn’t seem to mind my lack of uniformity in pronunciation. So I listened to a form of English with the Australian couple at meals but made an effort to concentrate on Portuguese, inhibited at times by the constant bombardment with French in all announcements and excursion narrations.
Tues. May 23.
The first full day aboard featured a city tour of Porto that I had already done, and an afternoon shuttle to the Ribeira where I had already spent most of the previous three days. In retrospect, I should have spent one less day in the city and taken the ship’s free excursion. I spent the first day relaxing aboard and enjoying the veranda with my review book and a novel, and catching up on news with excellent web service.
I had a beautiful view of the river from my veranda at the back of the ship.
There is no physical fitness space aboard ship, not even a stationary bike or treadmill on the top deck. My cabin was so spacious I could work out easily and I increased my push-ups every other day reaching a peak of 43 the last day, plus 175 sit-ups daily. Despite over-indulging in food and drink I only gained a few pounds during the 14 days of travel, perhaps because the food aboard was not as overwhelming as the multiple temptations on other cruises I have enjoyed.
Breakfast is a buffet with lots of cold cuts and cheeses, a variety of fruits, eggs with boiling water to soft-boil your own assorted rolls and breads, pastries, juice, and good coffee in a thermos on the table. Hot lunch and dinner daily were tasty but there were no choices; you eat what’s served. The desserts were always tempting though I skipped many and opted for the fresh fruit including strawberries in season and whole fruits like pears, apples, and kiwi (the fruit that tastes like a vegetable). Decent red, white, and rosé wines were poured at lunch and dinner, or beer, soft drinks, and iced tea. One could pay extra for more premium wines but that was unnecessary. Despite the tasty variety of breads and rolls offered at breakfast, lunch and dinner included a bread basket on the table with the same mediocre sliced white bread day after day.
We were treated to live entertainment on four nights with dancing music the other evenings. On the first night after dinner we were treated to a Fado performance in the lounge with a live guitarist and mandolin player and a male and female vocalist. Wait-staff brought drinks to the comfortable sofas in the lounge.
Wed. May 24
The excursion today featured an hour’s drive to the medieval town of Guimaraes with a guide narrating in both French and English, though I was the only American aboard. In Guimaraes we visited the Paco do Duque or Ducal palace, the 15th century residence of the powerful Duke of Braganza, followed by a walk around the city center.
We returned to the ship, now docked in Leverinho, in time for a 1 pm lunch after which the ship sailed to Regua where it docked for the night. After my siesta I uploaded excursion photos and checked out the news stories before heading to the bar for my nightly conversation. Fortunately the French-speaking passengers, some from Belgium and Switzerland, never sat at the bar and usually took just wine, kir, or the pre-mixed cocktail of the day to a sofa in the lounge, so I could monopolize the baristas .
Thurs. May 25
Today’s excursion went first to the Mateus mansion near Vila Real. The Mateus family were enriched by the production of their famous rosé wine but they retired and sold their trademark to a consortium that also produces Sandeman port. The reflecting pond sets off the chateau beautifully. It was surrounded by scores of hydrangea, not yet in bloom. As the only English speaker in the group, I got a private tour of the mansion before heading to the best part, the lavish gardens. Alas, it started to rain, the only daytime rain we had until the last day of the cruise. Luckily it passed over fairly quickly and I was able to shoot lots of photos in the garden. Squares of boxwood surrounded beds of different colored petunias, calla lilies, roses, azaleas, and rhododendron, all in full bloom.
After about 40 minutes in the garden, we moved on to the town of Vila Real, a pleasant uncrowded village with pastry shops on almost every block. The Portuguese do love their pastries. The specialty in Vila Real is one made of egg yolks, flour, and sugar, originally to use up the yolks of the eggs whose whites were used by nuns in the convent for medicinal purposes, especially for burns. The guide said the pastry was called Rooster’s comb. I later whispered to her that we called it cock’s comb and there is also a flower by that name. We sat in a café and enjoyed a pastry with coffee or tea included in the excursion. Then we had some time to look in the local shops whose windows were quite attractively decorated.
Meanwhile the ship sailed on without us to Pinhao, a lovely village of about 1200 people. There were wonderful views of the valley and river as we wound down the mountain road through the many vineyards toward the port. Photos snapped through the bus windows don’t do justice to the beautiful ride.
We got to the port before the ship did so I finally got a chance for good photos of the arriving ship which had previously been docked against ugly walls.
After our 1 pm lunch I had time for a siesta (not a Portuguese tradition), uploading photos, and an hour with my grammar-review book before heading to the bar for my free conversation class with the charming staff. Meanwhile the ship sailed north to the Spanish border and docked for the night at Vega de Teron.
After dinner the ship’s staff entertained with a campy program of song, dance, and skits that the ship’s animator Deborah choreographed and performed in. Hugo the barman surprised everyone with a hilarious drag solo to Lady in Red. The show won’t make it to television but it was entertaining, and the generous serving of drinks made it more enjoyable.
Fri. May 26
Being docked near the Spanish border meant that we could arrive in Salamanca Spain in less than two hours with a 20-minute rest stop en route. I had led ten or more tour groups to Spain but I never got to Salamanca because it was too far for a day trip from our base in Madrid, so I was delighted that this medieval masterpiece was included in the agenda. I asked the guide to speak to me directly in Spanish after she gave her ear-phone descriptions in French. Her clear Castillian was a delight to listen to after a year’s absence from one of my favorite countries. We toured the oldest university in Spain (1218), the adjoining old and “new” cathedrals (15th century), and the famous Casa de las Conchas, before a typical Spanish lunch with wine. I love the Iberian hams and got plenty to eat because my Brazilian table-mates ate lightly. The ham was followed by tortilla española and a delicious veal stew. Below are some scenes from Salamanca.
In the chapel of Santa Barbara in the ancient university, the guide suggested I camp it up and portray a student in the “hot seat,” about to face his doctoral oral exam. One’s feet rest on the feet of a sculpture of a bishop and the bishop’s wisdom descends from his head to his feet and into the feet of the student. It reminded me of my doctoral inquisition, minus the episcopal feet, but I imagine this setting was far more intimidating.
We were given three hours of free time after lunch, way too much since we had seen most of the old city center and all but the tacky souvenir shops closed for siesta. I had carried my review book with me and found a shady spot to rest until I got sleepy and moved to a shaded hillside for a nap on the grass. We ended up at the Museo Lis, entrance included, a delightful small museum of porcelains and other decorative arts, sensational stained-glass windows, antique furniture, and welcome clean bathrooms. We left at 5:30 (4:30 Portugal time) and were back aboard ship at 7 pm.
That evening the dinner theme was Spanish with tasty gazpacho and paella followed by a flamenco show with three excellent dancers. The performance would have been thrilling with a live guitarist rather than canned music
Sat. May 27
The morning was spent aboard as the ship moved to Feradosa. I relaxed and enjoyed reading on the veranda until lunch-time, followed by an afternoon excursion into the hilly-vineyard country. We had a good photo-stop at a religious pilgrimage site where small chapels to the stations of the cross held life-size figures depicting aspects of the crucifixion. Only nine chapels were completed before the benefactor died. But the main reason for the stop was the spectacular view of the river, the village of Pinhao, and the terraced hillsides sprawling with grape vines.
Next we drove about twenty minutes to the village of Sao Joao do Pesquera, about 7000 population. The fishermen population declined due to the many dams on the river and the town now serves the local agricultural community. One could walk the narrow lanes from the main plaza and see how the working-class population lived in slate homes on narrow alleys, watch school children play in the plaza, and photograph the blue-tile façade of the church.
After an hour in the village, we headed to the main feature of the day’s agenda, a tour and tasting at a port winery, Quinta do Tedo, very near Pinhao. I loved its beautiful setting on a bluff over the river. The disappointing tasting included just two wines, a ruby and a vintage port (2011), both too sweet for my taste, though either would make a nice after-dinner drink for port lovers. The Quinta doubles as a bed and breakfast/agrotourism, including a bistro restaurant. We returned to the ship, now docked again at Pinhao, in time to enjoy a cocktail before the “Gala” evening.
I wore a blazer, dress shirt, and tie, but many of the guests took dress-up to mean a shirt with a collar. The captain and his crew and the bar and wait-staff were dressed elegantly for the serving of sparkling wine.
Unlike other ships I have sailed, no canapes were offered with cocktails, only peanuts and pretzels, even on this gala night. The dinner highlight for me was a slice of fois gras so delicious I asked for seconds but was refused. The main course was a mediocre fillet of veal with one turnip and one carrot, hardly gala to my mind, and the baked Alaska was flamed in the darkened dining room to great show, but I found the dry cake and ice cream to be a much over-rated dessert. Shakespeare could have written a play about the evening and called it “Much To Do About Nothing.” I skipped the dancing that followed in favor of a nightcap with the world-wide web.
Sun. May 28.
The ship moved on to Lamego where an excursion took those interested to a church famous for pilgrimages where one could climb a few hundred stairs. I didn’t realize there would be time to stroll the attractive city of Lamego afterward and skipped the excursion, only to discover that the ship was docked in a fenced-in area closed to the public and too far to walk into the city. I found plenty to keep me entertained aboard and began packing for the next day’s departure. By dinner time we had returned to Porto in a light rain, but it was still wonderful to see the colorful riverside buildings of both Porto and its sister city Vila Nova de Gaia.
The after-dinner show was a delightful performance by a Portuguese folkloric group with live music and dancing. How wonderful to see local people, including several children, embracing their culture and sharing it with strangers.
It was obvious how much they enjoyed showing off their heritage to foreigners, building cultural bridges rather than walls. Perhaps that’s why there are so many bridges in Porto. Farewell to a beautiful city and a wonderful culture, and thanks to the Croisi staff for your kindness and generosity in sharing with me your culture and your language. Muito obrigado e áte logo.
Mon.May 29 End of the voyage and departure.
The breakfast buffet lasted from 7 to 9 am with a request for luggage outside the cabin by 9 am. Reception arranged a taxi the previous night and it arrived punctually at 10 am. It took 20 minutes from the dock to the Porto airport. In addition to passport control in Lisbon prior to security, TAP carries out another passport check at the gate. A long line forms once they announce the passport check unless you are in business class. This may be a TSA requirement but it is an aggravation, and there is no boarding until everyone in the long line finishes the second check.
The return flight to JFK took a little over seven hours and arrived too late for a connection to Rochester, requiring a hotel overnight. Once I depart I like to get to my destination the same day, but that doesn’t always work. Flying does take the fun out of travel lately, but it’s out of one’s control.
Evaluation of TAP
TAP’s airfares to Europe are considerably less pricey than other airlines, and business class fares are in the 3000 dollar range while others charge 5000 and up. Business-class service is every bit as deluxe as rival carriers like Delta and Iberia.
You can connect in Lisbon to other European countries for reasonable prices with large jets to major cities but only small planes with economy class to smaller cities. Boarding for and arriving in small cities via TAP’s express jets often means no jetway but a walk up a staircase to board and down a staircase to deplane, and often a bus to and from the tarmac to the terminal.
The overnight flight from Newark to Lisbon arrived at the same time as a few other large planes and the line in the immigration hall for passport control was interminable, close to 90 minutes, with speedier passage only for EU citizens or the incapacitated. On the midday arrival from Porto the line was very brief, however. One needs a minimum of two hours for an international connection in Lisbon and preferably longer. The airline personnel are very friendly and helpful.
If you are considering a trip to Portugal, I must say that Porto does not compare in ambiance, tourist infrastructure, or beauty to Lisbon. See my previous post: https://jimhornnews.com/2016/07/03/four-delightful-days-in-lisbon-may-31-june-4-2016/
Evaluation of the Croisi-Europe cruise.
Croisi’s fares are priced much lower than lines like AMA Waterways and Viking River, but standard cabins are smaller and amenities are fewer. What is included varies with packages purchased but, for Americans, all beverages and spirits and all excursions are included.
The French balcony suite I booked was very spacious and the company would be well-advised to advertise it as a veranda suite instead. But there are only two cabins on the ship in that category. This may vary from ship to ship but it is worth checking out before booking.
The ship’s excursions on the Duoro are well-conducted, interesting, and enjoyable, with excellent guides. I can’t speak about excursions from their other ships on other rivers.
The Portuguese staff on this voyage were wonderful and they speak English and French as well as their native language.
I don’t like the policy of having to remain at the same dining table throughout the cruise. I love to sit at different tables and meet people from many different areas. Alas, that would not have worked on this ship with my mediocre French. I also dislike the lack of menu choices; you get what is served. The food is good if not spectacular and quantities are adequate.
The popularity of CroisiEurope among European tour agencies means that the French language is the predominant one aboard. There were only three English speakers and two Brazilians on this sailing, all others French speakers and not very friendly. I loved it because I got an immersion in Portuguese, but I imagine many Americans would be uncomfortable without more English speakers aboard. It’s impossible to know the demographics at the time of booking. Travelers with a good command of French would most likely love the language exposure. I was quite thrilled with my experience, but I am not sure whether other Americans would enjoy it as much. I certainly got good value for the price paid and loved my Portuguese immersion. There are several all-English cruise lines that ply the Duoro and, once ashore, almost everyone speaks some English.
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