Saturday, 27 May 2017

Mother-and-daughtering on the Duoro


Quite some time ago, the Intrepid Granny suggested a river cruise. It's quite a while since we've had a holiday together and lots of stuff has happened in the meantime to the bodies of the two old girls that my mother and I have now become. Without going into dull details, we have had various bits of ourselves rebuilt courtesy of our wonderful NHS and others, and though we are older, we are still pretty spritely on our pins. She had come up with a plan to do a river cruise on the Duoro in Portugal - partly, I think, because she had never been to Portugal and partly because she knows this is one of our favourite holiday destinations.

The plan rapidly gained momentum, most particularly because I suggested my dear friend, Lady H and her mother, who will henceforth be known as the Ice Cream Queen for reasons that will become apparent in the course of this blog, should join us. We have done trips a quatre to the Lake District on a couple of occasions and this chemistry of mothers and daughters seems to work pretty well. They happily agreed to the suggestion with alacrity (also known as boundless enthusiasm!) and we were sorted.

So we were a party of 4, aged from mid-fifties to nearly ninety: two mothers and daughters on the maiden voyage on the Duoro in the brand new Emerald Radiance. But first we had to get to the boat! It did not start auspiciously at our end with some sort of muck-up by the booking office at Leamington Spa station which involved me arriving at York the day before our big trip a whole hour before the intrepid granny bowled up. Not only was I an hour early (as instructed by the email helpfully forwarded from the aforementioned booking office) but so was the assistance which had been booked at the same time to meet the granny on the platform. A search of York station by staff proved fruitless and she arrived an hour later. You can't blame me for thinking that if we can't manage a train journey without a hitch, 4 flights and a cruise might be a bit of a challenge!

Our journey proper began at a very anti-social hour the following morning as we headed from Yorkshire across the Pennines to Manchester Airport. Driven by my son-in-law JS, we were safely deposited at the airport and I think we kept him entertained on the way - he commented on the quality of the banter on the family whatsapp later in the day so we can't have been too bad. Waiting for our gate number to be posted, we spotted other folks carrying the distinctive Emerald rucksacks - useful bit of kit as it turned out.
Our first flight was to Frankfurt where we were advised to move our watches by one hour by the pilot prior to landing only to discover an hour later when we were flying on to Porto that we had to move them back to UK time! As it turned out, having two shorter flights, though more inconvenient, may have helped the two older members of the team with dodgy knees – at least they got to walk about at Frankfurt Airport!
We were met very efficiently at Porto by Marie Helene from Emerald who escorted us to a coach where we met more fellow travellers and we were taken through Porto to where our new ‘home from home’ was moored.

As soon as we arrived we were welcomed most warmly by the cruise director, Sergio, staff and crew on Radiance and escorted to our cabin. It was immaculately clean and we would be its very first occupants - hurray! There's definitely something joyful about a brand new bed (or is it me...?). The size of the vessel is very much dictated by the dimensions of the five locks on the huge dams on the river with the channel to pass through just 12 metres wide. This makes for a tight squeeze in the cabin and a certain amount of ‘musical chairs’ for mother and daughter occupants! But everything was available including a large flat screen television, shower room, wardrobe and even space to store suitcases under the beds.

Each evening, and our first was no exception, began with a ‘port talk’ – no, not a talk about Port, but an explanation by cruise director, Sergio, of the following day’s programme, combined with a brief description from the chef of the delights of dinner and the accompanying wines. Our first night also featured a safety briefing which we hoped we wouldn’t need. We tried... we really tried... to arrive on time for the port talk each night but to be honest, we were rubbish and some of us took longer to dress for dinner than others! It wasn't ubersmart but definitely shirts rather than t-shirts for the men and a dress, skirt or trousers with a pretty top for the ladies (this information put in for the Dawschos who are doing the same trip in August). Then whilst we sat down to the first delicious meal, served by the friendliest waiting staff I have every come across, we sailed for just a few miles before returning to Porto. Unlike other river cruises, the Duoro is too narrow and shallow in places for sailings by night so all our sailings were during the day. Each evening we were entertained with music by our pianist and other games and quizzes - the most enthusiastic of our party being happy to engage in all this stuff, singing, dancing, quizzing whilst I'm afraid I like my book and my bed.
Our first day began with sailing to Pinhao with a 6.30am start. If I had any minor complaint at all it was that the sound-proofing between the deck and the first level of cabins was not sufficient and we were able to hear the sailors moving on the deck. This unfortunately also meant that everyone on the first level heard me go for a run on the deck at 6.45am, making me most unpopular. Having knocked off about 3k on the running track laid out on the deck, a lady appeared in her dressing gown wanting to know what the pounding above her head was. I apologised and offered to stop but she said it was fine. However by the time it was the port talk that night, several folks had obviously complained and, as we were to discover, for some people, complaining is an integral part of their holiday. Nuff said. And yes, I did all other running either on the running machine in the gym on board or on the streets when we were in port. Shame though, because it's quite surreal running whilst the ship is moving too. 
Our first lock was the Crestuma lock and the channel through which we had to pass was just 90 metres long and 12 metres wide. The Radiance is 89 metres long and though I don’t have details of the width, I can tell you that there was less than six inches either side and as the gates closed front and rear in order to bring the water to the correct level, it made parking in a multi-storey car park look a breeze! The whole process of going through the locks brought all the passengers on to the deck, even though you could get quite a soaking as we passed under guillotine locks. But it is immensely impressive. The Intrepid Granny positively galloped up onto deck each time we approached a lock.

Whilst we were passing through locks, the scenery outside became increasingly stunning with terrace upon terrace of vines growing, wineries perched on hilltops and dense woodland and olive groves. This is rightly a UNESCO site of outstanding beauty. It really is a feast for the eyes with so many intense shades of green against the glistening river. 
Whilst we were sailing there were a number of classes – cork jewellery workshop, tile painting, filigree jewellery, port cocktail-making, Portuguese pastry-making – to enjoy. Lady H and the Ice Cream Queen gamely got involved in these but since I am rubbish at anything crafty, I stuck it out on desk unable to take my eyes of the beauty of the scenery and the drama of passing through locks. Importantly Lady H can now make the delicious pasteis de nata, the Portuguese custard tart of which we consumed rather a lot!
Our first port of call was the village of Pinhao where we had a gentle stroll around the cobbled streets and most particularly visited the ornate station where the traditional blue and white tile paintings line the walls and – there’s a bar where you can do a wine-tasting whilst you wait for your train!

Each evening, (apart from one night when we had a barbecue on deck) there was a five course dinner where each portion, though not large, was beautifully presented and delicious. This was served at the tables, whereas breakfast and lunch were buffet-style.
On our second full day, whilst docked in Pinhao, we had the opportunity to visit Lamego and visit the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies. Like all the tours and excursions, the guides were excellent and informative and a great deal of careful counting by Sergio ensured that everyone made it back on to the vessel before we sailed! This excursion involved walking down 365 steps but the views along the way were worth the steps. The Intrepid Granny elected to give this one a miss which was wise as 365 steps down would have done her knee a power of no good and we might still be there getting down the last 100.

Day three and we had arrived in Vega Terron on the Portugal/Spain border the previous afternoon ready to go on the excursion to Salamanca in Spain. Although we were advised to take our passports, they weren’t required and the crossing of the border was a simple crossing of a bridge. Salamanca is a stunning city with a wonderful history as a centre of learning and two spectacular cathedrals. Over 30,000 students are resident in the city and it has a cosmopolitan buzz about it. Indeed after a tour of the cathedrals, we were entertained in the street with music and dancing by four medical students in traditional Portuguese dress, celebrating the end of their exams!  The Ice Cream Queen was taken to dance by a very handsome medical student whilst the rest of us could only stand and admire. By this time, we had discovered Lady H's mother's insatiable desire for ice cream on every occasion, sometimes packing in three rounds in one day. Indeed, as we walked the cobbled streets of Salamanca, she referred to it as a pub crawl - from ice cream parlour to ice cream parlour, of which there were a very goodly selection. Although it’s a longish coach trip Salamanca is certainly well worth the visit and one of the highlights of the trip. Again, our guides were knowledgable (Lady H: "I love a guide") and we had time at the end of the day to sit in the spectacular Plaza Mayor, sipping cappuccinos and licking ice cream in the sun, watching the world go by. This was the furthest point of voyage with the vessel turning back for the rest of the cruise.

The next day we sailed back towards Pocinho where some energetic guests went on a tour to the Coa Museum with many archeological paintings (not us - it looked like hard work) before setting off again through the locks and finally docking at Folgosa. Then we had the most wonderful evening, dining and tasting wine at the Quinta da Pacheca. This is a stunning winery with an extraordinary dining room set amongst the huge barrels of wine, dating back to the 18th century and still in family ownership. Beautiful food, fabulous setting and definitely another high point of our trip.

The next day, we took the first of two optional tours – this one to Mateus Palace, where once the iconic rose wine was made. The Palace and gardens are picturesque and modelled on the gardens at the Palace of Versailles and the house is maintained as both a historic museum and as a home for the family. We took two such optional excursions at a small additional price and these two were definitely worth choosing.

Back on the ship and more locks awaited us causing the usual flurry of excitement and moving on to the deck to see the vessel squeeze through the narrow canal. This evening’s port talk by Sergio was followed by a cocktail reception and gala dinner. With canap├ęs and five courses, each beautifully presented it was a lovely evening and the staff singalong was entertaining if chaotic – they’ll have that nailed in a few weeks! It’s important to mention that all the staff are Portuguese and the teamwork was excellent throughout with a smile for everyone. During the dinner, each member of staff was introduced to great applause from the guests - everyone, from chef to bottle washer, captain to crew. 
On our last full day, we arrived in Porto early in the morning. We were given a walking tour of Porto around the busy streets with our guides. Again the station was remarkable in its decoration of blue and white tile paintings. And of course, the guides were proud to show us the bookshop and cafe which inspired JK Rowling to begin her Harry Potter saga. (Seem to think there's somewhere in Edinburgh with similar claims but there's surely enough to go round!) But first we were treated to a visit to Taylors Port which was a wonderful experience and very informative though I found the tasting at 9.45am a bit too early even for me!
Then the afternoon took us on our second optional excursion to Guimares, a beautiful town of narrow cobbled streets and the restored Ducal Palace, packed with history and wonderfully restored – and full of primary school age children, singing and dancing in the central courtyard so full of joy! An absolutely memorable experience with time for ice cream - again! 
Our last night was another delicious meal and we said goodbye to new friends we had made who were setting off early the next morning – some back to the UK, the USA and Canada and others on to Lisbon for a few days more. This also happened to be Lady H's birthday and as she had made lots of friends amongst the crew and guests there was a surprise birthday cake and singing and an extra large ice cream for the Ice Cream Queen who was not defeated by the extra large portion!


After breakfast the next morning we headed into Porto to make a few final purchases (very nice hat shop so new hat for my future travels) and have tea in an extraordinary ornate tea shop that had once been a jewellers furnished in gold ormolu and ornate decoration.
Finally time to say our goodbyes to the wonderful staff who genuinely made this trip a joy from start to finish. With a coach journey to the airport, two flights and a very late night taxi back across the Pennines, it was a long day but this was a superb trip and very highly recommended.


Best bits: The amazing scenery - absolutely stunning and definitely the way to see this beautiful part of the world.

Sergio and the team from Emerald - couldn't have been kinder and friendlier and most helpful to all the guests including those who were less mobile (than the Intrepid Granny).

Top mother and daughter times for the four of us - unforgettable!

Those lovely guests with whom we made friends, especially Dudley and Anne (hope she didn't get black eyes having fallen over on the last day), the Likely Lads (two elderly gentlemen who made us laugh so much - not always intentionally!), Arnold and Rosa, Ute and Farouq and many more.