By Mary Jo:
I'm well down the road to insanity as I try to finish a book by mid-October, so I'm invoking Wenchly privilege to rerun an older blog with some editing where appropriate. What I chose is this long ago 2006 blog describing a riverboat cruise along the Douro River into Spain.
I first read about riverboat cruising in a magazine several years ago, and promptly decided I wanted to give it a try. I’ve done several ocean cruises, especially in the Caribbean, but rivers in Europe sounded different and fascinating. The boats are much smaller, holding maybe 130 or so people, and the venues are fabulous.
Much of European civilization developed along rivers, and traveling them would be a wonderful way of seeing Europe without a lot of packing and unpacking. The boats park in the center of towns and cities, and one can seen a great deal of the countryside in peace and comfort. The quintessential riverboat cruises follow the great rivers of northern and eastern Europe: the Rhine, the Elbe, the Danube, etc.
There are three major riverboat cruising companies that specialize in English speaking passengers: Uniworld, Viking, and Grand Circle, but at the time we took this cruise, only Uniworld was cruising in Portugal. (That has since changed.)
Most Americans who aren't Regency buffs aren't familiar with the Douro River, which runs east to west from Spain across Northern Portugal. (One of Wellington’s nicknames was “Old Douro,” probably a pun on both the river and his famously dour disposition.)
Plus, the river runs through steep sided gorges covered with terraced vineyards in what is one of Europe’s oldest wine producing regions. What’s not to like? <g>
Well, to be honest, I don’t much like port, which is the region’s most famous product. I find it way too sweet. But the history of port is quite interesting, and certainly part of the reason there has been a 400+ year alliance between England and Portugal. The other reason is to stand against their mutual enemy, Spain, but the port is more convivial. <g> Some of the great Portuguese port houses bear British names. Sandeman, where we toured, was founded by an 18th century Scot named George Sandeman.
Portugal is a small country on the far west of Europe, but it has a proud history. In the Age of Discovery, the 16th century, its captains and navigators discovered the world. Like Britain, this small country fathered a huge empire that included Brazil, Mozambique, and Angola as well as Goa in India and Macao in China.
The various tours we cruisers took included a great deal of history. Did you know that Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese princess who married Charles II of England, is the person who introduced tea to England? A historic deed for sure! Plus, her dowry included the city of Bombay in India, a prize that was part of the British empire till India achieved independence after WWII.
We all loved the Portuguese people we met, who were friendly without being overpowering. They took very, very good care of us, and urged us to tell our friends to visit their country. (That’s what I’m doing now. <g>)
The country was beautifully clean and most of the cars and equipment I saw looked new and healthy, but it’s not a rich nation by any means. People often go to other countries for jobs, sending part of their money back home, so it’s not surprising that they want to develop the tourism industry. They have lots to work with—everyone I’ve met who has visited Portugal has loved the place.
Portugal has a Mediterranean feel, though it’s not on the Mediterranean. The language is derived from Latin and the written form looks similar to Spanish and Italian, but the accent is quite different. One of the guides said the pronunciation is influenced by the Gaelic peoples who lived along the north coast of Portugal and Spain.
Beautiful, sunny Lisbon is built on seven hills, like Rome, and it sprawls across the Tagus, Portugal’s greatest river. The whole country is hilly and 70% of the population lives near the Atlantic coasts. This is why traveling in the north felt remote and peaceful.
Our cruise started from Porto (also called Oporto), Portugal’s second city. Because the Douro descends steeply from the Iberian plateau, our ship, the Douro Queen, traveled through great locks that were built into modern dams. In several cases, we went from a lock to a bridge that was so low that the navigation array had to be tilted flat on the sun deck, along with the awning. Never a dull moment! But lots of peaceful ones.
The coach tours took us to cities and universities and ruined hilltop castles. Our principal guide, Patricia, was delighted to find that I wrote historical novels, and she made a point of showing sites of particular interest. (“Wellington and his army camped out at the foot of that hill. That convent was turned into a hospital for wounded British soldiers after the battle.”)
Did all this beauty and history give me an idea for a book? It sure did! Though it took ten years. The book is ONCE A SOLDIER, Book 1 of the Rogues redeemed, and wine and the port trade are significant elements in the story.
After Napoleon's abdication, Major Lord Will Masterson is heading home to England and planning to sell his commission when he's asked to check out the condition of San Gabriel, a small country high in the mountains between Spain and Portugal that has been a stalwart ally against Napoleon, but may be facing troubles. What–and who!–he finds there changes his life.
I still don't much care for port, but I'm very fond of Portuguese red wines!