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Viking river cruise

Our seven-night round-trip Viking River cruise from Porto to Vega de Terrón in Portugal has little in common with the perilous journey made by passengers in the early 1700s, apart from all the booze onboard. Back then the Douro River was essential for transporting people and wine, but navigating treacherous currents in the traditional wooden boats known as rabelos required great skill. With the construction of modern dams and locks, the Douro is now safe to navigate and an increasingly popular river cruise destination. There are plenty of Viking River European cruises to choose from but the picturesque Douro River in Portugal offers stunning scenery and a cruise experience that’s a little bit different.

Cruising the Douro River
Cruising the Douro River on Viking Helgrim

The luxurious Viking Helgrim carries just 106 guests and is a smaller version of the Viking River cruise ships known as Longships. I don’t spend much time in my cabin due to the complimentary daily excursions but its contemporary design and Scandinavian décor provides a comfortable haven at the end of each day. Onboard there is a bar which doubles as a lecture lounge and a dining room offering one set dinner seating each evening. There are no alternative dining venues which is one of the few drawbacks of this smaller ship, but pastries and hot drinks are available 24/7 at a coffee station.

Viking Helgrim
Viking Helgrim

Travelling on Viking Helgrim feels like a house party with well-travelled friends and we are soon greeting each other by name, including the crew who are charming and professional but also good fun. Almost everyone is a repeat passenger and by the end of the trip I can understand why. Our trip begins in Lisbon where we spend two nights at a five-star hotel and see Lisbon’s major sights on a tour which is included in our cruise fare. After the morning tour, we have time to go and explore Lisbon on our own. We enjoyed this aspect of our Viking Cruises’ tour add-on in Lisbon and the mix of touring and free time.

Belem Tower in Lisbon
Belem Tower in Lisbon
tart from Pastéis de Belém
Portuguese tart from Pastéis de Belém

On our first day in Porto, a complimentary tour showcases the city’s major sights before we begin our journey down the Douro River. Portugal river cruises travel through the UNESCO listed Alto Douro Wine Region, the world’s oldest appellation contrôlée, which is a picturesque drawcard for food and wine lovers. The vines grow in crumbling schist rock rather than soil and gleaming white quintas, or wine estates, dot the rugged hillsides. We take in the scenery from the cosy lecture lounge until Carrapatelo, the deepest lock in Europe, looms in the distance. Water pours into the lock and the concrete walls beside us start falling away as the ship is lifted 35 metres above the river’s lower level and sails out the other side.

Porto train station
São Bento Train Station in Porto
vineyard in Portugal
Autumn colours in Portugal

While cruising through this picturesque rural landscape is stunning, it does come with a trade-off. Docking at remote villages means most of the major sights are between 45 minutes and two hours away by road. However, the coach is luxurious (and has wi-fi and a toilet), our guide is excellent and every bus trip offers plenty to see along the way. It’s a small price to pay for the beauty of our surroundings.

Woman with umbrella in Porto
Me trying not to get wet in Porto on our last day

To complete our journey we travel back along the Douro River and return to Porto in preparation to disembark the ship. The haunting fado music we heard on our first night seeks to conjure an emotion the Portuguese describe as ‘saudade’, meaning a profound nostalgia or melancholy. There is no English equivalent but I know exactly what the word means as I stroll down Viking Helgrim’s gangway for the last time.

Disclosure: The writer travelled as a guest of Viking Cruises.

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Dr Tiana Templeman is an award-winning food and travel journalist, travel author and media industry academic. She is the creator of The Travel Temple, writes for Australian and international media outlets and appears on radio talking about where to go, what to see and travel industry trends.