By Debi Lander

River cruising on ships smaller than ocean liners and with only 100 – 250 passengers have gained tremendous popularity, especially with the Boomer generation. The trend includes what is called “experiential travel” or connecting the visitor with the history and culture of a destination. I recently took a Viking River Cruise in Portugal that met those goals.

Portugal rests in southwestern Europe bordering Spain and the Atlantic Ocean. It is only about half the size of North Dakota. I flew into Lisbon, the capital of Portugal and spent two nights in a downtown hotel included in the itinerary. The arrival day allowed travelers to adjust to jet lag and have free time to explore. Next morning, complimentary tours to the major historical monuments showcased Portugal’s famous explorers. Later, I visited the Tile Museum featuring the famous Portuguese blue and white tiles. I got to paint a tile of my own, too.

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On the third morning, we were bused about 200 miles, stopping along the way for a visit in Coimbra. While riding, we practiced pronouncing some Portuguese words. Once we reached Porto, we boarded our ship and from then on, did not have to unpack again.

The Douro River has been the historical lifeline through the region, nicknamed the River of Gold. It is a narrow river with magnificent gorges and steep banks. Today, it contains many locks that enable ships to move faster and more safely. Because of these locks, boats never travel at night; so, on this cruise, all sailing would occur during daylight.

Exploration of Porto’s Cathedral and other historic properties happened the next morning. I especially enjoyed the Lello Bookshop with staircases that inspired author J.K. Rowling. Later, we took a tasting tour through the wine cellars of a port wine producer. All fortified wine called port comes from the Douro Valley, a designation similar to the official champagne region.

Learning the history of the cities we’d visit and about the local cuisine was provided during daily onboard presentations. Additional, on-site guides reinforced what we’d learned. Trust me, understanding the production of port took a few lessons to fully grasp.

We toured a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites as well as a stop at the Mateus Palace. You might recall its picture on the odd-shaped bottles of Mateus wine that were popular in the 1970s. My favorite stop was the pilgrimage shrine in Lamego known for its myths and miracles. Built in 1791, the small hilltop chapel provides dramatic views and a picturesque 686-step double staircase. Before descending, I dallied in the chapel taking photos and was discovered by an elderly nun. She took me aside and showed me treasures in the back chapel. I’ll never forget her.

When our vessel reached the border of Spain, we made a day trip into the city of Salamanca. This famous university town contains many buildings made of sandstone that produce a golden glow, especially in the afternoon sunshine.

All meals plus wine or beer were included and some dinners took place in a monastery and winery. Evening entertainment featured local performers like flamenco dancers, a Fado performance — Portugal’s traditional songs accompanied by three guitars and a folk dance troupe.

By the time I flew home, I had indulged and embraced the people, culture and cuisine of Portugal. I would heartily encourage others to consider a river cruise.

Visit to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.

Photo courtesy Debi Lander

Mateus Palace in Portugal.

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