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Just for a moment, imagine you are drifting down a wide river that meanders its way across the entire width of a country.
You pass through valleys and undulating countryside, adorned with seemingly endless vineyards, terraced hills and elegant manor houses.
White-walled villages, estates and towns finally give way to a jumble of picturesque city houses and buildings that spill down to busy quaysides, until you leave the river behind and join the ocean.
Discover more about Portugal's 'River of Gold', the Douro. Find out more here
Portugal's finest river
Traditional Rabelo boats on the Douro river in Oporto
Such an idyllic-sounding river journey may seem unreal and yet the Douro – or the ‘River of Gold’ as it’s sometimes known – is far from a figment of the imagination.
Rising in Spain and crossing northern Portugal from east to west, the Douro is the Iberian Peninsula’s third longest river. It travels some 550 miles in total, of which 133 miles span Portugal.
It is inextricably associated with Portugal’s most famous product – port wine
The Alto (or upper) Douro Region has been producing wine for an astonishing 2,000 years.
This area, fed by the Douro and its tributaries, is a land of manmade terraces carved out of rocky steep hillsides and the heartbeat of port wine production.
It’s a cultural landscape of such importance that in 2001 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Explore the many sides of Portugal on a Douro Discovery river cruise. Find out more here
Porto, Portugal old town skyline from across the Douro River
If the Alto Doura wine region is the heartbeat of port wine, the city of Oporto is its nerve centre, the fortunes of river and city seemingly inseparable.
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On the south bank of Oporto lies Nova de Gaia, an area created in 1253 and home of the port ‘lodges’ where producers and shippers store, blend and mature the wine.
The city’s cathedral district lies on high ground, while the bustling Ribeira with its maze of narrow streets flanks the river. In the central and lower ‘Baixa’ areas are the city’s commercial and shopping areas.
Like any city, it is rich in experiences and sights. Travel inland from Oporto and you’ll find Peso da Regua where the headquarters of the Port Wine Institute are based.
It’s a good place from which to visit the stunning Casa de Mateus palace gardens too.
Go further where the Douro widens, and you’ll find the town of Pinhão, with port-producing estates dotting the surrounding area.
It’s not too far from here to Lamego, a town in the hills and a well-known pilgrimage site.
As well as lying within the demarcated port production area, it’s also known for its sparkling wine.
Let the river take you on past terraced vineyards lining the hillsides, until you eventually come to Barca d’Alva, the Douro’s last village in Portugal.
Time to perhaps turn around and do it again.
The History of the Douro
Douro river and traditional boats in Porto, Portugal
But there was a time when the Douro had another, darker side… Until the end of the 19th century its gradients, rocks, waterfalls and rapids made it treacherous.
To travel the Douro was to travel dangerously and special boats were needed.
From the 10th century there are references to the famous Rabelo boats that were only found on the Douro, plying their way up and down, risking all as they transported precious barrels of wine which were never completely full to ensure they would float!
By 1961 with the expansion of road and rail, only six working Rabelos were left. Dams, reservoirs and locks were subsequently constructed and today the Douro is an accessible international water route.