A special live episode of the Amateur Traveler with three guests, Aaron Saunders, Jonathan Souza, and Mary Quincy talking about the recent VikingSocial, Viking River Cruise on the Douro River in Portugal.
This trip started in the city of Lisbon, continued to the city of Coimbra to see the UNESCO World Heritage site of the University of Coimbra including an amazing library. Then in Porto, we cruised up and back the Douro River for a week exploring the UNESCO World Heritage site which is the terraced vineyards of the Duoro River Valley. At the midpoint of the cruise, we took a bus to the historic city of Salamanca.
This is a trip for people who want to see beautiful scenery, drink great wine, and enjoy wonderful traveling companions.
Viking River Cruise on Douro River
Aaron Saunders from FromTheDeckcChair.com
Jon Souza from CruiseFever.net
Mary Quincy photographer
Biblioteca Joanina (Colimbra. Portugal)
Salamanca, Spain Pictures
Historic Centre of Guimarães (UNESCO)
Chris: Amateur Traveler Episode 486. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about river cruising and wine, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and more wine, Portugal and still more wine, as we cruise the Douro River with Viking River Cruises.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christensen. This is going to be a different episode of the Amateur Traveler as it’s recorded live. The sound quality is not going to be quite as good and it’s not going to be as heavily-edited but I hope you’ll enjoy this special episode of the Amateur Traveler.
I’d like to welcome the show, three guests today. It’s going to be a little different show because we’re doing this one live and I believe this is the first episode of the Amateur Traveler ever recorded live after 10 years. So I have three guests with me today, and they are, in order, from right to left, not that means anything to you, Aaron Saunders, and Jon Souza and Mary Quincy, and we are all currently on the Viking River Cruises ship Torgil on the Douro River in the Douro Valley in Portugal. And that is basically what we’re going to be talking about today is both the Douro Valley and this particular way of seeing the river, seeing Portugal.
We actually started a little bit of our itinerary, we started in Lisbon, which is not on the Douro River, did a tour in Lisbon and then came up to the river to Porto and spent, anybody know, seven days…
Aaron: Seven days, yeah.
Chris: …cruising up from Porto all the way up to Salamanca in Spain, well, close to Salamanca in Spain, bussed up there and have been seeing the Douro Valley.
Chris: So I want to leap in and say how would you describe the Douro Valley? Who should come here?
Aaron: Well, I think the ideal target for people to come here is, there’s two kinds of people. Number one is, if you like wine this is an excellent place to come. The Douro River Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage site specifically because of its historic role in Port wine production, so all Port wine legally, you know, it’s a bit like Champagne. To be called Champagne you must have that produced in the Champagne region of France. To come here to Porto, Port, it has to be from this region. It’s got to be from the Douro River Valley and it derives its name from the city of Porto.
Chris: And now they do grow other wine here as well.
Aaron: Sure, yeah.
Chris: So we’ve seen…we’ve had a lot of wine.
Aaron: We’ve had a lot of wine.
Chris: So if you like wine, this is may be a trip for you.
Aaron: And I think, too, if you like wine and you want to learn more about wine, I mean it’s not just a trip where you can just go and drink wine for the fun of it. You do actually get to learn a lot about the way it’s produced and the historic origins of it. So I think people who like wine would enjoy it, and I think people who like history would enjoy it, and just coming to Europe and river cruising through somewhere different.
Jon: Yeah, I think this valley is so steeped in tradition. I mean, every hillside we passed, there’s little bands in the river so it’s great to watch the views as the ship goes by, but every hillside is terraced, and that’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of history in these walls and seeing these vineyards and everything. It’s just beautiful. So it’s been really great to be able to kind of get a glimpse into the history of Portugal as you go through the valley.
Chris: And you say terraced, and that’s the reason why, that was Jon and Aaron that started us here, and that’s the reason why this is a UNESCO World Heritage site, is that that terracing was a lot of work, as the poet said, as we heard on this trip, that God made the world and the Portuguese made the Douro Valley, yeah. And I know we were at a winery yesterday and, Aaron, you were with me, and Jon, you sat that one out, and we’ll talk about that, too. And that winery, their terraces were 250 years old. Although at the time they were planted they were Port wine, and then at the time that the phylloxera came through here and destroyed all wine production they switched to Moscatel. But we’ve seen Port wine production, Moscatel wine production, Vinho Verde, and then some other table wine production, I think, as well.
Aaron: Yeah, quite a bit. And then olive oil too, on top of all of those.
Chris: Right. That’s true. Especially as you get in the upper Douro Valley where a lot of the vines never go replanted when they were wiped out by that disease that basically wiped out almost all wine production in Europe, if not all wine production.
Aaron: Yeah, it nearly stopped it. It nearly decimated the entire thing. So the fact that now, I mean, the one advantage of that is that now the Douro River Valley is so much more diversified in what they produce here. They actually do produce a lot, different kinds of wines and oils and that.
Chris: Well, in the winery we went to…the town that we went to yesterday that produces Moscatel produce about 30 million bottles of Moscatel a year. The trick was that many of them were little bottles.
Aaron: They’re the ones you’d find in your mini-bar in the Little Hilton or whatever. You hit that there.
Chris: Although apparently they serve them for having with your beer.
Aaron: That’s right.
Chris: Which I was surprised by. Well, we had a lot of wine and a lot of sweet wine, both the Moscatel and the Porto being a sweet desert wine, and a fortified wine and, therefore, much higher in alcohol.
Chris: Which, we’ve been drinking a lot on this trip. But let’s start in Lisbon. What was the most memorable about the Lisbon part of the trip? Because there’s two nights in Lisbon at the beginning of the trip plus optional extensions. I actually came and didn’t do optional extensions with Viking but we did some of the same things in the sense that we went to some of the other UNESCO World Heritage sites, the palaces and the nearby Moorish castle, which we talked about in the recent episode we did on Lisbon. But let’s start up for you guys in terms of the trip part in Lisbon.
Jon: Yeah, Viking put us in that hotel right on, I think it was Liberty University Boulevard or something like that.
Chris: In Portuguese.
Jon: Right, in Portuguese. I’m not going to try to pronounce it. But the wide sidewalks and every sidewalk had this beautiful artwork embedded in the cobblestone, like this mosaic. Everywhere you went, I mean, it was all the way from the hotel down to the shoreline which is a good mile and a half or so walk, and it was just everywhere you went it was just this beautiful mosaics and I just loved that aspect of Lisbon, yeah.
Mary: To me, it would be like the color of the buildings. Actually in the old town it was just wonderful how different colors the buildings were. And it was really, really picturesque and it was easier for me to take pictures because, like, I love colors on buildings and stuff.
Chris: And Mary is the photographer, we’ll talk more about what each Aaron, and then Jon and Mary do later on in the show. But, yeah, they’re known for the light.
Mary: Yeah, they are. And it was very different from other shades we’ve visited like Porto, which was really like faded colors, really faded colors and that wasn’t that pretty as in Lisbon.
Chris: Of course we also visited Porto on a rainy, misty day.
Mary: Yeah, that was true.
Chris: One of the things that was very different once we went from Lisbon to Porto that defined the two different cities is that Lisbon, as we talked about on this show before, had the big earthquake in the 1700s.
Chris: 1755, which destroyed, basically flattened the city and everything was rebuilt since then. Where Porto survived that earthquake because it was far enough away. We’re talking about a couple of hours drive by bus between the two, or possibly even longer than that.
Aaron: If you were to do the drive in one stretch it’d be about two and a half to three hours drive.
Chris: Okay, because, yeah, we did stop at yet another UNESCO World Heritage site which is Coimbra which is the university there and the library there which was incredible. I wish I had pictures of that to share, but they would not let us to take pictures of the rare books in this temple to knowledge, I almost want to call the library there, because it was incredibly ornate and baroque and incredibly beautiful library with bats that eat the…
Mary: Tiny bats.
Aaron: The mites and the insects that would otherwise destroy the books, so they release these bats.
Chris: Which had to be the strangest thing we’ve heard in this was that they intentionally keep bats in the library.
Jon: I think we were all looking for them after she said that. Like, “Where are these bats?”
Chris: Well, the guide had said to us. We said, “Well where are the bats?” And the guide said, “Oh, don’t worry about it. They just sleep on top of the books during the day.” I was like, “Okay.”
Chris: These rare and precious books.
Aaron: Which we can’t take photographs of.
Chris: Right. But then in Porto, having survived it, one of the things that surprised me is every little neighborhood church I went into, and I went into three or four different churches, had the immensely ornate baroque gold-gilded altar pieces. Because apparently all the churches in Lisbon did also as well until 1755 when they fell down, burned down…
Aaron: Well, I think that’s actually a nice thing that Viking does. I mean, there’s two kind of positives about starting in Lisbon. The first thing is that it allows you to get in, get settled, get over your jet lag. I think for a lot of North Americans you’re going to be probably flying through Lisbon airport anyhow, so it sort of makes sense for you to stop there. But the unexpected thing I found was that it actually gave you that contrast that you’re talking about, because if you would’ve just flown into Porto you don’t really get that same contrast with it. Otherwise, Lisbon is a very beautiful city but it’s kind of like a lot of other big European cities. There’s some similarities there. So to have that contrast and be able to see Lisbon, and then go to Porto, I think it makes people appreciate Porto more than perhaps they would’ve had the tour just started there.
Jon: And to know what the people in Portugal and Lisbon went through during that earthquake, I think the colors that Mary was talking about is a testament to people’s, their positive outlook in, “Okay, earthquake is over. We’re going to rebuild.” That city was decimated in the earthquake, and to rebuild and to have these bright, colorful buildings, and then you go up to Porto, the thing that just stood out to me was the train station. If you go to Porto make sure you go in the train station because you’ve got a lot of history in the tile work all over the building there.
Chris: Well, and we saw the tile work a lot in Lisbon because that was the style that was popular at the time they rebuilt, starting in 1755, 1756 whenever they started cleaning things up, is the glazed tiles on the outside of buildings, often the same repeated work. But then, as we said, in the Porto train station, among other many places we saw, some churches that we saw, the railway station just where we were last night in Pinhao.
Aaron: We’ve been working on our Portuguese this week.
Chris: And it’s gotten nowhere. But had these basically hand-painted tiles. You went to the Tile Museum in Lisbon.
Aaron: Yes, we had a chance. Viking gave us an opportunity to go to the Tile Museum and see this wonderful artwork on these tiles, and at the end we could make our own tiles. And we’re going to be seeing them later on today, I believe, our own artwork. But I think one of the guides said during that tour that if the house didn’t have tile in it, it’s not a Portuguese home. It’s got to have that tile. It’s such a part of the fabric of the Portuguese people.
Chris: And definitely is something that I think visually from Portugal especially from Lisbon but also, as you said, from train station in Porto, from some of the churches that had these great big white and blue mosaic, not mosaic, mural tiles, basically hand-painted tiles. And the other thing we should say is almost everything is included on Viking, and that tends to be true. Aaron, you have done 17 cruises this year, some other river cruises and some other competitors who we won’t necessarily name by name on this show.
Aaron: Yeah, we don’t need to.
Chris: But it tends to be typical of the river cruises that you include a walking tour, for instance, in every city you go to.
Aaron: Yeah, the one nice thing with river cruises, I always like to say, there’s really no entry-level river cruise. River cruises on the whole start in a much more inclusive level, so typically, and this is true of Viking, Viking includes beer, wine and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, which is really helpful and handy.
Chris: The rest of the time, I mean, it seems like that bar is pretty much open.
Aaron: It is. Well, they included that. And the thing, too, to know as well is that you will never see the bottom of your wineglass. So this isn’t one of those where they will give you one pour things and then cut you off. They will keep you very hydrated, let’s say. The other thing that they do is they include…
Chris: I really needed a coaster to put on the top of my wineglass sometimes.
Aaron: Yeah, you almost had to do what you do in Germany and say, “No, this is enough.”
Chris: I had to be quick to say…
Aaron: The other thing that they do that’s fascinating is that you will get a selection of complimentary tours. So every day, more often than not, all the tours are complimentary. What Viking does is they also decide to say, “Well, hey, we’re going to offer you some extra experiences.” And these are excursions that come at a pretty modest costs. Usually they’re about between, say, €40 a person and perhaps up to a €100 per person.
Chris: And the visit to the Tile Museum was one of those.
Aaron: That was one of those, and that was €44 a person.
Chris: And then the other one, now we were all guests of Viking so we weren’t paying for that, to be honest, and with great thanks to Viking, but that’s how much they would charge normally for that. And then there was another tour over to the city that starts with a G, whose name I cannot pronounce.
Chris: Guimaraes, which is where the home of the Portuguese nation is, another UNESCO World Heritage site.
Aaron: Yes, a very beautiful city as well.
Chris: Probably more culturally significant than stunning visually, I would say that particular site.
Aaron: Yeah, I mean, Guimaraes has a really beautiful old town. I always like recommending people should go there just because, and again it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it does have some really interesting historic monuments. And it has its own look and feel that it’s neither Lisbon nor Porto, it’s definitely its own thing. And so that’s the fun thing with that is, you know, if you just want to do the complimentary tour in Porto, that’s completely fine, you’ll have an excellent time. These are tours that are more for the guests who are really fascinated about the history of a particular place, and so Viking charges a modest amount to go on that. And I feel personally that’s fair because really you can come on here and not spend an extra dime. Except for tips.
Chris: Well, you don’t have to but I would budget for tips.
Aaron: That’s the thing, gratuities on Viking are not included. On some river cruise lines they are, but on Viking they do come at an extra cost. And I believe they recommend about €11 or €12 per person per day is the suggested amount.
Chris: And they also recommended for the bus driver €1 a day, and the tour guide €2 a day.
Aaron: Yeah, exactly.
Jon: And I love how each trip for each guest is really customized because, yeah, you have the morning tours, you can go on with the group. If you want to do something else you can talk to the front desk or arrange another kind of tour that you can take. And if you don’t want to do all the different activities throughout the day you don’t have to. If you want to just enjoy a ride down the river, like we are right now, I wanted to point out. We’re going down the Douro River, looking out this beautiful balcony at the Douro Valley. So each guest can kind of have their own vacation. If they want to stay busy the whole time and go to see as much as possible, you can do that. If you want to just sit back on the sun deck, in a lounger and enjoy the views you can do that, too.
Chris: Or, as on the press trip like this, we’ve had people who yesterday, just needed to get work done, or possibly had partied too much the night before and stayed home and didn’t go to what turned out to be a fabulous outing. But we’ll get to that in a bit. So, going on with the itinerary, we went to Porto and then we cruised up mostly to small towns basically between…as you’re in Portugal you’re stopping at relatively small towns, and then being bused anywhere from…
Aaron: Half an hour to two hours.
Chris: Yeah, half an hour to two hours, to see something interesting on your day tour tended to be typical.
Aaron: And that’s worth noting too because if people have, say, cruised the Danube before. On the Danube typically you’re docking…if you’re not at the center then you’re just outside of it. Like, for example, in Vienna, the Danube does not flow through the center of town, so you can take the Metro in or you can take the bus in.
Chris: And Rhine, the same way.
Chris: Except for same going to Heidelberg.
Aaron: To Heidleberg, yeah, exactly. So the one thing to know with this is that usually here the towns themselves are not a gigantic draw. I mean, they’re very, very small, they’re very cool to see, but these are not Vienna, this is not Budapest. These are very small authentic Portuguese towns, and it does pay to be prepared for a little bit of bus travel, by motor coach. Most of them, I’d say, were about 30 minutes. The one up to Salamanca is about two, two and a half hours-ish on the coach. Well worth it but it’s one of those things you might want to bring a book or an iPod or something like this. The only thing I think that might disappoint people, if they haven’t quite done the research, is if they’ve been on the Danube they’ll imagine that it’s like the Danube where they’re just going to dock and get off the ship and go on a walking tour. And here it doesn’t quite work that way but they do make up for it by offering some pretty cool experiences.
Jon: And I think every time we had a longer bus ride that was an hour, hour and a half, the destination was always worth it. And you got there and you said, “Oh, that’s why they’re willing to bus us all the way out here.” Like Salamanca was just incredible.
Mary: And not just the destinations actually. When you were looking out your window in the bus you could see fabulous landscape. It was just incredible and we were never bored actually. Even though you were listening to music there was like entertainment outside of your window.
Jon: You would constantly hear camera shutters going off as we went by throughout.
Mary: Yes. That maybe all my fault.
Aaron: I agree with Mary about that, I think that the drive to some of these places, particularly the tour we did yesterday, we ended up getting detoured and going off the highway and taking some of these little back roads that I’m pretty sure the motorcoach was never supposed to go on.
Chris: Yeah, and I don’t think that was intentional.
Aaron: No, but sometimes little things like that, even an accident like that, the landscape was just…you couldn’t take your eyes off of it. This was not an uninteresting drive at all, this was very fascinating.
Chris: And I would say most of our side trips off the river were to…well, I’d say probably number one would be wineries, because that is a theme of this. And so we went to different wineries, we went to a few old monasteries. And I say old monasteries, ex-monasteries because all the monks got kicked out in the early 1800s, 1835 or so I believe was the date, that in a Portuguese civil war all the monks and nuns were asked to leave the country so there were a lot of…actually that was the other thing that surprised me, actually, was a lot of monasteries turned into city halls or nunneries turned into something else.
Jon: I think a monastery today they said is now used by the army.
Chris: Yeah, right. Interesting in a very Catholic country it’s got an interesting history there with that.
Jon: And that’s something that the tour guides were great, even on those long bus rides. It didn’t seem that long because the tour guides were not only very informative, but the one on our bus was very entertaining as well so we’re all laughing, having a good time, enjoying the trip. So it made it go by quickly.
Chris: There was at least one of the bus rides that was, I wish the tour guide had been a little less informative. I think one of the ones we got up early, and the tour guide said, “Well, I know many of you want to sleep,” and then talked for an hour. So you will have that. You can always bring your earplugs, you don’t have to listen to that. When you’re in the city then, and for people who haven’t done a river cruise, you may not be used to this, but it’s fairly typical for river cruises, we would have our quiet boxes. We were using a slightly older version on the boat than we were in Lisbon, but that means you have basically a portable radio. You’re listening to the guide, so the guide can talk even in the cathedral in a normal voice, or even in a whisper, directly in a microphone and you can be 100 feet away and…
Aaron: If not more.
Jon: Or at times the guide would not even go into the cathedral, would not want to disturb everyone so they’d stay outside, and we’d go inside and look while they were able to tell us all about it.
Aaron: I mean, they’re actually quite, and that’s the thing, they have become extremely common for river cruises. I can’t think of a single river cruise line that doesn’t use a quiet boxes. I mean, they’re used throughout Europe, they’re used throughout Asia, they’re extraordinarily common. And for good reason, it’s because for that exact reason there’s…in the old days you had a guide that was trying to yell above the guide that was next to them, everybody’s waving a big umbrella, I mean, it all fell apart quickly. So with these, you know, it’s a little tiny portable receiver that you hang around your neck. It’s got a single earpiece that goes into your left ear, it hurts terribly, but that’s okay.
Chris: The newer boxes, the newer ones, where I could use my own ear buds were better.
Aaron: The new ones have a standard headphone jack so you can use the iPhone headphones or whatever you like. You’re still going to see both kinds on the river but they essentially have the same function and they are extremely useful.
Chris: I have a love/hate relationship with them in the sense that I have a thing against group tours, I will admit, even though I run group tours.
Jon: You are on the wrong trip, my friend.
Chris: So it does identify you as being in a group tour, especially when you’re wearing it around your neck, so I usually have it in my pocket. And that is the other reason I liked, when I could use my own earbuds is that it wasn’t obvious that I was on group tour, because I’m 50 feet away looking in the other directions taking pictures. But the other thing I like about it, that I really do like about it, is the fact that I can be 50 feet away taking pictures, a half a block ahead, a half a block behind…
Aaron: You know, I tried it out once in Vienna on another river cruise, and I actually got two and a half blocks away before the signal cut out. So you really can be, depending on your circumstances, the buildings there, you really can be quite far away.
Chris: I did find in Salamanca when they cut the corner around a great big massive cathedral.
Aaron: Yeah, the cathedrals tend to block out everything.
Chris: That didn’t work as well. The new cathedral in Salamanca, you know, the one from the 1500s. The new one.
Jon: I know Mary appreciated that too because as a photographer, and I could see she’s wanting to get the right shot, and sometimes you have to walk away from the group a little bit to get that, so you’re still listening. And for me I would just listen until I hear some static, and I look around, “Okay, am I too far from the group? I need to catch up now.”
Chris: Well, and if you walk half a block ahead you don’t have anybody in your shot.
Jon: Right, that’s true.
Mary: That’s also why I don’t really like tour groups, like groups, because it is kind of annoying to have always like a bunch of people standing in front of you and blocking your shot. And in a way it’s very nice when you’re taking pictures for the company to have like the group of people in front of you, but at some point you want to get some pictures for yourself, or take pictures that are mainly showing the site, or the building, and having people wearing hats and with umbrellas and with…
Chris: Well, let’s expound on this because this is a group experience, this is a group tour experience, although it’s not like being on a big cruise ship. The total number of passengers on this ship when fully loaded, 106 so we basically fit with room, with lots of room to spare in three buses.
Aaron: Yes, and Viking does that, too. I mean really they could cram everybody onto two coaches, but instead they spread them out over three, more luxurious as you might say coaches, but…
Chris: And in most towns we were…those were the three tour buses we saw.
Aaron: Precisely, yeah.
Chris: So very different than taking over the port in a big ship, cruise ship sort of thing. You don’t go into port and see the tanzanite sales and the t-shirt sales and things.
Aaron: And even very different than just a regular river cruise along the Danube. I mean, certain in the high season you get a lot more ships on the Danube. It’s still nowhere near the point where it would overwhelm the ports. But certainly when you’re walking along Amsterdam you’re going to see a lot of Viking logos, Ama logos, Uniworld logos. Whereas here we would see some other ships in port with us but generally those other ships seemed to have alternating itineraries because we didn’t typically see them in port. We saw them with us physically but they went somewhere else.
Chris: We waved at the other Viking ship as they went the other way on the river, and they have two ships right now on the river and a third coming.
Aaron: Yeah, right now they’ve got Viking Hemming and Viking Torgil which are identical sister ships, and next year they have a third identical sister Viking Osfrid.
Chris: Well, the interesting thing, you say identical ships and sister ships, but also ships made specifically for this river, and we got a chance to see that every time we went through the locks because there are four…
Mary: Five locks.
Chris: Five locks total that we did on this. Okay, I slept through at least a few of those. But the locks are exactly the size of the ship, plus a couple inches in any direction.
Aaron: And that’s an important point too because a lot of people, if they cruised on the Danube, on the Viking Longships, they’ll say, “Well, why can’t you bring a Longship here?” And the reason you can’t isn’t because they can’t get it here, they certainly can.
Aaron: The problem is the longships are 443 feet long, they will not fit in the lock. These are 223, I think, and they fit snugly into those locks. So what they’ve done is, this is like a baby longship, or longship light, where they’ve got the same kind of cabin designs, the same sort of Scandinavian decor, and the Aquavit Terrace out in front of the lounge. So they’ve got all of the stuff you would expect the longships to have.
Mary: And even more.
Aaron: Yeah, exactly.
Mary: Even more, because there’s a swimming pool in there, yeah.
Chris: Yeah, I didn’t see anybody get in it on this trip.
Jon: I saw one man get in.
Chris: Did he? Okay.
Mary: Earlier, and like a few people were there.
Chris: I suspect in the high seas when it’s hotter out you’d see more.
Aaron: Middle of July that’s a popular place to be.
Chris: The thing that surprised me though is when we went through the locks and the locks were deep, for one thing.
Jon: One was…a couple were over 100 feet.
Aaron: Yeah, I believe so, yeah. At least that one was over 100 for sure.
Chris: And then also at one point we were about to go…we’re through the lock and under a bridge to get through the lock, and they’ve lowered the railing, they’ve lowered the sun shade on the sun deck. They gotten everybody off the sun deck because you can’t stand up on the sun deck, it’s that low for that particular bridge. Some of the other ones we were standing there and I could reach up and touch the bridge.
Jon: I was in the Aquavit on one of those occasions going under a bridge, and I look up and I see the captain, and he’s actually hunched over, right? I mean, the bridge that we’re going under is just inches above his head and he’s running from one side to the other, hunched over, to make sure everything was going smoothly.
Chris: Well, I don’t know if that was the same one, but I looked up at one point and I thought something has gone wrong because the bridge is two feet too tall for this bridge, yeah, the bridge of the ship is two feet too tall for the bridge that we’re going under. And then the bridge of the ship retracted.
Aaron: Yeah, the wheel house can retract into it’s own housing. And, in fact, in the wheelhouse there’s a little sunroof, and the captain can pop the little sunroof open and it’s just like the longships on the Danube, the entire wheel house structure lowers and the captain just pops his head out just to make sure they’re going to clear that bridge. And that’s used if there’s high water because the problem here isn’t so much low water, it’s high water that really screw things up.
Chris: And I know I’m a nerd that I love that sort of thing, but I love that sort of thing. The way the locks work and watching those mechanisms work, and the passage through that, on this kind of ship, on the Panama Canal or something like that, I do enjoy that.
Jon: And you could see the excitement in the passengers always going to…
Jon: …the sun deck or the Aquavit to check out what’s going on and watching the ship drop, and the locks rise, it’s always a fun experience.
Chris: The great big doors open and such.
Jon: And I think someone was saying Viking has done such a good job of feeding us this week, the ship is a little bit lower in the water. So we have a little more clearance going into those bridges.
Aaron: Yeah, maybe a couple inches.
Aaron: Is that food or is that liquid? I can’t tell if that is…
Chris: Well, let’s talk about that experience, anyone want to comment on the food experience on the ship? We’ve seen a lot of regional specialties as well as things that are not regional, as well as things that cater to the…
Aaron: Primarily North American clientele.
Chris: We haven’t talked about who the clientele are, but, well, it’s English speaking.
Aaron: English speaking. Viking’s whole thing is that they would like to have English speaking guests, 55 plus, predominantly from North America, so mainly from the United States and Canada. But Australia is an emerging market for them, the U.K. is a very emerging market for them.
Chris: We saw a number of people from the U.K. on the ship.
Aaron: I mean, for people in the U.K., as well as New Zealand, really for anybody who’s European who speaks English, this is an easy sell in some respects because you’ve got, like Mary, a two-hour flight to get here. The rest of us have this mammoth journey to get here. So I think Viking is kind of, initially they were just targeting North Americans. They really weren’t going after Australians at all, or people from the U.K., and now that’s changed quite a bit because they’re finding out that people from the U.K. and Australia do want to river cruise, and they’d like to cruise very badly. Too, when the Australians travel, they do it for a month. These guys don’t just go for seven days like the average American does. This is a big deal so that guest, that customer, might take two river cruises back-to-back.
Chris: Well, and the other thing, as you said,their target audience is 55 plus although, they’re starting to do more with multi-generational, but there’s no kids program.
Aaron: No, there’s no kids programs. And Viking is still one of the few river cruises…
Chris: And there’s not going to be either.
Aaron: No, there’s not going to be. And you know what, that’s okay. There’s nothing that says you’ve got to be everything to everyone, but it is worth noting that while other lines offer multi-generational family sailings during the summer and Christmas, Viking doesn’t do anything special for that. That’s not their mandate. So, having said that, on the Christmas market sailing, you do see the average age start to skew younger. You see some couples in their 40s, couples in their 30s, you know, the parents traveling with the grown kids. And I think that’s perfect. For Viking, that kind of dynamic is really great.
Chris: And I would say on this cruise, I’m 54 and I was quite possibly younger than all the passengers except for the people on the press group. Now, yes, Mary, at almost 24 was by far the youngest person on this ship except for possibly somebody in the crew. The crew is younger than the passengers, that’s definitely that. But I would say most of the people I’ve talked to are retired.
Aaron: Sure. And you can argue there’s a certain price point that comes with that I mean these are…
Chris: Probably retired from a good job.
Aaron: These are not inexpensive cruises, and you’re looking at adding transatlantic flight on top of that. But on the same token I always feel like…I mean, I’m 33-ish almost, and there’s people I know they don’t have kids, they’re married, they’ve got two good jobs, they’ve both got dual income, this is right up their alley. This is exactly what they would be looking for, but nobody is marketing to them. So I kind of feel like maybe that’s something that I would like to see in the future because I do think that there’s a market there for people who are in their 30s and 40s who are curious about the world. But the whole bus tour things just frightens the crap out of them. I think that’s a terrible holiday, a bus tour.
Chris: Yeah, I wouldn’t want to do one.
Jon: And most of the guests I talk to prefer there is no kids program because they just want to have a nice relaxing time, and some kids don’t want to see all this history. Even though some do and it’s great.
Chris: Some do and it’s great for them.
Jon: Yeah, for those that are history buffs would love to see this stuff they’ve read about all their lives, this is a perfect opportunity.
Chris: Well, and the other we should say is that there’s no climbing wall.
Jon: No flow rider.
Chris: Flow rider.
Aaron: No ice-skating.
Chris: There isn’t.
Jon: There is a shuffle board and a little golf.
Chris: Little golf putting green.
Aaron: And the pool, Mary mentioned, which was pretty awesome.
Chris: But, really, you bring your own entertainment and you do the tours.
Aaron: I don’t really think you can be bored. The other thing I always tell people is on these river cruises are surprisingly active, they are far more active than an ocean cruise. This is closer, to me, to expedition cruising. An expedition cruise you get off the ship, you go in the Zodiac every day, you come back for lunch, they work…
Chris: It’s somewhere in between that and an ocean cruise, yeah.
Aaron: Sure. And you’ve got this dynamic here where usually, I think we’ve had two mornings where we can sleep in. The rest of the time we’ve had tours that leave bright and early, 8:30, 9:00 a.m. and you’re going either over lunch and coming back in the afternoon, or you’re going to lunch, coming back on board the ship for lunch and then departing again in the afternoon. So really the chances of you being bored or at loose ends are pretty slim, because by the time, you know, when you are on the ship cruising all you want to do is sit in the lounge with a book and a cocktail and enjoy the scenery.
Mary: Actually I didn’t even find time to do that. I felt like it was really great to have so many entertainment around me, but I didn’t have time to relax actually, maybe because I’m working at the moment. But it was hard to find time to rest in the lounge or wherever because 8:30 a.m. we’ve got to be ready to go, at 9:00 a.m. we’ve got to be ready to go after breakfast. And then we come back and it’s the daily briefing, and then then there’s the dinner and this…and that’s real time we can sit down, especially just today actually.
Chris: For me this feels relaxed because compared to traveling on my own there’s a whole lot more downtime, and obviously somebody else is doing the driving, and the driving is just a lot more fun, whether that be the bus or the boat, especially the boat.
Jon: Yeah, and Chris and I were talking earlier about that as far as the major differences between river cruising and like an ocean cruise. And typically the ocean cruises I’ve done is typically in the Caribbean or somewhere tropical, where most people are there…some are there to party but a lot are there just to do nothing for the entire week.
Aaron: Well, and I think…yeah, I think that’s the way the Caribbean cruises have always been marketed, is this is a cruise where you go and you lay on the sun deck all day, and that’s kind of how Caribbean cruise works. But there are deep ocean cruises that are more active or doing more things. But I think, too, there’s an interesting dynamic there where typically a ship will be docked in port for the morning or the afternoon or better part of the day, but usually by 5:00 p.m. they untie the thing, they pull the anchor up, and you spend the night sailing. So in the evening there’s more of a, I don’t know if you can say a social club, more of a chance to rest or something like that. Really there’s…the evening is comprised of dinner and cocktails and sleep.
Chris: Right. And on this river we actually weren’t allowed to cruise at night.
Aaron: That’s right. The authorities don’t let you sail at night.
Jon: We’d sail at 6:30 in the morning, I think is…
Chris: Which really we would have missed some lovely scenery by doing it anyway. So quite often it would cruise, while we were out on an excursion though.
Aaron: And that’s the thing I think, too, is worth noting about the cruising on the Douro, is the Douro just doesn’t have the distances the Danube does. If you’re going from Amsterdam to Budapest you’re covering multiple times over this distance. So when we sail we’re sailing for two hours, three hours. In fact, I think this one today this is the longest stretch of sea time.
Chris: Well, you also cruise round trip. We start at Porto and we end in Porto which is very different from starting in Budapest and ending in…
Aaron: Nuremberg, yeah, exactly.
Chris: Very different that way. The other thing in terms of because they’re targeting an older audience there was more awareness of mobility issues. I noticed that at one point we’re going to a town, the hill town of…I’m drawing a complete blank.
Jon: The one where we did sediment?
Chris: No, no, the small hill town…
Jon: Castelo Rodrigo?
Chris: Castelo Rodrigo. And in Castelo Rodrigo there was going to be a hill with cobblestones and they were just very aware of telling people that because there are definitely some people on the boat who are moving slower, who do have mobility issues, and I think they are…
Aaron: Was that at level three?
Chris: That was a level three, yes.
Jon: Because Viking will classify different levels depending on how strenuous the walk is so you know…
Chris: And today, for instance, we did a walk downhill from the shrine.
Aaron: Six hundred steps down.
Chris: Yeah, and they were quite aware that that might be too difficult for some people, and so most of us walked, but a few people went back to the coach and took the coach back.
Aaron: And I think that’s one thing that Viking does incredibly well is they’re very, very attentive in their pre-cruise documentation about telling you how strenuous things are going to be, what you should pack, and even once you get on board the ship, they’re very good about telling you, “Listen, you’ve got to be able to negotiate uneven cobblestones, uneven surfaces.”
Aaron: It brings into…another thing that guests always ask, or potential cruisers always ask is, “Is river cruising suitable for people who are confined to a wheelchair?” And the unfortunate fact is, no, it’s not.
Chris: I’ve been on a river cruise with someone who was but it was a challenge.
Aaron: It must be. Yeah, most lines will say, “We just cannot accommodate it there’s…” Because…
Chris: If it were just the ramp going in and out, the ship getting on the…
Aaron: So the ship has an elevator for people, I mean, if you have mobility issues, with knees and things like that, the ship has an elevator that will take you throughout the decks, but really the ramps, the docking areas, the cobblestones, the uneven surfaces.
Chris: And Europe, in general.
Aaron: Europe, in general.
Jon: That’s true. Even if they get you off the ship there’s still a lot of places…
Aaron: Even if they get you off the ship, one time, I’m thinking like the docking locations in Budapest that you’ve got there.
Chris: Right, absolutely.
Aaron: I mean, it’s absolutely not suitable for that.
Chris: What surprised you about this trip?
Jon: This is my second trip with Viking but it surprised me even more now as it did the first time was the level of personal touch you have with the crew that you don’t always get on a larger ship. By the second day when you go in and out of the ship you get your guest passport at the front desk there so they know that you’re gone. When you get back you turn it in. But by the second day they already know what room number, I didn’t have to tell them.
Mary: And the name actually, they knew my name on the second day.
Jon: And we know, probably six or seven names of the staff here just right off the top of my head because you interact with them in a smaller group, it’s easy to have that personal touch and that’s been kind of…
Aaron: That actually is the same thing that surprised me or pleasantly surprised me, I should say, because the trick with the Douro is that Viking doesn’t actually own this ship outright. This is operated by a line called Douro Azul, and they handle the technical side of things for Viking because there are different rules and regulations in Portugal, and these regulations state that Douro Azul is kind of the de facto operator here, and plus they also have been operating here for several decades. So you could argue that they’ve got the experience with this waterway and these rivers. So sometimes when a company gets another company to run things, even though all the staff are vetted by Viking and this and that, sometimes there’s a slippage in quality. What impressed me was the staff on here, on the whole, are just everybody is friendly and accommodating as is the staff on the Viking Llongships or even the staff on the Viking Star of the Ocean cruise ship. The consistency is fantastic.
Chris: I would say that one of the waiters was more attentive if you’re a woman. I won’t name any names but all the women said he was such a nice guy and a little bit of a flirt, and I’m thinking, “Boy, he didn’t rank that way with me at all.”
Aaron: He didn’t hit on me, no, he didn’t.
Chris: And this is an older gentleman, I don’t mean flirting, and he’s sort of, negative way here, but it was just very attentive. But the other thing that was a surprise is that the crew is predominantly Portuguese.
Aaron: Sure, yeah.
Chris: And that is very unusual that it’s such a homogenous cruise in terms of so many people with the same nationality that isn’t the Philippines, or Indonesia, or…
Aaron: True and I mean, in Europe, on the Danube you’ve got a lot of crew, they’re still European, but they’re from several different European countries, Hungary, Austria, Germany, things like that, so.
Jon: Yeah, that was kind of neat, because the tour guides were also Portuguese, on the ship they’re Portuguese, so they have a passion for this country. When you had a question about something you saw along the river they usually knew the answer, or they would…
Chris: Or it was their hometown.
Jon: Right, or they got a little hot spots that no one else knew about because they lived here all their lives.
Chris: Although that was very disappointing to our guide today and to our bus driver that that favorite pastry place had closed.
Jon: Yeah, they’re under construction. That’s the best pastry place in all of, what town was that?
Mary: La Manca?
Chris: Let’s go with La Manca.
Jon: We’re working on our Portuguese, even the town names has been a struggle.
Aaron: But, yeah, they did spend a lot of time sort of hyping up this pastry shop to us and we all bought into it. So, of course, once you finally find that it’s closed and they were just as disappointed as we were. But I did the galley tour a few days ago which I always like doing on ships just to see what technical spaces are that they have to work with. The galley is about the size of this suite, I think, maybe a little bit bigger.
Chris: Right, but this suite is pretty big.
Aaron: This suite is big but I mean you’re talking about a galley that is maybe 600, 700 square feet. It’s just not huge. It’s tiny for the amount of people, they have to feed 106 people plus the crew, three times a day, everyday without fail. And one of the things that was fascinating was that all the ingredients they use on board the ship for the food all come from Portugal, with the exception of the smoked salmon which they have to import from Norway, because they told me their in Portuguese smoked salmon is…you don’t want it.
Chris: Cod also they did mention that, in Portugal, they eat a lot of cod but it is also Norwegian. We did have a couple of cod dishes so I think that they were likely to have come from Norway also.
Aaron: Yeah, but the ingredients have been…the nice thing about river cruising is the ingredients do generally tend to be fresh because you’re loading on provisions in all sorts of ports. If you need something the chef can go into the market and get it.
Chris: As a matter of fact today he did a market tour to take people into the market to kind of show them what he was buying.
Jon: That reminds me too that they’re very attentive to any kind of dietary needs. I know Aaron and Mary could probably attest to that.
Mary: And not just not on the ship actually. Whenever we were on the excursions, and having lunch or dinner somewhere else, we had this little piece of paper written on it that you were a vegetarian or gluten-free or you were only eating fish or whatever, and you had to hold it and just put it in front of your plate, and then the waiter would see that you can’t eat whatever they serve. You wouldn’t even have to ask or anything. It would just be served.
Aaron: And that’s a really good point too because, I mean, you’d expect them to cater to allergies or dietary requirements on the ship, but to be able to do it ashore like that, that’s really impressive.
Jon: Right, and we ate off ship quite often.
Aaron: Oh, you bet, yeah.
Jon: On this trip.
Chris: Yeah, it’s interesting. Well, it makes sense too because you would often have driven, as we said, half hour away or something like that. Like when I did the Rhine river cruise we would get a one-hour walking tour and then we would be on our own. This one is a little different because of where the sites are that we’d be going to.
Aaron: And in some ways I think that’s not bad because I think that sometimes when the ship is very close, say, if you’re docking in Bratislava or something like that, the ship is four minutes away so I think people sometimes have a tendency to go back to the ship, because they go, “Well, it’s free, I can eat…”
Aaron: And the food is good. But the problem is that comes at a cost because you’re not actually eating the local food or experiencing the local beverages, food, wine, things like that. So here by having these organized excursions where you are all doing this, going to some place, you do get some authentic food
Jon: And not only did we get to enjoy authentic food at these places but listened to some music, the Fado and flamenco we heard last night. So that was some entertainment while we were eating in these places is kind of…
Chris: Flamenco was in Salamanca.
Jon: Yes, that was in Spain so we had some Spanish music on this trip as well, as Portuguese Fado.
Chris: Yeah. Any other surprises?
Mary: Actually people on board all get along, and that’s something that…no, really, it’s incredible. Like there are Americans and British people and Australians, but they all get along and they’re having so much fun. I’ve never seen so many people having so much fun on the sun deck. Like this afternoon, like we went all crazy, like it was just…okay, well, this is the first afternoon we’re spending on the boat so…and it was the last day, or it is the last day today. And people were relaxed, and they were like having fun, drinking cocktails on the top deck and…
Aaron: And they’re nice, too. I mean, they were really, really friendly to each other, and even to us. Like we were mentioning older, our age range eschews much younger than they are and they were friendly enough…
Chris: More for some of you.
Aaron: But they’ve been nothing but lovely, and it doesn’t matter, I think, like…
Mary: Even for me. Actually, and I was the photographer on board. It was really hard for me to go to people and ask, “Could you pose?” Or, “Could you be like this?” Or, “Could you do that, or you don’t mind if I take pictures of you?” Or whatever. And the thing is that they were all so nice to me. They were like, “There’s no problem if you’re…”
Aaron: That’s one thing I found about cruising too is cruise ship is really different from a hotel. I mean, if you’re in a hotel and you pass somebody in the hallway you generally don’t say hello or good morning. You kind of pass silently and you don’t…
Chris: It depends on what country you’re in and what part of the country you’re in, yeah.
Aaron: Oh, well, yeah. Okay. Take the steam out of my comment.
Chris: But you’re from Canada where we know people are…you know.
Aaron: Yeah, we’re terrible, we’re the worst. But it is interesting because, generally, if you’re in a hotel you don’t…
Chris: You’re not there to interact.
Aaron: No, exactly. You’re there to sleep and do whatever. And I think on a cruise ship of any size you get people where it doesn’t matter what country you’re from or what age you are, and you could wake up and say good morning and how are you.
Chris: Well, you’re much more likely to get to know people on a smaller ship whether a cruise ship or expedition sail ship.
Jon: And it’s been kind of…
Chris: …there’s just fewer of you, it’s more like…
Jon: It’s been kind of a bonding experience too because we’ve been on this ship for all week now, and by the end of the week we’re kind of like opening up more. We feel like we know everybody. We’re all family now, and a smaller ship kind of helps with that.
Chris: And I think a little less actually potentially for us who are here on a press trip because we tended quite often to stick to ourselves, than for the normal passenger.
Chris: I think there was even more mixing and more of that gives you…
Mary: I actually went to a lot of people…
Chris: Well, you did. You’re getting adopted by people. You are. That’s an entirely different…
Mary: Well, they didn’t mind I was French so, “I can sit with you?” “Yeah.”
Chris: What were you against? One thing that people should know before they book the Viking River Cruise on the Douro?
Aaron: I think the one thing that people should realize about the Douro, and about river cruising on the Douro, is that it is not going to be identical to the Danube in terms of the ship, or in terms of maybe the ease of access to some of these places. This really is a trip that you are taking as a cultural immersion experience, so you are in it for the wineries, you are in to go see the Port wine production and things like that. The towns are nice but the towns are not…they’re not Budapest, they’re not Vienna and not they’re not meant to be, they’re not supposed to be. So I think the most important thing is going because you want that cultural experience, and you like the idea of taking a slightly different river cruise.
Chris: On the other hand I think that this would be a difficult place to see on your own on a car tour.
Chris: It would be more challenging to try and replicate what we did but not from the river.
Aaron: This is a very convenient way to see Portugal and to see one of Portugal’s most well-regarded areas, which is the Douro River Valley.
Chris: Right, right.
Jon: Yeah, I would say that along the same lines, if you don’t like history, if you don’t like immersing yourself into other cultures that you’re probably not going to enjoy it.
Chris: If you don’t like history and you don’t like wine, this is not the trip for you.
Aaron: Well, maybe there’s even something there, too. If you are non-alcoholic, if you do not drink alcoholic beverages either by choice or because you’re allergic to it or whatever, this also may not be the trip for you, because a large component of this revolves around wine and wineries.
Jon: And I don’t drink alcohol but the wait staff has been…it’s funny because they remember every time, they’d come over and say, “Oh, ginger ale, Coca-Cola, they’ll offer me something else.”
Chris: Did you find that that limited your ability to…like when we visited a winery?
Jon: Well, there was a few wine tasting and things, where I would go around and get pictures. There was many of these.
Chris: There were more than a few wine tastings. There three yesterday morning, three different types…
Jon: Before breakfast.
Chris: Three different types of Moscatel.
Jon: But there were so many other things and so many beautiful scenes to capture that it was a blip on the radar for me as far as being a…
Aaron: That’s good though. I think that’s awesome to hear.
Jon: And if you don’t…if you’re against being on a bus…these buses though weren’t like public transportation buses.
Chris: No, no.
Jon: Point out that these were really nice, brand new buses with plenty of leg room. But if you don’t want to be in a bus, they weren’t long trips. But if an hour-long bus trip isn’t for you then you might want to…
Aaron: Yeah, if you’re totally against motor coach travel, period.
Chris: Different cruise.
Jon: Different itinerary is for you, yeah.
Mary: From my point of view it would be like if you want to be on a diet then don’t come.
Jon: That’s a good one.
Aaron: Yes, do not weigh yourself after this cruise.
Jon: The Pastel de nata.
Mary: It would lead to depression actually if you weigh yourself after that.
Chris: We didn’t talk about that but that was a wonderful…
Jon: There’s a coffee station on board with cookies and pastries and…
Mary: Oh, actually the coffee, like coffee time. We did something there.
Aaron: That’s added a few pounds, I think, to all of us.
Chris: Excellent. Well, why don’t we go around and tell people who you are again and what your site is where people can read more about your travels.
Aaron: My name is Aaron Saunders, and I write for two websites and I write for FromTheDeckChair.com which is all about cruises of all kinds. And I also write for River Cruise Advisor which is at RiverCruiseAdvisor.com and that just focuses strictly on river cruises.
Jon: And my name is Jonathan Souza, and I write for CruiseFever.net along with my brother, Ben. And Cruise Fever is for people that just have a fever for cruising. Who just can’t wait to get out in the ocean, maybe haven’t tried it yet and you want to look into it and get some tips and advice.
Chris: Or river.
Jon: Or a river cruise. Yeah, cruises of all kind. And you could find us on CruiseFever.net and follow us altogether, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter.
Chris: And you’ve done fewer cruises than Aaron this year but this is not your only cruise this year. Actually this is my third this year, so I guess I’m right in your direction.
Jon: Not the last, for sure.
Mary: I’m Mary Quincy, a photographer hired by Viking on this ship, and also an Instagram user, and my name is mary_quincy on Instagram and my website is maryquincy.com.
Jon: And she has incredible pictures.
Aaron: Yes, she does.
Chris: She has incredible pictures on Instagram. And if you liked this live version of the Amateur Traveler, then you might want to check out This Week in Travel which is a different show. We talk a little more about travel writing and travel blogging on that show, but it is done in this format. And if you don’t like this version of Amateur Traveler, if you don’t like this live format then be aware that next week’s show won’t be like this. Thanks very much and…
Mary: Have a good…
Aaron: I’m trying to think how to say it in Portuguese.
Chris: I don’t know. We usually sign off of this.
Chris: Ciao. Thank you all for coming on Amateur Traveler and sharing with us your love, either new-found or long-established for river cruises and for Portugal.
With that we’re going to end this episode of The Amateur Traveler. I recommend you go over the show notes. You’ll see links to how you can do this cruise. You’ll also see links to the websites for Jon and Aaron and Mary as well as my pictures from this particular trip. You’ll also see the correction that phylloxera is an insect even though I accidentally called it a disease in this particular episode. If you have any questions send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com or better yet leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveler.com.
You can follow me on Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram as chris2x, and as always thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.