The theme from Rocky was pounding in my head and I was feeling pretty smug when I started back down the 635 steps. Until I reached the halfway point.
The achievement of making the tough climb coupled with mild applause from companions who had reached the top by bus made me think I had earned at least one cool drink on the shady terrace of some Portuguese village tavern. But then I saw one of life’s more amazing sights.
Here, in the noon sun, a woman of a certain age was heading up those steps with considerable difficulty. On her knees.
She was a penitent, on her way to the hilltop Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies at Lamego, in the valley of the Rio Douro. She was doing it the hard way to prove her faith.
I decided no more heroic feats for me, just plain, honest sightseeing: watching the Douro drift past our stateroom balcony on our river cruise ship and hoping Our Lady of Remedies had a good one for sore knees.
River watching can be mesmeric. Inland waterways are popular as a way to see a destination at leisure, in depth and in a degree of luxury. And you’ll never get seasick on a river.
Perhaps more than any other European river, the Douro is a chance to get to grips with the country, its landscape, food, culture, history and people.
It runs almost 900km from Spain into Portugal, to empty into the Atlantic at Porto, but is navigable for large craft for only 200km. This makes it a midget compared with some of the world’s great river routes, and a Douro cruise is laid-back.
RACV Cruises & Tours has a 14-day package that tops and tails the Douro experience with three days in Lisbon and three in Madrid. It’s an easy-going itinerary with no time wasted.
My cruise started in luxury at the Four Seasons Ritz in Lisbon, the introduction to Lisbon included a ride on a rickety tram that scales the city’s steep streets, followed by an excursion to Sintra, a mountaintop town with a palace peeping through the forest. After that, there was time to blow away the cobwebs at Cabo da Roca, mainland Europe’s westernmost point, and a lunch of grilled sardines at Cascais, apparently home to many of the nation’s football stars.
We joined the ship AmaVida in the city of Porto. I wasn’t prepared for this riverscape – multi-coloured buildings climbing up the gorge towards the Clerigos Tower on the highest point. We berthed for two nights and explored the city’s elegant coffee shops, civic and religious buildings and hectic waterfront.
The Douro’s left bank is lined with port wine storages and a cable car runs to the cliff top and the high level of a century-old bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel. Opposite, in the city’s Ribeira district, we found a kilometre-long ribbon of restaurants, some featuring Portugal’s mournful fado music at night. Fado is an acquired taste that I didn’t quite acquire.
The food? Try the salt cod fritters – bolinhos de bacalhau. Or don’t worry, as most of the food and wine you’re likely to need is part of the package on the AmaVida.
Next day found us at Guimaraes, a small town with a big medieval centre, narrow cobbled streets, parks, a square and bustling shops and cafes. A vast, stern castle dominates, much as it has since Afonso Henriques secured Portugal’s independence from Spanish overlords in 1129. He proclaimed himself king and kicked out the Moors a few years later.
That evening we were taken to what was the Alpendurada Monastery, once a Benedictine centre and now a luxurious hotel and restaurant. Many of the monks’ artworks remain, including a couple of naughty statues.
Next day saw us in the biggest lock on the Douro, 35m of concrete walls in which the ship fitted with just 5cm clearance on each side. Once through you’re heading for Resende and Regua, where shops stock statuettes of the famous cockerel from nearby Barcelos. Seems a dead and roasted rooster crowed to proclaim a condemned man’s innocence even as the rope was slipped around his neck, resulting in a happy ending.
We docked and hopped onto buses for a mountain-scouring climb to Pinhao and the Mateus Palace. The gardens are modelled on those at Versailles and go close in excellence if not size.
The days tend to merge on these lazy holidays. You go ashore, walk some ancient cobbled streets, sit in the shade and have a powerful Portuguese bica coffee, then amble back to the ship for a spot of lunch. Perhaps the dish of the day might be duck confit or black pork medallions – whatever, they do it well. Then visit a town, see a castle or two, boggle at the scale of the vineyards on steep hills, then back to see what’s for dinner.
After seven days we had run out of river on the Spanish border, and it was time to take the coach to Madrid.
We travelled by way of Salamanca, another surprising city with a laidback atmosphere, impressive centre and thousands of university students. From here it was just an hour or so to Madrid, surely one of the world’s great visitor cities.
Our visit to the vibrant Spanish capital included three nights at the Westin Palace Hotel. Art lovers can see Guernica, Garden of Earthly Delights and Venus and Cupid in a 1km walk.
That is, if your knees are up for it.