The surface of the sunlit River Douro shimmered like polished glass as the Spirit of Chartwell sauntered nimbly upstream in northern Portugal’s famous wine region. On both sides of the river stretched an amazing visual panorama, one so vivid and intense that it’s sights and sounds were seared into me like the mark of a branding iron.
Vineyards. Row upon row of stepped, winding, sun drenched wine terraces in a dozen shades of electric green. Old, half ruined houses peeping out at the water’s edge, their granite walls scorched by centuries of long, hot northern summers. Small boats, still as flies frozen in amber. Vast, vaulting bridges with traffic scurrying across them like maddened ants.
Ancient villages clustered around the comforting spire of the local church seemed to recoil from the edges of the water. Small houses with swimming pools. And, occasionally, a series of vast, vaulting, dam like canal locks; concrete and granite giants that stand like sentinels across the path of the stream.
The sensation of rising and falling over ninety feet as the Spirit of Chartwell was gracefully raised, and later lowered again, is almost impossible to quantify. It’s a slowly gentle and surreal process. Then, with just the slightest surge of the engines, we were heading downstream once more.
Down at this level, a warm breeze whistles around the Douro. But there are no big towns here, or any other real form of noise pollution. The most vivid and memorable soundtrack was that of literally thousands of chirping birds.
A strange parallel universe exists on a river cruise. The land on both banks seems almost close enough to touch; the sights, smells and colours are incredibly alive and, because you are in midstream as a rule, the sense of perspective is damned near perfect. Everything seems and feels pin sharp.
And yet, there is a sense of sublime detachment as you glide through this magnificent natural canvas. The slow but steady progress of the boat brings a whole new series of stupendous, audio visual assaults on the senses with each new twist and turn of the river. It can be scenic overkill of the grandest kind; taking it all in is a practical impossibility.
This is especially so on the mountainous, meandering River Douro, a place so chocolate box pretty that it looks as if it was put together by the makers of Kodak film. From up in the hills to down at water level on both sides, something new is constantly coming at you to divert, enthrall or engage you.
All things considered, it’s a pretty eclectic, exalted way to travel. Very highly recommend indeed.