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30 July, 20196 minute read

A cruise down the Douro

Hundreds of millions admired this elegant small cruise ship from afar during one of the most memorable occasions in recent royal history – the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant of June 2012. This was the vessel which carried Elizabeth II on that day.

Author Robert Hardman poses with his book, 'Queen of the World'

Few, though, have had the pleasure of stepping on board the Spirit of Chartwell since. And those who have done so will have enjoyed rather better weather than the tempest which greeted the Monarch back then.

They will also have understood why the organisers chose this vessel for the Queen. This was the perfect way for the Monarch and her family to travel down the Thames thanks to the Spirit of Chartwell’s very generous upper deck. It gave millions of people a perfect view of the Queen – and it gave her a great view in return.

Fast forward by a few years and here I am with my wife sitting on teak sunloungers on the same deck on a perfect autumn afternoon. We are on a Titan river cruise, making our way down the Douro river through the astonishingly varied terrain which borders of one of Europe’s most fascinating rivers.

These days, the Spirit of Chartwell is based in Porto, Portugal’s majestic second city (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) on the Atlantic coast. It is from here that she sails up through the historic wine-growing hinterland of the Douro Valley.

Nothing symbolises the bond between Britain and its oldest ally quite like a glass of rich, ruby port. This noble fortified wine has only ever come from these parts and British names like Taylor and Cockburn are among the oldest brands in Portugal. Yet port is only a part of the story.

A special event in Lisbon

Our trip began many miles south after we flew from London to the capital, Lisbon. There we had a leisurely day of sightseeing ahead of a welcome dinner at the Hotel Mundial. I had been invited by Titan to deliver a curtain-raising talk about my latest book, 'Queen of the World', which explores Elizabeth II’s role on the international stage. As it happens, one of her first European state visits, in 1957, was to Portugal.

The next day, we travelled north to rendez-vous with the Spirit of Chartwell, pausing for lunch near the imposing university city of Coimbra. When the Queen went to Coimbra in 1957, the students were all in their cloaks and theatrically threw them down in her path, Walter Raleigh-style. Today’s generation of students were also wearing cloaks when we turned up (but kept them firmly over their shoulders).

Boarding Spirit of Chartwell

Spirit of Chartwell sails the Douro River

In Porto, the crew of the Spirit of Chartwell were waiting to greet us. It is a modern luxury river cruiser incorporating plenty of maritime history – including clocks and portholes from the RMS Windsor, lighting from the SS France, the velvet thrones from the Queen’s 2012 voyage and traditional mahogany panelling. The 15 cabins combine the latest space-saving and sound-proofing technology with an old-world finish. They are also more roomy than those on many ocean liners umpteen times the size.

The river is the best place to stay in Porto because it is the centre of attention in a way that the dear old Thames or Tiber are not. It is pure theatre. The Douro is home to the ‘rabelo’, a cross between a gondola and a barge which was used for carrying barrels of wine from the valley to the big city and thence to the wider world. The river was buzzing with these ancient craft, though it is tourists rather than barrels of port which they carry these days.

Porto sits on a gorge with bridges every bit as dramatic as, say, Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge. Our berth was just beneath the 19th-century double-decker Dom Luis I bridge, a work of art in itself. Nearby is the similar Maria Pia bridge, designed by built by Gustave Eiffel a decade before he turned his attentions to the Paris skyline.

The Titan team took us by private bus to see landmarks like cathedral and the Livrario Lello, an eccentric Edwardian bookshop with lots of stained glass. It apparently inspired Harry Potter author JK Rowling during her days as an English teacher here in the Nineties. Hence the queues to get in.

We could not leave Porto without a trip to one of the ancient port houses on the opposite banks of the river. Offley started making wine in these parts in the 1730s and there is a heady whiff of history as you meander through their labyrinthine cellars, ending up at the tasting table. I had enjoyed ruby, tawny and white port before. But rosé port? Well worth a try is all I can say.

A Douro Valley voyage

Engines on, the Spirit of Chartwell set off upriver as lunch was served. I found that the city of Porto gives way to countryside in no time. Though a big and important river, it is a very clean one, too. At one point we were overtaken by a waterksier. On some stretches, the Douro resembles a big central European waterway with gently undulating fields stretching as far as the eye can see. Other sections are more fjord-like as the river cuts through precipice and cliff, flanked by terraced vineyards so steep that you are left wondering how on earth they pick the grapes.

Along the way, there are stops in historic towns like Regua and Barca d’Alva, the latter right next to the Spanish border and within striking distance of the ancient city of Salamanca.

Cathedral of Salamanca and the river Tormes, Salamanca, Spain

If the food is of the highest calibre, the wines are more than a match. The Douro is famous not just for port but for a selection of reds and whites worthy of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Nor is port the only drink unique to this region. At Entre-os-Rios, where the Douro is joined by the Paiva, we left the ship for a tour of the Quinta da Aveleda estate. It is famous for its Vinho Verde or ‘green wine’, a mildly effervescent companion for almost any dish and one with a lower-than-average alcohol level (around 9 per cent). Here we watched the sun set before an enchanting dinner in a vine-covered wing of the stately home at the heart of this family-run estate.

This is a cruise for anyone with a love of fine food, intriguing wines, dramatic scenery and European culture – aboard a spacious yet also intimate ship which has earned a well-deserved its place in the history books.

Robert travelled on 'A Celebration of Lisbon and the Douro', a 10-day trip comprising two nights in Lisbon and a week's cruise on Spirit of Chartwell.

Image of blog author Robert Hardman

Robert is a bestselling author and leading writer on the monarchy. His books include 'Our Queen' and 'Queen of the World', and he's also written and co-produced a number of TV documentaries on the Royal family.

Robert Hardman | About the author

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