The rock stars of the Douro Valley
By Caroline Hendrie
dmg media (UK)
THINK of the Douro Valley, and its ruby red wines and vertiginous vineyards spring to mind. But tucked away on the banks of one if its tributaries in northeastern Portugal is an extraordinary open-air gallery of prehistoric rock art. There are thousands of images spread over 11 miles along the Coa river. But only three sites in the Coa Archeological Park are open, each closely guarded, and can only be visited in limited numbers with an official guide. It’s a wasted journey if you haven’t booked well in advance – unless, that is, you are on a river cruise that organises this unique experience for you, such as this one with Uniworld. Leaving swish river boat SS Sao Gabriel by coach from our mooring at Pinhao, 12 of us are soon climbing into four-wheel-drive vehicles at the visitor centre in the village of Castelo Melhor. On the way, our enthusiastic young guide explains how the rock art of the Coa Valley, the largest collection of Paeleolithic etchings in the world, was saved from being submerged by the construction of a dam in the 1990s. Near the riverside, it is a short walk past the sentry to the first panel of layered images of animals – including auroch, the extinct wild ox – engraved in smooth schist walls. Initially we need our guide to point out the faint lines, but soon we are spotting and identifying more and more creatures on different rock faces. The excitement of the day means I am ready to relax when I return to the ship. Luckily, SS Sao Gabriel is all about creature comforts. It’s furnished to a high spec, with pictures in the cabins inspired by Moorish fretwork and patterned ceramic tiles in the tip-top bathrooms. Everyone has free-flowing drinks, including a range of 20 different Douro red, white and rosé wines served with meals. Nothing beats tasting the wines immersed in the landscape where they are produced, and a highlight of the cruise is wine tasting at the Douro Museum, followed by a tour of Quinta do Pacheca, one of the whitewashed wine estates dotted among the stripy, hillside terraces. We see the wide, stone vats, where grapes are still crushed by foot, before lunch is served among the giant port barrels in the 18th Century cellar. The finale is a tot of delicious, rich and nutty 40-yearold tawny port. Nowadays the only cargo on the Douro is tourists, so it’s a peaceful and uncrowded waterway. The most dramatic of the five locks we encounter on the journey upstream from Porto is at the mighty Carrapatelo dam. At 115ft, it is the deepest lock in Europe, with soaring concrete sides. Only one cruise boat – they are built to fit in with just inches to spare – can pass through each lock at a time and no sailing after dark is allowed. Even if you are here in high summer, when the mercury hits the 30s, don’t be put off by the two-hour coach journey each way for a day trip to the beautiful sandstone city of Salamanca, where you will find Spain’s oldest university and what must be its most elegant central square: the baroque Plaza Mayor. Then the ship turns round and it’s back downstream to Porto, calling at one more vineyard, and through the five locks – accompanied by uncountable glasses of the Douro’s delectable wines. It’s heady stuff in more ways than one. Uniworld offers a full-board eight-day Douro River Valley cruise on SS Sao Gabriel from £1,999pp, for departures from November 19 until the final date this year. The price includes drinks, excursions, gratuities, wifi and return flights from Heathrow. Prices next year start at £3,149pp (uniworld.com).