Porto, Guimarães, and the newest Vikings on the Douro
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
March 22, 2014
With the Viking River Cruises 2014 Christening Ceremonies now officially behind us, we had the chance to sample two cities featured on the line’s Portugal’s Rivers of Gold itinerary: Porto and Guimarães.
Porto is actually located across the Douro from where almost all river cruise vessels dock in the small town of Gaia. It’s also the epicentre of Port Wine production, which is protected under the same type of laws that regulate Champagne in France: Port can only be called Port if it originates in Portugal.
We had a whirlwind trip around this beautiful town that took us to some of the most impressive sites, including the Livraria Lello – a Harry Potter-esque bookstore ranked by Lonely Planet as the third most beautiful bookstore in the world.
Some photos from my morning in Porto:
In the afternoon, we set out further afar. For years, Guimarães was thought to have been the birthplace of the first Portuguese king, Alfonso Enriques. But then someone got curious, did the math, and figured out that Enriques most likely couldn’t have been born in Guimarães. But that was in the year 1106 and, as our local guide pointed out, “that was so long ago. Maybe it doesn’t matter.”
Indeed it doesn’t. Alfonso Enriques went on to be the first King of Portugal, and to this day Guimarães is still thought of as the traditional ancestral “cradle city” of Portuguese nationality. It’s also protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was one of two European Capitals of Culture in 2012.
The entire city is amazingly walkable on foot, along narrow cobblestone streets flanked with decorative arches and Medieval walls.
One of the highlights is definitely Castelo de Guimarães, a large fortress constructed in the 10th century to ward off potential Norman and Saracen invasions. Today, it stands as one of the city’s most imposing structures.
My favorite street in Guimarães is definitely Rua de Santa Maria that dates back to the Middle Ages.
The drive to Guimarães takes about 40 minutes each way from Porto, but its well worth it if you’re a fan of history or architecture, or are just trying to build up your accumulation of UNESCO visits. On Viking’s itinerary, this journey is offered as an optional excursion on Day 4.
Of course, this is also a good time to take some reader questions as we wrap up our coverage from Portugal:
Are Viking Hemming and Viking Torgil the same as the Longships in France and Germany?
No. Both Viking Hemming and Viking Torgil are “Longship-esque”, meaning they share many of the same design and layout features as the Viking Longships. To successfully navigate the Douro River, these ships are smaller at 262 feet and only carry 106 passengers. They also lack the massive Explorer Suites found aboard the Viking Longships. They are not built by Neptun-Werft in Germany, nor are they directly owned by Viking.
If another company (Douro Azul) owns these new ships, does that mean other cruise lines can use them too?
Good question – but no. Viking Hemming and Viking Torgil are under exclusive charter to Viking. You won’t see Uniworld or AmaWaterways guests onboard.
Would the average person notice any difference between these ships and a ‘real’ Longship owned by Viking?
Probably not. The biggest challenge, as I see it, will be to educate the travel agent community about the differences of these two ships versus the line’s European Longship fleet. There’s the potential for confusion and, I think, consumer disappointment if they’re incorrectly billed as full Longships.
On the other hand, these are some of the most advanced and unique vessels operating along the Douro at the moment, and they’re quite different from the same vessels DouroAzul has operated for other lines in the past, none of which sport the new bow and Aquavit Terrace concept. Only a few actually feature floor-to-ceiling windows in the dining room, too, which is an important point.
I’ve heard there isn’t a lot of actual ‘cruising’ along the Douro. Is that true?
That is true. Compared to the Danube, there just isn’t the same distance to cover along the Douro. Many ports involve overnight stays, and there’s only a bit of scenic cruising during the mornings. Depending on your preferences, this could either be a positive or a negative. Certainly, the Douro provides more opportunities to participate in the nightlife ashore than comparable itineraries.
Why is there all this hype around Viking? I’ve never been on a river cruise before but I just can’t understand it. Surely there must be other river cruise lines that are as good.
There are other cruise lines that are just as good as Viking. There are even other lines that do things a bit better if you’re looking for more inclusivity or features like onboard bicycles and family-friendly sailings.
But the one thing that Viking does, and does well, is provide an excellent cruise at an attractive price. It’s tough to beat that. They’re not “the best”, but they’re damn good and consistent to boot. Their ships are gorgeous, their cuisine is well done, and their staff are phenomenal. The line states that they’re actively targeting a 55+ market sourced primarily from North American clientele, but I’d have no issues recommending Viking to people in their 30’s or 40’s either.
There’s hype around Viking for one simple reason: they’re spending the money on advertising in a way that’s never been done in the river cruise industry. That creates recognition. That, in turn, creates hype.
With all the new ships Viking is bringing out, aren’t the rivers going to get too crowded? What about docking space?
No! I hear this question time and time again, and the resounding answer is NO!
This is a question that, I think, has its roots in the ocean cruising world. Think about Skagway, Alaska – summertime population 2,000. If four large cruise ships dock in Skagway on a July day, that’s almost 10,000 people that have descended on the town, increasing its population exponentially.
Each Viking Longship holds 190 guests. Many other river cruise ships hold slightly less, and some hold less than 100 guests.
If ten Longships were to all call on Vienna at once – which would never happen – you’re talking about adding 1,900 people to the city – less than half the capacity of a large cruise ship. The airport and tour busses add more visitors per day to Vienna than Viking or any other cruise line ever would.
Rivers like the Danube and Rhine currently handle an enormous amount of river cruise cargo traffic. There are docking locations in every little tiny town you pass along the way, many of which have three and even four berths, like Durnstein, Austria.
So while I don’t think that there will be so many ships that the Danube will be choked, I do think that it might provide an incentive for all cruise lines to diversify their itineraries. I think you’re going to see more port calls in places like Bratislava and Linz that aren’t typically featured on every itinerary. There’s also the potential to start calling on other towns that currently don’t feature on any river cruise itinerary, which I think should be treated as a positive, not a negative.
Next year, Viking is moving once again in a bold new direction with the launch of 10 more Viking Longships and the christening of their very first ocean-going vessel, Viking Star.
Amidst all the champagne and wine and singing and celebrating, within the sounds of the bottles crashing against hulls as they have traditionally done for thousands of years, the christening of a ship is an intensely human celebration. It marks the dawning of a new era, the start of a new history.
A ship – any ship – has the potential to touch the lives of thousands of people over the course of its lifetime. Within its walls, countless stories will be told. Stories of love and life, of loss and regret. Journeys will begin for some and end for others.
Torstein Hagen is creating a legacy that, on any given day, has touched and affected the lives of every single person at Viking River Cruises. At Edelman PR. At Meyer-Werft and Neptun Werft yards in Germany. From the man and women who build the Longships to those who work onboard, Viking provides employment to thousands people around the world who share in the Viking dream with their relatives and loved ones. It’s a point of pride: all the friends I’ve made on Viking don’t just like working for the company, they’re proud to wear the line’s signature rose-red ties.
Viking’s legacy, however, won’t end with river cruising. Next May, the line will christen their first oceangoing ship, Viking Star in the beautiful port of Bergen, Norway.
Like the Viking Longships, anything is possible. Viking no longer has to win the race; they’ve already won, three years in a row. But you can imagine next year will be a very personal journey for the man that so many of the North American media have affectionately dubbed “Tor.” After a two-decade absence, the straight-talking Norwegian will return to his roots in the ocean cruise industry.
It’s an event I won’t miss for anything in the world.
Viking Longships Christening 2014
|March 17, 2014||Avignon, France||Arrive Marseille and transfer to Avignon. Embark Viking Heimdal.|
|March 18||Avignon, France||Viking Longship 2014 Christening Ceremonies in Avignon.|
|March 19||Bordeaux, France||Disembark Viking Heimdal & transfer to Bordeaux, France. Embark Viking Forseti.|
|March 20||Bordeaux, France||Scenic cruising & sightseeing in Bordeaux|
|March 21||Porto, Portugal||Fly from Bordeaux to Porto, Portugal. Tour & overnight stay onboard Viking Hemming.|
|March 22||Porto, Portugal||Sightseeing in Porto.|
|March 23, 2014||Porto, Portugal||Onward journey home|