Well before we knew of people leaving their homes in the USA to live abroad in places like Portugal, we’d heard about Douro cruises. Friends more well-heeled than we enjoyed tantalizing trips up and down the Portuguese river, taking them from Lisbon to Porto and Salamanca (Spain), then back.

During our six years in Portugal, we’ve made quick stops in Lisbon, met friends for lunch in Coimbra, and bypassed Porto enroute to Santo Tirso where we picked up a car. Except for short stops, we never had an opportunity to be tourists.

We searched the Internet for Douro cruises which fit our pocketbook and visited many of the special sites we wanted to see in Lisbon and Porto, spending time in Coimbra and cruising to other notable places.

Prior to Covid, we loved cruising to different Caribbean ports and, once, around the Mediterranean. There’s no comparison, however, between a 138-passenger riverboat and a sea-going behemoth for several thousand with round-the-clock feeding stations and an abundance of cholesterol buttressed by afternoon art auctions and evening entertainment galore.

We had taken several cruises to a host of Caribbean and Mediterranean ports aboard the Holland America, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, and Carnival lines before moving to Europe and the pandemic. Friends who had taken or booked Douro cruises mentioned price tags starting at (US) $3,500 per person and going beyond the $10,000 mark, depending on the length and breadth of the voyage.

Village dwellers rather than city slickers, our means are more modest.

This would be our first French voyage and riverboat cruise.

Vive la difference!

Coasting the river provides different views than Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises. Rather than surrounded by sea waters except for our (shopping) ports of call, the river cruise glides gently between banks of the Douro, passing eye-popping residences, spectacular scenery, and quaint villages along the way.

Based on the advice of friends – veteran Douro cruisers – we didn’t avail ourselves of any optional excursions. Instead, we got off the ship and walked around on our own, hired a private guide for Porto, and had dinner with friends in Lisbon and Porto.

The all-inclusive price of the trip for two was €2,510, exclusive of optional excursions. In addition to all port fees, travel and repatriation insurance was included, as were all drinks in the restaurant and lounge except “premium” beverages.

Built in 2003 and renovated in 2014, the M.S. Infante D. Henrique accommodates 138 passengers. Its versatile, hard-working crew of 26 is responsible for everything—from cleaning the rooms and serving “refined French” meals to entertaining our evenings in the lounge. We enjoy daily cocktails, parlor games, and one-man bands on the Douro … not to mention the Michelin-quality meals over which we get to know our assigned table mates: the three other English speakers. All the other passengers are elderly French. Perched atop the floating vessel is a sundeck and plunge pool that goes unused.

The eight-day tour package operated by French family-owned CroisiEurope includes accommodations at a 4-star hotel (Sana Metropolitan) in Lisbon, all meals – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – on board and off, and two full-day sightseeing tours (Lisbon followed by Coimbra) before a motor coach takes us to Porto, where we embark on the cruise ship.

All the same size, functional but somewhat cramped cabins offer little space to move around. But large, panoramic windows offer remarkable views.

The good news: this Douro cruise is a grand value for the money—comfortable cabins and beds, enchanting places shown to us by consummate professionals, drinks galore, and delicious meals rivaled only by their exquisite presentation … service, and all.

The bad? Well, read on …

The bone-chilling weather throughout the trip is depressing—dreary gray skies and gutsy, gusty winds provoking outbursts of rain … tears crying for the state of affairs. In fact, it rains every single day of our seven-day cruise.

Every. Single. Day.

Each morning, I picture Barbra Streisand crooning, “Don’t rain on my parade.”

At times, I think we are on a biblical ark rather than a modern-day cruise ship. In other moments, I suspect we’re in Babel where everyone else speaks a foreign language—French, which I struggle to decipher through the prism of my 60-year-old high school classes. Either way, it’s cause for more than one headache.

As far as capitals go, Lisbon is a world-class city filled with treasures old and new. Its pastel homes, blue waters, and charismatic trams brilliantly cross a rich combination of history and modernity.

Ours is a typical tour of the old and the new of Lisbon, or, as Patrick puts it, “different districts, from low to high.”

Born in Switzerland, our Portuguese tour guide is fluent in French and English. Since French speakers on our cruise far outnumber the English (99% of the cruise passengers are French), most of his commentary is given in French followed by excerpts in English. Keeping up with his narrative is a struggle, as Patrick rattles away about the places we pass. In a running monologue, he provides informative narration. (The rest of the time he just keeps running … with me and my cane scrambling to keep up.)

We begin with a tour of the Tile (Azulejo) Museum connected to Madre de Dios church. In all its golden splendor and glory (and associated convent), the church dates to 1509. Our group next heads to the Jerónimos Monastery, which includes the Church of Santa María. Construction began in 1501, and the structure is now divided into six or seven divisions. The church's "secondary" entrance was probably intended as an altarpiece for the common folks, who weren't allowed to rub elbows with the nobility inside. The entire structure survived Lisbon’s great earthquake and subsequent tsunami that swept through the ground floor.

After touring the church, we emerge to the theme of this trip: "Oh, look. It's raining again." We go to the Tower of Belém but don’t get off the coach to queue up for the world-famous Pasteis de Belem shop because of gale-force winds churning up waves in the Tagus River. Instead, we’re off to the Monument of Discovery (Padrão dos Descobrimentos), with views of the April 25th and Vasco de Gama bridges. Circling the Oriente train station what seems like several times, we’re shown the Cristo Rei Christ statue, “University City” — 3.5 miles from Rossio Square and 3.6 miles from the Dona Maria II National Theater — along with both the USA and French embassies.

Lunch is at Aldea, a popular restaurant frequented by the locals. We’re given no menu options. A tasty vegetable soup is followed by salmon, wine, and pudding for dessert. Although the salmon is good, I’m not particularly a fish fan, and I wonder about any vegans and vegetarians among us.

On the morning of day three, the motor coach departs Lisbon and takes us to Coimbra … and, later, on to Porto.

We look forward to our time in Coimbra. We’ve been there before, but only to meet friends for lunch. Our tour will show us the whole nine yards.

Passing the “elevator” still used to transport people between the lower and higher parts of Coimbra, we visit the Monastery of the Holy Cross (Mosteiro da Santa Cruz), a national monument where the first two kings of Portugal are buried. Our bus then deposits us near a popular pedestrian street in the city’s lower parts where we shop and have lunch at Oi8o (Eight), a new restaurant. Today’s special: duck. Again, no options.

The afternoon is spent at the University of Coimbra. Established in Lisbon in 1290, it went through several relocations until moving permanently to Coimbra in 1537, when King João III bequeathed his palace and its grounds to establish the school. It is among the oldest universities in continuous operation in the world, the oldest in Portugal, and has played an influential role in the development of higher education in the Portuguese-speaking world organized among eight faculties, granting bachelor's (licenciado), master's (mestre), and doctorate (doutor) degrees in nearly all major fields.

I’ve taught at several universities, none of which boasts such an impressive campus as Coimbra’s. Nonetheless, I’m glad that I didn’t defend my doctoral thesis in the room dedicated to this purpose, where students from any university in Portugal can suffer through the rituals in these austere, somber surroundings. Moreover, what student (or faculty member) would accept being incarcerated in an academic prison today – with walls two meters thick – whose dungeon-like cells squat below the stately library levels above where bats protect the priceless books by devouring the paper-eating bugs?

The tourist shop umbrellas we buy during a deluge don’t last even five minutes … until brutal whirlwinds shear them apart, giving them (and us) a brutal beating.

Early morning on day four of our tour, we set sail, briskly treading the Douro’s water, added to daily by the continuous downpours. The ship takes us from Porto to Régua, passing through the Crestuma and Carrapatelo locks. After lunch, we arrive in Régua where a “Lamenco with Sparkling Wine Tasting” is offered. The sun peeks out momentarily and brightens our morning. This charming village housing the Douro Museum is well worth the walk … umbrellas in hand.

Day five takes us from Régua to Pinhão and Porto Antigo. We can visit the Douro Museum and Quinta do Tedo if we choose. We leave the ship and walk shortly to the museum—a €3.50 per person bargain for seniors and souvenirs. Later, following dinner – a sumptuous pork filet mignon – is an optional “Porto by Night” excursion and dance. We decline to boogie-woogie with the other geriatrics.

Saturday, our sixth day, is spent cruising the Douro from Porto Antigo back to Porto (the former refers to the drink, the latter to the place). Two excursions are offered this afternoon: one is a guided tour of Porto; the other sees Porto by tram and visits the tram museum. Unfortunately, all that rainwater has affected the locks we need to pass through and delayed our arrival in Porto by several hours. The crew scrambles to reschedule both outings. Our Uber arrives promptly at 6:00pm to drive us to dinner with friends who live on the outskirts of Porto beyond Matosinhos (across the river from Nova da Gaia, where we’re docked).

Easter Sunday, day seven, includes visits to Porto and nearby Guimarães. Although we would like to have visited “medieval” Guimarães, allegedly one of Portugal’s first capitals (others include Coimbra and – believe it or not! – Río de Janeiro), that’s when we’ve scheduled our private tour of Porto.

“Portugal’s name came from Porto!” declares our guide, Bernardo, explaining that the country grew from north to south. Born in Coimbra, Bernardo has degrees in both architecture and sociology and thinks of himself as “a little ambassador for Porto, my city,” pointing to the “Eifel” Bridge” built in 1886 that now serves both passengers and trains. Passing a 12th-century cathedral and the sixth-century Episcopal Palace, we drive along Boa Vista Avenue in the upscale Bom Fim neighborhood.

“Five hundred years ago, we discovered the world … now the world is discovering us,” quips Bernardo, pointing out a shipyard where boats built specifically to carry the Porto wine are moored. He continues driving us through Afurada, a traditional village known for its many fresh seafood restaurants.

We see the Casa da Música, a cultural highlight, where choirs and orchestras are known to perform baroque music. Those huge houses we pass along the ocean on Boa Vista? “They’re known as ‘Brazilian houses,’ mansions built by the Portuguese who went to Brazil, made their fortunes, and returned to Portugal where they built these manor homes,” Bernardo tells us. The beautiful homes continue along Avenida Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, the street onto which we have turned. Homes in this “Foz” neighborhood cost well over a million euros, Bernardo exclaims. “Put another way, that’s €5,000 per square meter to buy in Foz!”

Cruising down Montevideo Avenue, we come upon the richest houses in Porto. A large city park resounds with echoes of Manhattan’s Central Park and Madrid’s Parque del Buen Retiro. As we approach the Santa Catarina chapel on the corner of Rua de Santa Catarina, Porto’s main shopping street, I’m struck by the stunning decorative Portuguese tiles, azulejos, that cover the outside and lower half of the inside of the church. Nearby, fishermen bid farewell to their families before heading off to sea.

Near Porto’s Tram Museum, installed in a former power station, Bernardo points out a former jail, which now houses the Center for Photography, and the world’s most beautiful bookstore, Livraria Lello, visited by 3,000 people each day.

Our sightseeing continues with the artistic area of the University of Porto, founded in 1911, before encountering what appears to be the biggest church in the city. Located in downtown Porto, the Carmo and Carmelitas churches actually are two churches separated by one of the world’s narrowest houses, built to make all contact between the nuns and the monks almost impossible. Carmelitas Church was part of a convent in the 17th century. The building has a classical façade with a single bell tower and a rich gilded interior. The church was used as barracks during the French Invasion of Porto (1808-1814). Carmo Church is simpler, almost gothic on the outside but more decorative inside. The former convent left of Carmelitas Church is now the headquarters of the GNR (Portuguese National Guard).

Citing the 20,000 azulejo tiles in the São Bento train station designed and painted by Jorge Colaço, Bernardo completes our tour with Porto’s most prominent gothic monument: the 14th century St. Francis church, so appropriate for Easter Sunday. A fire caused by the siege of Porto in 1832 destroyed the old cloisters. In its place, the Commercial Association of the city built the Stock Exchange Palace (Palácio da Bolsa), a magnificent example of 19th-century Neoclassical architecture.

Before the cruise ends on the morning of day eight, we return to our room to find several papers decoratively tied together with a blue ribbon on our bed. Among the checkout and security procedures is an envelope “to thank all the crew. Please leave it in a box at the reception area,” we’re told. “The amount is at your discretion and will be divided equally among all 26 members of the crew.”

Liberté, égalité, fraternité, I suppose.

On previous cruises, gratuities – ranging from $10 to $20 dollars per day per person, or 15-20% -- were automatically added to our tab before debarking.

A chance to win substantial discounts on future CrosiEurope cruises by completing a questionnaire evaluating our cruise experience is among the documents on the bed. My suggestions are twofold:

> Offer more than one meal option. Many of us don’t enjoy fish (me) or are vegan or vegetarian. Perhaps the statement, “If you have food restrictions, we kindly ask you to let us know at the reception” in the cruise contract covers that?

> Provide programming on the large-screen TVs in every cabin. Except for the ship’s daily information and one channel (maybe two) offering French TV, the other four stations simply say “Sem sinal” (no signal). One English station, perhaps channeling news, would have been appreciated.

The cruise ends with one last breakfast buffet. I disembark, exiting into the rain, with a rip-roaring cold. “Constipado,” as the Portuguese say.

Award-winning journalist Bruce H. Joffe is the author of Spanish Towns, Portuguese Villages: A Journal for Expats and Immigrants, and EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good. He administers the Portugal Living group on Facebook.