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Peruse Portugal aboard a CroisiEurope river cruise

Math is not exactly my strong suit, but even I can tell that it’s a tight squeeze.

Captains Helder Conceicao and Ricardo Simoes are carefully guiding CroisiEurope‘s newest ship, the MS Amalia Rodrigues, through Europe’s deepest lock on the Douro River in Portugal.

And it’s close. The sparkling new vessel is 11.4 metres wide. The steel-walled entrance to the Carrapatelo lock is 12 metres. Divide by four, carry the three, and, yes, that’s a mere 30-cm clearance on each side of the lock, one of three that the ship will manoeuvre through during our eight-day inaugural cruise.

While a small group of us were lucky to watch the action from the bridge late one afternoon, it’s equally exciting to experience the ship traversing the locks – each is done twice as you go up and back down the Douro during the week – from the comfort of the lounge or outside on the bow or upper deck.

Seeing these ships literally being moved up and down the Douro is just one of the fun aspects of river cruising as the pace is such that there’s always something to see when you’re on board.

Capt. Helder Conceicao guides CroisiEurope’s newest ship, the MS Amalia Rodrigues, through the Carrapatelo lock, the deepest in Europe. (PAT LEE)

There’s nothing more relaxing on a sunny morning over coffee or an afternoon back on board with a cold drink and watching as the ship makes its way along the winding Douro, passing gorgeous vineyards, olive, almond or citrus groves, fishermen casting from the shore, or stately homes on nearby hills.

When I was on a river cruise in the same region a few years ago, I was lucky enough to spot workers whacking ripe olives off the trees with sticks and onto a bright blue tarp on the ground.

The nosy journalist in me can’t get enough.

Scenic views of wineries, historic buildings and private homes are plentiful along the Douro River in Portugal. (PAT LEE)

As the Douro, dubbed the River of Gold, isn’t that wide, you can easily admire the shore views from the large windows in your stateroom or from other various comfy spots inside and outside on the Amalia Rodrigues, named after Portugal’s most famous Fado singer.

Christened in March, the ship joins five others that the Strasbourg-based company has plying the Portuguese river from April through October.

A colleague of mine once dubbed CroisiEurope as the largest river cruise company that most Canadians have never heard of as it has the largest fleet of ships on the European continent.

The French company has dozens of long and short itineraries throughout Europe, as well as in Cambodia, Vietnam, Russia and southern Africa. The line’s all-inclusive fares also make it affordable when stacked up against competitor’s offerings.

Welcome souffles served aboard CroisiEurope’s MS Amalia Rodrigues, the newest ship in the French cruise line’s fleet. It joins the company’s four other ships on the Douro River in Portugal. (PAT LEE)

CroisiEurope has undergone a major expansion since 2017 as it strives to retain its top position in an increasingly competitive market for river cruise passengers.

As this is a French cruise company, chances are that the majority of passengers will be French speaking, as it was during our trip (although most of the crew spoke English and tours were offered in both languages). If there are other English speakers on board, you will likely be seated with them at meals.

Another note about life on board: CroisiEurope’s all-inclusive fare means beverages, including alcohol, except top-tier liquors and wines, are free. But the cruise doesn’t put out snacks and other extras during non-meal periods. So, grab a banana from the breakfast buffet if you like a mid-afternoon snack.

Another point of departure from other cruises is their differing, but set, meal menus. They will make dietary accommodations when able.

The food on CroisiEurope’s MS Amalia Rodrigues is served with flare. (PAT LEE)

The new three-deck Amalia Rodrigues carries 132 passengers in 66 comfy double-occupancy cabins, including four upper-deck suites with terraces.

The other cabins don’t have balconies but a floor-to-ceiling glass door slides open to allow for great viewing and a lovely breeze.

Like most cruise cabins, it was cosy but well laid out for maximum use of space. I loved that the beds faced the large window so you could watch the sights while reclined if so desired.

A scenic drive along the wine road in the Douro Valley is a highlight of any tour of Portugal with the valley one of four designated wine regions in the world and a UNESCO Heritage Site. The are many opportunities to visit quintas (farms or estates) to sample port and see how the wines are produced. (PAT LEE)

This was my second time cruising the Douro and was once again charmed by the country and the region.

In recent years, Portugal has been coming on strong as a favourite budget-friendly travel destination for its deep history as a former world power, cafe culture, eye-popping scenery and great wine/port drinking.

Of course, the more recent addition of Harry Potter-esque sites in the city of Porto, where J.K. Rowling spent time dreaming, writing and teaching back in the early ’90s, also hasn’t hurt promotion (start your fandom tour at Cafe Majestic and the book store Lello).

University students hang out in downtown Porto in their traditional black robes, thought to have been the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s famous tomes. (PAT LEE)

Starting in Porto – the UNESCO-designated town famed for its port production, we spent a couple of days there to get a real feel for Portuguese culture and the history of the region.

Of course, there was time to revel in the amazing tile work at the Sao Bento train station, tuck into a couple of pastel de nata – the country’s delicious egg tart – climb to the gothic Church of St. Francis to get a magnificent view of the city below, and then wind our way down the ancient narrow streets to return to the ship.

Due to the tricky nature of the river, sailing at night is not allowed, so you will be docked at the end of each day, allowing for a night-time adventure or an after-dinner walk.

CroisEurope’s MS Amalia Rodrigues at port in Peso da Regua, in the heart of the Douro Valley, is the historic capital of Portugal’s wine region, one of four such designated areas in the world. (PAT LEE)

The only exception was a short after-dark sail in Porto where the crew manoeuvred the boat up the river, past riverside cafes and under the six lit up and beautiful bridges crossing between Porto and sister city Vila Nova de Gai, before making its way back to the evening berth. It’s a magical experience.

The Douro route from Porto to Barca d’Alva, with stops along the way in Regua, Pinhao and Vega de Teron, included visits to Vila Real and the Mateus Palace (check out the picture on the bottle); an eye-popping scenic drive along the wine road (the Douro Valley is one of the oldest demarcated wine regions in the world) and Coimbra (the former capital of Portugal with a stunning university circa 1290 populated with black-cloaked students and a historic library with real bats to keep the ancient tomes from being destroyed by insects).

Mateus Palace in Vila Real is renowned for being the image on Mateus rose (but the wine is not produced there). Historic and set on beautiful grounds, it’s a lovely stop in Portugal. (PAT LEE)

Another enjoyable side trip was to Aveiro, a picturesque city on a canal with gondola-type boats once used to harvest seaweed but now toting tourists around.

River cruising in Portugal adds up to a wonderful time.

Boats once used to collect seaweed are now used to take tourists for rides in Aveiro, Portugal, a scenic seaside town with a network of canals. (PAT LEE)

IF YOU GO

Airlines: TAP Portugal, Air Canada and Air Transat fly directly to Lisbon from Toronto.

CroisiEurope: croisieurope.travel/en/

Dress: Casual aboard or on excursions and there is one gala night for those inclined to dress up a bit more.

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