Viking Hemming and Portugal’s River of Gold

 

This Viking River Cruise review is dedicated to a fellow cruise blogger, Malcolm Oliver.  It would appear that Malcolm has yet to experience a river cruise yet he tends to write an inordinate amount of criticism of them: ranging from their prices to the smell of their brochures. I trust this review will enlighten Malcolm as to the value and popularity of this growth cruising market.

Update March 2016: I’m delighted to report that Malcolm Oliver has now dipped his toe into European river cruising. Malcolm has written an excellent review of a Rhine cruise on  the Amadeus  ship, Silver II. Here is the link…

https://malcolmoliver.wordpress.com/amadeus-silver-ii-review/

My wife and  I are booked on a Rhine cruise on the Viking Eir in 2017 between basel and Amsterdam. Malcolm’s review has given that date some impetus.

My wife and I have recently returned from a Viking River cruise aboard the company’s newest longboat, Viking Hemming.

This was to be our third consecutive river cruise with Viking and like the previous cruises with Viking it did not disappoint.  Indeed, the quality of Viking River cruises becomes  evident the moment you receive your joining documentation…

 

 

Our journey started with a scheduled flight from London Heathrow to Lisbon and an inclusive  2 night ‘Bed & Breakfast’ pre cruise stop-over in the Portuguese capital. As is customary with Viking, their meet and greet service was well organised  and we were soon coached to one of Lisbon’s excellent 5 Star hotels, the Tivoli Lisboa, with its rooftop ‘Terrace Bar’ offering spectacular views over Lisbon…

 

 

The Hotel Tivoli Lisboa is an elegant luxury hotel  located in the heart of the city on the Avenida da Liberade.  It offers easy access to the Metro system and is an ideal place from which to  explore all that Lisbon has to offer.

After breakfast the following morning we set off on the first of Viking’s inclusive tours – a half day excursion which included the must see sights of Lisbon…

 

The tour was very comprehensive and we were accompanied by an excellent English speaking guide. Of considerable interest to us was a visit to Lisbon’s oldest district,  Alfama.  So taken were we by its atmosphere and the description of its night life, we resolved to return that evening to sample authentic Portuguese dining and the Fado experience. We were not disappointed.

Lisbon will of course be the subject for my ‘One Way to Do…’ series in the near future.

The next day, Sunday, was the day we transferred from Lisbon to Porto where we were to join the Viking Hemming. The transfer time would normally have been around 3 hours however Viking had a treat in store for us. At around the half way stage we made a slight diversion to the  town of Coimbra, birthplace of six Portuguese kings and home to one of Europe’s oldest universities…

 

To top our stop in Coimbra there was an exclusive lunch at an outstanding local restaurant which culminated in the first of the Viking organised ‘Fado’ shows.

And so late afternoon we arrived at Porto and embarked the Viking Hemming…

 

…which was berthed at Vila Nova de Gaia, alongside many of Porto’s traditional wine warehouses.

Check in was, as usual with Viking, very efficient and we were soon in our stateroom, a Veranda B…

 

…with balcony…

 

 

Viking Hemming, as with her sister Douro River ship Viking Torgil, carries 106 guests with a crew of 36. Accommodation is on three decks and an elevator services all accommodation levels.

 

There is a large lounge with panoramic windows at the forward end of the ship…

 

which also provides access to the Aquavit Terrace, a comfortably furnished ‘open air’ deck right on the bow of the ship…

 

 

The rather elegant Restaurant was situated on the Mid-level deck and also benefitted from panoramic views…

 

 

At the forward end of the Restaurant were two smaller ‘Al Fresco’ dining areas – one on each side of the ship – where open air dining was possible…

 

The most popular deck on board has to remain the Sun Deck, looking forward towards the bridge and across the heated swimming pool…

 

 

…and looking aft with its hydraulically operated shaded sitting area…

 

Incidentally, that glossy white structure is the housing for the ship’s batteries which are charged through solar power, the solar cells being embedded on the roof of the shaded sitting area…

 

 

Many features on the Sun Deck are retractable as there are a number of occasions when head clearance is low, particularly when passing under bridges and the exit points on river lock gates…

 

The mast and wheelhouse as well as the shaded sitting area are all capable of being hydraulically lowered and on one or two occasions some guardrails also needed lowering,  see what I mean...

 

 

And so to our journey along  ‘Portugal’s River of Gold‘…

 

 

It is worth mentioning at this point that every day there is at least one excursion included in the initial price of the cruise. Every excursion is accompanied by an English speaking guide and often include World Heritage sites chosen for their outstanding interest.

When taking excursions all passengers have their own multi-channeled audio system which are normally recharged overnight in the passenger’s stateroom…

 

 

 

Passengers also have the option of one or two additional excursions at a small cost. These are generally programmed as alternatives to taking ‘free’ time at destinations that have already featured on the complimentary schedule. On this particular cruise we chose to take one of these additional excursions and visited Portugal’s first capital city, Guimarães.

So our first full day on board Viking Hemming, Monday, commenced with a guided tour, by coach and foot,  of Porto. It featured visits to Porto Cathedral, Porto’s railway station – known for its blue tiled forecourt, the  panels  depicting scenes of the history of Portugal – and the waterside Calem Port Wine distillery, where we were given the full tour with samplings. Being a keen photographer I was delighted to be given the opportunity to climb the  ‘Torre dos Clérigos’ to capture this view across Porto…

 

which includes the Cathedral and  the Monastery da Serra do Pilar.

After lunch on board we took our additional excursion to Guimarães. Associated with the emergence of the Portuguese national identity in the 12th century it is an exceptionally well-preserved and authentic example of the evolution of a medieval settlement into a modern town, with architecture dating as far back as  the 15th century. Centrepiece of the visit was to  Guimarães Castle, first constructed in the 10th century to defend the town’s monastery from the invading Moors, which dominates the town from its hilltop location…

 

 

Whilst on our excursion to Guimarães the Viking hemming had moved the short distance along the Douro to berth at Bitetos which is where we returned to. This repositioning was in order to place us in close proximity to the 14th century Benedictine monastery of Alpendurada. Now a remarkably restored hotel it was to be a spectacular venue for this evening’s dinner in the former monastery cloisters…

 

…after a few aperitifs on one of the former monastery balconies that offered spectacular views over the Douro.

 

The whole experience, including the second of our ‘Fado’ shows after dinner, was truly in the ‘top drawer’ style  of Viking River Cruises.

 

 

The next morning, Tuesday,  we cast off rather early from Bitetos on our passage to Régua and, as luck would have it,  I was enjoying a pre-breakfast coffee on the Sun Deck when we passed that section of the Douro that we had gazed down upon the previous evening from Alpendurada. This time the view was reversed…

 

…as the early morning sun caught the monastery in all its glory.

For those who maybe didn’t wish to remain on deck there were two presentations in the lounge, one on the Douro region and the other on the Portuguese language.

Following our berthing and lunch onboard at Régua we boarded our coaches for the afternoon excursion which was to the ancient and picturesque town of Lamego,  home to one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Portugal, the Nossa Senhora dos Remédios (Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies)…

 

 

There are apparently 760 steps up to the Sanctuary but I wasn’t counting.

There was a second visit on today’s excursion, this time to Quinta do Seixo.  Set in a prime location on the South Bank of the Douro River,  Quinta do Seixo, with its 100 hectares, is undoubtedly one of the most traditional wine-producing estates in the Douro Region.

Offering stunning views of the valley’s descent, in a series of stepped terraces, into the blue of the river – a landscape so beautiful as to take the breath away – Quinta do Seixo boasts a rich and harmonious history materialized in the production of exceptional wines.

The home of Sandeman…

 

 

 

Again, while we were on tour the Viking Hemming moved further up stream, this time berthing at Pinhão where we remained overnight. After dinner entertainment was a full ‘Alto da Escrita’ Portuguese folkloric show.

Wednesday morning saw another early cast off from  Pinhão as we continued our journey upstream, this time as far as Barca d’Alva where, following lunch, we set off for the day’s excursion to Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo, a small fortified village perched high on a hilltop and with yet again another reasonably well preserved castle…

 

 

With its 16th-century walls, and  very narrow and steep medieval streets, among them Sinagoga Street, a memento of the Jewish community established by refugees from the Spanish Inquisition,  Figuera de Castelo Rodrigo was a most intriguing visit.

 

The following day, Thursday, we had a reasonably early start as there was a nearly two hour journey from our overnight berth at Vega de Terron,  crossing the Portuguese/ Spanish border and on to the city of Salamanca.

Our journey was made all the more interesting by the regular narrations of  our guide, highlighting not just scenic views but also places of interest such as the specialist farms where bulls are bred for the Spanish bull fighting industry and a certain breed of black pig is bred – source of the famous  ‘Pata Negra’  ham that we were to sample later in the day.

Salamanca, an ancient city and UNESCO World Heritage Site,  is described as a living museum: a description that is pretty accurate as we were to discover.  Almost a journey back into the Middle Ages with a distinct cosmopolitan atmosphere provided by the large population of international students.

Our  visit to Salamanca saw the normal format for a visit reversed: our free time to explore being taken on arrival. The reasons given for this was that Salamanca still adheres to ‘siesta’ time and shops would be closed had our normal routine been adhered to.

We were provided with a very comprehensive ‘Tourist’ street map with the majority of the most interesting sites well highlighted including the Roman Bridge, Old and New Cathedrals, the Gothic House of Shells, Plaza Mayor and the Central Market.

On completion of our ‘free time’ our meeting point was the first class Hotel Alameda Palace.  Here we enjoyed an excellent lunch, which featured, amongst other things,  paella and the aforementioned Pata Negra ham in huge quantities, and was followed by a traditional flamenco show.

On completion of lunch we commenced the ‘official’ Viking guided walking tour: passengers being given the option of either a ‘relaxed’ or ‘energetic’ option.  Each  group was hosted by a knowledgeable local English speaking guide.

Salamanca is a most interesting city to visit, steeped in history and definitely  worth a longer visit. Once again the opportunity arose for yours truly to climb a tower: this time that of the Salamanca’s University, the Scala Coeli Torres de la Clerecia, which gave access to this grand view of Salamanca’s old and new cathedrals….

 

…and of course Salamanca’s famous Gothic  ‘House of Shells’...

 

 

Upon our eventual return to Vega de Terron and Viking Hemming a nice surprise awaited us. In our absence the staff had prepared the Sun Deck ready for a traditional ‘Al Fresco’ deck BBQ in place of dinner in the restaurant.

The evening turned out to be a superb night, excellent BBQ and some good entertainment…

 

 

 

 

Vega de Terron  was to be the furthest point along the Douro that we would travel and Friday morning (Day 8) we commenced our return journey as far as Pinhão.

 

We arrived just before midday and almost immediately transferred to the waiting coaches for the long scenic climb to the plateau and Alto region of the Douro and in particular,  Enoteca Quinta da Avessada.

Situated in the demarcated Douro Region, in the vineyard town of Favaios, this region has long produced one of the richest wines of the Douro region.  Indeed,  the venue where we had an excellent lunch and copious quantities of  very good Moscatel, is better viewed in this video I found on Youtube…

 

 

Following lunch we toured the village of Favaios, its traditional bakery and the museum to the regions wine making before returning to Pinhão.  Prior to returning on board I took the opportunity to visit Pinhão’s railway station…

 

 

Dating back to the 1880s the station’s main building is revered for its twenty-five tile panels that depict scenes, landscapes, and customs of the Douro Region. The panels offer visitors an excellent visual representation of Douro culture, livelihoods, and history.

 

Day 9, Saturday, saw us make the short transit back to Régua. Following breakfast on board we boarded our coaches and headed off for our morning tour to Vila Real, site of the extraordinary  Palácio de Mateus – the building depicted on the Mateus Rosé wine labels…

 

 

…and as if by magic….

 

 

The visit included a full tour of the Palace with additional free time available to explore the beautiful gardens.

On our return to Viking Hemming we cast off for the final afternoon’s scenic sailing back to Porto…

 

 

During this afternoon passage the Captain allowed those who so wished to join him in the wheelhouse while he navigated our passage along the Douro…

 

 

Our final evening on board heralded the Captain’s Farewell Reception and Dinner and this  fitting end to a very good week was probably dominated by the fond farewells to new found friends.  Then  for us the lure of a late Saturday night in Porto proved too great to resist and my wife and I ventured out to enjoy the vibrant  atmosphere encapsulating this buzzing port’s  waterfronts

 

The following morning we were transferred to Porto Airport for our scheduled flight home to Gatwick. As is normal with Viking River Cruises our luggage wasn’t required to be outside our stateroom until  just 30 mins before our departure time.

 

Summary:

All in all another excellent river cruise and one that completely lived up to expectations. Viking leave nothing to chance and the administrative focus is directly on the customers requirements.

Viking Hemming, the latest addition to the Viking fleet was both comfortable and practical and the Viking philosophy we had previously experienced was equally in evidence: despite not all staff being directly employed by Viking.

There was a very good staff ethos but the member of staff who really stood out for me was the Hotel Manager, Joaquim de Sousa. Always eager to please his infectious enthusiasm and social manner was outstanding.

All excursions were well considered and  organised and generally of multiple interests.

The passenger nationality ratio was 50:50 UK and USA residents.

Very noticeable were the luxurious  and spacious  tour coaches. Passengers were permanently assigned  to individual groups for nominated coaches and these were always ready and waiting at each and every river berth.

The inclusion of so many items like free internet, bottled water and drinks with meals into the overall price certainly gives Viking an appeal to savour.

Would we travel with Viking  again?

Well on our final day we took advantage of Viking’s latest offer of paying an unrestricted timing deposit that effectively doubles the value of the deposit. So the simple answer is Yes.

16 responses to “Viking Hemming and Portugal’s River of Gold

  1. Pingback: Cruising Mates | Solent Richard's Cruise Blog·

  2. Didn’t meet Malcolm……Great that your younger legs got such good shots higher up. A very good summary of a very special cruise. Viking first class as you spell out and for us Carmen had to be amongst the star turns. Very happy memories and will certainly try Viking again although we didn’t buy the “discount”. Thank you for all the photographs and hope you were not caught up with the baggage problems at Gatwick on your return. Happy days and all the best to you and Barbara. John & Flissy

  3. Thank you for another superb review and beautiful photos, and thank you for taking the time to post them.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful review! I shared it this morning with my husband and I think we just might take your advice and book it 🙂

  5. “It would appear that Malcolm has yet to experience a river cruise yet he tends to write an inordinate amount of criticism of them: ranging from their prices to the smell of their brochures.”

    Hi Richard a very informative review.

    I have NOW done my first European River cruise with Amadeus (Silver II). a Rhine itinerary. There a very long review on my blog attempting to explain the experience for those that have only done ocean cruising.

    It short it was very relaxing and just about everything on-board was high quality, especially compared to the many ‘standard’ cruise products on-board the growing number of mega-ships.

    Yes, I am still shocked by the often high fares for most river cruises. A river boat cannot be that expensive to build or operate compared to a big cruise ship. However I appreciate that most river boats only carry up to 200 passengers and NOT 2,000+. So the big question for me is: “Was the quality worth often double the price”?

    As for smelly brochures: I have a minor problem with strong ink used particularly for Viking brochures. Only those with extra sensitive nostrils can possibly understand!

    Keep on cruising!
    Malcolm

  6. Richard, we are huge fans of your blogs. Coincidentally, we are booked on the Celebrity Infinity to Antarctica on Feb.5. (It was because of that we discovered your blog.)
    We are also booked on the Viking Rhine Getaway departing on June 25.
    Is that, perchance, the same date you are booked?
    I hope so……it would be great fun to meet you and your wife and to share travel (and other) experiences.
    Also, we are in the process of booking the Viking Portugal River of Gold trip in late August.

    • Hi Robert & Merle. Sadly I’m not on the June Viking Rhine cruise: I’m sailing a little earlier. The good news is I’ll act as your guinea pig. Thanks for the kind comments.

      Richard

  7. Hi Richard, an excellent review as usual.

    I think I need to eat some words. I’ve just taken my second river cruise which will appear on my blog soon. Guess what, I liked it!

  8. Thank you for doing this review. I had read it awhile ago, but after booking this cruise I wanted to read it once again. There are very few pictorial reviews from any cruise line on the Douro so each one is precious. Thanks again.

  9. This looks lovely! I’m going to relook at this itinerary, thanks for taking the time.

  10. thank you for the informative review – a few remaining questions, however – how long on average were each of the bus tours. By the map the Lisbon to Porto and Porto to Santiago, and the trip to Salamanica seem lengthy,. two hours? Three hours on the bus? More or less?

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