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A worker prepares pastel de nata, an egg tart pastry, at the cafe Pastéis de Belem, which opened in 1837. (Contributed Photo by Patti Smith)

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Discovering the port in Portugal

Our Douro River cruise took us from the Atlantic Ocean, across Portugal, deep into Spain, and back. The Douro cuts a path through an amazingly varied landscape. We floated along steep mountains blanketed with lush vegetation as well as arid banks terraced to the tops of surrounding hills with seemingly endless parallel rows of grapevines. These Portuguese vineyards produce port wine, a unique sweet and prized beverage sought throughout the world.

But the country of Portugal has a rich history in addition to its outstanding wine production. Its modern history began as intrepid Portuguese sailors were among the first to navigate the seven seas. Their discoveries impacted nautical transportation in innumerable ways. For instance, Prince Henry the Navigator established the first nautical schools to develop improved keel and sail designs for faster and more maneuverable ships. Also, students learned to more accurately map the Earth's surface and to navigate effectively using the sun and stars.

These advantages allowed subsequent explorers like Vasco da Gama to reach India before any other European nation and lay claim to the trade routes to bring back valuable spices. Likewise, the Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the world (although Spain financed his journey). Portuguese expeditions and subsequent colonies are the reason over one-sixth of the world speaks Portuguese, even though Portugal is only the size of Maine.

But Portugal, despite its rapid accumulation of wealth and colonies, could not compete against its larger European neighbors and was soon overshadowed by Spain, France, England and Holland. The Portuguese needed income from something other than trade on the high seas, and they found it along the Douro River, thanks to the Romans who began cultivating vineyards on the land when it was part of their empire.

A young Scotsman named George Sandeman discovered the delights of Portuguese wine and Spanish sherry in 1790 and knew both would be popular in Britain, if he could only get them there. Unfortunately, by the time casks of wine floated down the untamed and dangerous waters (at the time) of the Douro, were loaded onto British ships and then delivered to English and Scottish ports, the wine often turned bad.

The Portuguese were not strangers to this problem, as their exploring ships had carried wine for thirsty sailors for centuries. They added tasteless and colorless brandy (almost pure alcohol) to the wine halfway through the fermentation process. Brandy killed the yeasts before they could completely break down the sugar in the grape juice, making a much sweeter wine. Brits loved it, and it had the added benefits of bumping up the alcohol level to 20 percent (most wines are 10-12 percent) and helping preserve the wine for long voyages.

Although the Portuguese themselves now control port production and export, the Sandeman logo is still one of the most recognized brands in the world. It combines the Spanish basque hat with the black traditional cloak of Portuguese college students to reveal a mysterious but inviting stranger.

During our cruise, we discovered a particularly refreshing port summer beverage. Over ice, mix half white port, half tonic, a splash of lime juice and a twist of lime. We call it a Port Cooler, and it's very "PC"!

Lisbon

The capitol, Lisbon, is one of the world's most beautiful cities. Set along the Tejo River, just upstream from the Atlantic, this city was built during the flood of wealth from Portuguese colonies and shipping. Wide boulevards and beautiful parks abound in the city. Upscale shops, restaurants and hotels are testament that the wealth continues today, although nothing on the scale it once was.

Lisbon has museums galore that tell of its glorious past and its not so glorious recent. Portugal was ruled by the powerful dictator António Salazar from 1932 to 1968. During this time, much of the government was corrupt, and those who voiced concern were quickly silenced. Additionally, Portugal fought costly and disastrous wars in the mid-20th century as it tried to retain control over its colonies. They finally gave up after losing thousands of young soldiers and much national treasure and granted independence to those nations.

But the Portuguese are resilient people. Today, they take pride in not being a world power and instead focus on simple pleasures that we sometimes overlook. For instance, sidewalk cafes and coffee shops are busy, happy places for all levels of society to linger and enjoy conversation. We saw no rushed customers lining up for $4 cups of Starbucks.

A special Lisbon cafe, Pasties de Belem, has specialized since 1820 in producing tarts consisting of a light, flaky crust that surrounds a yummy egg custard filling. Nuns in the Belem neighborhood of Lisbon sold these tarts to keep their convent alive after the government attempted to close monasteries and convents in the early 1800s. They used egg whites to starch their crisp habits, then they used the leftover yolks to make the egg custard. These are the most popular desserts in Portugal for good reason. Thank goodness for those faithful nuns!

Porto

The second largest city is Porto, also on the Atlantic, where we started our cruise on the Douro River. Porto was a walled city in the Middle Ages, and its narrow, winding streets are reflective of that era. Notable along one such street is the Lello & Irmao bookshop, dating from 1906. Its unique winding staircase with bright red steps and stained-glass ceiling were supposedly inspirational to author J.K. Rowling who lived in Porto and wrote the Harry Potter series. The block-long crowd waiting to get inside is testimony to the author's international popularity.

Cruising

Relaxing on our boat, the Viking Ostfried, was a wonderful experience, as it is on all river cruises. We dined on tasty meals, heard great lectures on local cuisine, history and culture, and watched the beautiful Portuguese landscape slide peacefully past our comfortable, private veranda.

There were 100 guests on our boat, almost all from the United States or Canada. Like us, they were not seeking wild parties or calorie-laden buffets associated with many cruises. Instead, we wanted to experience the culture and history of this ancient land and to enjoy a restful vacation. The river cruise met our expectations on every level.

During our six days along the Douro, we took a number of excursions to magnificent cathedrals, small villages, markets, historical homes and gardens and vineyards. We even visited a bakery that made unusual cross-shaped loaves of bread, as it had since the Roman Empire. We also visited the university city of Coimbra, home of the seventh-oldest university in the world. It opened its doors in 1290 and attracted students from throughout medieval Europe. The students still wear black capes signifying their university status.

I highly recommend a river cruise for your next vacation. There are even a number of them cropping up on our rivers in the United States such as the Mississippi and the Columbia. However, the most well-developed industry is in Europe on long winding rivers like the Rhein, Danube, Elbe, Seine and Douro. For your money, it's hard to beat the experience.

Roger L. Smith is a local editorial columnist and travel correspondent.

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