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River Cruising Takeaways

My wife and I have visited more than 25 countries and probably close to 40 European cities since we started travelling in 2006. There are problems that come with traveling like delayed flights, asking directions from the locals who don’t speak English, or always being on the lookout for potential snatchers especially in some European cities. Thus, sometimes traveling can be quite stressful.

But the stress is nothing when I think of the new experiences of being in a country with a history and culture totally different from mine, where when I talk to the people there is always something to learn and discover about their way of life.

So, like my wife, I am one of those people who love to travel. Being in an unfamiliar place has now become for me not only a leisure activity but a truly educational experience.

Flying to Madrid last July 29 with my wife, together with my wife’s siblings and their spouses, for a three-day jaunt in Spain’s capital city was a prelude to an eight-day river cruise to Portugal aboard Viking Torgil.

But compared to my previous summer cruises, this time my level of excitement was at its low point.

When we booked Viking’s Portugal River of Gold Cruise months before, Fatima was one of the places included in Viking’s tour itineraries. My wife immediately signed up for the excursion. Fatima, with its remarkable religious significance, is, without any doubt, a must for me to visit as a Catholic. Unquestionably, Fatima would have been the apotheosis of my travel experience this year. But it was not meant to be.

A few weeks before our embarkation date, we received an email from Viking that the Fatima tour was cancelled because the Catholic-sponsored World Youth Day 2023 festival would be held in Lisbon, Portugal on the same date as our tour. Pope Francis would attract thousands of pilgrims from all over the world, making it quite impossible to navigate going to Fatima and back to the ship on time because of the crowd. What a bummer!

Disappointed as I was, I did not want my disappointment to ruin my vacation. I shifted my gear mentally and decided to make our third river cruise with Viking as fun and as educational as my previous ones.

A Glimpse of Madrid

As mentioned, we took an optional three-day excursion in Madrid prior to the start of the cruise. Like many European cities, Madrid is known for its manicured parks, arts, magnificent churches, buildings with their stunning Gothic architectural style, and museums. I was impressed with how clean the streets were. Taking a taxi was the safest experience I’ve had in many years. Unlike in Manila where some taxi drivers are notoriously known to scam their passengers, our experience with the taxi drivers in Madrid was quite the opposite. The drivers were honest, friendly, and very accommodating.

Given that three days were not enough to see the entire city of Madrid, I had a bucket list of things to do to make my days in Madrid worth it: First, do the Jose Rizal Walking Tour; second, eat at Sobrino de Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world; third, visit the Sofia National Museum, where Pablo Picasso’s GUERNICA is displayed; fourth, look at a few paintings by world-famous artists at the Prado Museum.

Joaquin de Jesus, a graduate of the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University, gave us a walking tour of the places where Philippine national hero Dr. Jose Rizal lived, studied, dined, and socialized with fellow nationalists and artists as they discussed the Reformation and the conditions in the motherland. He gave vivid historical accounts of Rizal’s stay in Madrid.

It was a big surprise for me to learn during the walking tour that the Ateneo de Madrid was not a Jesuit educational institution like all the Ateneos in the Philippines. Rather, it was a cultural center where the educated elite would congregate. Rizal was a frequent visitor at the Ateneo de Madrid.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, Botin, founded in 1725 by Frenchman Jean Botin and his wife, is the oldest restaurant in the world. Its specialty is cochinillo (roast suckling pig) a bit like our Filipino lechon. However, I still find our lechon more palatable though. The restaurant is open every day, but, because of its popularity, advanced reservation is strongly suggested.

Picasso’s Guernica is a must to see. It is famous for its portrayal of suffering caused by violence. According to historians, Picasso painted Guernica in response to the April 26, 1937, bombing of Guernica, a Basque town in Northern Spain, by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Looking at the painting evoked in me the violence experienced by many people worldwide living under a repressive government.

The Prado Museum, the premier Spanish national art museum, is huge. One needs to probably spend an entire day viewing 100 rooms and galleries that make up the entire Museum’s collection. But being not much of an artist, I was happy to see the works of El Greco, Goya, Velasquez, and Tintoretto.

Before leaving Madrid, we drove to Toledo, a walled city on top of a hill. Toledo has a long history of producing bladed weapons since 500 BC. Toledo’s Gothic Cathedral of St. Mary is Spain’s primate cathedral. Inside the cathedral is the stone where the Blessed Virgin Mary stood to place the miter and the cloak on Bishop Ildefonso, a devotee of the Virgin Mary and was instrumental in building the cathedral. Mama Mary’s influence can be seen in churches, museums, buildings, and even on bridges where her image is prominently displayed.


From Madrid we flew to Lisbon where we were met at the airport by a staff from Viking and driven to our hotel in the heart of Lisbon.

Viking replaced the cancelled Fatima tour with a trip to the Royal Building of Mafra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 24 miles northwest of Lisbon. The Royal Building has a convent, a palace, a basilica and a hunting park. It covers almost four hectares, 1,200 rooms, 156 stairways, 4,700 doors and windows, and 29 inner yards and courtyards.

While the Royal Building is not as miraculous as Fatima (pun intended), such magnificence was made possible because of a vow made by King John V of Portugal in 1755 to build the Royal Building if his wife were to bear him a child. This must have been the miracle the King prayed for because his wife bore him several children thereafter.

En route to Viking Torgil to begin our river cruise, we visited Coimbra University, Portugal’s oldest university. It was established in 1290 in Lisbon but relocated to Coimbra in 1537. The university is known for its Baroque library, known in English as the Joanine Library and considered as one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. It is home to more than 70,000 volumes of priceless historical documents. Many of the books are in Latin, the language for writing of the time. The books are protected from insects by a colony of bats. For whatever reason, we were not allowed to take pictures of the library. Another bomber for me who wanted to take a picture of anything of beauty.

Why a River Cruise?

This is the third time that my wife and I have taken a Viking River Cruise. A river cruise offers something that one cannot find in an ocean cruise. For one, the ship is smaller and can hold roughly around 100 passengers at full capacity. Because of this, it’s easy to know many of the passengers on a personal level, which is quite difficult to do on an ocean cruise, where the passengers are in the thousands.

In the last river cruise that we took, we got to know almost the entire staff including the chef, the maitre d’, the program director, the restaurant staff, and the Portuguese steward in charge of our cabin who was friendly and would at times share stories with us about his children. It was easy to forge relationships with fellow passengers because the atmosphere was much more intimate. There was no long line in the restaurant and there was no large crowd to compete with.

At every port visit, we were not only exposed to a culture completely unknown to us, but we had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a world completely full of history, like when we toured Castelo Rodrigo, a medieval fortress town in Portugal. During our walking tour, one could see the marks on some Jewish homes, mementos of the Jewish community’s flight during the Spanish inquisition.

We stopped ashore in Pinhao, a town in the Douro Valley, the only region where port wine is produced. What I found interesting in one of the villages named Favaios was the existence of traditional bakeries that still make bread using an oven heated with wood and old grapevines. After we were treated to a sample of bread fresh out of the oven, we proceeded to Quinta de Avessada, a wine-growing estate in the heart of the Douro wine region, toured a wine cellar, and sampled varieties of moscatel wine.

Nothing can beat the spectacular views when doing a river cruise. Located along the banks of the Douro River are old churches, various rock formations, historic towns, vineyard-laden hills, modern homes built on the hills. And going through several locks is truly remarkable. One can see the water levels steadily rise and fall, as if the ship is going to sink.

One day, as we were sailing, there was a presentation about Portuguese cork that I initially found uninteresting. After all, I often think of cork as nothing but a wine bottle stopper. As the talk progressed, I became hooked on what the speaker was saying. I did not know that once the bark of the cork is harvested, it can be turned into wallets, belts, hats, handbags, dresses and even floor tiles. No wonder in many of the gift shops around Lisbon, one can see a galore of cork products. Portugal is the largest producer of cork products in the world that a Portuguese may end up in jail if he/she destroys a cork oak tree.

Evening entertainment in a river cruise is limited to local talents invited by Viking, depending on where the boat is docked for the night. In fact, most of the time when there are no locals to entertain the cruisers, the passengers just congregate at the lounge after dinner for a relaxed conversation among themselves while listening to an in-house pianist.

On the night that the ship was docked in Salamanca, we were entertained by a group of women who beautifully danced the flamenco. Spain’s flamenco is a form of music and dance that has captivated people from around the world. The women’s footwork and hand and body movements were simply astonishing.

Catholicism is a significant part of the culture of Portugal. Thus, it was no surprise to find a medieval chapel, a cathedral, and even a palace full of religious artifacts. The interiors of many of the churches reflect the architecture, often Gothic architecture, and styles of the time.

One such church that we visited was Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral in Porto. Built sometime during the 12th century, it is one of the city’s oldest monuments. Our visit was somewhat rushed. So, taking a cue from our tour guide, I looked for two statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the side chapels: one, where she is pregnant; second, where she is breastfeeding the infant Jesus. Lo and behold, never in my life have I seen statues of the Virgin Mary pregnant and breastfeeding!

There are many things that are left unsaid in this article. Eight days of cruising the Douro River, with all the port visits and cultural immersion that one could never experience on an ocean cruise, was mind-boggling. Overall, it was unforgettable. There was no shortage of memorable experiences onboard, including being sung to and greeted by the crew, to our great surprise, on our 45th wedding anniversary, complete with a cake and with our fellow cruisers cheering. What a wonderful treat!

Indeed, there’s wisdom when someone says: “To travel is to live fully.”


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