Carry on up the Douro
August 2017, and it was a one-off, a very expensive luxury trip to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. It took a determined saving-up campaign, a big dip into some ISAs and there wasn’t much change from five grand but without wishing this to be a marketing piece for Viking River Cruises, it was worth every penny. We wanted a river cruise and we wanted warm sun so we chose the River Douro trip in Portugal starting with a couple of nights in Lisbon. We felt like a bit of luxury and self-indulgence, a bit of serious 5-star pampering and we got tons of it.
We dug out the old wedding album and leafed through it before we went. ‘Darling can you remember what time we got married,’ she asked, ‘it was on a Monday.’
The ‘darling’ bit was worrying; it’s usually the preface to being asked for something and we were passing Pandora at the time.
‘Darling,’ I answered affectionately, ‘I can’t even remember what year we got married.’
The day after we flew to Lisbon, Burnley were due to play Hannover in a friendly so that was a game we would miss, and a week later the opening game of the season, the away game at Chelsea. Missing the Chelsea game we shrugged off anyway; it seemed reasonable to assume they would lose (gallantly no doubt) to the Champions and their stellar cast, although the good news was that Hazard was injured. Michael Keane had been sold for £30million to Everton. Andre Gray had been sold to Watford for £18million; neither had been replaced. The airwaves were abuzz with apprehension and worry that more signings were needed and that the side was still dangerously short of pace. As ever the pundits had Burnley listed as one of the contenders for relegation.
Ten of us were in our ‘wedding’ party on the cruise and were eating our evening meal in the hotel restaurant, the ground floor restaurant of the Tivoli Lisboa Hotel, five stars, resplendent, elegant, and seriously plush at the top end of a graceful, tree-lined avenue. You half expected the Beckhams to come round the corner; it was that kind of place. It had history too. In the Second World War when Portugal was neutral, the hotel was a hotbed of espionage and intrigue, a meeting place of German and English spies.
The ‘best’ restaurant was up on the roof terrace but they couldn’t fit ten in at short notice so we elected for the less pretentious of the two and ate sumptuous steaks cooked to perfection. But then Pete gasped for breathe. I thought he was choking on a piece of meat and was poised ready to administer the Heimlich manoeuvre but no; he had some news via a text.
‘They abandoned the Hannover friendly,’ he announced. We stopped and stared, knives and forks frozen in mid-air. How can you possibly abandon a friendly? By definition a friendly is a friendly, trouble free game.
‘Rioting,’ he went on, ‘the German fans causing trouble so the game was abandoned on police instructions.’
We had no details but it just seemed ridiculous. There were probably around 6,000 there, we guessed and maybe just a few hundred German fans. True, the Hannover Ultras were known to be a dangerous lot but just a few hundred at a friendly game, surely they were controllable. We beat them in two world wars but at a small football match, apparently not. We finished the steaks and went on to the puddings. Burnley seemed a couple of thousand miles away and an abandoned football match seemed trivial in these opulent, lavish surroundings. Besides there was a mission the next day, and that was to find and sample the famed Portuguese custard tarts of which I had seen and read so much in the holiday blurb and guide books.
An optional walking tour of the city was called ‘A taste of Lisbon,’ but regretfully we chose not to do it. We took a broader tour of the city, a city with a stunning setting at the mouth of the River Tagus, a city that spawned countless sixteenth century seafaring explorers, Magellan, Vasco da Gama, amongst them and inspired by Prince Henry the Navigator. Not for nothing was it called the Age of Discovery. The Portuguese back then plundered Brazil and built an empire. I can remember at school reading and learning about these great names and their great stories. I suspect most kids today wouldn’t have a clue who they were. This is a historical city of monuments, churches, shrines, cathedrals, monasteries, museums, labyrinthine streets, tree-lined avenues, café bars and restaurants, and of course the original bakery where the famed egg tarts (pastel de nata) are made. Street foods like the Prego, a garlic steak sandwich, aren’t bad either.
The egg tart has a long history and was first made by the monks of Jeronimos Monastery in the Belem area of the city, although they cribbed the recipe from France. Egg whites were used for starching clothes and this left the yolks which were then used in baking. When the monastery was closed in 1834 the recipe for the tarts was passed to the owners of the local sugar refinery. In 1837 they opened the Fabrica de Pasteis de Belem, still run by the descendants of the original owners. This café is on the tourist route, these are tarts that are made in many bakeries (in fact you can get them in Sainsbury’s) but the Belem bakery is the place to get them and the queues frequently stretch down the road. As our coach drove slowly by without a stop, yep, there were the queues and I looked longingly at the lines of tarts laid out in the shop window. I would indeed eventually get to taste one in another café. Trust me these are egg tarts to die for. Conveniently packed in boxes of six they were on sale in the airport on the way home, ready for slipping into the carry-on bags. Needless to say one box flew back with us and when the last one was eaten a couple of days later, it brought a symbolic closure to a marvellous holiday.
The second meal in the rooftop restaurant of the Tivoli Lisboa Hotel was an experience with views right across the city and the twinkling lights. This was nouvelle cuisine, where gravy is called jus, the food delicious but you don’t get much, although what you get is beautifully arranged on the plate and the jus isn’t poured it is drizzled. We upset the Maître D’ by asking for four bills which seemed simple enough to us being just the same as eating on four separate tables. With a humph he agreed, but made it plain with another sniff that this was a great inconvenience. He must be French, I decided, better not mention Brexit either.
The food came, we looked at our plates and eight of us thought the same; where is it? Ironically the other two who had ordered a sort of Lobster Stew (Bisque in nouvelle cuisine) in a huge iron pot had enough to feed a small army. This was fortunate; after it took us the necessary three or four minutes to eat our own small meals, we tucked into theirs as well. It was unquestionably superb grub, but here we were, people used to mammoth plate-fulls of cheese and onion pie, mushy peas and chips at the Queen in Cliviger, or monster portions of Rag Pudding at the Shepherd’s Rest above Todmorden. Nouvelle Cuisine might be OK for small jockeys or waif-like models, but we were still hungry. And then came the bill, all four of them. The guy wasn’t a snooty Frenchman after all, he turned out to be South African so as soon as we got talking about cricket and South Africa’s poor showing in the Test Matches, he became a proper human being and the four bills arrived with a smile.
I looked at ours which was for four of us and gasped. I looked at Mrs T mouth agape, eyes popping. Slowly the words came out in a kind of croak. ‘Good God its 384 euros; it says 384 euros for four of us. It can’t be.’
She took the bill and studied it, then spoke. ‘You idiot, that’s our room number.’
Next stop was Porto, a day’s leisurely coach drive to the south of Lisbon. Here is where we would pick up the boat, stopping at Coimbra on the way, a university town where the students all wear black clothes and black capes so that no-one knows if you are poor or rich, a town of more narrow streets, alleyways and pavement cafes. In medieval times it was Portugal’s capital. We learned at the lunch stop that a normal Portuguese restaurant meal is plentiful, generous and then come the plates of second helpings. The texts were coming in again. Apparently we were interested in Shane Long now down the pecking list at Southampton. Good signing if it went ahead, we agreed, and that would mean there were would be six Irish internationals in the Burnley team. We wondered too if a Danny Ings loan from Liverpool was a possibility and all of us were keen, despite his injury problems. On form and injury free he had been a little genius in the first Dyche promotion season and his goal at Blackburn was now filed under F for Folklore.
And then it was on to baroque Porto, Portugal’s second largest city, a city built on Port with over 50 wine companies along the river bank. Look on supermarket shelves at the Port and it’s a fair bet that most came from the Douro region. All the familiar names were there, Fonseca, Graham’s, Sandeman’s, Dow’s, Taylor’s. Porto straddles the River Douro, the river that has carved out a deep and steep-sided 200-hundred mile long gouge in the Portuguese landscape. These are the hillsides that are covered in terraces of vines, thousands of acres of them and where the great wine estates are located. Porto too is built on steep slopes that rise from the river, the river spanned by towering, graceful bridges, another city of churches, cathedrals, markets, castles, narrow cobbled streets and quaint wooden trams that rattle and clang up and down the streets. Our boat ‘The Viking Hemmings’ was moored up more or less opposite the Sandeman’s port warehouse, the great barrels and casks filling the huge, cool storerooms.
The Hemmings was our home for the next seven days, the final day being the day of the Chelsea game. The sun, wine, food and slow cruise back down the river on the day would be ample consolation for the inevitable defeat, and in the meantime there was so much to enjoy on this floating food-fest. Make no mistake; a holiday with Viking River Cruises puts you at serious risk of weight increase. You don’t ask, where is the lifeboat; you ask, where is the defibrillator? The day starts with a huge buffet breakfast with the chef standing at the end of the dining room at the ‘egg station’ ready to cook any egg dish of your choice. Onto to that you can pile anything else that fills the buffet.
‘I will not be eating huge lunches,’ I vowed before we boarded. But when lunch is served it cannot be disregarded; it would be rude and disrespectful and these were three-course affairs that could not be ignored. And then in the evening there was dinner, another lavish three course event and as at lunch, as much wine as you could glug. And all the while through breakfast and lunch the boat sailed serenely along the Douro with views of the terraces, estates and quintas, solitary farmhouses, tiny chapels, isolated cottages, narrow gorges, olive groves, almond trees, an occasional worker, fish jumping out of the water, and above us the soaring eagles and vultures. In years past the river was bedevilled by rapids that the little rabelo boats carrying the port barrels down to the warehouses for ageing and storage, had to negotiate at their peril. Today, huge dams with locks for the boats, plus widening of certain stretches, have tamed the river.
Yet more news was filtering through regarding Burnley FC. Internet connections were poor but occasionally there was a window. A £12million bid for Leeds United’s Chris Wood was reported. It made sense; the previous season he had scored something like 30 goals in the Championship and he possessed pace, that magic ingredient. But the offer was immediately rejected, said the reports, with Leeds having already valued him at £15million. Same old Burnley, we moaned, trying to get a player they wanted on the cheap with a first low offer. Next there was a report of a £5million bid for Hull City player Sam Clucas. £5million, no chance, we said, why do they bother? Next, there was an alleged £10million bid for centre-back Ryan Shawcross of Stoke City, but why, we wondered; why not give Tarkowski his chance? And then as the ship entered a deep gorge, the internet connection disappeared.
It was the first day of sailing on the river and we’d stopped at Regua after lunch ready for a tour, nay pilgrimage, to a place that most rose wine drinkers would recognise from the picture on the iconic round bottle. It was a drink that we had back in the 70s in those legendary Berni Inns where we had a prawn cocktail, a steak, and a pudding, and whenever we went, a bottle of Mateus Rose. Back then if you wanted to eat out there wasn’t much to choose from and Berni Inns were in the forefront of Friday or Saturday night treats. We used to look at the picture on the bottle of the Mateus Palace and think what a wonderful place it looked, without even really registering that this gorgeous building was in Portugal. It was therefore with an almost sense of reverence that we headed off on the one hour journey to get there, a wonderful drive through the wine areas and vineyards along highways that hugged the dizzying hillsides, clung to the steep contours, and then traversed the deep valleys and gorges via the most spectacular, awesome bridges, with the valley floor hundreds of feet below.
The little guide book and itinerary that was issued painted a wonderful picture of the place:
‘The extraordinary Mateus Palace, the building depicted on the Mateus Rose wine labels and enjoy a wine tasting at a local quinta. Journey with the guide to Vila Real; see the stunning Mateus Palace, the home of the last Count of Vila Real with its pinnacle façade, grand stairway, richly appointed interiors and priceless objects on display. The gardens will amaze you, enchanting formal gardens with cedar-lined walkways, exquisitely sculpted hedges and statuary and the serene ponds.’
Forty years ago eating the steak and drinking Mateus Rose in those long-gone Berni Inns, we never thought that one day we’d stand in front of the palace depicted on the bottle and marvel at its beauty and elegance. Berni Inns and Mateus Rose were a part of our growing up and early marriage. We were celebrating our 50th year together in front of the real place beneath a perfect blue sky and warm sun. And if you want the football bit, this was the time of Jimmy Adamson and his team of the seventies, Fletcher, Waldron, Casper, James and all the rest, a team that we loved for its silky football, and still do. This was a lump-in-throat moment.Share this page :