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Douro River Facts

Douro River

THE DOURO AT-A-GLANCE

The third-longest river on the Iberian Peninsula, the Douro (whose name many believe is derived from the Portuguese for “golden”) flows westward from its origins in north-central Spain, forms part of the border between Spain and Portugal, then cuts across northern Portugal all the way to the Atlantic coast, where it empties into the Atlantic at Porto. The portion of the river within the borders of Spain winds through five provinces of Castile and León, while its Portuguese section forms the heart of the Douro River Valley vinhateiro – one of the oldest wine-producing regions on Earth, active for nearly 2,000 years. The home of world-famous Port wine, the region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

THE DOURO RIVER FACTS & FIGURES

Length: Approximately 557 miles / 897 kilometers

Source: Near Duruelo de la Sierra in the Pico de Urbiôn mountain range of the Sistema Ibérico in Soria Province, north-central Spain

Mouth: The Douro Estuary between the cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia at the Atlantic Ocean

Oldest Trade Routes:
Archaeological evidence suggests that trade at the mouth of the Douro River dates back to a Phoenician trading settlement in the area during the 8th century BC. Later, the Douro River Valley region developed as an important trading center during the Roman occupation of the Iberian Peninsula and continued into the Middle Ages. As early as the 13th century, wine produced in the Douro Valley was already being shipped along the river to Porto in traditional wooden rabelo boats of a type that, while no longer commercially used, can still be seen on the river today.   

UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the Douro River
Alto Douro Wine Region
Historic Centre of Oporto, Luiz I Bridge and Monastery of Serra do Pilar

 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DOURO RIVER REGION

Early Civilizations Along the Douro
Like much of the territory comprising modern-day Portugal, the Douro River region has been continuously settled, invaded and contested since prehistoric times. Along with indications of a Phoenician trading post in the area as far back as the 8th century BC, there is evidence that Celtic and Proto-Celtic peoples occupied the Douro River Valley and what is today the city of Porto, at the river’s mouth, around 300 BC, making it one of the oldest urban centers in Europe. 

Roman Period
The Douro River Valley region came under Roman control during the Roman Republic’s slow, nearly two-century-long conquest of the Iberian Peninsula that began with its seizure of lands once held by native Celtiberian tribes and the Carthaginian Empire in the Punic Wars around 200 BC, and ended with the first Roman Emperor Augustus completing the annexation of what the Romans called Hispania in 19 BC. During the Roman period, winemaking developed in the area and Douro Valley wine began being distributed throughout the Empire from Portus Cale (modern-day Porto). The Douro River formed the southern border of the province of Hispania known as Tarraconensis, and the northern border of Lusitania. The region remained under Roman control until the 5th and 6th centuries AD, when the Empire was overrun by Germanic tribes including the Vandals and especially the Visigoths, who went on to control most of Hispania from their capital, Toledo, in the 7th century.

Moorish Period
During the 8th century, invading Muslim forces from North Africa – commonly referred to as “Moors” – conquered what had been Hispania between 711 and 719 AD, and established a state they called Al-Andalus, of which the Douro River region was a part for the next several centuries. Eventually, the westernmost stretch of the Douro formed part of the border between the Muslim Caliphate of Córdoba to the south, and the Christian Kingdom of León (later part of Spain) to the north.

The Reconquista, the Middle Ages and the birth of Portugal
Toward the end of the 9th century, the region between the Douro and Minho rivers was reconquered from the Moors by Christian forces, beginning the Reconquista; the County of Portugal was founded in 868, named in part for the city of Portus Cale (Porto) at the mouth of the Douro. Over the next two centuries, a series of wars between various noble families resulted in the establishment of independent Christian kingdoms across the Iberian Peninsula, including the Douro region, that would eventually become the nations of Spain and Portugal. 

The Kingdom of Portugal – 12th - 14th centuries
The first half of the 12th century saw key victories by Afonso Henriques, Count of Portugal, at São Mamede in 1128 and Ourique in 1139 that led to the establishment of the Kingdom of Portugal with Afonso as the nation’s first king, officially recognized in 1143 by the Treaty of Zamora; King Afonso I ruled until his death in 1185. During this era, Porto and the Douro River played key roles in the young kingdom’s developing endeavors in trade, shipbuilding and wine production. With the capture of the Algarve and conquest of the last Moorish strongholds along the kingdom’s southern coast in 1249, the Reconquista officially ended, establishing Portugal’s national borders that have survived more or less to the present day. 

The Age of Discovery – 15th - 17th centuries
During the 13th and 14th centuries, Portugal, like other European kingdoms, endured wars and territorial squabbles inside and outside of its borders, as well as the Black Death that swept across Europe in the 1340s and 50s. But it was the victory of John of Aviz over Castilian claimants to the Portuguese throne in the 1380s that established the House of Aviz as the ruling house under King John I of Portugal and led to the kingdom’s leading role among European nations in shipbuilding, trade, colonization and world exploration during the period now known as the Age of Discovery, roughly the 15th – 17th centuries. Portugal’s major efforts in these areas – led by the son of King John I, Prince Henry the Navigator – resulted in the exploration of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans and the African coast; colonization of Brazil and other areas in the Americas and Africa; establishing trade routes to Asia and India, and commercial and diplomatic ties with Asian nations including Japan and China. During this period, the Douro River Valley and the city of Porto enjoyed wealth and influence from great success in maritime trade, wine production and distribution, and shipbuilding – which included the first use of the rabelo boat in transporting wine from Douro Valley vineyards to Porto.

18th – 19th Centuries
Following Portugal’s “Golden Age” during the three centuries comprising the Age of Discovery, the kingdom suffered a series of cataclysmic events during the 18th and 19th centuries that had dire effects on the country’s population, wealth, prestige and political power. The first was the devastating All Saints Day earthquake of 1755 (often referred to as the Great Lisbon Earthquake, and one of the worst to ever hit Europe), which struck on November 1, 1755; the quake and resultant tsunami and great fire virtually destroyed Lisbon and environs, and killed between 10,000 and 100,000 people. The city of Porto and the Douro River Valley, however, were essentially spared from damage by the quake –  a major reason why much of the city’s and the region’s historic architecture remains to this day. During the 19th century, invasion and occupation by the French during the Napoleonic Wars – including of Porto and the Douro Valley wine region – and the independence of the former Portuguese colony of Brazil in the 1820s furthered a decline in Portugal’s fortunes that continued into the 20th century. One bright spot for the country and the Douro River region during this period, however, was the popularity of Port wine that began early in the 1700s and spread, first among British wine merchants and then around the world, throughout the rest of the 18th century and beyond.

20th – 21st Centuries
Although Portugal had been a constitutional monarchy since 1834, unrest throughout much of the 19th century led to the assassination of the king and his heir apparent in 1908, followed by the 1910 revolution that abolished the monarchy and made Portugal a republic. Essentially a right-wing dictatorship between 1932 and 1968, Portugal endured social and political turmoil into the 1980s, when its government began adopting socialist and democratic principles, and it joined the European Union. Porto, which played a key role in a short-lived attempt to reestablish the monarchy in 1919, continued throughout the 20th century to be an important part of Portugal’s economy and the Douro Valley wine industry in particular, whose success has endured to the present day. Porto’s historic center was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, and both the city and the Douro River Valley have become key areas for tourism and wine culture into the 21st century.

The Douro River in European Culture  

Architecture
The largest and most important city and port in the Douro River region, Porto (also known as Oporto), at the mouth of the Douro on the Atlantic coast, possesses one of Europe’s oldest city centers – and the lion’s share of historic architecture in the Douro Valley, for which it’s been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Among its treasures are Porto Cathedral (Sé do Porto), whose construction began in the Romanesque style in the 1100s and wasn’t completed until the 16th century; Baroque elements and other features were added in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Clérigos Church (Church of the Clergymen) is a significant 18th-century Baroque church whose iconic tower, the Torre dos Clérigos (Clerics’ Tower) has become a symbol of the city. South of Porto on the opposite side of the Douro lies the city of Vila Nova de Gaia (or just Gaia), home to many cellars (which the locals call “caves”) for the storing and aging of Port wine before it is sent to Porto for distribution around the world; visiting these cellars is quite popular today.

Winemaking
The production and distribution of wine has been an integral part of the economy and culture of the Douro River Valley – and of what would become the nation of Portugal – for more than 2,000 years. Ancient civilizations including the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, who traded and settled in the Douro River area centuries before the Romans did, passed on their knowledge and experience of viticulture throughout the region, influencing the winemaking practices of the Greeks and especially the Romans, who would spread the cultivation and distribution of wine throughout the Western world. Evidence suggests that wine was enjoyed in the Douro Valley region, in the province known as Lusitania, between the 7th and 6th centuries BC, and that regular wine production began a century or so later throughout Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula under Roman occupation), with the Romans soon exporting Douro Valley wines throughout the Empire and the wider world. The region’s – and Portugal’s – most famous variety is the fortified wine known as Port, whose popularity spread throughout the world during the 18th century. Other popular Portuguese varieties include Vinhos Verdes, Douro, Moscatel and Madeira, to name just a few.

What to Expect Along the Douro with Tauck

Tauck’s river cruises along the Douro engage you with more included, exclusive experiences than any other river cruise company in Europe — from in-depth sightseeing to cultural visits behind the scenes and dining ashore on fine regional fare in captivating locations. Here are just some examples:

Cruise the “golden” Douro River itself aboard ms Andorinha – our new, 80-meter riverboat purpose-built to cruise the Douro – to trace the region’s celebrated Port wine to its source at vineyards and wineries along the river’s banks

Get an exclusive introduction to the Douro Valley’s Port winemaking process at family-run Quinta do Portal, featuring a private dinner with wine pairings

Pedal your way through Vinho Verde wine country on a bicycle tour through the region where Portugal’s celebrated “Green Wine” is produced

Enjoy vineyard tours, tastings, wine-pairings and more – including an exclusive Port cocktail making workshop, and a guided visit with a tour and tasting to a Port wine cave in Vila Nova de Gaia

Explore the historic city of Porto, an enticing labyrinth of winding streets and stairways, baroque churches and towers, bohemian enclaves, and houses clad in blue-painted tiles, from which port wine is distributed around the world

Visit historic Peso da Régua, once a busy hub where wooden rabelo boats, laden with barrels of port, set sail down the Douro with their precious cargo

Indulge in a special Portuguese culinary experience at DOC – an acronym for “Degustar Ousar Comunicar” (translated: “Taste, Dare, Communicate”) – an acclaimed gourmet restaurant in Folgosa with riverside views of the Douro

Call on the tranquil riverside village of Pinhão, known as the gateway to the Douro Valley’s quintas and large estates

Delve into the Douro Valley’s long, colorful history with a visit to Castelo Rodrigo – a now-peaceful hilltop village with castle ruins and medieval walls that reflect a turbulent history of fighting off Moorish invaders and Spanish rule

Tour Guimarães, Portugal’s “cradle city” northeast of Porto, where the Kingdom of Portugal was born, home to castle ruins and opulent palaces

At Museu do Côa, peruse multimedia exhibits documenting the nearby prehistoric rock art of Foz Côa – thousands of Paleolithic petroglyphs created in the open air many centuries ago by the valley’s earliest inhabitants

Immerse yourself in the Douro River Valley with a choice of kayaking on the Douro or hiking through the hilltop vineyards for amazing views of Port wine country and the river

Visit Mateus Palace (Casa Mateus) – a Baroque treasure and national monument in Vila Real, north of the Douro – comprising a manor house, winery and chapel built between the 16th and 18th centuries, featuring lavish furnishings and formal gardens

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