There are very few things in this life that I hate, but topping this short list is one of the worst things in the world…
Today was my last day with the MS Vasco da Gama, and it was an unforgettable day that made me feel completely unready to leave. Portugal has so many great places to explore, and today, with Porto, Guimarães and Braga all on our itinerary, I got a real taste of just how much more there is to see.
In the morning, we were given one final opportunity to experience the incredible city of Porto. The sun was shining and the city took on a completely different feel than my cloudy arrival just a few days ago. First, we were whisked off to the heart of the Ribeira district on a classic Portuguese rabelo boat, where we were then given a few hours to wander and discover Porto for ourselves. Arriving just before 9am, this usually bustling part of town was serenely quiet and peaceful. As I ascended the hilly streets of Porto, there was almost no one else around, a stark contrast to the chaos I witnessed on my first day. It was nice to see this side of the city, and I enjoyed my quiet walk up to Porto’s Torre dos Clérigos, or Bell Tower, where I became their first customer of the day.
240 steps later, I reached the top, and it was a surreal feeling. Here I was, standing at the highest point in Porto, with the entire city at my feet, and I had this incredible view all to myself. I must have spent a solid 45 minutes up there, watching the streets fill up with Sunday morning markets and visitors.
Later in the morning, I took one last walk along the Dom Luís I Bridge, probably the best free viewpoint you can find in the city. On the river banks below, a trumpet player filled the air with the melody of Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’, while seagulls glided over the calm blue surface of the Douro. At that moment, gazing over the view, with Porto on one side and Gaia on the other, I felt so hopelessly in love with Portugal that the thought of leaving seemed impossible.
And this love for the country only intensified in the afternoon, which took us on one last excursion to Guimarães and Braga.
Guimarães is known as one of the country’s most important historical cities, and “the birthplace of Portugal” because it was here that Alfonso I, the first King of Portugal was born. The city is well known for its beautifully preserved historical centre, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. That said, I was expecting to see a pretty medieval town, but I was absolutely not prepared for what we did see…
It was like stepping into a time machine!
It was just our luck that we were in town for the city’s annual Medieval festival, which meant that all throughout the city, medieval flags adorned the building’s facades, and the main squares were filled with booths selling medieval weapons, flower crowns and other small relics from this time period. All around, people were dressed in Medieval clothing, riding carriages, putting on little plays and the restaurants even had servers dressed in costume, serving authentic Medieval meals. I couldn’t help but laugh at the enthusiasm that had engulfed this entire town. It was spectacularly energetic, and I feel so lucky that we got to see it!
Our next stop was Braga, which offered a much quieter experience than the Medieval festivities of Guimares. Because it was Sunday afternoon, most shops were closed and there was little activity besides locals strolling around, enjoying their Sunday at some of the city’s public spaces. It was a nice look at the other side of Portugal – one that I don’t think many tourists get to see. Braga is considered one of the oldest cities in Portugal, and therefore has no shortage of monuments, museums and architecture to marvel at. In fact, its Cathedral is the oldest-surviving church in the country! Because of its many historical gems, some even call it “the Rome of Portugal”.
After this afternoon excursion, I returned to my cabin to find an amazing surprise waiting for me. Laid out on my bed was a gift from the crew: a bottle of Ferreira Port wine, and a photo I had taken with the boat’s captain, purser and entertainer. My heart honestly melted. As I mentioned before, the crew on this boat really goes out of their way to make me feel welcome, and this was proof of it.
We finished our last evening on board with a performance of Portuguese song and dance, and it is now with great sadness that I realize my time cruising on the Douro has come to an end. Tomorrow, I am catching my plane back to Paris, and saying goodbye to Portugal, to the MS Vasco de Gama and to its amazing, amazing crew.
I simply can’t deal with all these emotions!
… but oh well, new adventures on board the MS La Belle de Cadix await. In the meantime, I’ll be mulling over all these happy memories of Portugal, and my unforgettable week cruising along the Douro.
Talk to you all soon from Spain,