Travel: ‘Gilbert & Sullivan’ along the Douro

The Iconic Bridge in Porto built by student of Eiffel

Which of the following would you choose to do: listen to music, sample some of the world’s best port wines, or enjoy a leisurely cruise?

Here is some really good news. On the ‘Gilbert & Sullivan On The Douro,’ Saga Travel river cruise that my wife and I were lucky enough to check out recently, you don’t have to choose at all. You can do them all!

The impressive Douro Queen sets sail

Our seven nights Portuguese adventure began with a short flight from London to Porto and an included seamless transfer to the Douro Queen river cruise ship, chartered by Saga Travel.

It is a fact that in the last five years, the popularity of river cruising has massively increased. This positive trend has given river cruise operators however, the business challenge of how to differentiate their respective offerings. Saga Travel’s answer has been to create a range of special interest musical river cruises, to give an additional dimension and focus to the overall experience.

Without question it works. As we leisurely cruised the spectacularly scenic Douro Valley, past the terraced vineyards, we were entertained with two lectures and five concerts about the life and music of Gilbert & Sullivan, all professionally delivered by onboard performers Leon Berger and Carol Anne Wells.

They were both superb. Baritone Leon Berger, particularly known for his Gilbert & Sullivan repertoire, has guested with the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, and with many touring companies, singing over 100 operatic roles. Additionally, for several years Leon was also a collaborator with the late Donald Swann, performing in several of his operas and he is now archivist and editor of his music.

Stunning scenery along the River Douro

Pianist and singer, Carol Anne Wells, with her duel interest in classical and light music is well known as one of Britain’s first ‘crossover’ artistes. She has performed worldwide, on TV and radio and at many concert venues including the Royal Albert Hall. Commenting on one of her solo piano medleys, a listener commented: “she plays the piano as though it is an extension of her soul”. When not performing on for Saga holidays, she also has her own ‘Magic of the Movies’ multi media presentation.

Our entertainers shared the traditions of this influential 19th century musical double act with great authority and fun. We heard how WS Gilbert, the librettist, wrote the witty often ‘topsy-turvy’ words and composer Arthur Sullivan wrote the music for their wonderful and influential operettas, initially brought to the stage in 1881 by producer and impresario Richard D’ Oyly Carte.

Sitting in the ship’s lounge, cruising down the Douro drink in hand, we heard songs from Gilbert & Sullivan’s first joint venture Thespis and of course from all the major well known shows including: Trial by Jury; The Sorcerer; H.M.S. Pinafore; The Pirates of Penzance; Patience; Iolanthe; Princess Ida and many others.

We also heard about George Grossmith, the lead performer in most of Gilbert & Sullivan’s big shows and a real superstar of his generation. The final concert looked at the influence of Gilbert & Sullivan on other performers such as the works of Tom Lehrer and Flanders & Swann.

The beautiful Mateus Palace

Both performers were always accessible to chat with cruise guests and to share their personal knowledge and enthusiasm.

When we weren’t enjoying the music, we were out and about discovering some of the beautiful and fascinating highlights that lie along the river Douro and beyond. Saga Travel had included several excursions. Amongst others these were:

Lamego - to see the elaborate Shrine of Our Lady Of Remedies, which is set atop nine steep terraces overlooking the town. We had free time to explore this impressive baroque church and the more adventurous and fittest amongst us had the opportunity to walk down into the city using the ornate staircase. Actually, no mean feat in a record heatwave of 46 degrees, especially as there are around 700 steps! Thankfully we didn’t have to walk up them!

Castelo Rodrigo - a small medieval village with a stunning hilltop location. The village is surrounded by a fortified wall and the view over the valley is dramatic.

The history of the village is also particularly interesting. When the Jews were forced to convert or leave Spain in 1492, a number came to this village. You can see the marks on the houses of Jewish families, as well as the vestiges of a Mikvah (Jewish ritual bathing house).

Quinta do Seixo - After a ‘white knuckle’ coach ride up the mountain, with sheer drops and hairpin bends, we finally arrived in one piece at the Sandeman Port Winery at Quinta do Seixo. Here we enjoyed a tour of the estate, followed by an opportunity to taste two of their port wines. We definitely needed the drink to give us courage to face the coach journey down!

Salamanca – This was a highlight of the excursion programme for many. With its ornate sandstone architecture, Salamanca across the Spanish border, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site particularly famed for its old university buildings of golden-coloured stone and its famous cathedral, built in two parts.

Mateus Palace - Remember Mateus Rose wine and the distinctive shaped bottle? Well, our excursion took us to visit the gardens to the palace, which gave its name and image to the brand and label. Other than that, ironically it has nothing to do with Mateus Rose wine. This is one of the loveliest country houses in Portugal and the immaculately manicured designed gardens hugely impressive and enjoyable.

Porto – Our river cruise journey began and ended in Porto, Portugal’s second largest city. Here we visited yet another port wine manufacturer for the obligatory tasting and had the opportunity of a panoramic coach tour. Despite the horrendous traffic, we still managed to visit both the Cathedral and the famous Porto train station.

The Estacao De Sao Bento, in Porto is listed as one of the most beautiful train stations in the world and attracts many visitors. It is not difficult to see why. The atrium, worth a visit even if you don't have a train to catch, is covered with 20,000 ceramic tiles. These depict scenes of Portugal's history, including various battles and royal events.

Overall cruise verdict? Well the music was first class, the scenery magnificent and there was a wonderfully friendly atmosphere onboard. Additionally, Saga Travel really understand their guests and look after them very well indeed. The arrival and departure day support was excellent and the onboard Saga escort Daniella, literally mothered everyone, always remembering any special needs.

As regards the ship however, this Azul owned vessel chartered by Saga Travel, does not have the gloss, choices and service finesse of some of the more modern river cruise ships, operated by the leading specialist river cruise brands.

Travel Facts:

The Gilbert & Sullivan On The Douro Cruise includes: 7 breakfasts, 6 lunches and 7 dinners, included travel insurance, UK travel service, return flights and transfers, drinks reception and Captain's dinner, entertainment and activities on the ship, expert host, Gilbert & Sullivan talks, five onboard performances from your host and guest musician, Saga Cruise escort on board. Prices from £1549pp departing 31/07/2019 for 7 nights from London Gatwick. Contact: Saga Holidays 0800 300 400 or visit https://travel.saga.co.uk/cruises/river/where-we-go/the-douro/gilbert-and-sullivan-on-the-douro.aspx

Saga also offer general cruises on the Douro and other special interest river cruises too: https://travel.saga.co.uk/holidays/holiday-types/special-interest-holidays/music.aspx

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