A River Cruise In The Douro Valley – The Perfect Day Trip From Porto

Rabelo boat on the Douro River near Pinhao

If you’re spending more than a couple days in Porto, one of the absolute must-dos is to take a day trip 1.5hrs east to the Douro Valley. The region is teeming with beauty as you pass by terraced hills looking over the winding Douro River. If you have a car, you can stop as you see fit, with plenty of options. We wanted to delve into the winemaking history of this UNESCO-protected region, so we opted for a guided tour that picked us up in downtown Porto one morning.

We met our guide, Nuno, in front of a theater at 8:20am and boarded a passenger van with two other couples. The van seemed newer and had a comfortable ride, even over the cobblestone streets of downtown Porto.

Nuno has great energy from when we first meet him and can talk about any subject. At the beginning of the ride, he gave a solid overview of what to expect for the day and invited any questions about the experience, Porto, or the drive. I was in the back, back seat (apparently everyone else in the tour had some form of motion sickness except me…) so I nodded off to the rumble of the engine and having no coffee in my system yet.

The Douro River from Pinhão
Pinhão was our first stop.

When I woke up, I realized I had been transported to a beautiful land of rolling hills of green and tan, marbled by the emerging autumn tones of the changing grape vines. The hills weren’t tall, but they were grand. Terraced and purposeful, the land seemed to be used very efficiently.

Our first stop was Pinhão, a parish of 600 people that is really the jumping point to the Douro Valley. While the town is small, we stopped for a bathroom break and grabbed some espresso to get the wheels turning. This was also our first chance to experience a breathtaking view while not in motion.

We were led around the corner and to the docks where we boarded a revamped boat decorated with wood from old port barrels. We started our cruise down the Douro River as our boat guide, Antonio, walked us through the quintas that we passed and the history of making wine in the region. It was super fascinating how this area really shouldn’t produce grapes, but through a collection of two really important rocks and the ingenuity of the local people in terms of grafting and plant sectioning turned it into one of the most famous regions in the world.

Back in the van and across an incredibly narrow two-way bridge (seriously, we were brushing cheeks with the oncoming truck drivers,) our next stop was Quinta de S. Luiz, the oldest wine estate in the region, and home of the Kopke brand, established in 1638. Since the Douro Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, everything must remain the same year after year. You can’t change names; you can’t even grow different plants in a section without permission. Our host here walked us around the property and talked about when and how the grapes were harvested. Despite being a big name company with a lot of brands under them, they only had 25 people (8 of whom were permanent employees) to harvest their grapes in a year. Because of the way the hills are terraced, most of the labor is still done by hand with minimal tractor help.

We were led back inside the building to see these enormous vats of wine that were being aged for upwards of three decades and then into a room above the bottle shop where we got our first tasting of the day (second if you include the drink on the boat.) Our host led us through four different ports and how they were different and how vintage years were especially important (these are years when everything turned out just right from humidity to rainfall to sunlight to seasonal changes.)

I am incredibly surprised how affordable port is with how much goes into making it.

We loaded into the van and drove towards our next stop, a small family run wine estate, Quinta dos Mattos, to show the difference between a big company like Kopke and a smaller localized operation. We were treated to a nice lunch – Rachel and I both had Chilean seabass, but most others in the group had wild boar and risotto. Our table was given a couple bottles of wine and once I realized we were fully expected to finish the bottles, my glass magically emptied itself over and over just to be refilled again.

The final course was a chocolate cake paired with a 10-year old tawny port. The combination was amazing!

After our indulging was finished, we were led to the wine cellar where we were given a demonstration on how to properly taste port (from the bottom of your mouth, to the top, then to the back) and how to spot a port that’s been mixed with another bottle.

During our drive back to Porto, everyone was warm and happy and Nuno continued to give us advice about his city, which we would use later in deciding on a place for dinner. The daytrip was incredible and probably our favorite single thing we did in Portugal. I can’t recommend it enough and really hope you get the chance to experience it yourself in the future.

Can I Travel With An Expiring Passport In 2021?

Finally. As COVID-19 vaccinations roll out and infection rates plateau or drop (we’re not here to talk about the Delta variant today), borders are opening and countries are starting to allow U.S. tourists in again. We spent over a year off of planes and trains, waiting… waiting… waiting for travel to become a thing again. Now we’re ready to dust off our favorite backpack, purchase some round-trip tickets, and uh oh – your passport expires this year.

My passport expires after my trip, that doesn’t matter, right?

Actually, it does. Depending on where you’re going, the destination country may require your passport to be valid for a specific amount of time after your departure date. Take for instance, the Schengen Area which requires a U.S. passport to be valid for 3-months after your ticket home. For a country like Mexico, it’s recommended that your passport be valid for at least 6-months to avoid the potential for not being allowed in, although their immigration officers may let you through with proof of a short stay and a return ticket (ie. vacation).

Okay, fine. How long does it take to renew?

According to the U.S. State Department website, the current timeframe for a routine renewal is 18-weeks from day of submission. This doesn’t include the time for the original passport to be delivered through the notoriously backed up U.S. Postal Service.

For an additional $60 (don’t forget to write “Expedite” on your envelope), you can get that quickened to a 12-week timeframe. This accounts for 6-weeks of processing and 6-weeks of mailing. One to two day shipping is also available for about $18. If you forget to do this or want to add it later, you can call a dedicated phone number and they’ll email you a form to send back with what services you want and your credit card information. Unfortunately, this could take 4-weeks to process.

Wow, that’s a long time, but it shouldn’t take that long (or worse).

There are currently (as of late-July 2021) over 2 million passport applications – both new and renewal – that are sitting in limbo waiting for processing. To make matters worse, due to COVID, the State Department has had severe staff shortages across the country, which are thankfully being addressed.

With the considerable backlog and slow staffing response, it could take every minute of those 12 and 18-week timeframes to get your passport back (if not longer).

Is Somebody Doing Something About This?

People around the country have been voicing their concerns and criticisms to their legislators about the delay that is keeping people from going on vacation, arranging business trips, or seeing loved ones. Bipartisan legislation was introduced to solve this problem. The hiccup? It gives the current administration 30-days to present a plan and another 30-days to implement it. Not much help for the people currently in the long queue asking themselves “will it, or won’t it.”

What Can I Do?

The simplest thing you can do is be patient and hopeful. The State Department website offers a tracking service that will tell you if your passport is still being processed or if it’s been approved.

If you still haven’t received your passport and you’re supposed to be traveling internationally within 72-business hours, you can try to schedule an in-person appointment, though these are severely limited and you have to play the dreaded “hold” game since appointments are offered only over the phone. To clarify, you can start calling for an appointment with 2-weeks to go until your trip, but the appointment has to be within 3-business days.

Your last option is to purchase travel insurance that will cover some of the money you may need to recoup. Unfortunately, most insurances won’t cover a missing passport as part of its base plan, so you’ll have to find a company that offers (and opt in) for a Cancel For Any Reason policy. This usually adds on about 40% to the cost of the base insurance plan and pays back anywhere between 50-75% of the trip cost (you have to purchase 2-3 weeks after your first trip purchase) but that’s better than losing everything!

In the past, I’ve used World Nomads for my travel insurance company; however, they don’t offer a Cancel For Any Reason policy, so I have since switched over to Trawick International – the same company that I had gone with for our failed Costa Rica trip due to their great COVID coverage. You must purchase the travel insurance no more than 21 days after your first trip deposit; anything older than that will not be covered. Other companies that offer the policy include AIG and Travel Safe, but feel free to check with your normal travel insurance provider.

Thanks for reading and safe travels!

Are The Gondolas Of Venice Worth It?

Venice was nothing like I expected. One of the most famous cities in the world, I had imagined a thriving metropolis with all of the usual characters – traffic, brand names, and bumbling crowds. Instead, I was met with what become one of my favorite cities in the world.

With a population of about 60,000 living in the city (260,000 in the surrounding metropolis), it’s fairly small which gives it the ability to retain its charm, which it does very will by winding you through alleyways and side streets, over bridges, letting you duck into cafés and pizzerias along your path to nowhere – a labyrinth with no end, just more. There are no cars in the city, so all of the traffic is made up of pedestrians, and thankfully, they stick to St. Mark’s Square and the surrounding area.

The Campanile is one of the icons of the city and the clocktower is in the back, over the archway.

While busy, the Piazza San Marco is a fantastic place to sight-see. Dominating the east side of the square is St. Mark’s Basilica, a Roman Catholic church that showcases Byzantine architecture. The church is flanked to the north by St. Mark’s Clocktower, which hangs above a busy throughfare. Freestanding in the square is St. Mark’s Campanile, a bell tower that began as a needed watchtower in the 10th century, before reaching its current height in the 1500’s. Due to a poor foundation, the tower fell in 1902 after some repairmen noticed the shifting of bricks while they worked. Closest to the docks is Doge’s Palace, a gothic palace that used to be the political center of the Venetian Republic. (Despite the efforts of Elon Musk, this Doge will not be going to the moon.)

The square was a nice place to relax with a group of friends and drink a couple bottles of wine and people watch. We had arrived in the late morning after waking up early to visit a glassblowing workshop in Murano, a set of islands that are about a 20 minute ferry ride north of Venice.

Traditional Glass Blowing In Murano
Murano is known for its glasswork.

As we lost ourselves in the back alleys of the city, we stopped for lunch and I ordered a Margherita pizza, perplexed to see that I had to cut it with a fork and knife instead of the rolling cutter I’m accustomed to in the U.S.

After refueling, we made our way across some more bridges until we found a gentleman waiting at the base of one of the bridges, offering gondola rides. The going rate starts at €80, getting you a 40+ minute ride around the side canals. While the price tag is hefty, this is the picture of Venice that you think of. This is what it is famous for. My friends and I took turns playing musical chairs around the boat, each getting an opportunity to see the city from the front and rear (snapping posed shots for Instagram, of course.) The water is surprisingly dirty. I couldn’t see more than a few inches below the top of the green-blue waterway. The tide was fairly low when I had gone; you could see indicators on the sides of buildings where water had risen before, some several feet higher than where the water was currently.

The canals of Venice. Notice the water marks on the buildings from high tides.

The city has a new Mose system, a series of 78 floodgates that block water from coming in from the Adriatic Sea. This is especially important after the November, 2019 floods that destroyed hundreds of millions of euros worth of houses, businesses, and monuments.

As we floated on, we passed many other gondolas which had an impressive way of acknowledging right-of-way with calling out, singing, and simple gestures. The gondoliers were all very positive, friendly, and seemed to enjoy their days of transporting countless tourists around the waterways of the city. I was keeping my eye out for Marco Polo’s house and the building that Daniel Craig chased Eva Green to in Casino Royale.

Venice is an incredible city. It has a perfect blend of sight-seeing, a laid-back atmosphere, and hidden gems to enjoy. Have you been to Venice? What did you think?

Famous for its maze of canals, the city has inspired nicknames for other cities that you may be interested in:

Unexpected News

I was going to post this either on my birthday (end of June) or as my 50th post, but sometimes things don’t work out as planned. Case in point…

I was diagnosed as diabetic at the end of April, 2021 and confirmed as Type-1 at the beginning of June. This, obviously, puts a new obstacle in between me and my ever-developing passion for travel and learning what the world can offer.

You will see my posts shift in the future to focus more on how I plan to overcome this setback and continue to see new places and people. I realized that not a lot of information exists for those traveling carb-consciously and I am determined to learn to live with this disease in a positive manner and provide help to others who may be in a similar situation.

Just wanted to keep you in the loop and I look forward to more safe travels in the near future. *hint, hint, it’s on a peninsula known for great food and dance*

Iceland – Reykjavík

In case you missed it…

After dropping Anna off at the airport, we made our way back towards Reykjavík, the capital city of Iceland and home to about 2/3 of the country’s population. We were going to be here for just one night before heading off to Akureyri for a few days and returning for another night before our flight home.

Hallgrimskirkja Church.

Our Airbnb was about 20 minutes outside of the city center, nestled in a quiet neighborhood with a lane divider meaning you had to come down the street going the correct direction or make a dramatic loop around the needlessly large block to be able to access the driveway.

In order to lengthen our funds, we decided to head to the local Bónus supermarket and get some ingredients to make spaghetti, since the place we were staying had a full kitchen. While I made dinner, Rachel had started on doing some laundry. We had picked this particular Airbnb because it had a washer and dryer, which meant we could cut our packed clothes in half.

Clearly, we don’t understand how European washers work…

After starting to run our clothes through the wash, we noticed that the wash cycle never ended. Eventually, we had to force the washer to stop, never figuring out how to put it through a drain cycle, so when we opened the door, the clothes were sitting in a puddle of water. I tried for a little while to Google the model of the washer and tried to figure it out but in the end, we had to improvise. Rachel and I created an assembly line, where I fished the clothes out of the washer, ringing them out before passing them to her to ring them out further in the shower and putting them into the dryer. We continued this for the entire load, minus the few items that we had to hang dry around the room (like merino wool base layers.)

After the adventure that was laundry, we wanted to explore downtown with the remaining daylight that was available. We hopped back in our Kia and made the quick drive to a parking lot outside of the Hallgrimskirkja Church.

The Hallgrimskirkja Church dominates the iconic skyline that we associate with Reykjavik. Its design was inspired by the basalt columns that decorate the country’s volcanic landscape and sits atop a hill that overlooks the whole city and harbor. The church took a relatively long time to build. The local parish started looking for designs in the 1920s before an architect was selected and construction began in 1945; however, the church’s construction didn’t finish until 1986, thirty-six years after the death of the original designer.

Me and my boy, Leif.

While the majestic spire steals your attention at first, the building does offer much more. The front door is large and beautiful, decorated with imagery and text. In front of the church is a statue of Leif Erikson, the Nordic explorer thought to have been the first European to have set foot in North America. The statue was gifted to Iceland by the United States in 1930 as a commemmoration of the 1,000th anniversary of Iceland’s first parliament meeting at Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir in English) which also happens to be the oldest parliament in the world.

After making Rachel take a lot a couple pictures of me posing in front of Leif Erikson, we wandered into the city, choosing one of the many streets that lead away from the church into the shopping and restaurant district of the city. We wandered the streets, popping into souvenir shops and bookstores and a cool Viking-inspired shop that sold carved axes and jewelry.

Rye bread ice cream.

Wanting a break from the mild climb of the hilly roads, we stopped in the famous Kaffi Loki. I got a local beer and we split a rye bread ice cream complete with cream and a tasty rhubarb syrup. It was delicious! This took us towards the end of the night and we were back near our car so we headed back to our Airbnb for the night to rest before heading up to Akureyri.

On our way back through, at the end of our trip, we stopped for another night in Reykjavik. The morning of our flight home, we had a few extra hours to go back to the city where we were able to see the Sun Voyager sculpture, a symbol of freedom and hope.

Sun Voyager looking over Mt. Esja.

Reykjavik is a wonderful city and I cannot wait to go back. Do you have any can’t miss spots in Iceland or is it on your bucket list? Let me know in the comments below.