Bordeaux (France)

A cruise on the waters that court the world's finest wine

Each of the rivers that cross France has its own personality, linked to the land it flows through. The Seine is the undisputed protagonist of the capital, separating - it would be better to say uniting - the two banks of Paris and also marking the route on its way to Normandy followed by the Impressionist masters. The Loire is linked to the breathtaking beauty of the fifty or so châteaux whose foundations it bathes and where much of the country's history has taken place. The Rhône is perhaps the most changeable, with a course that begins in the high peaks of Switzerland, visits the historic cities of Lyon and Avignon, until it reaches the calm waters of the Mediterranean, after fertilising the unusual region of the Camargue with its horses that are born black and grow white and its thousands of flamingos. Also the Rhine, the great European river that bathes the lands of Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and has a brief role in the French Alsace. 

But further south, around Bordeaux, the Garonne, the Dordogne and the Gironde - which is not really a river, but the estuary formed at the mouth of the other two - form a charming ensemble whose waters give prominence, curiously enough, to the best wine in the world: Bordeaux. Following the course of the Garonne and the Dordogne, between the ocean, vineyards, dunes and marshes, you will discover many of the peculiarities of south-west France. Bordeaux, Pauillac, Blaye, Medoc, Saint-Emilion and Cadillac are the illustrious names of the towns that make up an exceptionally rich heritage. They evoke, of course, the French Grands Crus, the châteaux with their world-famous vineyards, the prestigious and welcoming cellars offering excursions full of gustatory promise.

And to enjoy this region, visit dazzling landscapes and cities, savour its wines and gastronomy and, in addition, enjoy a leisurely tour, with everything taken care of and time for culture, activity or rest, there is nothing like embarking on one of the cruises offered from Bordeaux by the company CroisiEurope, the largest river shipping company in Europe. Cruises are attracting a growing number of travellers, and it is the only segment of tourism that continues to grow year on year. Sea travel has many attractions, but can suffer from the monotony and overcrowding demanded by large ships. What is now becoming more popular are river cruises, especially those on Europe's large and small rivers. 

With everything sorted out

The advantages are quite obvious. A river cruise is the most comfortable and carefree way of getting to know other countries, other ways of life. Travelling through Europe, admiring the rich cultures that have grown up in the basins of its rivers, is an experience that is as attractive as it is unforgettable. On board, everything is easy. It is a real holiday at your leisure, enjoying the changing landscape of the banks - vineyards, abbeys, castles, villages - and the river traffic itself. In this area there are many barges, _filadieras_ - small sailing fishing boats named after their shuttle shape - and, from time to time, large 280-metre long ships.

On a cruise, there is no need to pack your bags after each stage.

On the contrary, they have important attractions: visits on foot (as the docks are in the heart of the cities), a more familiar atmosphere, without reaching 200 passengers on the ship, which allows better communication and coexistence with the rest of the passengers, the practical impossibility of getting seasick due to the stability of the riverbeds, etc. And when the crossing is a bit tedious or the weather doesn't agree with you, there is nothing better than a good book, good music or a drink to relax and enjoy your free time. 

In search of great wines

After arriving at the ship, the welcome cocktail and the first contact with the exquisite gastronomy served on board (today it is: Terrine de Gascogne, Magret of duck with Port sauce, served with green beans and _dauphinois_ au gratin, Pont L'Evêque cheese and Dulzura d'Aquitaine, authentic Bordeaux canelé with its scoop of vanilla ice cream and prune cream from Agent, all with Bordeaux wines) and the first (or second) drink in the lounge-bar, you have to get your first taste of the outside cabin, with a small bathroom with shower, TV, wi-fi, air-conditioning. ... and rest peacefully.

The first sailing experience while in this land, naturally, is in search of the great wines, sailing down the Garonne to the Gironde, skirting the Cazeau island and finally arriving at CussacFort-Médoc. In the surprisingly brown waters due to the meeting of fresh water coming down loaded with clay sediments and salt water. A curious phenomenon can also be observed, a sort of tidal wave that gradually occurs twice a day when the natural direction of the river meets the opposite current coming from the sea due to the tides; the movement becomes more pronounced as the river narrows. Numerous eddies can occur in certain places, with unpredictable and often changing currents, which justifies the name given to this estuary, the Gironde.

Also along the banks are picturesque fishing huts with nets dropped into the water, called _carrelets_, in which migratory fish such as sturgeon, eel and their smaller relative, the elver, and lamprey, become entangled. Incidentally, the Gironde estuary can also boast of being the only one in the world where European sturgeons, now protected, go upstream to breed. In the shops of Bordeaux and elsewhere, you can buy the exquisite caviar made from these sturgeons.

Once on land, on the way to the first winery, the landscape is full of vineyards, sometimes very extensive and at other times taking advantage of any bend in the road, even in almost vertical terrain, interspersed between the ocean and the estuary. Many of them keep rose bushes at the edge of the row, as an ornament and as a warning sign against some diseases that are detected earlier in the roses than in the grapes. A mild and humid microclimate has favoured the development of vines for centuries. The Bordeaux region, with almost 120,000 hectares of vineyards, is today home to some 14,000 wine producers and around 9,000 wineries, of which some 7,000 are _châteaux_. The cellars are not always in the form of a château, but there are plenty of them in the area, some with spectacular architecture, such as the Châteaux Lafite Rothschild [4], Latour [5] or Mouton Rothschild [6]. All of them produce some 850 million bottles a year, generating a turnover of 14.5 billion euros. There are 57 controlled designations of origin for Bordeaux wine. 

The 90 hectares of Château Maucaillou [7] in Médoc produce delicate wines of sumptuous colour, with a particularly subtle and pleasantly fruity aromatic power, with very ripe, concentrated, harmoniously balanced, full-bodied and generous flavours, all in finesse and elegance? With more than half Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, which gives the wine a beautiful "dress" of bright and brilliant ruby colour, 41% Merlot, which brings sweetness and body and with a touch of Petit Verdot, a difficult grape variety, which is always harvested at full maturity, which reinforces the body, the colour and the richness in tannins of this magnificent blend.

Between cellars and fortresses

The next route, on the third day of the cruise, leads to the citadel of Blaye along the corniche road, a junction between the stone with which the troglodyte houses are built along it, and the river that fed the fishermen who lived there. This narrow, picturesque road winds along the Gironde and offers a breathtaking panorama of the estuary. You will discover old fishermen's houses, their huts on stilts in the water and remarkable dwellings nestled in the heart of the cliff. 

From the viewpoint of Bourg you will enjoy a breathtaking view of the Gironde, and in Halle and you will be able to taste the Bourg fig, a local speciality and the famous "praslines de Blaye", a French version of sugared almonds. On the way back to Blaye, where the famous Roland of the Song and of Roncesvalles is believed to be buried, you should tour the impressive citadel built by Sébastien Le Prestre, Lord of Vauban, as a real closed city to protect Bordeaux from maritime invasions, situated on a rocky promontory 35 metres high which was already highlighted by the Romans and then the Dukes of Aquitaine, in 1685, who had their castle there.

The whole ensemble is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After enjoying once again the comforts and gastronomic luxuries of CroisiEurope (this time it's leek quiche for dinner, Veal Bourguignon with bible kase sauce, accompanied by its fondant apples and carrot duo, Saint Nectaire cheese and peach and apricot hors d'oeuvres), a small musical party organised by the crew themselves and a restorative night, you have to get ready for the next day, with one of the highlights of the cruise: Saint-Émilion. 

Majestic towers and troglodyte church

A delightful medieval village, full of charm, located in the heart of the famous Bordeaux vineyards, Saint-Emilion is unique for the importance of its wine-growing properties, the quality of its wines and the majesty of its architecture and monuments. A town steeped in history perched on a rocky promontory, with its steep streets lined with old houses. Saint-Emilion and its vineyards draw their originality from the limestone that has shaped its identity. The harmonious work of nature and man, the landscapes of Saint-Emilion are unique testimonies to history. 

In 1999, for the first time in the world, its vineyard was inscribed on the World Heritage List by Unesco, which considers Saint-Emilion to be "a remarkable example of a historic wine-growing landscape that has survived intact" and continues its activity today. Saint-Emilion also owes its fame to its great diversity of wines, which is explained by a remarkable geological diversity (limestone, clay-limestone, gravel and sandy soil) and a microclimate perfectly adapted to viticulture. This combination, together with the meticulous care given to the vines by professionals, provides the ideal conditions for the nurturing and ripening of Merlot, the dominant grape variety. 

The medieval village, full of charm, stands proudly on a rocky promontory, and will delight lovers of ancient stones, who can delight in wandering its steep streets lined with old houses and wine shops. From the top of the King's Tower, an imposing 13th century keep, there is a beautiful view over the rooftops and vineyards of Saint-Émilion. An unmissable visit is the exceptional 11th century troglodyte complex whose most original monument is undoubtedly the monolithic church. Entirely carved out of the limestone rock, it is the largest in Europe in terms of size.

Gourmets and gourmets will be able to enjoy a great certified and world-renowned broth or the delicious _macarons_, handmade since 1620 by the nuns of the Ursuline convent of Saint-Émilion, which have nothing to do with the colourful ones you can find everywhere. The old-fashioned macaroon has a round shape and an uncovered golden colour, with a soft, delicate texture and a distinct almond flavour. This handmade sweet, made without colouring or preservatives, is composed of sweet and bitter almonds, fresh egg whites and sugar. 

Of course, a visit to Saint-Emilion is not complete without a visit to a new winery, in this case Château Pontet-Canet [8]. Perched on the heights of the Pauillac appellation, it now reigns over a vineyard of 81 hectares, managed entirely according to biodynamic principles since the 2004 harvest. The Domaine is thus a forerunner and a reference in the world of Bordeaux Grands Crus Classés. The grape varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon (62%), Merlot (32%), Cabernet Franc (4%) and Petit Verdot (2%). They are planted on magnificent gravelly soils containing in some places deep clay-limestone substratum. Château Pontet-Canet rightly has a huge following, as its history rewards the work of a bold gamble; the wines have a wonderful vibrancy of fruit, depth and harmony and are simply divine.

And finally, Bordeaux

After the visit to Saint-Emilion and after seeing the villages of Bourg and Bec d'Ambès at the confluence of the Dordogne and Garonne, the cruise continues to Bordeaux where you will arrive at the end of the morning. There is not much time to get to know this fantastic city, although you can always extend your stay after the cruise. It is well worth it because there is so much to see. 

Bordeaux, the capital of New Aquitaine and gateway to the region, is dense in history and dynamism, a city with a rich heritage, numerous sites and monuments - historical or modern -, with a traditional and typical art de vivre. Its historic centre has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2007. It has more than 350 buildings listed or inscribed on the list of historic monuments. 

The Place de la Bourse, in front of a monumental building almost three centuries old which is the quintessential example of 18th century French architecture, houses the current Chamber of Commerce, the National Customs Museum and a captivating sculpture called 'Three Graces', but what is most striking is the city's main attraction, the Miroir d'Eau, the most photographed place in Bordeaux, the work of landscape architect Michel Corajoud, which alternates extraordinary water mirror and mist effects. The regular metamorphosis of 2 cm of water on a gigantic granite slab transforms the magical place into a permanent stage for children to play, for lovers to daydream, for refreshing walks in hot weather with their feet in the water.

There's much more to see and do in this ever-changing city than gaze at the outside and if you can catch some of the opera, dance and musical performances inside the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, an impressive mid-18th century neoclassical building. Not far away is the cathedral, originally built in the Romanesque style in the early 11th century, and witness to France's turbulent history, which houses an impressive art collection dating from the 14th to 17th centuries. Equally close by is the Museum of Aquitaine which, through a variety of exhibitions, provides an insight into the history of Bordeaux and its region from the Stone Age to the 19th century. The site also includes collections that reflect on French colonialism and the relationship between Bordeaux and the slave trade. 

And for a change of theme and an insight into the city, nothing beats a visit to the Marché des Quais, the perfect place to discover and sample fresh produce and culinary specialities from the Bordeaux region. Held every Sunday on the Quai des Chartrons, north of the city centre, the Marché des Quais offers all kinds of delicacies, including oysters, crêpes, cheeses, cured meats, wines and other delicacies that can be sampled on the spot. And if you're looking for a different kind of shopping, the pedestrianised Rue Sainte-Catherine is the most famous shopping street in the centre of Bordeaux. Stretching for over a kilometre from the Place de la Comédie to the Place de la Victoire, it is considered one of the longest pedestrian streets in Europe, with an endless choice of boutiques, shops and malls, and bars and restaurants mingling with the shops for a break.

Two essential visits

Further away from the centre are two of Bordeaux's new icons. The Cité du Vin de Bordeaux [9] is a state-of-the-art cultural centre, unique in the world, where wine is present in its cultural, civilisation, heritage and universal dimensions. The Cité du Vin pays tribute to vineyards from all over the world through a permanent tour, temporary exhibitions, cultural workshops and numerous events. One advantage is that the entrance ticket includes a wine tasting of a choice of around twenty varieties. 

A walk of almost a kilometre along the old harbour quay, which also houses the yacht club and dozens of sailing boats and their warehouses converted into trendy restaurants, bars and art galleries, leads to an unusual place: a former World War II bunker used as a submarine base for Bordeaux. Interestingly, it was built by Spanish Republican prisoners under Nazi orders, and a simple monument at the entrance commemorates it. 

The digital art centre Les Bassins de Lumières [10] offers immersive exhibitions based on visual and sound projections that in the almost dark interior and with the water that housed the submarines acting as a mirror for the projections are spectacular. After the success throughout 2022 of the exhibition dedicated to Joaquín Sorolla, two other universal Spaniards are the protagonists of 2023. From 4 February, the exhibition is dedicated to Dalí and Gaudí, through an artistic proposal imagined by Gianfranco Iannuzzi. "Dalí, the Endless Enigma" and "Gaudí, Architect of the Imaginary".

With the memory still fresh of the last gala evening on board the Cyrano de Bergerac and the succulent menu which included a Cappuccino De Champignons shot, a delicious duck Foie gras reinterpreted with truffle, the fillet of quail with trumpets of death, accompanied by vegetables, the rare and exquisite Cabécou grilled cheese on salad and the inevitable dessert Alaska or Norwegian omelette flambéed with Grand Marnier and presented as a torch with a torch; accompanied by its vegetable garnish, the rare and exquisite roasted Cabécou cheese on salad and the inevitable dessert Alaska or Norwegian omelette flambéed with Grand Marnier and presented like a torch to all the passengers who are already beginning to say goodbye. But not forever, there will be another chance on board CroisiEurope. 

Practical guide

The cruise described, six days/five nights, in the summer months costs from 1,125 euros per person with all meals from dinner on the first day to breakfast on the last, with refined French cuisine, all drinks included on board in the dining room and at the bar, accommodation in double outside cabin with full bathroom, entertainment, assistance on board, welcome cocktail, gala evening, assistance/repatriation insurance, free Wifi on board, individual headsets during the excursions with translation and port taxes. There are several other cruises in the same area with different duration. 

Information and reservations: 

Tel.: +34 912 952 497 

Author: Enrique Sancho

Photos credits: Carmen Cespedosa and Croisieurope

Agency: Open Comunicación

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