Viking river cruises’ Chateaux, Rivers and Wine itinerary offers a real education in French wine. Cruise Trade News joined a group of agents to savour the highlights.
Bordeaux has a nickname…
La Belle Endormie, which means “Sleeping Beauty”. This emerged when the city’s historic facades turned black with pollution and the riverbank became an industrial wasteland. “It was a sad town,” says our French guide Virginie, recalling the years she spent growing up here. “My mother told me, don’t go by the river, it’s not safe.”
I barely recognize the city she is describing. Thanks to a forward-thinking mayor and civic investment, the Sleeping Beauty has well and truly awoken and Viking’s seven-night Chateaux, Rivers & Wine cruise gives us ample time to become acquainted.
For two nights we are moored on the Garonne, within walking distance of Bordeaux’s classical beating heart. The river area, now revitalised, is teeming with cyclists, joggers and pedestrians. But with the highest concentration of bars and restaurants per capita of all France, there’s no need to go anywhere in a hurry.
Another piece of trivia we learn, Bordeaux has more protected buildings than any other city in France except Paris. Many date back to the 18th century, when Bordeaux was the second richest city in Europe. The Museum of Aquitaine lifts the lid on this dynamic period when maritime trade propelled the port to the heart of global commerce, but also relays a darker tale at the crossroads of the global slave trade.
History lovers will find plenty to savour in this cruise – Bordeaux is the regional capital of Aquitaine, and Eleanor of Aquitaine is a recurring character in the narrative. She inherited a vast estate aged 15, which made her the most sought-after bride of the Middle Ages. Our walking tour takes us to the cathedral where she married a future king of France; later she remarried and became queen of England. Henry I was 12 years her junior. “She was the original cougar,” jokes Sarah, another of Viking’s stunningly informative guides.
Wine is another draw. The Bordeaux region has more than 8,000 wine-producing chateaux, generating 700 million bottles a year.
An excursion, one of six guided tours included in the cruise price, covers Sauternes and Cadillac. As we make our way by coach to Chateaux d’Arche to fill our glasses with award-winning wine, guide Barbara fills our heads with facts. Most of Bordeaux’s wine is red (88%); 10% is dry white wine and just 2% is sweet white wine. The combined output contributes 1.5% of the world’s overall wine production.
“It’s very high quality wine. That’s why it’s so well known,” she explains.
Standing amid the vines we learn that a noble rot is responsible for the ambrosial nectar in our glass. Botrytis Cinerea causes the grapes to shrivel up, intensifying the sugar content of the Sauternes wine.
Our wine education continues when we rejoin Viking Forseti. After dinner one night, all are invited to a wine tasting with guest educator, Janice Brooks.
We try some of the different Bordeaux varieties and learn the art of wine tasting – looking and smelling isn’t just for show; it’s an integral part of the process. She tests our new-found knowledge with a game of heads or tails.
Activities like this after dinner – there’s a French lesson another night – are included in the fare. All onboard food is provided too, along with house wine from the Bordeaux region, handy for those keeping an eye on budget.
There is a choice of venue for meals. Aquavit Lounge is less formal, for continental breakfast; a lighter buffet-style lunch; and a bar menu for dinner. The main Restaurant offers a breakfast buffet and omelette station; more choice at lunch; and an a la carte French inspired dinner. Seating is open and times are relaxed, but the majority drift into dinner when the daily briefing ends at 7pm.
Forseti is one of Viking’s Longships, with 95 staterooms and an intimate, social feel. When we step inside from the cold after excursions, the staff greet us with smiles, and the atrium-style lobby feels like home.
The interior design takes its cues from Viking’s Scandinavian roots with lots of natural light and a neutral colour theme.
The observation lounge, with a bar as its centrepiece, is the social hub in the evening, and when we sail from Bordeaux to Libourne, its floor to ceiling windows give clear views of rickety boat houses and grand chateaux with lawns that extend to the water’s edge.
Our fam trip group disembarks in Libourne – we’re doing a taster cruise, and not the full week.
As the regular guests look forward to medieval St Emilion and oyster-tasting in Arcachon and we head to the airport, I feel like I’m missing out.
I’ve developed a taste for this intoxicating region. And I’m not just talking about the wine.