Travel Story Cruising France: A river feast to be savoured, slowly

Photo of Niall McIlroy

There are historic chateaux, fine wines and much more on an eight-day Viking river cruise from Bordeaux. 

Well, this is a sight for sore eyes.

After travelling 27 hours around the world, I’ve stepped into what will be my room for the next seven nights and I have to say, it’s more than just the ticket.

Before me is a light and airy cabin, clean and uncluttered — all light wood and subtly placed downlights.

I resist the urge to collapse on to the queen-sized bed which faces a 40-inch TV and a bottle of red wine from Blaye. I’m soon to find out that makes it finer than a Bordeaux red.

Bordeaux is the very city I can see through the floor-to-ceiling windows that lead on to my balcony, a comfortable sitting area for two.

I’m looking forward to the views each morning brings as I embark on an eight-day Chateaux, Rivers and Wine cruise round trip from Bordeaux on longship Viking Forseti.

The vessel is one of 51 identical longships Viking launched between 2012 and 2016 (it broke its own world record launching 16 ships over 24 hours in 2016). 

And it is on these rivers, where it plies its most popular cruises, that most passengers first experience Viking. But my experience has been a little aft about face. For, before this, I sailed on the group’s first ocean ship, Viking Star. Bracing North Sea winds and a grand entry into beautiful Bergen harbour after eating like a chieftain for days left a lasting impression and not just on my waistline.

Now, safely ensconced in my cabin, I’m keen to see if that relaxed Scandinavian elegance I enjoyed on big Viking Star has a home on 190-passenger Viking Forseti.

It’s so far so very good with the cabin. And happily the Aquavit Terrace, a more informal restaurant on the bow where wraparound glass doors retract to add an alfresco area, is a staple across the fleet on both ocean and river. After three flights, I’m in need of fresh air and a bite to eat and I head up to the Aquavit to enjoy French bread and beef carbonade with a glass of Kronenberg beer.

What a perfect way to unwind. Viking Forseti slides smoothly along the Garonne, hybrid engines barely raising a putter as Bordeaux forms a guard of honour; a basilica spire glitters gold against black and the gaudy neon of a fun fair smudges the Garonne in defiance of the neoclassical facade of the Place de la Bourse.

“This is the secret up here,” Ron Topham from Long Branch, New Jersey remarks. “Keep it a secret,” a passenger from Portland, Oregon laughs.

I’ve a feeling it won’t be the last evening I spend up on the terrace.

I was in Bordeaux two years ago and it was hotter than the sun. Temperatures in the mid-40s were the highest in more than a century but this morning the Garonne laps idly beneath a murky sky.

It’s 12C — some would call that cold but with the temperature set to rise to 16C— I call it one of the major benefits of the shoulder season in these parts — the weather is mild and fares are cheaper.

The clocks wound back an hour this morning, giving me an extra hour’s sleep when it was most needed. I’d been concerned when I saw my stateroom was next to reception but I never heard a peep.

Breakfast in the main dining room is a bit of a treat. It’s skewed towards US travellers, I haven’t heard any other accent so far, with an unchanging main menu of buttermilk pancakes or French toast, oats with fruit, cinnamon, nuts or honey, eggs done four ways and the usual bacon, sausages, mushrooms, tomato, potato and mueslis as well as bread, muffins and Danish pastries.

The morning star is burly Polish chef Marek. He manfully juggles requests from passengers whipping and flipping them into beautifully cooked omelettes and he beams when we tell him how good they are.

One thing the cabin lacks is tea and coffee-making facilities. But at the top of Forseti’s glass-encased, two storey-atrium and flanking the library and internet area are two tea and coffee stations with different brews and a selection of muffins and pastries and it becomes a morning routine to get a cup of coffee and enjoy the view at the heart of this stylish ship.

It’s important to note that days on the river can be rather busy. On Viking itineraries, there’s often at least one included tour each day and, having paid good money, you may feel obliged to join as many as you can. Unlike on the bigger cruise ships, vessels such as Forseti only have one or two restaurants and certainly no big movie theatres or ice rinks so unless you’re happy to read on deck or just to sleep, you’ll want to disembark and see some of Europe.

There’s plenty of room, too, on each of the fleet of Viking coaches that take us into the heart of Bordeaux for a morning’s sightseeing.

The Place de la Bourse shows its full beauty with the Three Graces fountain in full flow. The scent of autumn leaves mixes with the smell of kebab meat from the fair next to the Places des Quinconces, said to be Europe’s biggest town square.

The pace is rather sedate, most of my fellow passengers are much older and less mobile than myself — there are always some who stay on the coach rather than taking part in the short walks which are guided with commentary through a “quiet vox” earpiece system.

Bordeaux Cathedral is so vast that there’s always a part of it under repair. In 1137, 15-year-old Eleanor of Aquitaine crossed its threshold to marry Louis VII. Within six months they were king and queen of the Franks. She later married Henry II and Aquitaine fell under English control for 300 years. The English rapidly expanded the wine trade from Bordeaux to ports such as Southampton, changing the fortunes of this region forever.

We visit Cadillac later that afternoon but the tidal Garonne is so low we have to board coaches for the 40km journey south. 

The tiny bastide merchant town was built in 1280 and rapidly grew into a centre of the wine trade. Half of its gates and towers still encircle cobblestone streets, the 15th century church of St Blaise and a small castle ringed by a deep moat. 

A local gadabout and 17th century explorer Antoine de la Mothe, who dubbed himself Sire of Cadillac, set off for the colony of New France in North America and founded a fur-trading settlement which became Detroit. It was his adopted name the Detroit-based founders of Cadillac Motor Company took in 1902.

That’s not the only US connection in these parts. We visit the tiny appellation of Sauternes near where the river Ciron trickles into the Garonne. Every autumn, mist from those waters promotes the growth of a fungus known as “noble rot” which produces sweetened grapes which are made into a dessert wine so highly regarded that presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were fans.

Back aboard after a busy day, I’m enjoying the genial atmosphere up at the Viking Lounge. Comfortable sofas and conversation, fine views and a glass of wine add to the air of contentment as a pianist plays gentle melodies.

Although drinks are included with meals, many passengers have bought a Silver Spirits beverage package which entitles them to just about anything with alcohol. The lounge is the place to be of an evening — it hosts bands and port talks and there’s much fun to be had at the late-night wine-tasting class.

After a French lesson and some cheese tasting, I climb on to the sun deck which stretches the length of the ship to watch as Viking Forseti cruises south-east on to the wide Dordogne River. Passing rocky banks, stilted fishing shacks and the occasional stately chateau we dock at Libourne for an afternoon exploring the 1250-year-old village of Saint-Emilion which seems etched into a hillside.

By the third day of the cruise it occurs to me that those relaxed evenings in the open air served by a terrific crew who’ve learnt our favourite drinks and serve us from the Aquavit menu or the dining room selection means I’ve only taken main meals on the terrace. 

It’s a little windy so I make amends in the dining room enjoying Spanish potato omelette and lasagne al forno with a lovely house wine.

That crew and the atmosphere they evoke really does make Viking Forseti a happy ship. One lovely afternoon, I take advantage of a few hours of sailing to relax up on the sun deck. Soon there are about 30 passengers, mixing and sharing stories.

There’s a real resort feel except this one had a rather tasty side serving of truffle-infused ham, baked pate, manchego, camembert and Roquefort and fresh bread. Then at 3pm it’s French tea time with cakes, macarons, little sandwiches and tea and coffee with cognac and cream. 

North of the confluence of the Garonne and the Dordogne is the gaping Gironde Estuary.

At 3km wide it is the biggest in Europe and on its east bank I enjoy exploring the Citadel of Blaye. Blaye’s cannons could reach estuarine islands half a mile away where the armaments could in turn fire as far as the opposite bank where there is a fort at Medoc. Thus this entry to the world’s most lucrative wine region was protected despite being on the edge of Europe. 

It is in Medoc in the appellation of Margaux that we enjoy a three-course meal of onion soup and duck and veal paired with great wine in the Chateau de Kirwan which dates back to 1751.

Back in Bordeaux for another day in this glorious city, I’m on my veranda. It’s only now that I realise I’ve barely used it for Viking Forseti has so many fine vantage points and it’s been more rewarding to share the scenery with other passengers.

As I sit watching the sun glinting off the Garonne, I toast Cadillac’s little castle, the citadel at Blaye, the hill-carved town at St Emilion, the serpentine Dordogne and the wide and windy Gironde Estuary. Much has been learnt and enjoyed. I just wish I could go round again.

Fact File

Disclaimer

Niall McIlroy was a guest of Viking River Cruises.

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