A gastronomic river cruise from Aquitaine to Saint-Émilion on Uniworld’s River Royale is ideal for wine lovers, says Julie Peasgood
Less than 10 minutes on board and my sister Lilian is in the throes of a blissful Indian head-and-back massage. The alarmingly good-looking Lucian is giving a public demonstration of his massage skills, a piano is tinkling and I’m sipping the perfect Margarita. As an introduction to the diverse joys of life on board Uniworld’s River Royale, it doesn’t really get any better.
Outside on the quay, Bordeaux is bustling. Children bomb along the boardwalk on scooters, tourists are strolling in the sunshine, while runners and cyclists diligently work off their morning pain au chocolate. In preparation for the gastronomic delights that lie ahead we follow suit, but at a gentler pace so we can appreciate the superb sights this elegant city has to offer.
Our week-long Bordeaux Vineyards and Châteaux cruise begins and ends in Bordeaux. It’s the first year that Uniworld has offered a river cruise to this region and the new itinerary introduces the Garonne and Dordogne rivers and the huge Gironde estuary, where the Gironde river meets the Atlantic. Most of Bordeaux, from the outer boulevards to the romantically named Port of the Moon (the crescent-shaped bend formed by the Garonne) is UNESCO-listed and at 18 square kilometres, it is the largest urban World Heritage site.
A civilized start with Titan’s VIP Home Departure Service (recent winner of the Cruise International award for Best Cruise Product or Service) meant that we weren’t too tired from our journey, so we seized the moment to have an initial exploration. ‘La Belle Endormie’ or ‘Sleeping Beauty’ as Bordeaux was nicknamed – because of the polluted black walls of the city centre – has now been magically transformed by its visionary Mayor, former Prime Minister Alain Juppé. The stunning neoclassical architecture is freshly restored and we took great delight in admiring the magnificent 18th century Place de la Bourse, reflected in the Miroir d’Eau. This Water Mirror, built in 2006, is the world’s biggest reflecting paddling pool – a steaming aquatic feature that is not only a work of art, but also enables visitors to truly walk on water.
We, however, had a sleek, newly remodelled ship to transport us on the water, boasting luxurious beds (including a ‘pillow menu’) in the staterooms, a vast lounge (with complimentary wifi readily available) and a lovely dining room with the welcome option to dine à deux if desired. In true Gallic fashion, considerable importance is given to food on board, with a special signature dinner created by the famous French chef, Philippe Etchebest. This region is, after all, a haven for gourmets; our menus were full of epicurean treats such as truffles from Périgord, foie gras from Gers, Arcachon lobster and oysters from Oléron, which were afforded their own special tasting in the lounge.
On most afternoons there was a wine-tasting in the bottle-lined Claret Room. As with all of the generous food and drink on board this was included, and provided an ideal chance to sample the exceptional local vintages, cleverly matched with complementary cheeses. There are around 200 powerfully pungent varieties available in South West France, and we were encouraged to try our particular selection with cherry marmalade (a curiously successful combination).
But our cruise centred on vineyards and châteaux and here in Aquitaine they certainly dominate the horizon. No fewer than 9,600 honey-coloured châteaux pepper the rolling fields in every direction, surrounded by a sea of emerald green, low-lying vines. Wine has been produced in this region since the 8th century, so it’s no surprise that Bordeaux is known as the capital of international wine production. The roll callof famous names reads like an oenophile’s dream: Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour, Margaux, Petrus, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, Château d’Yquem… giants of the wine world.
Our daily excursions gave us ample time to sample them, with vineyard and cellar visits built in at every turn. Lovers of rich, robust reds had a field day in Château d’Arsac, close to pretty Pauillac, where the fourth-generation winemaker Philippe Raoux is a Bordeaux celebrity. His wine estate contains a breathtaking collection of contemporary art, including massive outdoor sculptures, nestled among the
Médoc-yielding vines. We discovered our own unique ‘wine profile’ here, via a series of blind tastings coupled with a questionnaire. I was rather pleased to find I’m classified as ‘adventurous’ with a soft spot for sweet white wines (which I have to admit is spot-on). We tasted the sweetest of Sauternes in Château de Monbazillac and then savoured more vintages at the 17th century Château d’Arche, where several deliciously heady dessert wines were audaciously teamed with smoked salmon and caramelised chicken.
In between each visit the road snaked its way through tiny picturesque hamlets fringed with flowers and with an extraordinary lack of people – in the countryside especially, all was silent and we hardly saw a soul. The striking villages of the Dordogne were busier, especially Bergerac, thronged with residents enjoying the farmers’ market. We were tempted by flame-coloured gourds and giant bulbs of garlic, but settled on violet ice-cream instead – far more fragrant and consumed in the Place Pélissière, while admiring the 12th century church of St Jacques.
But my favourite destination on this gourmet voyage was Saint-Émilion, built on the top of limestone hills and commanding panoramic views. Saint-Émilion’s narrow, cobbled streets are lined with ancient historic buildings. The steepest of these tiny streets are called Tertres, and trainers or sturdy shoes are mandatory footwear, though they do have handrails – together with wine shops and macaroon parlours to rest in (macaroons are another famous speciality, produced in a rainbow of pastel colours).
In Saint-Émilion we visited the cavernous cellars of a Premier Grand Cru Classé estate to taste some of the region’s most highly-rated wines, including of course the acclaimed wine that bears the village’s name. The wines were exceptional, but so was the monolithic church: a subterranean structure carved out of a single piece of solid rock 700 years ago that would be astonishing above the ground, let alone beneath it.
Back on board the conversation centred, as it did every day, around the sights and scents we had all experienced, with the wonderfully attentive crew always seeming genuinely keen to share our impressions. We returned to the UK with a special respect for the prestigious wines of Bordeaux.
Titan in partnership with Uniworld offers an eight-day Bordeaux Vineyards and Châteaux cruise from March to November 2015. Prices start from £1,399pp* for passengers travelling on 15 March 2015 including international flights, seven nights full board cruise on board River Royale, transfers, excursions with English-speaking guides, unlimited complimentary drinks, gratuities, wifi, taxes and Titan’s Cruise International award-winning VIP Home Departure Service (titantravel.co.uk/0800 988 5867).
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