With the debut of cruises this year by both Viking River and Uniworld, Bordeaux, near France’s southwest coast, is the newest river itinerary for mainstream lines in Europe. Like France’s Seine, which offers Paris-based trips, and the Rhone, which trawls through Provence, the experience is highly food and wine influenced (absolutely a good thing!), and of course also pays homage to the art, culture and history of the region.
After almost a week onboard Viking River’s Viking Forseti, I now know two things. The city of Bordeaux is just about the most gorgeous city in Europe, both cosmopolitan and convivial (it’s been dubbed “little Paris” for good reason). And my bucket list has now expanded to include a week’s stay in a farmhouse in one of the delightful villages I’ve explored.
Bordeaux cruises are a bit different than other European rivers like the Rhine and even the Rhone. They traverse three different waterways (the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers and the Gironde Estuary) but actually don’t travel all that far. We spent more time docked in one place (fortunately that one place was the beautiful Bordeaux) than we did going from port to port.
And extreme tides in this part of the world are a real headache for river boat captains; in some cases, you may have to skip planned ports (and visit via motorcoach instead). That’s important to know before you commit to the destination, which in 2015 will acquire another river line, Scenic (the French oriented CroisiEurope has long offered itineraries here).
Here are more hits and the occasional misses:
Wine! The region surrounding Bordeaux is home to some of the world’s top producers including Chateau Petrus, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut Brion and Chateau Mouton Rothschild. As such, there are plentiful chances to taste wine, and learn about what makes each individual wine appellation in the region unique, whether it’s the position (hilly vs. flat) or the location; for villages so close together, it’s amazing how just a few kilometers – say the distance between Pomerol and Saint Emilion — can make in the bottle you buy. (Note: We did not visit any of these famous wineries on our trip, though we often got a chance to see them).
Region. One plus on the cruise was the fact that the region was fairly compact – we didn’t travel through another district, much less other countries. We often had the same guides, and even the some bus drivers, on our tours and they got to know passengers and we got to know them. On one evening drive back to Pauillac, one passenger asked: Why are some many houses in the villages we’re passing through dark? The guide relied on the bus driver’s expertise in explaining that many here “follow the sun, so they go sleep early and wake early, like farmers.”
Chateau country. I loved that fact that shore excursions – some included in cruise fares, some extra – visited chateaux for tastings, winery tours and even, on several occasions, divine meals.
Scenery. If we didn’t spend as much time cruising on the rivers as you might on the Danube, Rhine or Rhone, the landscape we saw when we did was just magical. Lush countryside, ancient walled villages, and even grand chateaux on river banks were some of the highlights. There was very little of an industrial nature, as well, which was appreciated.
Bordeaux-centrism. There has been some controversy over the fact that Viking Forseti spent more nights in Bordeaux than in village ports and if that’s an issue for you, we want to make sure you’re aware. But Bordeaux-the-city was marvelous, and the fact that the ship docked most nights within walking distance to a place that’s vibrant both during the day and in the evening meant we got to explore it more deeply than we normally would’ve.
Docking configuration. For the first time in my European river cruising experience, the ship always docked the same way. Cabins on the odd-numbered side, including ours, always faced the dock and town, while those on the even-numbered side looked out at the landscape. In most cases, river boat captains try to vary it so one isn’t always looking out in the same direction. Here, because of the vagaries of the tides, there’s not that flexibility.
I prefer the privacy of a river view (although as most of you know, there’s no guarantee that another ship won’t be tied up next to you); next time I’d book a cabin on the even-numbered side. But that’s just preference.
Limit of choice. Itineraries are limited and there simply isn’t the variety of possible ports you’d find on the Rhine or Danube. Both Viking River and Uniworld, for instance, cover the exact same places. And with only a handful of ports, seven-night lengths are the standard and there’s little opportunity for longer voyages.
Immersion. These cruises really are centered around wine. If you’re not avidly interested, you may get bored.
*Read our day to day progress on the cruise from the forums.