Travel: Explore the best of Bordeaux on a Viking River Cruise

Viking River Cruise Arcachon Bay
Jane Clare experiences an 8-day tour of the waters of Bordeaux, courtesy of Viking River Cruises and its Heart of Bordeaux itinerary.

I’d never been treated like royalty until I joined a Viking River Cruise. I imagine, back in the day, that Viking princesses (if they existed) were very pampered ladies indeed.

I hope they enjoyed the complimentary sparkling wine which was left in their cabins because I certainly did.

The royal treatment began the moment we arrived at Bordeaux airport and we left it cocooned in the comfort of one of Viking’s luxury coaches. As we boarded the Viking Forseti longship the crew lined up, greeted us with handshakes and smiles, then we were escorted to our room.

We were delighted with our verandah stateroom. It had ample space to store cases under a seriously comfy bed. Our bathroom included a loo, shower cubicle and underfloor heating. Warm feet. Joy.

Patio doors opened onto a balcony with a table and chairs, perfect for  cheeky glasses of sparkling wine (a bottle and fresh fruit were left in our cabin most days). We also had a fridge, useful to chill any leftover bubbles (yeh, right).

Bordeaux, where we joined the longship for our seven night Viking river cruise, was once nicknamed La Belle Endormie (the sleeping beauty). In recent years it has been rejuvenated.

The city is a World Heritage site with stunning 18th century facades looking out across the Garonne river. There are architectural gems such as Cathedral Saint Andre and the gorgeous Place de la Bourse, which was commissioned by King Louis XV.

We unpacked and enjoyed our first stroll on the riverfront esplanade alongside cyclists, lovers, mums, dads, kids, roller skaters and happy dogs.

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We were here because Bordeaux is the greatest wine region in the world and for a week the Viking Forseti cruises the Gironde, which is classed as an estuary, and its two main tributaries the Garonne and the Dordogne. Famous wine districts including Libourne, Saint-Émilion, Sauternes, Pauillac, Margaux, Bourg and Blaye were on our itinerary.

I was very excited. I like a glass of wine.

Wine, understandably, is the draw for most people who choose this Viking river cruise. Forseti has its own sommelier, Frank, who spends much of his time sharing his wine knowledge. Luckily for us, he spent much of his time pouring it too.  

Our first evening began with cocktails, nibbles and sparkles. Captain Pascal, Michael the hotel manager, Bruno the Maître d’ and Susann  the programme director, outlined the week ahead.

Viking River Cruise canapes
First night canapes

Then Chef Pascal raised many an “oooh” and “aaah” plus impromptu applause as he described our welcome meal.  Our starters that night included red wine risotto or octopus; the mains, duck in orange sauce, or cod with chorizo and clams. There’s also daily staple choices such as steak or a caesar salad.

Each day Pascal served up an ooh and aaah clapometer and each evening Frank shared some matching wines.

That night, with talkative company and the sun glinting on the Garonne and across glorious rooftops, the food and wine went down very well indeed.

I was as giddy as a mouse in a cheese shop on our first full day as we were heading to Cadillac and a Sauternes wine tasting.

We had been expecting to cruise upstream along the Garonne River to Cadillac but the tides were such that the captain decided we should remain in Bordeaux.

Château Guiraud sauternes cruise

Instead our luxury coaches took us to historic Cadillac and we ambled round its bastioned towers and city walls. Then it was on to Château Guiraud. A winery tour and a few tasting glasses of Sauternes wine was reward enough for missing out on a longship in motion.

It was lunchtime on Monday when the ship left Bordeaux. We were enjoying lunch outside on the Aquavit Terrace as the moorings were finally slipped.  We ate lunch on the terrace every day, our wine glinting in sunshine sparkled glasses.

So we set sail, or whatever longships do. The countryside around Bordeaux is pretty, but fairly flat, so don’t expect to look out on stunning scenery and tucked-away mountain vineyards. These are working waterways and a couple of times we saw Airbus A380 sections float by on barges heading for assembly in Toulouse.

Meanwhile, I was hooked on the Google Maps sat nav, saying things like “ooh, look look! Chateau Margaux is over there but you can’t see it!” which my other half took to mean a) I’d had too much wine and b) I’m a wine geek.

The following morning Susann announced on the ship’s intercom that we were leaving for a visit to Château Siaurac at 9am. In other words, finish your toast. Breakfasts were stunning by the way; waiter service or buffet.

bodeaux viking river cruise sunsetWe were moored in Bourg, an ancient port town nestled between the Dordogne and the Gironde. The previous night a handful of us had taken a horse drawn carriage to the citadel at the top of Bourg, where we drank red Bordeaux and looked across the rivers as the sun went down. A memorable red-tinged moment in more ways than one.

At Château Siaurac we were welcomed by Paul Goldschmidt, the manager of the estate, whose humour, knowledge and hospitality knew no bounds.

Imagine opening your home to scores of strangers who wander around the vineyards, then peek in your private rooms. Imagine keeping on top of the dusting. Imagine those strangers then drink your wine.

Paul was gracious and unflappable and talked us through a wine tasting.  Then lunch was served, with more wine. It was turning out to be tough, this trip.  

There were several excursions across the week, some included in the pre-paid package and others optional.

The latter included a day hunting and tasting truffles; a trip to Cognac (I saw guests return flush-faced); and a day at beautiful, beautiful Arcachon Bay, the home of  many oyster farms –  basically its the oyster bed of France.

It was here I ate oysters for the first time, apprehensively I must say, but they were amazing. I squeezed a squint of lemon and slipped an oyster into my mouth with its light salty freshness. I washed them down with glass of Bordeaux blanc and the all-day adventure couldn’t have been more perfect.

One of our favourite moments of these few days was in Saint-Émilion. Under the wing of our expert guide we’d walked cobbled streets, visited cloisters, peeked in wine shops, taken in the beauty of medieval buildings.

Then we were left to our own devices in the shadow of the bell tower of Saint-Émilion’s 12th century Monolithic Church. We looked out over the rooftops and below, in the shadow of the church, we could see a cafe and an empty table.

In this famous wine region, in this famous wine town, we nipped down for a beer and silently watched the world go by. Bliss.

On our last night on board, Chef Pascal and the crew served a farewell dinner. The wine flowed, the food was praised, new friends chatted and laughed.

We reflected on dinner the previous evening, where most of the ship’s chefs, waiters and all the hospitality team had served a wonderful meal in the grounds of Château  Kirwan in Margaux.

The crew had been given a huge round of applause; not just for that night, but for the Royal treatment they’d given us all week. I loved being a Viking princess for a few days.

First published in Trinity Mirror regional titles, Autumn 201

  • Jane Clare stayed on the Viking Forseti in a verandah stateroom. Travel from the UK was included. Viking offers cruises in Europe, Russia, and Asia. For details go to www.vikingrivercruises.co.uk 
    Wines, soft drinks and beers were complimentary with on board dinner and lunches. A separate wine list was available and other drinks were signed for and settled at the end of the trip.   
  • Be prepared to tip. Envelopes are left in cabins at the end of the week with  guidance on the customary amount. 
    The five optional tours on the Viking River Cruise, per person, started at 84 euros (Château Siaurac) up to 159 euros (Arcachon).

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Treading grapes to the Birdie Song beat puts the soul into Taylor’s port

Grapes arrive freshly picked at Taylor's Port Nogueira winery

Forget jazz, classical music or even opera. It’s the Birdie Song played on a little electrical organ which might be putting the soul into Taylor’s port wine.

Or should that be sole.

For one night only at Quinta de Vargellas in the Douro Valley in Portugal, the heart of port country, I stomped, wiggled and jiggled.

I was treading grapes. Ah, you see…  there was method in my musical madness.

I danced a few twisty turny traditional Portuguese folk dances in a granite lagar, which is, quite literally, a stepping stone.

This stone, my grape-crushing dance floor, is the first step in creating amazing port, the vintages of the future.

It was all great fun, but there’s a serious wine-making process behind it.  It’s much more technical than just doing the Birdie Song and a Portuguese version of the Macarena (which we did).

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When freshly-picked grapes are first placed in a lagar, which is a knee-deep granite square trough, people tightly link up in a line to crush them thoroughly. In the next stage people move around freely crushing them (I guess that’s where my hip wiggles came in) to create an environment where fermentation can begin.

It takes lots of manpower and with the ever-changing ebb and flow of human lifestyles, the number of people needed to tread the grapes might not always be around in years to come.

So David Guimaraens the technical director and head wine maker for the Fladgate Partnership, which includes the Taylors, Croft, and Fonseca brands, has begun to future-proof the process.

He and his team have created “port toes” which were worth inventing just for the delightful name they’ve been given.

The mechanical toes – to be found at the company’s Nogueira winery – replicate the gentle foot pressure which David believes is the best way to achieve gentle extraction, and ultimately, the super-soft ports full of flavour and structure.

People can have a go at foot treading themselves if they find themselves in the Duoro Valley, as Croft has just opened a new tourism centre with a converted stable put aside for the experience.

Though I’m not sure the Birdie Song will be the background music. I think the keyboard player is permanently gigging elsewhere.

  • Find out more about how Taylor’s port is made here
  • If you fancy having a go at treading grapes,  the new visitor centre can be found at Croft’s flagship vineyard Quinta da Roêda, at Pinhão in the heart of the Douro Valley.
  • Below…. see the Birdie Song like you’ve never seen it before.
    Any resemblance to people who have wine careers and professional appearances to maintain is not exactly coincidence.