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5 AUGUST 2019
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Earlier this summer, BTN editor-in-chief Malcolm Ginsberg and his wife took off from Gatwick bound for Bordeaux and a seven-night river cruise on the AmaDolce. A ship review is in this issue but here we concentrate on the towns and villages visited (with a mention of the wines tasted).
We arrived early on a Thursday morning at Bordeaux, which enabled a chance to see the city before the cruise proper began.
Bordeaux, one of the great cities of France, is the hub of the famed wine-growing region. A city completely re-built in recent times, it is 40 miles along the tidal River Garonne from the Bay of Biscay. Full-size cruise ships can now visit a new cruise terminal built on the site of old dockland wharfs after emerging under the vertical-lift Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas. The largest of its type in Europe, it is an impressive way to arrive.
Just a little further toward the centre of the city is a series of specially provided river cruise docking points. Similar piers are provided all along the river at each of the small villages along its banks, and also in the equally-interesting Dordogne which splits from the Garonne just a few miles west of Bordeaux as it meanders in from the sea.
`Bordeaux has great English heritage. When the remarkable Eleanor of Aquitaine married King Henry II, she brought as a dowry ownership of the province and prosperous times. This was to remain until the culmination of the Hundred Years' War in 1453. However, as a stronghold of the Protestant Huguenots for the next two centuries, England was still viewed very much as a friend. The wine trade helped, just as it does today.
By the 1990s, Bordeaux was showing the effects of poor management and further decline after the ravages of World War II, when its docks were the target of Allied bombing and the remarkable seaborne/canoe attack depicted in the film Cockleshell Heroes. Bordeaux is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The appointment in 1995 as mayor of Alain Juppe, who also served as French prime minister for a short period, was the start of a major urban redevelopment project. The results can be seen today with the long line of refurbished bright classical facades along the waterfront and, on a practical front, the introduction of an air-conditioned tram system, the cheap and regular B Line running along the promenade and through the city centre.
BTN normally recommends a 'hop-on hop-off' bus trip as soon as possible after arrival. Don’t be caught out in Bordeaux. Yes, there are red open-top buses, but available for a single 1hr tour only. Buy a ticket from the tourist office in the centrally located Cours du 30 Juillet, and that is where you will come back to.
Better still, purchase the 'Citypass', which includes the tour, metro and a large number of museums and exhibitions as diverse as the Gothic cathédrale Saint-André, 18th- and 19th-century mansions and notable art museums typified by the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux. The grand Place de la Bourse centres on the Three Graces fountain, which overlooks the Miroir d’Eau reflecting pool. At the other end of the spectrum, the fortified wartime German submarine base is now also open to the public and nearby is the brand new Museé Mer Marine.
One exhibition stands out, purely 21st century and personifying a region that produces 44m cases of wine a year. The Cité du Vin is most impressive, topped by a 55m tower where you refresh yourself at the end of the tour or add a quality French meal.
The museum was opened in May 2016 by the then-president of France François Hollande, together with Juppe. Best described an interactive presentation of wine worldwide it is spread over three main presentation floors. British wines are noted. It is an astonishing exhibition, bringing together traditional and very modern wine production and the very latest in display presentations. Corked wine from France is prominent but screw-top bottles from Australia and New Zealand are allowed to be seen. Which gives the better results? BTN is not getting into that one!
If you also have children in tow, there are several family-oriented workshops, and a special route around the permanent exhibition for children aged six and up.
Libourne (and Saint-Emilion) – Friday and Saturday
First stop after a night’s cruising on the Garonne was the small town of Libourne, backtracking a little way up the Dordogne. From here the start of a bus tour to Saint-Emilion, once a fortified village with at its heart a monolithic (underground) church hewn directly out of the soft limestone bedrock, massive when inside 38m long, 20m wide and 11ft high, making it the largest of its kind in Europe. Above is the Eglise-Monlithe tower 53m tall and 196 steps. Steep narrow cobblestone lanes lead up to the remains of the fortifications where the views of the market place and countryside can be taken at ease.
Wine tasting is very much part of the trip and to put it in perspective Saint-Emilion alone lists 65 wineries. The Château Soutard welcomed us with a Grand Cru classic. Wherever a tour took us it was usually a choice of three wines and cheese, three wines meaning one could sample all three.
Back to the ship for dinner and the bonus of an ABBA tribute group and the local summer festival a short walk across a bridge to the town.
Next morning it was one of the highlights of the trip, Le Château Montaigne, restored during the reign of Napoleon III and a fitting place to take the local wine in what is another castle-style rectangular building with an integrated Gothic manor house, and in one corner of the large courtyard a medieval tower where the philosopher Michel de Montaigne lived some in style during the late 16th century.
Blaye and Bourge – Sunday
The little town of Blaye is 35mi downstream from Bordeaux on the western (right) bank of the Gironde its citadel an important fortification protecting Aquitaine from the British in both Napoleonic periods. Whilst the river is nearly 2mi wide at this point manmade and natural islands enabled the guns of that time to target any unfriendly shipping.
The castle of Blaye is a full military complex covering 230 acres and a village in itself and including a hotel, restaurants, bar and camping facilities. Built by the famous engineer Vauban visitors are taken on a tour deep down into the complex vaults of the castle. It is all somewhat dark and dingy, but with modern electric lighting. Not a very pleasant place in times of yore but an interesting UNESCO site today.
Back on board for lunch and a short cruise of just 15km to Bourge. AMA offer free cycles and a fitness expert. The ship just about beat the pedallers.
Bourne is a typical Gironde riverside village nestling on a steep cliff with the centre high up overlooking the river. Its proximity to the sea and deep-water docking made it ideal for the Germans to construct with French and slave labour seven gigantic fuel tanks, the location of which can be explored. Directly above is a museum dedicated to the horse-drawn carriages from the 19th century including saddles and harnesses, some clearly for the aristocracy and landlords whilst others of a more mundane nature. To complete the day the village laid on a musical wine tasting event with the local Edith Piath and Maurice Chevalier impersonators putting on a fine show. Full of vino the guests were appreciative on an enthusiastic presentation.
Pauillac – Monday
Pauillac, on the left bank of the Garonne, is the home of the great estate of Baron Phillipe de Rothchild which we were privileged to drive through. It was in the 1850s that Nathanial de Rothchild, born in London, established the estate and in 1855, Napoleon III created the Bordeaux Classification for Médoc wines in honour for the Great Exposition of the year. Almost 160 years later, this historic document continues to stand the test of time, with almost no changes.
Our hospitality visit was to the estate of Léoville Poyferré which dates itself back to 1638. At that time, Léoville was the largest domain in the Médoc but now covers 920 hectares. The legacy of the grand vin of Léoville Poyferré began in 1840, consecrated as a Second Classified Growth 15 years later. Didier Cuvelier has presided over the destiny of this gem since 1979. We were offered three red wines: Pavillon de Léonville Poyferré 2016, Château Moulin Riche 2015 and Château Léonville Poyferré 2012 which retailed at E85. The 2015 was more to our taste and cheaper too!
Cadillac – Tuesday
Soon after breakfast it was away from Pauillac to Bordeaux where the guests boarded coaches to Roquetaillade and the Sauternes wine region. We were to meet the ship again at Cadillac for the night-stop.
The Castle of Roquetaillade, with its dry moat, is a masterpiece of medieval military architecture. It has been lived in by the same family for 700 years. The interior decorations, with its furnishings and paintings, are listed as French Heritage and it has also been used as the backdrop for several films requiring 'English' fortifications.
Our wine stop was the Château de Rayne Vigneau.
“The elegant straw yellow colour of Château de Rayne Vigneau 2012 still has shimmering green reflections. Acacia blossom is the first aromatic impression, subtle and discreet, pointed up with grapefruit zest. This floral delicacy is repeated in the honeyed smoothness of the palate. There is a taste of candied fruits: apricot, orange and lemon peel. A voluptuous journey that ends with the balance imparted by orange blossom flavours”. The cheeses were delicious too.
The name Cadillac is linked with a quality car brand from General Motors. It should be the other way around. It is associated with Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, who founded Detroit, Michigan. He was widely hailed as a hero until the 1950s and the rise of liberal scholarship but has now been found out. The writer Zoltvany claims that "he most definitely was not one of the 'great early heroes' and probably deserves to be ranked with the 'worst scoundrels' ever to set foot in New France," as he insisted in calling the former French colony. It seems he may have come from the town or thought the name had the right ring about it. Certainly for much of the 20th century Cadillac reigned with Rolls-Royce in an American way.
Bordeaux – Wednesday
Overnight from Cadillac we docked early with a city tour and the Cité du Vin very popular, although a full day to Cognac was offered with not one distillery but two to visit. People slept on the way back.
Completing a great week of fine wines, good weather and smooth cruising was a short evening cruise for AMADolce, Captain Martin casting off and offering hospitality on the open top deck with wine and music and a wonderful view of the Bordeaux esplanade at night.
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