Cruising the Vineyards of Bordeaux
By Christopher Ludgate
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
When talk of a river cruise exploring vineyards, history, and culture along the banks of Bordeaux, France on acclaimed AmaWaterways’ Taste of Bordeaux excursion presented itself, there was little to think about before signing on.
I didn’t know what to expect but that an adventure in underground tours of medieval towns, fabled châteaux, a Citidel with a romantic past, plus bikes & hikes in celebrated vineyards awaited.
So I cleared my calendar, told my friend we were on, and soon I was escaping into the stardust, tuned-in to my dreamy Francophile notions high in the sky on a red-eye to Paris.
Fast-forwarding through frenzied CDG airport, it was then just a couple of hours spent gazing into the waking pastoral countryside aboard the Bordeaux TGV express train to St. Jean Station to meet my friend, Christina.
AmaDolce, S’il Vous Plait
Still new to the world of river cruises, only because I assumed I didn’t necessarily fit the demographic seen on those river cruise commercials, the more I looked into the river cruise lifestyle with Ama’s itinerary options, the more excited I became.
Mostly because of the enticing selection of daily wine-centric adventures at hand, cruising South-western France to Saint-Émilion, Blaye, Pauillac, and more.
Floating Boutique Hotel
The upper deck hot tub under the stars, the scenic views, daily yoga, and the diverse dining options including fine-dining created by the world’s oldest gastronomic society, Confrerie de la Chaine de Rotisseurs (that really impressed with the vegetarian choices, too), were also part of the lure.
Plus the wine, the endless free-flowing wine. Let the seduction begin.
Upon arriving at Quai des Chartrons (the port) in Bordeaux, we were greeted aboard the AmaDolce cruiser and led into the stylish and stately lobby atmosphere.
I began to understand the appeal – unlike one of those garish mobbed cruise liners – we’d just essentially embarked on a floating boutique-like hotel that was going to deliver us to some of the loveliest ports in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region – in an elegant fashion. Ah…
In Good Hands
Immediately tended to by the accommodating, personable staff and welcome drinks in the shine of the lobby’s chandelier, we were soon checked-in and swept away onto the flowing Bordeaux-colored staircase to our contemporary stateroom.
As we explored our quaint new abode of the next seven days, we began getting settled and recharged while also enjoying a spritzer and a light breeze by our French balcony. Spacious enough for two to unpack and get situated, we moved-in cozily to room 202 on the Cello Deck.
After scoping out the ship like giddy kids, our first PA announcement piped thru the hallway sound system (also available on the in-room entertainment system) with the smooth voice of Cruise Manager extraordinaire, Cesario, inviting all to attend the approaching happy hour welcome and briefing in the Violin Deck lounge.
We looked out from our perch by the bar at the lounge’s collection of billowy sofas and chairs, cocktail tables and high-tops and soon joined other guests in their best cruise-wear imbibing and snacking on regional light-bites, getting acclimated and making new acquaintances amid the lively piano music.
Idyllic romantic couples, leisurely retirees, small buoyant groups of friends from the states, and even a couple of families (sans children, don’t worry) on an inaugural trip to Europe were peppered throughout the room, loosening up on vino & Sip & Sail cocktails. Cesario made us feel at home during intros which included our captain, Laurent, and Executive Chef, Silviu Marin.
Soon, my friend and I were graciously invited to the Chef’s Table for dinner by Hotel Manager, Rosaline. Before long, but well into our amuse-bouches, we pondered over pairings and struck up easy tête-à-têtes with the delightfully eclectic blend of guests on our inaugural night on the Taste of Bordeaux cruise.
Weeks before our departure from the states, we received our branded cloth satchels that included a personalized printed itinerary booklet guide containing a convenient detailing of our online pre-registered tour choices, plus summaries and procedures, and everything a passenger needs to know.
With the range of preferences, instead of feeling like part of a hoard schlepped to some pre-determined tour, we had full reign to personalize our entire trip even if we opted to sleep-in. Or we could go rogue for a day in some tiny village on a bike. And if we chose to switch it up and be spontaneous, so be it.
In addition to our booklets, delivered to our rooms during dinner each night, was our personal ‘Daily Cruiser’ for the following day including details on port of call, next day program info like afternoon tea time, special interest tour options, activity options, evening lounge entertainment, weather, and ‘All Aboard!’ time.
And in case this all wasn’t convenient enough, there’s also an app for all that.
From Grape to Glass
During a relaxing guided bus tour replete with Crement and lots of leg-room, we stretched out, enjoying the wide panoramic windows reveal of slopes and plateaus of one after another of the flawlessly landscaped vineyards of Pomerol, which boasts the elite status of AOC class wine. Then, it was high time to sample more of the goods.
Château de Pressac, a “Grand Cru Classé” of the world-renowned Saint–Émilion appellation, rises above a knoll situated at Saint Etienne de Lisse. The victorious surrender that ended the Hundred Years War took place in the vestiges of this 15th-century castle. We wandered its cool cellars and perched above its cliffs as the much-needed regional rain shower dissipated.
After taking in the views around the château, we were invited inside for an afternoon of local cheeses and tastings. It’s amazing what the right wine pairing can do for a person’s endorphins. Ah, the health benefits of wine in the countryside.
Sommelier Sebastian explained some of the extremely strict qualifications that go into the classification process which includes the “viticultural and vinification practices, the maintenance procedures in the vines and the cellars, the material and equipment in use…”
In Tune with the Climate
On another more vigorous hike through the sustainable vineyards of Château Boutinet, co-vintner Natalie Escuredo explained the reliance on the delicate balance of terroir and weather.
Elaborating more on the “decision and authority approval of planting Merlot and Cab grapes together to accommodate the sometimes fickle climate, which can devastate the industry like in the 1980s” – to paraphrase – Natalie enlightened us as she led the way to the vineyard’s yurt where tapas and tastings commenced, pairing vineyard favorites like Le Clairet and Thalie with bites like vegetarian Pyrenees cheese made with a delicious blend of goat and ewe milk. No one does cheese like the French.
Every excursion during our cruise was an education in the region’s Merlots, Cab Francs, Blancs, and more. By the time we experienced our multiple pairing presentations during dinner each night aboard, we were developing a working knowledge of the many nuances from seed to glass.
Yet every vintner and sommelier we had the pleasure of spending time with had the same essential message: “It’s all simply in what tastes good to you.” So there is no test at the end of the day.
Underground in Saint–Émilion
My new favorite place in France is Saint-Émilion. Picturesque, quintessential …yes, I plan to retire here one day.
Located about 20 miles northeast of Bordeaux, the viticulture history of this UNESCO site dates back 2000 years. The history of the town dates to the 8th-century when Émilion, a Breton Monk, settled in it – quite literally – as he began his hermitage in a carved out underground grotto-type dwelling beneath what is now the narrow and steep streets.
A glimpse inside the sainted man’s home during a private tour was a transportive experience. So much to imagine of solitary life as such he led.
The steeps streets that dare to lure are referred to as tertres. They are synonymous with the village. The cobblestone inlaid within them were brought in barrels by English wine-traders who in turn filled the barrels with … well, I will give you one guess.
The dominant limestone is an absolutely integral ingredient to the region’s soil, we learned. An important element in architecture as well, the excavating of the stone led to miles of underground galleries and the space of the largest monolithic church, circa 12th-century, above which looms its beautiful and massive clock-tower which offers great views.
Self-tours and specialty tours are popular but didn’t seem to flood the place with riffraff, thankfully, so there was a bit of an intimate feel for me.
As others continued the wine tastings, Christina and I again went below ground with our tour guide, Anna. In the ruins of the massive cathedral, where photos are discouraged, we lit candles by shrouds. As traces of frescos and statues and columns echoed a mysterious past, I couldn’t help the ghostly feeling inside of it.
Today these streets are still abundant with wine stores open for the tasting alongside outdoor restaurants, galleries, and specialty confection & food shops that include macrons baked by the old fabled convent of the town.
Rogue in the French Countryside
Ported along the Gironde Estuary in Blaye, we had opted for a guided afternoon walking tour rather than the bike tour. The others left to famed Medoc earlier. So in the morning, we went rogue.
We scanned our safety cards at reception so the crew knew we were out and about without a guide and hopped-off into the unknown to explore the tiny streets, peek into shops, and send postcards. The open shutters along the back roads released sweet and savory scents from apartment kitchens. Church bells chimed in the distance as the sun rose overhead.
Having forgone our brunch aboard, our appetites grew while exploring. Suddenly a vision – like a mirage – of a bakery that melted my senses like butter as it caught my peripheral and lured me in with Christina close behind, also taken hostage by Pâtisserie Brégier’s offerings.
Oh, what to choose? Quel dilemme! It was heaven in abundance as we savored our warm flaky treats and freshly made sandwich baguettes together along the shores of contentedness.
Later, a large core of us that became friendly during our AmaWaterways cruise – Nan, Sheryl, Nick and Kelly, and a bunch of others who playfully dubbed us as ‘Chris squared’, ‘Chris x 2’, and the like throughout the trip were surprised with a celebration of live traditional music & wine atop a hill in Bourge. Loads of fun followed while returning to the ship as we diverted to a spontaneous splurge of antiquing along the banks.
Hidden Gems inside the Citadel
Walking over the moat of the strategically designed 17th-century Fortress of Vauban, our guide waxed on about this one-time military defense fort of Bordeaux. Registered on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2008, the Blaye Citadel is a marvel of architecture rich in history.
Our afternoon exploration took us inside its nooks and crannies of hidden tunnels, close-up to its design nuances, and even a surprise rendezvous with a herd of adorable goats before we headed up to the panorama views. Great photo ops abound.
Our guide related the story of the fortified castle deep within the battlements of the Citadel.
“It may be surprising to hear that in the middle of all of these military walls, in this castle, a courtly romance flourished with one of the first troubadours, the Prince of Blaye, and the Countess of Tripoli, Princess Melissinde whose arms he died in here,” Olivier revealed.
A residential village with craft shops, boutiques, and restaurants also exists within the 90+ acre fortress. Stealing away at the tour’s end, Christina and I were charmed by an outside bistro, Tropidella, with French music playing and the fragrant confection of the “best crepes ever,” as Christina proclaimed.
Indulging with vin blanc from neighboring Côtes de Blaye, we lured our new friends who happened to be passing by to come share in the divine decadence.