Wednesday 21 August 2019

Hats off to beautiful Bordeaux: My wonderful river cruise in wine country

Anna Coogan boards Uniworld's SS Bon Voyage, 'a swanky small hotel on water', in France.

Sailing upriver through French wine country on the SS Bon Voyage
Sailing upriver through French wine country on the SS Bon Voyage
The Grosse Cloche de Bordeaux
Saint Emilion
Oyster tasting

Anna Coogan

I watched my favourite hat blow away in Bourg-sur-Gironde, a sleepy village in Bordeaux where a ginger cat stretched out on a windowsill of one of the honey-hued houses in one of the many enchanting medieval alleyways, only half opens his eyes to acknowledge us as we pass.

I really hope a local is wearing the hat now, sitting in the Bordeaux sunshine and drinking a glass of the local red, my hat perched on their head and shading their view down to the harbour where the Dordogne River splits off from the Garonne River, and where Uniworld's SS Bon Voyage stops off on its Brilliant Bordeaux river cruise.

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While on this eight-day river cruise, we will travel through one of the major wine-growing regions of France, a trip which turns out to be charming and seductive by the barrel load.

Losing my hat turns out to be the only worry I have all week. Yet it was cruel the way it happened.

My fellow passengers are sympathetic, and like animals arriving on to the Ark, they have mainly arrived two-by-two. More often than not, a couple of well-to-do retirees. Some are doing back-to-back river cruises in France which will take up a month or so. Some are here as part of a late-life tour of Europe.

Many are returnees, and all of them looking for a way of seeing Bordeaux that will deliver culture and mouthwatering food, while allowing them to wallow in the lap of sumptuous style.

The Grosse Cloche de Bordeaux
The Grosse Cloche de Bordeaux

They've picked the right mode of travel, as the SS Bon Voyage is a swanky small hotel on water. The relaxing and stylish emerald tones found in the bar Le Salon Champagne were inspired by Yves Saint Laurent's personal abode, Villa Majorelle.

The decor is elegant throughout, including in Le Grand Fromage, where meals served are made from locally-sourced ingredients, and a typical repas du soir is smoked duck, cream of asparagus soup, whole roasted beef tenderloin, lava cake, accompanied by local vino.

And a unique feature of the recently refurbished SS Bon Voyage is its infinity pool on deck, allowing guests to cool off during the leisurely sailing of three rivers in south-western France - the Garonne, the Dordogne and the Gironde - on a trip which begins and ends in the port city of Bordeaux.

I'm a little lost without my hat in temperatures which are up in the early 20°C in the third week of the month of May, when we dock in Pauillac. I've been generously lent a brightly coloured visor for the duration of our trip, for which I am doing my very best to look grateful.

When we hop on shore in Pauillac, it is to take an organised tour of the Medoc Chateaux Route. It's a region where each of the many fairy-tale chateaux appears more magical than the last.

We tour Le Chateau Prieure Lichine, which was originally a Benedictine priory where monks cultivated grapes for religious ceremonies. We learn how the chateau was seized during the French Revolution, how the vineyards were reinvigorated by wine writer Alexis Lichine in the 1950s, and how following his death they were purchased by Groupe Ballande. Many of my fellow travellers are oenophiles, and nod appreciatively during the wine tasting.

Each day offers two or three organised trips on shore to choose from. On the Wednesday (the eight days go from Sunday to Sunday, the first and last day taken up mainly with arriving and departing), I opt for the trip to Chateau Malrome in Saint-Andre-du-Bois, to learn more about the life and times of artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Dating back to the 16th Century, the charming Chateau Malrome was acquired by Countess Adele de Toulouse-Lautrec in 1883, and was regularly visited by her artist son Henri, who died here on September 9, 1901. Toulouse-Lautrec was short of stature due to a genetic disorder, and found solace in his gift for painting. (His 1886 painting La Blanchisseuse sold for €19m in 2005.) He also found consolation in the bohemian nightlife of late-19th Century Paris, and a selection of his paintings on display are of prostitutes and courtesans, said to have considered him a true friend.

However, you don't have to leave the boat every day. You might want to relax with a gin and tonic on a sun lounger on the Soleil Deck.

Some travellers chose to welcome the day with yoga on the deck at 7am. Or do as I did, and spend an afternoon at a chocolate and wine pairing in Le Salon Champagne. I may not have always got it right, but it didn't stop it being very pleasing to the taste buds.

On-board entertainment in the evenings included Betty Crispy, a burlesque dancer whose fabulous feathery costumes and scintillating moves prompted vigorous applause.

Another night a sing-along separated the melodious from the keen, and, possibly the highlight, an old-fashioned dance night where the usually reserved boogied like mad, and couples caught up in romance swayed from side to side.

All meals and alcohol on board are included in the price of the river cruise, so no one ever utters the words hungry or thirsty - a 24-hour tea and coffee station offers homemade chocolate or oatmeal cookies, and order a Negroni or Whiskey Sour and you'll acquire a selection of irresistible savoury snacks.

Every inch of the SS Bon Voyage oozes elegance, including our snug stateroom with its cool marble bathroom, and every evening a little gift awaited us in our room, be it divine chocolates or luxurious handcream.

I'm hopeful I'll be able to get a replacement sun hat when we dock in Libourne, the wine-making capital of northern Gironde.

The bright May sunshine has accompanied us on most of our cruise, during which we've had an abundance of opportunities to buy local wines but not much other shopping, which in a way is a blessing.

We walk from the dock to the town, and continue on to the main square and the farmer's market, and come upon the greenest, leafiest lettuces ever. The vegetables and fruit on offer here are a treat to an artist's eye, as much as to a chef's chopping board.

If market stalls selling clothes tend to confuse you, this town also offers a lot of very lovely traditional stores too.

Slowing down is the mood of this week on Bordeaux's picturesque rivers, however there are plenty of on-shore outings for anyone determined to be active, including a walking tour of Blaye Fortress in the Gironde, or a spin through the sunlit Sauternes vineyards, followed by a private artisanal wine tasting at Chateau de Cazeneuve in the heart of Aquitaine.

We started and ended our river cruise in the port city of Bordeaux, and it is on our return here that we get to spend some time in the city. This is the city which has seen its share of turbulent times - though always the wine business managed to thrive - and it is the perfect sized-city for visitors on foot, who will be unable to resist stopping off here and there for food, wine and coffee.

For arresting architecture, you won't miss the imposing Place de la Bourse square, as it's one of the first sights you'll see on coming down the river.

Meanwhile, the beautiful 18th Century belfry, the Grosse Cloche de Bordeaux, has the romantic appearance of a set from a historical movie, and it rings just six times a year, and only for major celebrations -such as Bastille Day, VE Day, and Remembrance Day.

There is an abundance of fine eateries to choose from in Bordeaux, and special mention goes to Book & Coffee, a charming little cafe for bibliophiles, and where beautiful young Bordelais and Bordelaises hang out, all looking like extras from a French movie. Why does so much of Bordeaux look like a movie set?

We do a lot of our gift-shopping on our final morning at the Marche des Quais, a quayside market where owners of various local chateaux arrived in vans loaded down with wine, chocolate, vegetables and poultry, and just about anything else you might desire for your Sunday lunch table.

I lost my hat on a slight breeze in the town of Bourg, on the second day of our rejuvenating cruise - it lifted straight up off my head, flew out over a railing, and down on to a dangerous ledge. I reckoned that a little puff of wind would dislodge it and bring it back to me but sadly it didn't.

But lucky hat. Because Bordeaux by its rivers is extremely beautiful. And while I miss my favourite sun hat, I'm fully convinced it is a very happy chapeau in a chateau.

Take Two: Top attractions

Saint-Emilion

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Saint Emilion
 

The description 'pretty as a picture' was surely coined for this stunning Unesco World Heritage site, a medieval village and home to one of the largest monolithic churches in Europe. Try its world-famous almond macarons.

Oyster tasting

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Oyster tasting

On the bank of the Gironde, in the village of Cussac-Fort-Medoc, the atmospheric Fort Medoc was built in the 17th Century in typical French stone. It's a hallowed setting for sampling fresh Bordeaux oysters.

Getting there

Anna travelled on this cruise with Uniworld Boutique River Cruises. Prices for the 8-day all-inclusive luxury river cruise onboard the stunning brand new Super Ship S.S. Bon Voyage start from €2,899 per person departing on 20 October 2019 (other dates available). The Brilliant Bordeaux itinerary travels through France along the Garonne, Dordogne and Gironde rivers and includes seven-nights in a riverview stateroom, return airport transfers, all meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks) and unlimited onboard drinks including fine wine, beer, spirits and cocktails, Captain’s Farewell, Gala Dinner and Fine Dining experiences. Also included is a full programme of daily excursions. For more information, contact Freephone 1800 98 98 98, visit www.uniworld.com/eu or visit your local travel agent.

NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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