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Vintage France

I am gazing in awe at a bizarre, almost surreal sight - and judging by the gasps of my fellow Uniworld cruisers, I’m not alone in my admiration. Dozens of white, translucent, antique dresses are floating like ghostly spectres above serried rows of wine barrels. The effect is extraordinary - both spectacular and slightly spooky.

Created by Caribbean artist Marielle Plaisir to heighten awareness of slavery, it is one of the many breathtaking displays of contemporary art that grace Château d’Arsac, close to the picturesque town of Pauillac on the River Garonne. Outside in the grounds there are giant flowerpots, huge figures and an outsized red dog, all nestling amongst the Médoc-producing vines belonging to renowned owner Philippe Raoux.

This is the first of many vineyards that we visit on our 8-day Bordeaux, Vineyards and Châteaux cruise with Uniworld, and it’s here that we discover our own unique ‘wine profile’ too, courtesy of blind tastings coupled with a questionnaire. My sister Lilian, travelling with me, came out in the ‘gourmet’ category, whilst I was pleased to at least be classed as ‘adventurous’.

Our cruise certainly ticks both of those boxes - every day brings a wealth of gourmet adventures, and we happily throw dietary caution to the wind from day one. With treats such as Arcachon lobster, truffles from Périgord, Oléron oysters and (for those who fancy it) foie gras from Gers, it would be rude not to. The food is first class, with a notable highlight the signature dinner created by respected French chef Philippe Etchebest. The welldesigned restaurant presents opportunities to mingle with fellow guests or to dine more intimately à deux, and there is no dress code pressure at all.

One of our great indulgences aboard the newly remodelled River Royale was cocktails in the lounge. Roomy and comfortable, it offers complimentary Wi-Fi and wonderfully attentive staff who don’t bat an eyelid if you discover a desire to consume three Martinis in quick succession (Uniworld mean it when they advertise their river cruise holidays as ‘truly all-inclusive’).

Wines are expertly chosen too, and reflect the oenophile’s dream that personifies this area of Southwest France. Château d’Yquem, Pétrus, Château Lafite Rothschild, Margaux, Château Latour and Saint-Émilion Grand Cru are a few of the top names produced here, and our days arespent sampling many fine, robust reds and the sweetest, most fragranced whites - both onboard and during our daily excursions. My personal favourites were the three aromatic Sauternes accompanying a delicious lunch of smoked salmon and caramelised chicken at the 17th century Château d’Arche - audacious pairings that prove that sweet wine shouldn’t just be kept for puddings.

We also experience some of Aquitaine’s prettiest countryside on our expeditions - emerald fields dotted with imposing châteaux and peaceful hamlets fringed with flowers. In Bergerac we admired the well-preserved, timber-framed medieval houses and bought vibrantly-coloured gourds in the open-air farmers’ market. On another memorable day we reached ancient Blaye Fortress after a scenic drive along limestone cliffs dotted with cave dwellings carved millennia ago. But the pièce de resistance was undoubtedly the delightful village of Saint-Émilion, a hilltop architectural gem boasting breathtaking views. A UNESCO World Heritage Site (and the very first vineyard region to be afforded their protection) Saint-Émilion can trace its existence back to prehistory, and ruins line its narrow, cobbled streets, the steepest of which are called tertres. With everyone sporting flat shoes (mandatory footwear here!) we visited the awe-inspiring, underground monolithic church, followed by the cavernous cellars of a Premier Grand Cru classé estate to taste some of the region’s most acclaimed wines, including of course the one that bears the village’s name.

Finally we headed back to Bordeaux, where this cruise begins and ends. We have sailed three rivers in our eight days - the Garonne, the Dordogne and the huge Gironde estuary, where that waterway meets the Atlantic. There have been no intrusive tannoy announcements (lovely), beds that have nestled us restfully at night (there’s even a ‘pillow menu’) and real tea leaves in the teapots (fabulous). We have Titan’s VIP door-to-door travel service to look forward to again for our homeward journey (deserving winners of the Cruise International Award for ‘Best Cruise Product or Service’) and there’s still a night-time tour and another round of foodie treats to look forward to.

I’m not sure how Lilian and I managed to visit all the stunning sights this remarkable city has to offer (as over-consumption of the local delicacies left us with some difficulty moving), but we did - and Bordeaux does not disappoint. Most of the city, from the outer boulevards to the romantically named ‘Port of the Moon’ (the crescent-shaped bend formed by the Garonne) is UNESCO-listed, and its neoclassical architecture is superbly restored.

Highly recommended are the magnificent 18th century Place de la Bourse reflected in the Miroir d’Eau and the towering cathedral, the oldest section of which dates to 1096. But don’t miss the rainbow-coloured macarons, the incredibly stinky cheeses (this area yields over 200 different varieties) and the city’s most prized confection, the canelé de Bordeaux. A small cake with a thin caramelized shell and rich, custardy, vanilla-fragranced contents, it is so revered that it is now the ‘official’ cake of Bordeaux, with the recipe locked in city vaults and all 88 local pâtissiers sworn to secrecy.

I’m glad no-one has to keep secret all the treasures that this epicurean voyage has to offer.

Article published on: 18th February, 2015


Julie Peasgood

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