In Wine Heaven in Bordeaux with Viking River Cruises
Saturday, November 22, 2014
After a long day of travel from North America, I am finally onboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Forseti for what surely has to be one of the most culturally-enriching itineraries in France: Viking’s weeklong Chateaux, Rivers & Wine river cruise that makes its debut season this year.
This is no ordinary river cruise, though. Not only is it operated entirely on an estuary subjected to tidal fluctuations from the nearby Atlantic Ocean, this voyage also has the distinction of sailing roundtrip from Bordeaux, France. Most river cruises sail point-to-point; roundtrip voyages are exceedingly rare, and Viking Forseti’s Program Director, Mieke Bakker, noted tonight that ours is one of the few voyages to be “controlled by the Moon.” Tides dictate port calls and scheduling, resulting in an overall program that can vary to some degree from week to week. However, rather than sticking with an itinerary that is no longer feasible due to the tides, Viking’s always has two or three backup plans on-hand, and most departures go off without a hitch.
Getting here is relatively easy from North America. Most connections will route you through either Amsterdam on KLM, or Paris on Air France. If you can get to one of those two hubs, you can get to Bordeaux.
In my case, my journey to Bordeaux began in Vancouver, where I flew on Delta to Amsterdam via Minneapolis, and then on to Bordeaux on KLM. If there’s a downside to transiting through Amsterdam’s fabulous Schiphol Airport, it’s that the city of Amsterdam itself is tantalizingly close. Let’s face it – Europe just has too many cool cities.
Upon landing, I was met – along with about half of KLM flight 1315, it turns out – by Viking’s shoreside representatives at the airport, where we were then whisked by Viking-branded Mercedes coaches to the Viking Forseti in the heart of Bordeaux.
Bordeaux is a very special city. When the suburbs are all put together to create metropolitan Bordeaux, the city becomes the sixth-largest municipality in France. Thanks to its location in the southwestern quadrant of the country (Bilbao, Spain is only three hours away by car), Bordeaux is nice and temperate, even in November. When my KLM flight touched down around lunchtime at Bordeaux-Merignac Airport, the mercury was hovering at a positively balmy 19°C (67°F).
You might be surprised, however, to learn that Bordeaux hasn’t always been the gorgeous tourist mecca that it is today. As recently as the mid-1990’s, the mostly-industrial city was in shambles after years of neglect. Its historic buildings were covered in soot and grime, and dull, unsightly factories cluttered the landscape. Public trams didn’t exist. The riverfront promenade that now borders the Garonne River didn’t exist. As a tourist destination, the Bordeaux of old was merde.
Enter Bordeaux’s mayor, Alain Juppé. Juppé felt that Bordeaux could be returned to its former glory without sacrificing its important industrial roots and bring in tourists at the same time. In order to make Bordeaux a world-class city, he had the tram line constructed that now runs a fleet of whisper-quiet light-rail vehicles through town – literally. Watch that you don’t get smoked by one of these when you’re out wandering around.
Juppe also had the buildings cleaned and restored, the riverfront promenade built, and the unsightly warehouses removed from the city’s inner core.
The result was dramatic: underneath the grime and neglect lay a city that was every bit as beautiful as Paris and as alluring as its southern counterparts on the Cote d’Azur. Juppé would go on to serve as Prime Minister of France, and was re-elected as Mayor of Bordeaux in 2006, a position he retains to this day.
With an afternoon of shopping behind me (and a much-needed new pair of swanky European pants purchased), I made my way back in the glow of the setting sun to the Viking Forseti at her Quai des Chartrons berth. It’s a brand-new docking location for the line, and one that was just inaugurated last month.
Although it is situated farther from the retail therapy hub of Bordeaux, the new docking location makes a lot of sense. Coach parking is locates just steps away, and the neighbourhood surrounding the pier is filled with couples out for a romantic stroll and kids running zipping around on skateboards. There are funky shops nearby, cool riverfront eateries, and yet it is removed from the crush of tourists that the reflective pool, or Miroir d’Eau, (mirror of water) has created.
Plus, Bordeaux is exceptionally walkable. I’d highly recommend getting out for a stroll along the promenade at sunset.
To me, stepping aboard a Viking River Cruises ship is like coming home. That’s not a knock against the competition; frankly, no one offers a truly bad river cruise. But Viking’s warm Scandinavian styling, endless walls of glass, and casual elegance fit my personality like a glove.
Viking Forseti is no exception to this rule. Launched in 2013, she was moved to Bordeaux at great expense to pioneer this new itinerary for Viking this year. To me, there’s nothing like stepping into the glass-filled atrium, or enjoying a cappuccino out on the Aquavit Terrace.
My home for the week is a really fabulous Category A Veranda on Upper Deck (3). With its own step-out balcony at 205 square feet of living space, it’s suitably comfortable for two people to sail in, and enormously spacious if you’re travelling solo like I am.
The first thing I do whenever I step into my stateroom on a Viking Longship for the first time is activate the music. The interactive television system includes dozens of hours of audio-on-demand, all of which come pumped through the surround-sound-esque speakers embedded into the ceiling. I love film scores, and there’s a nice mix of film music worked into the “Classical” channel. It’s such a simple thing, yet I find it so relaxing and soothing.
Our Live Voyage Report aboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Forseti continues tomorrow from Pauillac, France! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.