Stepping Back In Time In Blaye
“I cook with wine. Sometimes I even add it to the food.”
– C. Fields
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
November 24, 2014
Today, Viking River Cruises’ Viking Forseti sailed into the sleepy little town of Blaye, France. Though there are two berthing locations in Blaye, we lucked out today, with a prime docking location right next to Blaye’s historic Citadel.
In the early morning hours, the only thing quieter than the town of Blaye was the good ship Viking Forseti, whose inhabitants were sleeping in after a long and wonderful night of wine, food, dancing, more wine, and good cheer. In fact, the guests onboard the Viking Forseti participated in the most active nightlife I’ve ever seen on a river cruise ship. I won’t say who shut the bar down (certainly not the Canadians!), but the fact that I know the time of this exit – around 1:30 a.m. – should provide a clue.
The Lounge was busy until well past one in the morning. People twice my age were up there on the dance floor, dancing five times better than I could. Drinks were flowing, the crew were having a good time, and Sylvia – Viking Forseti’s talented onboard pianist and vocalist – kept us all musically entertained well into the night.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Viking planned for this to be a lazy morning. We departed Pauillac at 6:30 AM, and tied up in Blaye at 8:00 AM, with the first organized excursion to visit the Blaye Citadel starting at 9:30 AM on-the-dot. I like and appreciate that Viking has their excursions depart on-time; announcements are made ten or fifteen minutes prior to the tour’s departure, and the responsibility to be on the coaches or pierside is left up to the guests.
One of the best aspects of river cruising is that you have the ability to participate in the inclusive tours or the optional (additional-cost) tours – but only if you want. In my case, with the Blaye Citadel so close at hand, I joined some fantastic fellow Canadians that I had become friends with and together, we set out to create our very own walking tour of Blaye and the Citadel.
But before we get to that, here’s what’s happening onboard Viking Forseti today:
- 6:00 – 11:00 AM. Café Breakfast. Coffee, juice and pastries are available at the coffee station in front of The Lounge.
- 6:30 AM. Cast Off! Viking Forseti leaves Pauillac for Blaye.
- 6:30 – 9:30 AM. Continental Breakfast. A selection of beverages and breakfast items are available on the Aquavit Terrace.
- 7:00 – 9:30 AM. Enjoy a buffet breakfast and a choice of dishes cooked to order in The Restaurant.
- 8:00 AM. Viking Forseti arrives in Blaye.
- 9:30 – 11:00 AM. Shore Excursion: Blaye Citadel. Join us for a walk around this historic citadel followed by free time.
- 12:00 PM. Lunch. Join us for lunch in the Restaurant.
- 12:00 PM. Café Lunch. If you prefer, enjoy a lighter, buffet-style lunch in the Lounge.
- 1:00 – 7:00 PM. Optional Excursion: Cognac masterclass blending with Camus. We will welcome you back in Libourne.
- 2:30 PM. Cast off! Viking Forseti leaves Blaye for Libourne.
- 3:15 PM. Afternoon Tea. Join us in the Lounge for French tea time. Accompanied by the Live Cooking Demonstration – Learn all about how to make traditional French Macaroons in the Lounge with your Pastry Chef George.
- 5:30 PM. Viking Forseti arrives in Libourne.
- 6:00 PM. French Lesson. Join your Program Director Mieke for a casual French lesson in the Viking Lounge.
- 7:00 PM. Daily Briefing. Program Director Mieke invites you to the Lounge to find out about tomorrow’s excursions and events.
- 7:15 PM. Dinner. We invite you to join us for dinner in the Restaurant.
- 7:15 PM. Bar Menu. Enjoy a casual meal on the Aquavit Terrace.
- 9:15 PM. Presentation: Food & Wine Pairing. Join us in the Lounge for a presentation about the art of food and wine pairing.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Blaye’s 17th-century Citadel is one of the most unexpected surprises of this trip so far. It was originally built by Vauban to protect Blaye against attacks by thirsty would-be murderers, but the only person to ever attack Blaye Citadel was Napoleon Bonaparte, who likely did so because it was a Wednesday afternoon and he was bored.
Inside the Citadel is an amazing array of shops that, in contrast to the town of Blaye, are actually open. These sell wine (no surprises there), but also some very unique hand-made crafts. My favorite souvenir of the day was a bottle of red wine produced and bottled mais en chateau – or ‘on-site’ – that had a label crafted entirely of tin and inset into the bottle. It’s a fabulous souvenir in its own right, and I am sure the wine is decent, too. Moreover, I purchased the entire bottle for less than €10.
On the lower-level of the Citadel, on a part far removed from guests and observers – four men were firing guns at targets on one of the walls. Three of them had modern pistols; the last man had what looked like a cross between a shotgun and a musket. No one knew why, and every time the musket would discharge, people felt less inclined to ask.
A quick hike up to the top of the east side of the Citadel provides some fabulous views of Viking Forseti at her berth, as well as a look at some of the remaining cannons that used to guard the Eastern wall.
Now, for those who prefer to have guided commentary, Viking’s tour makes complete and total sense. All you have to do is wear good walking shoes and bring your QuietVox radio receiver system so that the guide can speak to you digitally without having to yell. However, if you’re looking for something a little more independent, you can always opt to do your own thing.
Blaye itself is a sleepy little town. On my visit, the fact that it was a Holiday Monday accidentally turned it into a ghost town. Many shops will shut down in France on Mondays, and that makes this port-of-call less-than-ideal for those with a love of duty-free shopping. But, it is highly walkable, and I had a nice stroll around the city even though everything remained conspicuously shuttered at 10 AM on a business day. The funny thing is that I barely even passed people, and the few that I did were all lonely souls from the Viking Forseti who wandered aimlessly through town like extras in a zombie movie, looking for the one open shop.
But, if you can’t do anything on shore, that’s why the lovely Viking Forseti is moored so close at hand. Once I’d come back onboard, I went for another casual lunch in the Aquavit Terrace, where the spread of food changes each day. Usually, there’s a pasta option, some sandwiches, soup, desserts, salads, and fruit. The soups in particular are really good; today’s was a spiced carrot soup served with chunks of diced carrots.
This afternoon, we repositioned to Libourne, where we arrived just after sunset. These little bouts of scenic cruising seem to work well with the atmosphere onboard; guests typically mingle in the lounge, or return to their rooms for a nap to recharge for the night ahead. In that sense, the onboard atmosphere is very reminiscent of an oceangoing cruise ship – and that’s not a bad thing.
Of course, there are plenty of diversions to pass the time this afternoon, including a cooking demonstration on how to make Macaroons, those little hamburger-like pastry creations that fill shelves with pink, green and brown colours throughout France. By the time everyone in the lounge has had their fill of Pastry Chef George’s magnificent creations, well – it’s time for cocktail hour.
The other day, I’d talked about purchasing the Silver Spirits premium beverage package, and I think on this voyage I’ve already gotten my money’s worth, and then some. The reason being: the premium wine list is filled with nothing but fine wines from Bordeaux. So it’s become almost a tradition for me now to start my evening off before dinner with something light (a little Kir Royal, anyone?) before moving on to a different kind of French wine. The whites are quite nice, but for me, it’s the red wines that have been more than worth the price of admission.
It’s also interesting how much this has taught me about wines that I literally knew nothing about days before – though Viking Forseti’s fantastic sommelier Franck might have had something to do with that. Still, it’s neat – three days in – to just casually say, ‘I’ll do the Bernadotte, please.’ Being here in France gives you the chance to figure out what sort of Bordeaux wine drinker you are. The Silver Spirits package lets you do it for a single price (on this voyage, approximately $200 per person). As they say in France, it’s superrr.
I still can’t say enough fine things about the crew of the Viking Forseti. My past experiences with Viking have all been stellar – their crews are some of the most talented on the rivers of Europe – but there’s this interesting atmosphere here onboard amongst the crew that’s different. It’s a little bit electric. The guests can feel it too; already most already have secured “their” tables with “their” favorite wait staff at dinner time. There’s nothing competitive about it; it’s just how it worked out. During meals (and, well, most of the day) Hotel Director Michael and Maitre d’Hotel Bruno are continually making the rounds, asking guests how their voyage is going, and genuinely inquiring as to how they are. There’s no canned speeches here; each guest is greeted differently and personally.
Tomorrow, I’m setting out on a full-day adventure to visit Libourne, Saint-Emilion, and to go truffle hunting in the countryside. I’m hugely looking forward to it. But, although we still have many days to go, I’m already making plans to come back here to France – and the Viking Forseti.
Our full journey:
Viking Forseti - Chateaux, Rivers and Wine In Bordeaux
|November 22, 2014||Bordeaux, France||Arrival; free time.|
|November 23||Gironde River / Pauillac, France||Scenic Cruising / Medoc and Margaux wine country visit; wine tasting & evening at leisure|
|November 24||Blaye, France||Tour of Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site; afternoon free time or optional excursion to Cognac|
|November 25||Libourne, France||Tour of Saint-Emilion, a UNESCO World Heritage Site & Pomerol wine region; afternoon at leisure or optional excursion to Bergerac|
|November 26||Garonne River / Cadillac, France||Scenic Cruising / Excursion to Sauternes wine region & wine tasting|
|November 27||Cadillac, France / Bordeaux, France||Morning city tour / evening at leisure in Bordeaux|
|November 28||Bordeaux, France||Tour of city center, a UNESCO World Heritage site; afternoon at leisure|
|November 29, 2014||Bordeaux, France||Disembark Viking Forseti; flight to Budapest, Hungary for the start of our next Live Voyage Report!|