Thursday 8 September 2022

Bordeaux and Its Wine

Boarding the Cyrano de Bergerac

The train to Bordeaux from Biarritz on Thursday afternoon was a regional train which stopped at several places en route to Bordeaux. Given the length of time that it would take all the party with their suitcases to leave the train it was great to know that the train terminated at Bordeaux so that we could take our time getting off. We were met by a coach at the station and driven to the riverside quay where our cruise ship awaited, the MS Cyrano de Bergerac. Already aboard were the members of the other group from Biarritz who had been travelling Second Class and had gone on an earlier train, and three other groups: a Second Class and a First Class rail travelling group and a group that had arrived by air, all of them arranged by Great Rail Journeys. Andrew our Tour Manager handed over to Judy the Cruise Manager and said farewell; we would meet him again in a few days' time for our journey back to London. The ship was operated by CroisiEurope with whom we had never travelled before, and from now on nearly all of our meals were provided on the ship, with wine included at dinner. We were taken to our cabin and unpacked, then there was a welcome cocktail in the bar, an introduction to the crew and a briefing on the following day's activities by our Cruise Manager. The cabin was not quite as well-appointed as on the Amadeus ships we'd used on the Danube and the Rhine but it was comfortable and had effective air-conditioning and a great shower.

After the briefing came the first of our three-course dinners with wine. Delicious and sustaining. For now at least the "Biarritz" group members seemed to remain with people they'd met in Biarritz although we were outnumbered by people who had not met anyone else until they joined the ship that day. The ship stayed in Bordeaux all that night and we had a reasonable night's sleep undisturbed by movement.

Cadillac and the first wine tastings

The next morning, Saturday, at breakfast we "sailed" (that's the word they use, even though we were quite clearly motoring on the river) for Cadillac, a very small town on the river Garonne. The town was built in the days when this region, Aquitaine, was ruled by England and was a "bastide'" a planned new town of its day, built on a grid street pattern with a market place at its centre and surrounded by a defensive wall. We were taken on a guided tour of the town and introduced to its local sweet Sauternes wine which we were able to sample at the Office de Tourisme at the end of the tour. After the guided tour we had a short additional tour of our own around the few other streets and then returned to the ship with everyone else for lunch. 

After lunch as the ship sailed away back down the Garonne we listened to a lecture on the wines of Bordeaux and tasted three different Bordelais wines, by which time it was time to shower and change for dinner. I learnt a great deal about wines from this lecture but it was but the first of many lessons (and tastings) of Bordelais wines which I would experience on this holiday. 

The MS Cyrano de Bergerac eventually docked at Cussac, not even a hamlet, on the left bank of the Gironde estuary into which the Garonne flows. Again it remained moored overnight. Although there was a quiz in the longe bar that evening, it was time for bed after a busy day, especially as there was a relatively early start the next morning.

Vineyard Tours

Sunday's excursion was a real eye-opener for me as someone who enjoys wine but has never before visited such a major wine-producing area. I have to say that since this whole cruise the wine bottle labels will mean so much more to me, in terms of both information and emotion. At 08:30 we set off by coach to tour the Médoc area, between the Gironde estuary and the Atlantic Ocean. It was almost all vineyards. Very, very little else is grown in the region, only grapes. There are villages but the farms are all "châteaux". Actually, a wine château is very seldom a real castle, the strict meaning of "château": any winery which includes living accommodation is called a château in France. On our coach tour we were taught by a local guide Alexandre who told us about the different grape varieties, what is grown on which sort of soil and what style of wine it would produce, who owned the vineyards and how the wines were classified and priced. We ended the coach tour by visiting a small, family-owned organic winery and saw how the wines were made, sampling two vintages of their output. It was good to see the reality on the ground of what we had heard at the previous day's talk on board the ship, and to have our knowledge of grape varieties reinforced by hearing the information again from a different person in different circumstances. All meals were taken on the ship, and we sailed back along the Gironde, taking the eastern branch into the river Dordogne to dock at Libourne, another town founded by the English (originally known as "Leyburn," apparently, after the nobleman who was in charge of its development). We had a little time to explore the town after our arrival but it was so hot that we did not stay out for long.

On Monday morning we were picked up by coach and taken to explore the small town of St Emilion and the surrounding wine-growing region, culminating with a visit to another small independent chateau where the owner (whose grandparents founded the business) described the way he grew the grapes and made the wine, a St Emilion Grand Cru whose price varies from vintage to vintage but is always in tens of Euros per bottle - the better one we tasted was €69, so I don't think I'll be buying many cases ... The town of St Emilion, supposedly founded by the hermit of that name, was fascination and included a monolithic church; that is, a church carved out of one of the limestone hills on which the town is built. It seems to have had a difficult history and has not been used as a church for a very long time now. The contrast between the cold and dark inside the monolithic church and the bright, hot sunshine of the vineyards was especially striking!

Three days, four wine tastings and several lessons about French wine and while not an expert I was beginning to feel that I did know a worthwhile amount now and would be able to envisage the landscape and even have some idea about the people when I read wine labels in future. I am also beginning to feel as if Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine are old friends of mine ....

It's not all about the wine!

Ready for the gala dinner
On Monday evening, while we enjoyed a gala dinner on board, the MS Cyrano do Bergerac left Libourne and sailed during the evening to Royan, on the right bank of the Gironde estuary where the river is indistinguishable from the Atlantic Ocean. The gala dinner was preceded by an aperitif and most of us made some attempt to dress for it, although ti was two days earlier than originally planned.

Arrival at Royan was well after midnight and I woke at one stage to find a landing stage outside the cabin window - we had left the curtains open to enable us to fall asleep with a view of the gibbous moon over the ocean, but I thought that they should be closed now that land was just a few metres away.

Tuesday's excursion was very different from the last three. We were out all day and visited two towns and no vineyards! Lunch was in a hotel restaurant rather than back on the ship and wine was only mentioned in general and in passing by the guides. Eleanor of Aquitaine still figured in the history, though, along with Henry II of England. The first visit was to Rochefort and specifically to the historic dockyard where the French navy's ships used to be built. This included a demonstration of rope-making in the Corderie Royal. If you've seen the ropewalk at Chatham Dockyard in Kent you'll be familiar with the process. Unlike Chatham and Portsmouth, though, there are no historic ships to see at Rochefort. We boarded the coaches once more and took an early lunch (noon) at a hotel in Rochefort: rather rushed but of a very decent standard and with wine included as well as water - back on the ship wine was only included with dinner, not lunch. So ... although we had no wine-tasting this day we had wine with lunch instead. You have to like wine to get the most out of this trip!

From Rochefort the coaches took us to La Rochelle ("The Little Rock"). Our visit there began with a guided tour of the most historic sites and then some free time to explore before taking the coach back to Royan to rejoin the ship. The history of the town is strongly bound up with trade with England, and like a lot of seafaring towns in France and in England it now struggles with a history involving the trading of slaves between Africa and the Caribbean. The Town Hall in La Rochelle bears witness to the past wealth and power of the town. In the free time to took a stroll past the historic harbour to the beach and back along a stretch of the town wall.

Our coach driver took us back to the ship by way of a little tour of Royan which nicely rounded off a full day of sightseeing, but after dinner we also went for a walk around the town on our own to see things a little closer and simply to be close to the sea (technically an estuary, rather like, say, Southend-on-Sea). 

Overnight the Ship made its way back up the Gironde estuary to Bordeaux. I woke at one stage in the night to feel considerable movement from the waves - this river cruiser does not have stabilisers you'd have on an ocean-going ship and yet here it was effectively at sea ... but this did not last long and the next time I woke we had arrived back in Bordeaux and I was looking across the river to the familiar sight of the right bank.

Wednesday was spent entirely in Bordeaux. There was an optional coach tour of the city followed by an optional walking tour: we opted for the coach tour which took us to places we should not otherwise see and our guide told us not only about the history of the city but also of current plans for its development, which are considerable. Much substantial building work is taking place, mostly on "brownfield" sites with the city and its population and economy are expanding. 

We said farewell to the guide after the coach tour and explored the central area on our own, returning to the ship for lunch and then setting off again for a further walk, including the buying of a few gifts to take home. There is so much to see in Bordeaux but for us just soaking up the atmosphere of a beautiful town is enough. Parks, monuments, churches, cathedrals, squares and streets, and coffee on a little street corner in the sunshine just made a super day out. After dinner we set off for one last walk along the riverside and drank a pina colada on the sun deck (moon deck?).

The Train Journey Home

On Thursday morning we were ready to go home. The small group that was flying home left us at 04:00 (or so it was planned: I did not see them off!) for their flight; we left at 08:00 for the station and were soon on our TGV for Paris Montparnasse. The trip, about two hours, passed off smoothly and at Gare Montparnasse we all went to the coach which was waiting to take us to Gare du Nord. This was held up by parked vehicles and unloading vans here and there and the ventilation system was not working properly (but the driver eventually opened the roof lights which helped enormously). At Gare du Nord we all scanned our tickets and scanned our passports (twice) and had the passports stamped and then divested ourselves of everything metal before having our luggage scanned and then we were IN, ready to wait for the boarding of our Eurostar train to London. Neither the escalator up to the Eurostar terminal nor the escalator down to our platform seemed to be working, but I am fit enough to carry luggage up and down stairs and so was not too inconvenienced by this. The train was away on time and I swapped my Euro wallet for my UK wallet in preparation for arrival in London.

As usual in Standard Premier Class a light meal was served soon after leaving Paris and it was very enjoyable, with a glass of chilled rosé wine. We fell into conversation with a couple sitting opposite who were on their way home from a holiday in Croatia, which made our journey look short. It is easy to cover much of Europe by train and arriving somewhere this way gives you a real sense of having travelled. You see the scenery, you meet the people, and when you arrive you know how far you've come. If there's some hassle checking in for the cross-channel trains there is comfort in knowing that is it almost certainly better than the hassle at airports, and definitely shorter - the reason our airborne companions had to leave so early was not only that the airport was further away than the rail station, but also that they had to check in two hours before scheduled departure which, on a budget airline, was early. How ever we travel, the journey will be certain to begin and end with a train, so it seems to me that travelling by train all the way makes a lot of sense. Some say it's cheaper to fly, and it may be, but I reckon that by the time you have added the cost of getting to and from airports at both ends and parking your car if that's how you do it, then it ay not be all that much cheaper. There is also the question of whether that saving in cost is really worth getting up at 03:30 to catch the flight ... It depends on priorities. For me the experience of travelling, along with the proven environmental benefits, outweighs everything else.

We arrived on time at St Pancras and made our way over to Kings Cross - this took a while as we were in the last coach of the Eurostar train - and found that a Leeds train, calling at Peterborough, was already boarding, so we took that. Seat reservations did not seem to be working but the train was not too busy and we easily found somewhere suitable to sit. Another light meal (all we needed was the cheese course) and we were at Peterborough. The train, a British Rail InterCity 225 set, was in good time at Peterborough and we were able to get the Stamford train that left only four minutes later. That may well have been our fastest ever journey from Paris to Stamford. At Gare du Nord we had seen the news on our smartphones that our royal family was hurrying to Balmoral because of concerns about the Queen's health, and the significance of that was emphasised when we took a taxi home from Stamford station, and hearing that we had been abroad our driver told us that the Queen was very ill. When we arrived home the BBC announced that she had died. A sad end to a wonderful holiday. Long live the King.