Cruising the Chateaus of Bordeaux

By Richard Carroll

With headwaters in the Basque countryside of northern Spain, the capricious Garonne River, carrying a touch of Spanish passion, meanders into France through the heart of the rich and fabled Bordeaux wine county. Not ignoring the city of Bordeaux, it leads the way to chateaus, historic wine villages and a glorious landscape of carefully tended vines that look like a prized Claude Monet rendering.

Leaving the scent of Bordeaux wine to the wind and with an all-embracing gasp, the Garonne flows into the Bay of Biscayne and the Atlantic Ocean. The fast-moving, clay-colored river that expands its wings into large estuaries and is subject to a rare tidal bore that travels up-river, tends to keep riverboat captains alert.

Dario Weber, captain of Viking's 190-guest Viking Forseti, guides the longboat from the wheelhouse on the fourth deck on a seven-day voyage through a wealth of history to the oldest and largest wine-producing area in the world. Credit the Romans, who marched in and planted grapes in the second century and who would be shocked today to find some 6,000 wine-growers and 60 different appellations, with vines stretching to the horizon in all directions.

Bordeaux, Viking Forseti's home base, is the largest urban UNESCO World Heritage City in the world. Fine dining rules here, along with a booming culture, a whirl of bicycles, and 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century architecture mercifully untouched during World War II. The innovative La Cite du Vin, standing tall on the banks of the Garonne and covering all aspects of the world of wine, is among the most creative venues on the planet. A four-hour visit involves all the senses with wine tasting on the eighth floor and dining at the Panoramique Restaurant, which offers up Chef Djorde Ercevic's inspired cuisine. Both are a Bordeaux endowment to visitors.

The port calls unravel in a maze of historic tales along with enough Old World splendor to charm the most jaded travelers. The port town of Cadillac, founded in 1280, loaned its name to the Frenchman who founded Detroit in 1701, leading to the Cadillac division of General Motors two centuries later. Nearby wine-tasting is arranged at Chateau de Rayne in the Sauternes after a bus ride on a two-lane road past a 12th-century hotel, stately parish churches, horses grazing in fields of green, and vineyards left and right.

A six-hour sail downstream under drifting clouds brings the Forseti to Libourne and the confluence of the Dordogne River. Here the current subsides to a serene relaxed mood, the banks are thick with greenery and occasionally a grand home appears. An ecstatic moment unfolds when strolling into the heart of a town retaining its 1270 medieval history. In this proud capital of northern Gironde with one of the largest fresh-food markets in the region, town-hall bells, each with a different sound, ring on the quarter hour above a second-floor gallery of 15th-, 16th- and 17th-century art as well as a Rodin.

A short drive brings travelers to Saint-Emilion, which was declared a World Heritage Site for its medieval architecture. Massive Romanesque churches stand tall along the hilly cobblestone walkways, rising above a web of weathered, tile-roofed buildings where diners take pleasure in the local cuisine.

Back on the Forseti, spirited Executive Chef Daniel Papadimas, born and raised in Sparta, is working hard to please 190 hungry guests.

"My mother taught me to cook," he said. "She sat me on a counter and taught me the art of Greek cuisine. The very first thing I ever made as a boy was an orange fruit cake, and when I'm home she prepares my favorite dish. Here I visit the local markets, purchasing from the top farmers in the Bordeaux area focusing on seasonal produce, while all our cheese comes from Libourn. My concept in the kitchen is "fire, knife and clock," meaning if you have an efficient cruise, no one will get burned or cut and we'll be on time."

The fifth day the Forseti calls on Bourg, a base for German U-boats during World War II. The village survived and boasts a huge fortress on a rocky outcropping with medieval walls and an ancient stairway providing the royals a quick route to the river. A wine-tasting at Chateau La Croix-Davids, family-owned since the 1800s, is a Bordeaux tradition.

Blaye, just north of Bordeaux, features a 17th-century Citadel, another World Heritage Site ensconced high on a rocky bluff overlooking Blaye's noted 18-foot river tide. In contrast, on the left bank Pauillac and surrounding area in the heart of the Medoc wine region is home to Chateaux Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Mouton Rothchild and Margaux. After a quick glance at all the big boys, dinner with free-flowing Bordeaux wine at Chateau Kirwan was an additional Forseti high point.

Viking offers a free guided excursion at each port, wine and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, on-board meals, port charges and a five-star hard-working staff. The Viking people say, "The world beckons and you may never pass this way again." Hopefully you will pass this way at least once. The city, river and chateaus are a treasure.

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