By: Carol Codwell, Tour and River Cruise Specialist
If you’re a foodie, wine lover, or history buff, this is the river cruise for you! I am all of the above, plus an amateur writer, so right now, sharing my experiences on this amazing trip, I am in my wheelhouse! This river cruise takes you to a region of France known for its phenomenal wines, foie gras, and walnuts and I get to tell you all about it. The wonderful Aquitaine.
Our Departure to and Arrival in Bordeaux
We start this tour late, due to KLM cancelling our flight out of Houston, but through perseverance, we got rebooked on a much later flight. Sleeping overnight on board the plane, we then made stops in London and in Amsterdam. Little tip: Making a connection in London Heathrow is a life accomplishment. You really need time. Two hours is pushing it, three hours is optimal.
We arrived in Bordeaux very late with several other Viking passengers who waited in the Bordeaux airport for all to board their Viking airport transfer while we jumped in a taxi and, for half the price, whizzed away and in 15 minutes, and arrived at our longship, the Viking Forseti.
It’s the easiest check in on the planet. We said hello and gave our names and a room key was produced and bags taken from us in a matter of minutes. We were shown the way to the lounge where we were greeted by energetic wait staff, with an assortment of fresh French cheeses and our first glasses of Bordeaux wine. It was close to midnight, and the staff served us as if they had just begun their day.
After our little repast, we were shown the way to our cabin, a category D, mid ship (which on this vessel, a state of the art, longship, with a hybrid engine, makes no difference). The ship is so ultra-quiet while moving, that you don’t feel any sense of engines rumbling or ride discomfort no matter where you are on board.
I have to admit, I was a bit shocked at the size of the cabin. Space is limited and you want to get your luggage out of the way as soon as possible so you can move around in the room with a little more ease. After a day, I did get use to the space limitations and the fact that I had to give a little thought to turning around in the bathroom and shower stall. Also getting a sneak peek of one of the cabin housekeepers on his hands and knees with toothbrushes scrubbing the bathroom floor and later polishing the shower stall hardware, nose to knob with the shower, gave me sense of how much Viking values cleanliness.
That’s all the details of my arrival. Now for the fun stuff… touring the Aquitaine!
Touring the Aquitaine
If I went into detail on each day of the itinerary, I’d have a publishable book when I’m done, so I will leave the itinerary for you to study on your own on the Viking website. I will share the highlights of my trip and a recap of the three amazing optional excursions in which I participated.
My First Taste of Sauternes Wine
This is my second trip to France, the first just a visit to Paris. What impressed me the first time and even more so this time, was how important gastronomy is to the French. In other words, they sure know how to “get their eat on”. I love that about them. They really care about food and what it means to gather with friends and family and really dine. One of the Local Hosts on the trip indicated that her family’s Sunday dinners are 5 hours around the table. They are eating and talking and eating some more and enjoying their time together and their food and wine. With that said, our first Chateau visit takes us to the town of Cadillac, in the region of the Aquitaine, that is the home of a new and much loved wine discovery for me, Sauternes. It is a sweet wine, but do not be mistaken. I saw sweet wine haters on the tour fall in love with this wine. I like it all, so I found it to be absolutely wonderful. It’s not syrupy and the flavor of it is intense because of the way it is made. The process is dependent on climate conditions to help the vines produce a grape that catches the botrytis cinerea bacteria, also known as noble rot. Yes, rotten grapes make up this wine. And when the grapes are harvested, rather than cut the entire bunch of grapes, the workers have to hand pick the individual grapes that have reached the exact right stage of rottenness, just before becoming a raisin almost. It’s best not to look at the rotten grapes, but to just drink up! The French have this wine with a meal or cheeses. It is not considered a dessert wine.
So you can see that in just the first day of this trip you can learn so much about wine and also history, which brings me to the next highlight of my trip, learning the history of the region.
Truffles, Truffles, Truffles!
On the fourth day of the trip we head to Libourne on the ship, disembarking and boarding motor coaches to a region of the Aquitaine known as the Perigord. I was blown away by the fact that there are traces of human settlement by prehistoric peoples there. On our way to the best thing that ever happened to me on the trip, the truffle hunting experience called, The World of Truffles Hunting and Tasting, we see rock cliffs and spaces and holes in the cliffs that were the entrances and windows to caves occupied by Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal man. Dotting the countryside alongside these cliffs were the loveliest farms and Chateaux.
Then, hidden in the morning fog in the not too far away distance we see the beautiful country home and truffle plantation of Edward and Carole Aynaud-Hublet. Edward is one of the foremost authorities in the world on the Black Perigord truffle, and we were just in time for the new crop of winter truffles. If you are unfamiliar with truffles, they are considered a delicacy and top out at prices in the neighborhood of $1200 a pound. They are a fungus, a mushroom, but used like a condiment to season dishes like pasta and sauce and even on the menu of some of the “shi shi foo foo” burger joints in the form of truffle fries (french fries seasoned with truffles). The taste is pronounced and almost like an onion/garlic flavor. There’s a whole world of truffles since they are priced like a precious gem, and we learned all about the market place including the practices of the counterfeiters and how to spot the best.
On arrival we were greeted down the hill at our motor coach by Farah, the “wonder dog,” literally. Once upon a time, female pigs were used to find the truffles which grow underground around oak and hazelnut trees. The practice of using pigs has gone to the wayside, because the black truffle smells like the pheromones of a male pig and her response to that is to eat the truffle. Not a good look considering how expensive they are, so dogs are now trained to do the hunting. Edward took us out to the plantation, and it was acres of oak and hazelnut trees, and Farah and her puppy Lino went to town sniffing tree trunks and digging for truffles. After the 30 minutes of hunting, we were summoned to the farmhouse for a meal prepared by Edward’s wife, Carole. It was truffle-palooza! After we sat down to an amuse bouche of a crostini topped with melted cheese and truffle, the first course was a rich egg dish with truffle throughout accompanied by french bread for dipping and a lovely glass of Sauterne wine. Next was pasta with cream sauce and shaved truffles throughout. Then came dessert, a scoop of caramel ice cream with a caramel sauce laced with truffles. Sounds odd, but tasted amazing.
And no ending to a French meal would be complete without a bounty of cheeses, the local walnuts, and some dried fruit all accompanied by a nice glass of Bordeaux wine. FYI, Edward is on the speaking circuit, globally speaking about all things truffles. He has taken his spores and started plantations in California, Oregon, and our own fair state, Texas. Yes, Edward says there are truffle plantations in South Texas growing the Perigord truffle.
Making My Own Cognac
Fast forward to day 5, and we’re up bright and early to board the motor coach, and head just outside of the Aquitaine to the town of Cognac, best known for a distilled wine we know as Cognac. It is a city that has obvious industry going on, big business, in the way of making Cognac. There you see all the big distillers, Remy Martin, Martell, Hennessy, Courvoisier, etc. There, we visited the house of Camus. It is the last of the family owned distillers, producing Cognac since 1863. On this wonderful day, I got to make my first and probably last custom blend of Cognac and bottled it to bring home for my fiancé to enjoy with his cigars. Here, I was way out of my sphere of knowledge, but I sure had a blast. After the tour and a brief lecture on Camus Cognac, we were escorted to a room tricked out like a chemistry lab and given four types of Cognac from four different areas of France where the Camus family grows grapes. Some of it tasted like flowers, some of it tasted like vanilla, and some of it tasted like grandma’s old closet, but in a good way. Under the tutelage of one of their master blenders, who only spoke French (and I don’t,) I mixed it all together in proportions I thought might be tasty and we’ll just have to find out just how tasty it will be…stay tuned for that. They provided bottles for us, and custom labels, factory sealed it shut for the plane ride home and placed it in its own wooden box for transport and elegant presentation. For the next 10 years at the house of Camus, my Cognac recipe will live on and it will be on file in the event I wish to order another bottle.
Not Your Grandma’s Piggly Wiggly
We are now at the last day of our river cruise and back in Bordeaux. At this point, I’m thinking I’ve gotten all the goodness out of the tour with one more optional excursion to go. This one, a trip to Le Marche’ des Capucins with the chef of the Viking Forseti. As a foodie, a visit to this market was like a special pilgrimage. It made me totally want to become French. It gave me life! The highest quality of food is the norm here at a market frequented by the local restaurant chefs, as well as the everyday people. Grass fed beef, veal, goat, whole rabbit, and lamb are de rigueur. Pasture raised chickens, pork from the coveted black pig, cheeses from raw, unpasteurized milk, and organic produce are all standard issue, and everywhere at this market. With the chef, we sampled fresh anchovy wrapped olives, brioche made by a French Master Baker (an esteemed and honored profession since the beginning of time), sliced smoked duck, and the funkiest, ashiest, yummy French cheese I’ve ever tasted with a chaser of marcona almonds.
Nothing topped the freshness of the seafood there. I walked passed rows and rows of the freshest fish and shellfish, and never smelled a tinge of fishiness. This was my version of heaven. I wanted to take everything home with me, but so that I could get through customs without any hiccups, I settled for purchasing a small jar of seasoning that the chef said no French chef does without, Piment d’Espelette. I still don’t know what’s in it, since I don’t know French, but it can be used on everything. I’m guessing by how it looks, that it’s a pimento style pepper like paprika with a bit more flavor. He used it that night at the Captain’s dinner in the amuse bouche of the evening, foie gras creme brulee’ with pumpkin bread croutons. This, along with a seared foie gras, which he demonstrated how to make the day before as one of the shipboard activities.
As you may be able to tell, I loved my trip. This is not one of the usual itineraries that people look for in a river cruise. Most want to sail the Danube or Rhine when they travel on a river cruise. Keep in mind, that this cruise would not be the same kind of experience on the river. Other than many beautiful Chateaux along the rivers, there’s just not that much scenery on the estuarial part of the Dordogne, Gironde, and Garonne, and the ship does not travel very far. What is exceptional about this itinerary is the region. The Aquitaine is a “must experience” with all of its food, wine, and history. This is what made it an extraordinarily wonderful trip for me.
Chateaux, Rivers & Wine – Bordeaux to Bordeaux – 2016
Tour and River Cruise Specialist
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