A Tale Of Three Rivers In France
There are some unlikely heroes in fiction but Cyrano de Bergerac – remembered not least for his oversized proboscis – surely takes pole position. And yet, the pretty French town of Bergerac is so pleased to adopt him as its most famous son (even though records show the real Cyrano never actually went there) that it has two statues of him. Oh, and a supply of noses to replace those that get broken off every now and then.
As we walked the narrow streets, passing half-timbered houses and busy bistros serving the duck dishes for which the Dordogne region is famous, Martin, my guide on a tour of the town, told me several stories. At the indoor market, he said, a door had to be taken down so that Catherine de Medici, queen consort of France from 1547 to 1559, could pass through. It’s probably apocryphal, but after taking a spin around yet another market, this one circumnavigating the Eglise Notre Dame, I realised that over-indulging could be a problem here.
The only thing stopping me from tucking in to some of the tempting saucisson sec (dry-cured sausage), foie gras and French bread on sale was the fact that I was sated from all the good food and drink I’d been enjoying on River Royale, the vessel that was my home for this week cruising the waterways of south-west France.
I was sailing a new seven-night itinerary launched last year by US company Uniworld River Cruises, which zigzags up and down three French rivers and allows plenty of time to explore Bordeaux – the second most visited city in France after Paris – and a clutch of other delightful towns. There was also an opportunity to imbibe what some consider to be the best wine in the world.
From Bordeaux, on the Garonne river, we sailed to Pauillac on the Gironde estuary, then headed back upstream, diverting off along the Dordogne to Libourne. After a couple of nights we headed back to Bordeaux, and then cruised further up the Garonne before returning again to Bordeaux.
Most of the excursions took us into the vineyards for wine-tasting. At a blind tasting at Chateau d’Arsac in the Medoc, I revealed my drinking habits (and yes, I was honest – almost!) and in return was told my 'wine sign': contemporary and sensual. In Saint-Emilion we visited the underground remains of a monolithic church and the cave next door, hermitage of the 8th Century monk after whom the town was named (sadly, the story of how he fled here after being accused of stealing bread to give it to the poor turned out to be a myth).
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We then decamped to Chateau Beau-Sejour Becot, one of 15 Premier Grand Cru wineries outside the town, where a hectare of vineyard will set you back a cool €1 million ($A1.5 million). In the Sauternes wine region we learned about the fungus – known by the more palatable name of noble rot – that gives the grapes grown here their sweet taste.
The time spent sailing is minimal (the ship covers such small distances that the same three local guides stayed with us for the entire trip, going home to Bordeaux each evening), but there is plenty to enjoy on board.
By day there were Zumba classes, lectures and wine-tasting, and you could treat yourself to a massage (from €55/$A83 for 45 minutes). Come evening, the resident pianist entertained those guests who were still awake – and most managed to stay up one evening for an after-dinner open-topped bus tour of Bordeaux.
My guided cycle ride in the city two days later was even better. We rode through its back streets, admired the majestic 18th Century architecture and stopped to look at some Roman remains and indulge in a well-earned coffee before pedalling along the beautiful waterfront, a long, wide promenade shared by walkers, joggers and cyclists.
In a multimillion-euro urban redevelopment program initiated by Bordeaux mayor and one-time French prime minister Alain Juppe, facades have been cleaned, car parks moved underground and almost-silent modern trams free of overhead power cables installed. Pride of place goes to the Miroir d’eau, literally a mirror of water that reflects the magnificent Place de la Bourse, which has to be one of the most beautiful squares in Europe.
Every so often a spray of mist gives children playing in the shallow pool a cooling shower. “It would be just my luck if it went off now,” said one of my fellow passengers as we paddled in the reflection. Right on cue, it did exactly that.
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This article was written by Jane Archer from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.