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French river cruises | Viking longships | French countryside | castles and wine

Cool, understated elegance that belies inner sparkle and sizzle.

From the Mekong to the Amazon, Bordeaux to Budapest, river cruises are proving the new “nine-to-five adventure”. Longships are tapping into what seems an insatiable desire for good food, fine wines, providore markets and ancient towns along the waterways of France. Susan Skelly reports from the comfort zone.

If proof were needed that river cruising is the It Girl of travel, it came one crisp sunny spring day in March 2014 in the French city of Avignon, under the watchful eye of the imposing Papal Palace.

Three longships, festooned with more red-and-white balloons than an Arsenal versus Manchester United FA Cup Final, were docked side by side on the Rhône.

It was a christening ceremony destined for the record books, a Guinness World Record for the most cruise boats launched by one company in one hit: three in Avignon, four in Rostock, Germany, nine in Amsterdam. And close behind them, two more in Portugal. So, 18 new ships launched across four countries in five days.

The occasion was celebrated that night with a glittering gala dinner underneath yet another architectural behemoth, the colossal 2000-year-old aqueduct and engineering feat that is the Pont Du Gard, which stands astride the Gardon River, some 25km from Avignon.

Among the 360 guests were Viking River Cruises executives, international travel agents and travel writers, and the longships’ godmothers, 18 women whose areas of expertise range from food to wine, medicine, travel to shipbuilding, banking to singing. BBC wine commentator and Master of Wine Susie Barrie, invited to christen Viking Heimdal, guardian of the gods, was especially chuffed. “I have four god children,” she quipped during a wine lecture onboard a few days later, “but this is one that won’t be expecting gifts.”

The christening dinner was lavish: top-drawer food and wine, a performance by French superstar Mireille Mathieu, and breathtaking light artistry visited on the Pont du Gard itself.


One of Viking River Cruises longship fleet in Europe. Photo Viking River Cruises

Investment in the global cruising industry reached $US7.2b ($7.7b) in 2013/14, according to Cruise Lines International Association’s most recent gobal cruise industry report. River cruising is one of the fastest-growing niche markets. In 2013, European river cruising numbers increased by 24.4 per cent on the previous year. The Asian market is expected to expand significantly in coming years as more operators introduce the Mekong and Ayeyarwady rivers to their itineraries.

Châteaux, rivers and wines

The Viking River Cruises fleet alone has, since 1997, grown to 53 – 30 of them longships. The company now claims 50 per cent of market share, and says its growth has reached 49 per cent with a revenue of some $1b a year. Destinations include Russia, Europe, China and Vietnam. Cruises along the Amazon and the Mississippi are being investigated, and an ocean cruiser, Viking Star, was due to launch in spring, 2015.

Also being launched in March 2014 was a new itinerary in France, called Châteaux, Rivers & Wine, tapping into the seemingly insatiable desire of American, British and Australian travellers for good food, fine wines, providore markets and centuries old towns and châteaux.

The Viking Forseti (all are named for Norwegian gods) is docked on the Gironde, at Bordeaux, in south-west France, a magnificent, almost radiant city whose famous vineyards tend to get all the press. Mayor Alain Juppé has overseen a rejuvenation of the waterfront, ordered mandatory care of limestone facades, which gives the city a golden glow, and installed a smart tram system. Wide boulevards, including the pretty 1.2km shopping op Rue Sainte-Catherine, are pedestrian-friendly.

The 135m Viking longships can carry 190 passengers on three decks. Like Scandinavian design, the boats are elegant and minimalist, notable more for what they leave out than what they put in. There are no casinos, gyms, bathrobes, bathtubs, minibars or multiple restaurants. “No nickel and diming” as CEO Torstein Hagen puts the “extras” of cruising.

Indeed, Hagen’s enterprise finds parallels in the endeavours of Scandinavian Vikings, who ventured across Europe in search of new settlements, forging new trading routes. “There are three pillars to a successful company,” he told a press conference in the dining room of Viking Forseti. “Your customers love you, your employees love you and your competitors hate you.” He keeps a close eye on the competition and is a walking encyclopaedia of cruise ship minutiae.

The four pillars of this cruise are the wines, the food, the buildings and the rivers. There are three rivers that underpin Bordeaux. The Gironde (actually an estuary) is formed from the meeting of the Dordogne and the Garonne just below central Bordeaux. The Gironde divides the region into its left and right banks. Very French. The left bank’s soil is more gravelly and nurtures the heavy black-fruit flavours of cabernet sauvignon grapes. The soil of the right bank is better suited to an earlier-ripening merlot.

Viking-cruises river boats french countryside

A laneway in picturesque Saint-Emilion, France. Photo Getty Images

Vintage villages

The new itinerary takes in beautiful towns such as Pauillac and Blaye, Saint-Émilion and Cadillac, and the pretty market town of Libourne, where asparagus, truffles, and cherry soup star on town menus with beef à la bordelaise, eel, pâtés and terrines.

Pauillac is home to Château Lafite Rothschild, Latour and Mouton Rothschild. Saint-Émilion is a UNESCO site and noted for its winemaking heritage (Châteaux Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Pomerol and the nearby Château Siaurac) and mediaeval streets and buildings.

Much of what’s on offer focuses on family businesses that love to share their homes, wines and plans with people who care. As Joost Ouendag, Viking’s vice-president of product development and land operations, said over an onboard dinner of local lamb, sometimes he has to rein them in. “Once it stops being authentic, we don’t want it. The local characters are what makes a cruise so memorable.”

The tides and seasons ensure the unexpected. Guests can come and go as they please when the boat is docked, and bring aboard local cheese and wines to try, in tandem with more organised expeditions to the châteaux for tastings. Especially memorable is the optional excursion to the Camus distillery in the mediaeval town of Cognac for its opportunity to create a bespoke blend.

Cognac was originally created to avoid a wine tax; it was boiled down to pay less tax, becoming popular when it was further distilled by Dutch traders. Your bottle is corked, labelled and recorded, in case you wish to reorder when you try it in three months. As mementos go, this has to be one of the more unique.

Source Qantas The Australian Way September 2014



Editor. Writer. Traveller. Keeping tabs on all things fab.

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