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The Garonne, Dordogne and Gironde: A river cruise guide

Destination Reviews

Flowing from the central Spanish Pyrenees to the Gironde estuary, which runs from the great city of Bordeaux to the sea, the Garonne is the key river of southwest France, with tributaries such as the well-loved Dordogne.

Its murky brown colour at Bordeaux results from the meeting of the sediment-laden fresh water of the Garonne with the salty sea water of the Gironde estuary. The alluvial plain supports fertile farmland and fine vineyards, and the terroirs of the region represent a broad palette of climates, soil types, and grape varieties, hence the extraordinary variety and excellence of world famous Bordeaux wines. The production of wine in the region dates back 2000 years to Roman times.

Uniworld's S.S. Le Bon Voyage in Libourne, France

This region of southwest France, known as Aquitaine, has a chequered history, including 300 years as an English possession (as a result of the marriage between Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II). At that time it was already a renowned producer of excellent wine with huge revenues generated from those wines exported to London.

Magical names to conjure with from the world of viniculture include Château Latour, Château Mouton Rothschild, Château Lafite Rothschild, Haut Brion, Margaux and more. As a result, any visitor to the region will enjoy visiting a variety of châteaux to learn more about the wine production, and more importantly of course, to taste the wines, with a memorable collection of appellations such as Médoc, Entre-deux-Mers, Premières Côtes, Côtes de Bourg and Sauternes.

Vineyard in the Bordeaux region of France

Obviously a good wine calls for excellent food, and visitors will enjoy great banquets and delicious pairings. With the Atlantic coast in easy reach, fish and seafood feature heavily.

Along the rivers are irresistible towns and villages: Blaye, with its 17th century citadel, built to protect the estuary from the threat of the English and Dutch fleets; the medieval village of Bourg, boasting Romanesque buildings; Cadillac, home to the castle of Roquetaillade, which has been lived in by the same family for over 700 years; thriving Pauillac, with the adjacent ancient village of Bages, perhaps the most famous appellation in the Médoc; and the elegant fortified harbour town of Libourne.

Chateau Pichon Longueville in Pauillac, France

The jewel in the crown, though, is of course Bordeaux, beautifully laid out when it was rebuilt in the 18th century to inspire its prefect, Baron Haussmann, to do the same in Paris. Supremely prosperous, the lovely merchants' houses, squares and gardens present a beautiful front, but visitors will be more captivated by the tiny alleyways and back streets as they explore this lovely city.

The great cathedral, Grand Théâtre, and extravagantly Gothic Basilique St Michel sit alongside contemporary introductions such as the lovely Miroir d'Eau at the Place de la Bourse, or the lifting bridge which allows cruise ships to dock alongside the waterfront. Its UNESCO status as a city of art and history is well deserved, and it continues to evolve.

Pont de Pierre, Bordeaux

Dominated as it is by wine production, visitors might not be aware of other reasons to visit Bordeaux: fantastic fishing in the estuary produces some amazing delicacies, appealing not only to the local people but also to birds, making the region a birder's paradise as they seek out grey herons, cormorants and black-headed gulls. The right bank features cliffs and hills where you can visit ancient troglodytic dwellings.

Oyster fishing in Arcachon on the Gironde Estuary

All in all the combination of a great climate, fine wines and rich history make this a fascinating region to visit, and the ideal way to explore is on a river cruise which brings you to a new centre each day.

Meet the author

Edwina Lonsdale is Managing Director and together with husband Matthew, owner of Mundy Cruising. Most recently she's cruised on Windstar and has also sailed with Silversea, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas, Crystal, SeaDream, Ponant, AmaWaterways and Aqua Expeditions. Her favourite destination is the Galapagos however she's also enjoyed cruises in the Mediterranean, Danube, Middle East, East Africa & Indian Ocean, Brahmaputra, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Mekong, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Caribbean and the Arctic. When she’s not travelling she loves reading, food and wine.

More about Edwina

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