Day 6 |
May 08, 2011

Bordeaux, France

By Lucy Hallman Russell, Cultural Historian

Weather: Sunny and warm
Air Temperature: 75 F

It was worth rising early to enjoy the passage from the Atlantic some 94 km inland along the Garonne River to the splendid city of Bordeaux. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 for its harmonious architectural complex from the French Classic Period of the 18th century, its significant port and contribution to great ideas, as well as its extraordinary Vignoble or worthy vineyards, Bordeaux is home to grandiose churches and palaces, museums and savoir vivre.

We were surprised to see the muddy waters on our cruise up river, but due to the rising tides, there is a lot of upheaval on the fertile riverbed. We were awed by the arrival of our own Silver Explorer right up to the lively quai of the Garonne in the center of the city, where we were the only ship in town.

This marvelous docking berth provided us a view into the vivacious outdoor lives of the proud citizens of Bordeaux, who rode by on bicycles or online skates; played hockey, badminton or waded in the new parks on the quai. As the Bordelaises strolled by to admire our ship, we took pleasure in their Sunday outings and cheerfulness. On this 8th of May there were celebrations commemorating the Liberation of France in WWII, so we understood the delight of passersby on learning that there were many Americans visiting the city.

Our city tour took guests to the stunning Cathedral of Saint Andre, where the amazing flying buttresses support a grand Gothic church with lateral rosette windows in flamboyant Gothic style. The adjacent Bell Tower Tour Pey-Berland is crowned by the gilt statue of Our Lady of Acquitaine, gleaming in the brilliant sunlight against a blue sky with billowing cumulus clouds.

Another highlight was the 114 meter tall Bell Tower La Fleche (The Arrow), the tallest structure in Southwestern France, beside the Gothic Basilica of Saint Michel. After viewing the Grand Theatre by Victor Louis (built 1773-1780) and his grand hotel edifice facing it, we were convinced that the French truly know how to create grandeur for all times. We trust that some of our guests got to enjoy the evening open ballet performance for young people.

As May proffered a perfect climate for dining outdoors, many guests took this opportunity to celebrate Mothers’ Day in a special way with world famous cuisine and wines. Others took advantage of the nearby Antiques Fair in the sycamore-adorned Esplanade Quinconces, with side features of ham and other meat products (charcuterie) and horticulture. What a photo delight!

A second excursion took most of our guests to the nearby wine region of St. Emilion, where we visited a different vineyard with each bus, the Chateau Franc-Mayne (Grand Cru Classe) and the Chateau Pressac. Here we saw the short stout grapevines with delicate leaves long before the grapes are developed, with full flowering rosebushes nearby or at the end of each row. At Chateau Franc-Mayne we followed the path of the grapes to the stainless steel crushing vats, the first cave of oak barrels and on to the year’s-long storage of wines in the maze of ochre limestone quarry tunnels. We felt that we deserved the exquisite wine tasting afterward.

This memorable foray into the complex Bordeaux wine region concluded with a visit to the charming cobblestone town of Saint Emilion, where an 8th-century Breton hermit of the same name settled in reclusion. There were cool catacombs to be seen as well as a unique Monolithic Underground Church, the largest in Europe. Formerly used for concerts, it is now a museum with its gigantic pillars supported by steel girders. Ray and I improvised a moment of medieval chant to show the acoustical aspects of this amazing architectural monument.

Laden with almond macaroons and sumptuous Canele pastries, we boarded our bus for the return ride through the vineyards of Bordeaux. How lovely that we may savour the lights of the night as well as the sunrise over this grand city before our ship takes the high tide back out to sea!