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Crusing French rivers less-travelled

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At the Majestic in the Santo Ildefonso neighbourhood of Porto, Portugal, the coffee's great and so is the decor.

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At the Majestic in the Santo Ildefonso neighbourhood of Porto, Portugal, the coffee's great and so is the decor.

Several years from now, when studying the history of river and ocean cruising for pleasure, historians may earmark the week of March 16 to 22, 2014 as river cruising's coming of age.

In that week, 18 Viking ships were launched. It had never been done before and will likely never be duplicated.

The launches and subsequent mini-cruises and events allowed me to see rivers and ports less travelled, such as the Rhone in Avignon, the Garonne in Bordeaux and the Douro in Porto, Portugal. French rivers are hot right now, and expect a lot more choice from all cruise lines next year.

Have you been to Bordeaux lately? If not you're in for a big surprise.

The city known as the La Belle au Bois Dormant (Sleeping Beauty) is now fully awake, thanks to Mayor Alain Juppe among others. They "pedestrianized" Bordeaux boulevards and waterfront, and spent millions refurbishing its neoclassical architecture and implementing a high-tech public transport system.

The mayor's efforts paid dividends: In mid-2007, half of the city was UNESCO-listed, making it the largest urban World Heritage Site.

The tourists are back in record numbers. If you're in shape for walking, there's no need to buy a tour. The old city, shopping areas and people-watching outdoor cafés are all close to where river ships dock.

This is the home port for Viking's new Ch0teaux, Rivers & Wine cruise, from now until Christmas. It allows for lots of time in Bordeaux and other great wine regions.

Here's the itinerary: Day 1 -- Bordeaux; Day 2 -- Pauillac, for Medoc and Margaux regions; Day 3 -- Blaye and the trip I made below; Day 4 -- Libourne, for St. Emilion and Pomerol regions; Day 5 -- Cadillac (overnight) for the Sauterne region; Day 6 -- Return to Bordeaux; Day 7 -- Bordeaux; Day 8 -- Leave for home with a history of cognac and wines to share.

I took a full-day excursion to the Cognac region. I was anxious to see this part of the world and visit the family-owned Camus distillery, the smallest of cognac makers. Here I was allowed to blend my own special label of Camus Cognac. It turned out I selected oak barrels containing 40-year-old, 30-year-old and two 10-year-old wines. I'm glad they told me after the fact because my hands would have been shaking.

The mixture must blend for four months, making it a summer patio treat. A tour of the region and a special, four-course lunch at La Ribaudiere made it an exhausting and wonderful day. Our cruise was shortened to make time to fly to the christening of the two final ships in Porto, another UNESCO city.

The Viking Hemming and Torgil will sail 10-day, land-and-cruise combos on the Douro but, alas, they're sold out for 2014. That cruise starts with two days in Lisbon and the same in Porto. The ships are shaped like mini long ships, due to river constraints, but the decor and a small swimming pool were a surprise.

If you're in Porto, make sure you see the Majestic in the Santo Ildefonso neighbourhood for coffee; the coffee's great and so is the decor. The famous Lello bookstore on Rua das Carmelitas is welcoming and worth a visit whether you buy a book or not. Many places sell port, but I found a big selection at Ceri Porto, right next to the Torres Tower, a long climb to a great view. Turn around and you're looking at a small shopping centre with olive trees growing on the roof.

As Chris Owens of chriscruises.com said about one of the spectacular evenings at Pont du Gard: "Sometimes, you just have to put the camera away and take it all in."

 

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014

 

Visit portsandbows.com, sponsored by Expedia CruiseShipCenters, for daily updates on the latest cruise news, best deals and behind-the-scenes stories from the industry. Phil Reimer may be contacted directly at portsandbows@gmail.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2014 E4

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