River Renaissance

Share this page

This article, written by Bordeaux-based tour guide and journalist Maxine Colas, is a participant in the 2014 Guest Bloggers' Program sposored by the Great Wine Capitals Global Network.

All photos copyright Maxine Colas

Once upon a time, the Gironde, Garonne and Dordogne rivers were bustling with merchant barges called « gabarres », transporting barrels of wine downstream towards the Estuary across the Atlantic or the Channel, during what was known as the « Golden Age » of the Bordeaux wine trade. After a distinctly ‘dry’ period, the river is alive again, but this time with luxurious cruise ships carrying well-heeled tourists, all headed upstream towards the Mecca for wine lovers and World Heritage city of Bordeaux.

During the 26 years I have been living in Bordeaux, I have watched the city re-awaken from a long, sombre sleep to become today’s vibrant, gleaming metropolis, expanding along the banks of its reclaimed river. The tourists I accompany as a local guide are always impressed by the sleek tramway, the rejuvenated quayside brimming with activity along the landscaped walkways, and elegant 18th century waterfront facades, built from limestone quarried out over the centuries from beneath the medieval city of Saint-Emilion and the Entre- Deux-Mers. « And to think we thought Bordeaux was just a village surrounded by vines ! », is a comment I hear regularly.

Palais de la Bourse and Miroir d'Eau

Going with the flow

In just a few years, following its elevation to Unesco World Heritage status in 2007, Bordeaux the blond beauty of the South West has become an immensely popular port of call for foreign visitors and a base from which to discover the rich architectural and gastronomic heritage of the historic Aquitaine.

Bordeaux has become the second most visited city in France after Paris and home to the largest wine festival in the world. This is   « Bordeaux Fête Le Vin », held on the banks of the Garonne, a bi-annual 4 day event, which alternates with  « La Fête du Fleuve »  (River festival), is set to attract record crowds of over 500,000 people this year. A « must-see » is the spectacular sound and light show, which retraces the history of Bordeaux and its celebrated wines, projected onto the facades of the emblematic Palais de La Bourse.

Bordeaux Fète Le Vin 2012:  Combining the cultural with the flavoursome in the port of Bordeaux

Full steam ahead

The Garonne river has once again become an integral part of life in ‘nouveau’ Bordeaux and a considerable source of revenue thanks to river tourism. The fact that ships can navigate
between the region’s three rivers means that a host of fascinating places are within easy docking reach.

A record 30,000 river tourists cruised the region in 2013 (3 times more than seven years ago), bringing an increase in revenue of +117% compared to 2006. The ever-increasing numbers of river tourists is set to break new records in 2014, with the addition of the leading European cruise company Croisieurope’s second ship, « Le Cyrano de Bergerac » and the arrival of two major luxury river cruise companies, Viking River Cruises and Uniworld.

This year, a record 43 sea liner stopovers are scheduled in Bordeaux ports, which the city’s tourist office believes will bring in a healthy 10 million €uros.

Viking River Cruises-"Forseti" docked in Blaye, June 2014

As a result, ports of the region are being revamped to accommodate this new influx.  After a city tour in Bordeaux, passengers can enjoy a relaxing cruise up the Gironde to the port of Pauillac, in the heart of the Médoc vineyards, then across to Blaye, docking at the foot of the famous 17th century citadel, followed by Cadillac, located further south on the Garonne, with its historic castle and nearby Sauternes and Barsac, and finally, Libourne – the gateway to the ‘right bank’ vineyards – built on the confluence of the Dordogne and L’Isle rivers, with its lively market, nearby Saint-Emilion and Pomerol.

Coach trips from the ships to the famous Houses of Cognac, the prehistoric caves and truffle farms of the Dordogne and the unique inland sea of Arcachon Bay are all part and parcel of the river cruise agendas. Also on the menu is an astonishing array of local wines for all budgets (just under 8,000 châteaux in the Bordeaux AOC vineyard), great restaurants, wine bars and
specialities I encourage visitors to taste : confit de canard, foie gras, cèpe mushrooms, oysters, goats’ cheese, macaroons, canelés – to name but a few…

Presentation to the press of the Cité des Civilisations du Vin, Vinexpo June 2013

New Wave Wine City for 2016

Bordeaux is currently welcoming four times more visitors than in 2006 and has high hopes for the future. Just like the cellars of its prestigious châteaux, enthusiastic development of the region’s attractions is unlikely to run dry.

The ambitious new project,  « La Cité des Civilisations du Vin », a unique international Wine City, dedicated to worldwide wine culture, which is scheduled to open its doors in March 2016, aims to attract a new tidal wave of 425,000 visitors a year. The building is currently under construction on the banks of the Garonne. The innovative design of the 50 metre-high centre, inspired by the swirling action of wine in a carafe – and perhaps the eddies and waves of the Garonne it will look out over – will be an attraction in itself. A substantial docking area will provide easy access for river cruisers and taxiboats.

The Cité will undeniably enhance Bordeaux’s reputation as one of the most desirable tourist destinations in Europe and the world’s fine wine Capital. It has been described by industry professionals as « the flagship for the development of wine, river and regional tourism ».

Bordeaux never forgot its wines but now it has remembered its name « Bord’eaux » – meaning ‘waterside’.

By Maxine Colas, ©BWN June 2014