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It's always exhilarating to be cruising through a new landscape. I'm having breakfast aboard Viking Forseti and the Gironde estuary, rippling with morning sunlight beyond the windows, spins dancing light around the dining room. Little islands float past, topped with ragged crowns of trees. A rusting car ferry lurches across the river, where vineyards are pegged on hillsides like lines on a music sheet.
I tuck into eggs benedict as we dock beneath the citadel at Blaye. A king of Aquitaine, assassinated during the Dark Ages, is entombed deep in the bowels of the hill above the river. Above loom 17th-century fortifications built by Vauban, Louis XIV's military engineer. The ship's engine slows to a growl and ropes lash us to the promenade. Time for a scramble through the fort and a pause at a cafe for a restorative coffee as squinting locals smoke cigarettes.
I'm in France's Bordeaux region, sailing the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, and the Gironde estuary where the two unite. It's an area of cool Atlantic breezes, cognac and wines, soft limestone villages and chateaux at every river bend. Many of the chateaux are owned by fabled vineyards. In the last few days I've sipped glorious sauternes dessert wines at a cellar door near Cadillac and made an excursion to Chateau Siaurac, whose happy owner, Paul Goldschmidt, takes us on a tour through his vineyards.
"These vines here, they're our living treasures, 70 years old and planted before the great frost of 1956. Look, it's incredible!"
As we sample Goldschmidt's wines, he enthuses over their qualities. "Blackberry, cherry, vanilla. It's like a man, very direct!" he says of his Chateau Siaurac. A Chateau Le Prieure is more elegant and nuanced. "Red fruit, spices, mineral and floral notes on the palate. Oh! It's exquisitely feminine."
We're a happy lot as we set off to nearby Saint-Emilion, which sits amid some of the world's most legendary vineyards. Among the pleasures of river cruising are inside knowledge and entertainment, and Goldschmidt, effervescent as a bottle of champagne, has delivered.
Our guide in Saint-Emilion is informative but relaxed, too, as she shows us around the World Heritage town, aglow in pale limestone. From its gravelled terraces, we gaze over vineyards and the church spire of Pomerol, whose wines sell for thousands of euros a bottle.
"You think there should be a decimal point somewhere," says Maxine of the many zeros on Pomerol's price tags. "But unfortunately, no."
I'm far from a wine expert, but I'm rather thrilled to be visiting such an iconic wine region. Our sixth day brings us to Pauillac at the centre of the Margaux red-wine appellation, and to another wine-sampling stop, this time at Chateau Kirwan, a classic French mansion surrounded by statue-studded lawns. Then we sail onwards. My favourite spot is on Viking Forseti's Aquavit Terrace on the bow, where I can eat lunch as landscapes gurgle past.
Bordeaux arrives with a certain familiarity. We've sailed under this orange-coloured stone bridge before. We spent two nights in the city at the start of our cruise, docked beneath Bordeaux's gracious riverside curve of grand classical facades. Happily, we have another two days to explore. Some passengers set off with the ship's chef to plunder the market, others head to a cooperage to learn about wine barrels.
I'm happy just to saunter about. I only have to step off the ship to be enfolded in Bordeaux's historic centre of pretty squares, gargoyle-studded churches and medieval alleys. It's always exhilarating to be strolling through a new city, and somewhere a wine bar awaits.
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Viking Cruises.
Viking River Cruises' eight-day Chateaux, Rivers and Wine cruise in the Bordeaux region has multiple departure dates between March and October 2019. From $3495 a person twin share, including meals and guided shore excursions. Some optional excursions cost extra. Phone 138 747, see vikingrivercruises.com.au