This year we celebrated two very special birthday’s for people in my life: First, Mrs. Buddha turned 50 in February and second, our dear friend Frank turned 50 in August. To celebrate the big occasion we decided to take a river cruise in Bordeaux, the capital of Aquitaine in Southwestern France and one of the world’s undisputed wine capitals. As always, Mrs. Buddha did her homework and found the perfect cruise-line for us Ama Waterways. The reasons we picked Ama Waterways were as follows: reputation for great food, a regional wine program allowing us to taste the best of Bordeaux wines, and optional bike tours while visiting each village. Our expectations were not only met but exceeded on this 2 week journey through France. Now sit back, grab a glass of Pavillon Léoville Poyferré, and enjoy this post for Ama Waterways Taste of Bordeaux.
Ama Waterways Taste of Bordeaux – Days 1 & 2 in Paris
First of all, I am doing something different with this post, which is grouping the pictures into a single gallery for ease of use. If you want to see the images behind the stories just click through the galleries below. Second, I did not travel with my nice camera so all of the images below were taken from my iPhone. Now that I got the disclaimers out of the way enjoy reading about our time in France…
The first two nights we stayed in Paris at the Marriott Opera Ambassador Hotel which is in the 9th Arrondissement and centrally located to The Louvre, The Opera, and the Eiffel Tower. We made the most of our weekend visiting all three and then some! Dinner our first night was at Le Restaurant (yes, that is the name) a 1 Star Michelin restaurant located on the left bank of Paris. The restaurant was amazing from start to finish. The bar was intimate and the bartender Nicholas was an excellent host and craftsmen of fine cocktails. Dinner was even better as we dove in to the seven course tasting menu paired with some of France’s best wines.
The second day in Paris featured a bus ride through the city with stops at Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. We broke for lunch and found some delectable escargot at a cafe near the hotel named Le Cardinal. Our final night in Paris featured a bus tour of the city starting in one of the most historic and interesting neighborhoods in Paris, Montmartre. We toured the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur, had frog legs at a Brasserie, passed by the Moulin Rouge, and made a final stop at the Eiffel Tower to see it illuminated at night.
Ama Waterways Taste of Bordeaux – Day 3 in Bordeaux
After two full days in Paris we boarded the TGV train to Southwest France and to Bordeaux. This was an easy and pleasant train ride through the French countryside. When we arrived Ama Waterways representatives were waiting for us with buses to take us to our ship, the AmaDolce, for the next seven days.
Once on the ship we new we were in for a treat as the interior was beautifully decorated and well laid out. From the start, the staff was friendly, attentive, and knowledgeable. There was a brief happy hour to get everyone acquainted with the staff and checked into our cabins, followed by a fantastic dinner. Overnight the ship cruised to the next port on the Garonne River, Cadillac where we spent the next day.
Ama Waterways Taste of Bordeaux – Day 4 in Cadillac
Morning – Farmer’s Market
Our day started in Cadillac, an old (14th century) walled city directly across from the Sauternes wine region, which we visited in the afternoon. The morning in Cadillac was spent visiting a village market where locals go to get the best fish, meats, cheeses, breads, and produce. This is where we got a sense of real French life and a small window into the incredible food available in France. I could go on for several pages about this experience as it was my favorite of the whole trip but will focus on one story conveying the amazing time we had.
We love cheese and in particular French cheese. Our favorite French cheese is from Normandy and is called Pont-l’Évêque. This cheese is uncooked, unpressed cow’s milk cheese with a washed rind; a soft cheese with a very pungent aroma. My father introduced us to this cheese a long time ago and it has been a staple of ours on cheese night ever since. We found a stand in the middle of the market selling all types of cheeses. But this one had squares of Pont-l’Évêque so we decided to stop and get some. We met the fromagier, Marie, who happened to speak enough English to help us. We navigated the conversation exchanging pleasantries until we left with not only Pont-l’Évêque, but a bounty of other French cheeses as well!
With cheese in hand, we found some excellent saucisse, foie gras, and finally a boulangerie for some fresh baguettes. We made our way back to the AmaDolce and on to the top deck for a French style picnic! Sadly we picked the day when the lunch served aboard featured fresh oysters from the market… no matter as we happily ate the spread in front of us and enjoyed the great wine served onboard. Now time for some rest and off to Sauternes for an afternoon of wine tasting!
Afternoon – Sauternes
In the afternoon we went to the other side of the Garonne River and to the Sauternes wine region. This appellation is best known for its excellent sweet wines. Vineyards were all around us and as we were there just before harvest, the grapes were bountiful. Our first stop was to Château de Rayne Vigneau which has a 1st Grand Cru classification dating back to 1855. The vineyard was beautiful and the tour guide was amazing. We had the opportunity to walk through the grapes and learn all about the process of making his type of wine. Once inside we saw their wine making process and tasted some of the best Sauternes wine in the world. In addition, we had pairings with this wine that showed us new ways to match food with this complex dessert wine.
Our next stop was to Château de Roquetaillade, a castle built in the 14th century. This castle was amazing and it has been owned and occupied by the same family for over 700 years. Our tour guide Phillipe (a close family friend) was very knowledgeable, energetic, and funny. This tour was a nice surprise in the middle of the best wine region in the world.
Ama Waterways Taste of Bordeaux – Day 5 in Pauillac
Morning – Walking Tour
Today we woke up North West of Bordeaux and on the other side of the Garonne River in Pauillac. Pauillac village, in Bordeaux’s Medoc peninsula, houses some of the world’s most famous and expensive wines (most obviously those of the first growths Chateaux Latour, Lafite Rothschild and Mouton Rothschild). The village is best known for red wines made predominantly from Cabernet Sauvignon. As you will see in the pictures below this grape variety is well suited to the gravel soils found all around Pauillac. The large stones retain the heat of the sun throughout the day and help keep the grapes warm at night when the air cools. We had the pleasure of doing a walking tour through these famous vineyards and tasting the grapes right from the vines.
Afternoon – Medoc
Our next stop was to the Medoc district of Bordeaux which, once again, produces some of the world’s most expensive wines. This area was mostly used for salt marshes and animal grazing until the 17th century when the Dutch came. They started to drain the area and make it usable for vineyards. Their hope was to provide the British with another wine market. This paved the way to create one of the most coveted wine regions in the world.
We paid a visit to Château Léoville Poyferré, a small but renowned estate achieving a Second Classified Growth in 1855. The tour was amazing: we walked through the vineyards, learned about the different in grape varietals based on the shape of the leaf, saw their production and storage facilities, and ended with a tasting of their amazing wines. As this Château is located on the left bank of the Garonne River the wines from this appellation are big, bold, featuring the cabernet sauvignon varietal. We walked away from this tour with several bottles to drink later!
After our visit to Château Léoville Poyferré we took the bus to the most famous vineyard in the region Château Margaux. Unfortunately this Château does not have tours but we were able to walk around the iconic property, the vineyard, and taste some of the grapes right off the vines.
Ama Waterways Taste of Bordeaux – Day 6 in Blaye & Bourg
Today our cruise took us North to the Dordogne river and to the village of Blaye. One of the best things about Ama Waterways is their bike program. They have bikes you can use daily on a first come first serve basis. In addition, most days offer walking or biking tour options. On this day we decided to do the bike tour through the French countryside in the village of Blaye. Then later in the afternoon bike from the village of Blaye to the village of Bourg where the AmaDolce would be waiting for us.
Biking through the village of Blaye started with a visit to the Citadel of Blaye built in the 17th century. This fortress was built to protect Bordeaux at its point of ingress on the Dordogne river. After riding through the citadel we followed our guide through the village stopping to see vineyards, talking with some local farmers, and tasting more grapes directly off the vine. After the morning tour it was back to the ship for lunch, a short rest, and then on to our afternoon bike tour to Bourg.
The bike tour to Bourg is not for the inexperienced biker as this is a 14.2 km ride with some serious elevation changes. With that said, it is a beautiful ride with amazing sights along the way. The bike tour follows a path along the Dordogne river heading south to Bourg. We saw quaint houses lining the river where French retirees live and we saw a World War II ship wreck right off the bank of the Dordogne river. As we made our way in to the village of Bourg we stopped to pick and eat fresh figs. This ride was so worth the many hills we had to pedal through!
At night the small village of Bourg held a wine festival just for the passengers of the AmaDolce. The setting was gorgeous, set on top of a hill overlooking the village and the Dordogne river. We found some really nice wines from the right bank of Bordeaux: Château Mercier Graines Blanches and Château Mercier Cuvee Prestige. Both were inexpensive and delicious! Definitely worth the effort to find now that we’re back in the US.
Ama Waterways Taste of Bordeaux – Day 7 in Libourne
Today we started out in Bourg and cruised south down the Dordogne river to Libourne, the wine making capital of northern Gironde. The cruise on the AmaDolce along the river was a very nice way to start the day. Majestic châteaux dot the riverbank as we make our way to Libourne. Upon arrival our tour took us first to Château Ferrand with some of the finest wineries in the Graves wine region. We toured the vineyard, the wine making operations, and had a wonderful tasting paired with French cheese. Our favorite wine there was the Château Ferrand Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2009.
After the morning tour of the winery we made our way to Saint-Émilion a village dating back to prehistoric times. This quaint little town was the highlight of the day with the various wine shops, stores, and cafes. Our tour guide suggested a little cafe at the top of the hill with fantastic sparkling Rosé Les Cordeliers. Mrs. Buddha and I sat in a medieval courtyard, sipping the Rosé, taking in the sights. It was a pleasant pause to the on-the-go sight seeing we had been doing all day. As we may our way back to the bus we stopped at a cafe and ordered more wine and a cheese board. It took them so long to bring our cheese we had to wrap it in napkins, run back to the tour group, and enjoy our cheese on the bus ride back to the AmaDolce.
Ama Waterways Taste of Bordeaux – Day 8 in Libourne & Bordeaux
Today started in Libourne where the AmaDolce was docked overnight. In the morning we toured the tiny village of Creon and spent time walking through their market. Once again we were immersed in to the bounty of fresh vegetables, meats, cheeses, and bread. Our tour took us to a boucher where we got to sample so many good pieces of their charcuterie (the word itself comes from the French words chair, meaning flesh, and cuit, meaning cooked). Next we went to a fromagier and sampled some amazing French cheeses. After perusing the market all morning we couldn’t help ourselves and bought several pieces of cheese, charcuterie, and bread to take back to the ship… imagine that!
In the afternoon we went to visit the Château de Montaigne, a castle near near Bergerac and Saint-Émilion. This beautiful château had an amazing backstory which focused on Michel de Montaigne and his famous Essays: Major works of humanism of the renaissance, and Fruits of a lifetime of reflection and reading…before Michel de Montaigne there was no concept of an essay! Learning about his life and philosophy made for an enjoyable afternoon… that and the wine tasting at the end!
That night the AmaDolce made its way back to Bordeaux to spend one final day before disembarking. We spent the evening with new friends eating the amazing meal our chefs prepared as the ship cruised gently to its next stop.
Ama Waterways Taste of Bordeaux – Day 9 in Cognac & Bordeaux
All Day – Cognac
On our final full day in Bordeaux we decided to spend it in Cognac (go figure). I am glad that we did as Cognac is a quaint little commune in the southwest of France and the birth place of King Francis I in 1494. We took a long bus ride to Cognac and did a short walking tour before breaking for lunch. Thankfully we still had the cheese and charcuterie from the Creon market the previous day. In addition, we had some wine that we picked up in Bourg. All we needed was a fresh baguette and a place to sit and our lunch would be complete. We stopped at a local boulangerie for the baguettes and they were kind enough to let us sit outside to eat. What a great way to start our day in Congnac… until Mrs. Buddha knocked a cup of wine on to her white jeans. Thankfully she speaks French well enough to navigate a local shop and a new outfit!
After lunch we did a tour of the Hennessy headquarters and operations. It was an amazing tour and we learned quite a lot about the art of making Cognac brandy. Basically what we call Cognac is brandy made from several different eau de vie (translates to water of life). Eau de vie is made similarly to wine but uses a double distillation process to get the end result. All of the eau de vie created over the years is stored in their cellar (some dating back to the 19th century). They are then mixed to create each batch of brandy which should taste exactly like the batches that came before. The grade of Cognac represents the age of the youngest eau de vie used: V.S. where the youngest brandy is 2 years old; V.S.O.P. where the youngest brandy is 4 years old; and XO where the youngest brandy is 10 years old. The process is fascinating and I suggest going on the tour if you are ever in this part of France.
After the Hennessy tour we made our way to another Cognac distiller Baron Otard. This Château de Cognac was built in the 10th century but was not used for Cognac production until 1796. Two stories worth sharing here about this château: First, one of the first things you notice going in to a Cognac cellar is the smell of Cognac in the air followed quickly by the spider webs all around the barrels of Cognac. In these cellars, the spiders have lived among the Cognac barrels for so long that they are unable to survive outside of that environment. So, the distillers just leave them there to live their little spider lives drunk on Cognac. Second, there is a picture gallery below a wall with pictures and letters inscribed (e.g. George Barclay 1756). These rooms were used to keep the English prisoners of war and they would etch their names in the walls which has been left that way hundreds of years later.
At Night – Chef’s table & goodbye to crew
Our last night on the ship was a wonderful one as we reserved the “Chef’s table” for our final meal on the AmaDolce. The food was amazing all week long but this dinner was intimate, indulgent, and fun. We sat in the rear of the ship across from the chef where he prepared a multi-course tasting menu for us. This was paired with some of the best regional wines in Bordeaux. We had one last chance to say goodbye to new friends we met along the way and to the crew who endeared themselves to us. After dinner we made our way to the deck of the AmaDolce for a nighttime cruise on the Garonne river and the illuminated skyline of Bordeaux.
Ama Waterways Taste of Bordeaux – Day 10 in Tours & Amboise
Morning – Disembark & Tours
Ama Waterways is very well organized and we just had to show up at the right place and time to disembark. A light breakfast on the AmaDolce, some brief goodbyes, and off to our bus waiting for us outside. Our next stop was to the Loire Valley and a city named Tours. This city is the largest in the Loire Valley and houses several universities. Basically, Tours is a French college town! The interesting thing about Tours is it sits right on the Loire river and was bombed heavily in WWII. So, most of the homes, office buildings, etc. were built after 1945. However, some of the original buildings are still standing and we were able to see them during a walking tour of the City. We stopped for crêpes and a bottle of rosé, toured the Basilica of St. Martin and found a Chapelière where Mrs. Buddha got her new Kentucky Derby hat. Our start in the Loire Valley was fantastic!
Evening – Amboise & Le 36
A short drive and we were at Amboise a small market town once home to the French royal court. On our way to the hotel for the night we stopped across from Château d’Amboise where Leonardo da Vinci is buried. At the hotel we had a chance to freshen up and get ready for the evening. At this point in the story I must tell you about our cruise director, John Riley. I have been in or around the hospitality industry my whole life and have never met anyone as on top of the details and willing to serve his guests than John. The bad part about this is I could not imagine anyone else doing that job now as he set such a high bar. With that said, John arranged for a dinner that night at Le 36 in the Hotel le Choiseul à Amboise. John knew we were seasoned foodies and arranged for us to dine at this adventurous restaurant. We had an incredible meal paired with some fantastic regional wines. Thank you John for the amazing “foodie” experience!
Ama Waterways Taste of Bordeaux – Day 11 in Amboise
Morning – Amboise
Our first stop in the morning was to see Château du Clos Lucé which was the home of Leonardo da Vinci between 1516 and 1519 and where he died. Not many people knew Leonardo da Vinci lived in France, much less died there. I certainly did not know that… but it was fascinating hearing the backstory and seeing where he lived and worked before he passed away. Without going in to much detail, King Francis I went to Italy to convince Leonardo to come back with him to France and help usher in the French Renaissance. We got to tour him home, see his workshop, and see replicas IBM made of Leonardo’s drawings.
After that, we paid a visit across the street to Château d’Amboise which is where King Francis I lived with his royal court. The castle (Château) was impressive but my favorite part was seeing the tomb where Leonardo da Vinci was laid to rest. I couldn’t resist taking a selfie with such an important piece of history.
We broke for lunch and walked around the little village of Amboise until we found this charming pizzeria named La Florentine. We sat down outside, enjoyed several bottles of rosé, and dined on some amazing food. This lunch was one of the best memories as it was so relaxed. A short walk after lunch we found some Gelato and found our way back to the tour group.
Evening – Amboise (Château de Chenonceau)
Our first stop in the evening was to Château de Chenonceau another beautiful castle in the Loire Valley. The grounds were beautiful and the backstory sounded like something from a soap opera. Too much detail to go in to here… but if you are interested in that sort of thing check it out… a very interesting story awaits. That night we went out to dinner to a place our cab driver from the previous night recommended, Hippeau Brasserie. On our drive down to Amboise we saw the hot air balloons landing in a field across the street from us. This was a lovely setting for our final night in the Loire Valley. Hippeau Brasserie was a quaint spot just on the other side of the main street with all the cafes. We had a wonderful French dinner with yet another bottle of amazing French wine. After that we made our way back to the hotel for some fine Cuban cigars I picked up along the way. Life is good…
Ama Waterways Taste of Bordeaux – Day 12 in Chambord, & Blois
On our final full day in France we may our way towards Paris and the Charles de Gaulle Airport. Along the way we stopped at the Château de Chambord which was the hunting lodge for King Francis I. There are a few things I want to share about Château de Chambord: First, one of the architectural highlights is the spectacular open double spiral staircase that is the centerpiece of the château. Second, this castle was the inspiration for the Beast’s castle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Third, this is where Chambord Liqueur comes from as it is modeled after a raspberry liqueur produced in the Loire Valley during the late 17th century. It was great touring this grand château but we were getting hungry and wanted to make way to our next stop… Blois.
Blois is the capital of the Loire Valley and was our last stop before heading to the airport for the evening. We stopped at a sidewalk cafe and had some lunch. I learned something while I was there… in France they just call it Onion Soup… go figure! Anyway, while we were eating lunch a curious thing happened on the stone facade outside of our cafe… music began to play… smoke began to billow… and dragons popped out from the windows to do a show for us! We were all quite amused and wondered what this place was. As it turns out this is La Maison de la Magie Robert-Houdin (translates to The Robert-Houdin House of Magic). A nice little diversion before starting our last tour at the Château de Blois. This was the residence of several French kings as well as the place where Joan of Arc went in 1429 to be blessed by the Archbishop of Reims before departing with her army to drive the English from Orléans. My one takeaway from this tour… Frank got to sit on the King’s throne!
Ama Waterways Taste of Bordeaux – Day 13 Charles de Gaulle Airport
Well friends, this has been the longest blog post I have written. If you are still reading this post I commend you! Anyway, this was an amazing trip spent with once in a lifetime friends. We wanted to end the trip the way we started by going to a nice restaurant in Paris but were unable to because on this day Paris was totally free of cars. As we were unable to take a cab in to Paris we improvised! That night we decided to eat at the airport restaurant and proceeded to make friends with our waiter Matthew, eat yet another excellent meal, drink some amazing French wine, and celebrate a magnificent journey!
The following morning John was there to meet us and say goodbye. We made our way to the terminal and took the long flight home…