French revelation

In a first-time collaboration with luxury tour specialist APT, Gourmet Traveller hosts a river cruise through south-western France. Food and style director Emma Knowles gets on board.

MS AmaCello docked in Arles

Emma Knowles

There’s an air of excitement dockside as we wait to board APT’s AmaDolce. Some 80-plus guests have converged for a two-week luxury river cruise, hosted for the first time by Gourmet Traveller, through two of France’s most fêted food and wine regions, Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley.

The medieval village of Oingt.

In Bordeaux, the cruise follows the Dordogne, Garonne and Gironde rivers for seven days of eating, drinking and exploring, but first we settle in to our spacious quarters with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open to allow the outside in, then enjoy drinks in the lounge. A warm welcome from cruise director Andrew Masters includes further details of the itinerary and it’s clear some tough decisions lie ahead: a wine-tasting at the châteaux of Sauternes or a tour of the tiny village of Cadillac? A visit to a 17th-century citadel in Blaye or a Cognac tasting in the city that gave this fine brandy its name? The phrase “spoilt for choice” comes to mind.

As the days progress, it becomes apparent there are no bad choices. There are clear-cut highlights, however, including a visit to a family-owned cooperage and a tour of the awe-inspiring monolithic church of Saint-Émilion, a World Heritage site that features frescoes dating back to the 13th century.

The produce market in picturesque Bergerac (of Cyrano fame) makes the keen cooks among us want to get the pans rattling, such is the quality and abundance of figs, tomatoes, grapes and local honey, not to mention cheeses. A final day exploring the city of Bordeaux – rejuvenated thanks to the vision of mayor and former presidential hopeful Alain Juppé – takes us to the historic Château Pape Clément just out of town, one of the oldest vineyards in the region, for a viewing of the barrels and a celebration dinner.

Wine barrels at Château Pape Clément.

The next day guests journey cross-country to Arles to board the next ship, APT’s AmaCello. Some of the most scenic sailing is to come as we move at a leisurely pace along the Rhône and Saône rivers to Lyon, via Avignon and then further north to the Beaujolais region. Again, the highlights are numerous, although seeing the famed Pont du Gard aqueduct, a mind-boggling feat of Roman engineering, would have to top the list.

From a culinary point of view, watching truffle dogs in action at a truffle farm just outside SaintÉtienne ranks highly, not least because the truffles we try afterwards convert even the most sceptical among us.

The citadel in Blaye.

Our last day in Lyon includes a tour of Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse, the market named after the city’s most famous food identity. It makes a fitting conclusion to an epicurean extravaganza. We ate, we drank, we explored and we enjoyed – unforgettable.

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