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Journalist Review

Rod Gilchrist travelled as a guest of Ponders Travel. A six-day Loire cruise on board CroisiEurope’s Loire Princesse costs from £1169 per person including return flights, return transfers from airport to port and six days in an outside cabin with all onboard meals, complimentary beer and wine at lunch and dinner as well as open bar throughout the voyage (not including Champagne, special wines or fine brandies), onboard entertainment and port taxes.

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THE LOIRE:By Roderick Gilchrist

It’s a cruel trick of nature that the Loire, France’s longest, most historic and according to folklore most feminine river, because they say she is both beautiful and capricious – so Gallic – has always denied her admirers panorama of the passing countryside from the water  itself when the land is dressed so enchantingly in it’s summer best.

After all at this time of year fields of blazing yellow colza share the river bank with neat columns of flowering grape ruffled by gentle breezes and cool forests where deer run free.

For centuries the river has been a romantic’s dream, the imagination excited by its ravishing Renaissance chateux. These majestic pleasure palaces for dissolute Monarchs are scattered across the Loire valley like jewels, framed in a gentle land of lush vineyards bathed in tender light that reminded Leonardo da Vinci, who died here, of his native Tuscany.

But it is during the warm weather the Loire shows what a temperamental  Diva she is .While she floods her banks in winter, creating chaos, in summer  the Loire drains away to a few inches to reveal treacherous sandbanks, effective barricades against all but the smallest fishing punts.

However, maintenant plus est changer. Everything is changing.

I have just boarded an elegant new river cruiser, The Loire Princesse, fitted ingeniously with paddle wheels, an old nautical technique so evocative of those Mississippi floating gin palaces, which opens up overnight voyages with cabins on this fabled waterway, allowing us to sail in a depth not much deeper than a generous bath.

Our six day passage on her maiden cruise is from Nantes in South West France to St Nazaire, thirty miles down-  river where the Loire empties into the Atlantic, before turning to head eighty miles upstream to the Plantagenets  stronghold of Angers .

Ports of call will include the turreted castle of Usse, unearthly inspiration for the spooky nursery story Sleeping Beauty, Villandry, where the Italianate gardens rival Versailles and the Renaissance masterpiece d’Azzay le Rideu,it’s blonde beauty reflected in the mirror like lake that guards it.

CroiseEurope is Frances biggest river cruising company but they have never been in Europe’s premier league, finessed by Ama, Avalon and Viking who control tourist trade on the Continents lucrative channels. The Loire Princesse announces serious challenge to this domination.

At 90 metres long with three decks and 48 cabins she is still smaller than her rival’s leviathans and has economised on some of the frills of bigger armadas.

In the single service dining room there is no choice of menu,and you are advised to arrive on time at 7.30pm sharp.On our first night afloat I didn’t,was greeted with moody looks from serving staff  and received only a modest cheese platter for my dejunier.There is also  no sun deck pool, hair dressing saloon, or bicycles stored in the hold for joyous rides along the tow path.

Only upper deck cabins have balconies with TV, wi-fi, and air con but they are so compact there is no room for table and chairs and no pictures brighten the bare white walls so as to enhance an illusion of space. Evening entertainments are homely, quizzes or a songbird on electric piano.

In the public areas below decks the signature decoration of this boutique bateau is equally minimalist, though intimate, with warming fabrics of rich Missoni plum and tangerine.

The game changer of course is the paddle, mid ships, port and starboard, encased in strengthened glass so we can enjoy the spectator sport of watching the mighty wheels, eighteen feet in diameter, spewing torrents in our wake.

This return to tradition – in the 19th century Loire paddle barges transported wine and fruit until the railways put them out of business –combined with the Princesse’s dinghy lightness and flat bottom allows her to skim over the river’s natural barriers.

“We can still sail touching the sand,” our Captain, Benoit Amand says proudly. “The paddles are on the side, not the back, for stability. We have no sonar so I monitor the rivers currents and depth which falls fast in these months. And we are the greenest ship afloat because the paddles don’t churn up the river bed or disturb the fish.”

On most of Europe’s rivers, cruisers in high summer often chug stern to bow, like cabs in Picadilly, but our serene pioneering progress is in such glorious isolation from any other craft that at every village we pass curious groups rush from fields and schools to the banks to gaze at the Princess, a mirage never before seen on these virgin waters. Ragondin’s, a whiskery beaver , the size of small floating logs, pop their heads out of the river in astonishment at this invasion of their aquatic kingdom.

It would be wrong to suggest the paddle will completely tame the Loire, which rises in the Cevennes mountains snaking through France for 621 miles. Beyond Angers only local fishing toues may navigate the channels of the largely dried up river bed.

So the rivers hazards deny us sight from the Loire itself of many of the great castles, such as Chinon,towering over the Vienne, where the teenage shepherdess Joan of Arc bullied the Dauphin into giving her an army to fight the English.It is generally thought  all of these masculine citadels and the feminine Loire are inextricably, if harmoniously, married to each other. However many are not actually on the Loire at all but picturesque tributaries, such as the Cher and Indre, scenic rivers in their own right, so we must visit them by coach.

There are just fourty five passengers on our pathfinding voyage, nearly all bourgeois French who view the few English with amused detachment, predictably more interested in today’s dejeuner than the noblemen’s strongholds.

Fortunately the chef accepts he isn’t auditioning for a Michelin star, and keeps the dishes simple. Poulet au Tilleul(chicken with lime blossom) followed by Tarte au Poires(pear tart), complimented with zesty local wines, Muscadet and Sancerre, are ambitious enough.

It is ironic, given the quest for architectural antiquity that our first escorted shore visit is to the ultra- modern shipyard at St Nazaire to inspect construction of the world’s most futuristic liner, Harmony of the Seas, to carry 9.000 souls. The sprawling dockyard is next to the heritage maritime museum where art deco wall panels and other original furnishings from the legendary liner Isle de France, built in this city, are displayed.

Louis, a publisher from Connecticut looks on with moist eyes. It was in 1935 he emigrated to the States on this liner with his mother when he was ten-years-old. It is touching that like so many Americans on Europe’s river cruisers Louis has journeyed to the land of his father’s late in life to connect with his roots.

The museum is housed in the grim former Nazi U boat bunkers. The re-enforced concrete was too thick to demolish so The French jollied up the menacing facade with blow up posters of the cartoon character Tin Tin. Surreal. We entered the Wolf Pack pens up a stage gangway and exited in equally theatrical style, lowered in a lifeboat.

In stately style our swan paddles on, under ancient stone bridges, past agricultural  outposts seemingly lost in the broad river’s vast empty hinterland before arriving at Bouchemaine, docking for Angers,where to our delight the town’s uniformed brass band is playing alongside one hundred cheering locals.

It seems moronic to suggest it was an anti- climax visiting one of the world’s great castles, with it’s mighty drum towers and magnificent Medieval tapestry, inspired by apocalyptic visions from the Book of Revelations, but following our heroic reception it felt like that.

It would of course have been princely to step from our royal barge directly into the courtyards of other chateau on our itinerary but sadly the coach awaits  and  next day we speed to the elegant island retreat of d’Azzay le Rideau, all bell towers and twiddly finials, then onto Villandry, it’s box hedge gardens clipped into aspects of love – tender, tumultuous , treacherous and tragic –before arriving in the black woods at Usse .It was here a one hundred year sleeping spell  was cast on Sleeping Beauty by the Wicked Witch  and a  camp exhibition of costumed waxwork dummies tells her story.

Quick reality check here.The French chateux are like spectacular stage sets. Wonderful to look at but, unlike Britain’s stately homes,often with largely empty interiors. Ruinous wars and a revolution robbed them of much fine furniture, clocks and paintings leaving many empty, gloomy and impersonal.

When I wake next morning I feel I am under a spell too. It is magical to be back on the river, dawn mist hanging over the jade green waters in a timeless tableau that could have been painted by Monet.

I only hope, now the virgin  river has lost some of her innocence to commercial admirers, the union will be a happy one for other suitors will seek to exploit her charms. Forgive my concerns but when it comes to pursuing profit the maritime merchants really are all in the same boat.

 

FACT BOX:A six day Loire cruise on board CroisiEurope’s Loire Princesse costs from £1169 pp including return flights, return transfers from airport to port and six days in an outside cabin with all  on board meals, complimentary beer and wine at lunch and dinner as well as open bar throughout the voyage(not including Champagne, special wines or fine brandies)on board entertainment and port taxes. Call Ponders Travel on 01954 232802,e mail [email protected] or visit www.ponderstravel.co.uk

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