Gironde and Garonne cruises
The gironde estuary, with its wonderful, fine soil and its richly varied landscapes
The Gironde Estuary is located in south-western France formed at the point where the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers meet, and is a welcoming entry point to the city of Bordeaux. All over the world, just the mention of the very name of Gironde brings to mind all its fine, noble wines: Blaye, Pauillac, Saint-Estèphe and Médoc are just some of the great gems of the renowned Bordeaux vineyards.
75km long, the Gironde flows through around 40 ports located in the ancient marshlands, where the main industries are sailing and fishing. Within the Gironde, there are several islands dotted between the Bec d’Ambès and the Pointe de Grave at the seaward end of the estuary. One of the largest, and covered in 14 hectares of vines, is Margaux.
The main modes of transport for crossing the estuary are the “gabare” or barge, a traditional boat which makes the transport of goods possible and the “filadière”, a fishing boat with sails which owes its name to its shuttle-like shape. In addition, cruise liners some 280 metres long can also be seen in the “Port of the Moon”, the largest port in Bordeaux.
People began travelling on the Gironde as far back as the Bronze Age, with the trading of tin coming from Cornwall and the trading of copper shipped from Spain. This trade allowed the emergence and foundation of the town of Burdigala, which would eventually become the city of Bordeaux, the current administrative centre of the Aquitaine region.
In the 9th century, the Vikings crossed the coveted waters of the estuary and pillaged the merchant ships. However, the maritime traffic increased again when the Kings of England took to the throne in the 12th century. In 1152, King Henry II Plantagenet married Eleanor of Aquitaine and received the Bordeaux lands as a dowry. The estuary became the route for the king of England and the wine trade took off.
Unesco world heritage
From the 14th century onwards, Bordeaux became a centre for the processing and shipping of cod for the whole of Europe. The Dutch then followed the English settling in Bordeaux, thus marking the beginning of the ship building industry.
In the 18th century, the lighthouse at Cordouan was built to help ships pass through the Gironde channels which were considered dangerous at the time. However, there was another, perhaps greater danger in the region: the wine trade attracted much interest from looters and pillagers. As a result, Louis XIV authorised the ships to be armed and the corsairs came to the rescue. They swept through the estuary to provide assurance and protection to the maritime trade. This helped Bordeaux to become the main French port.
Vauban was the Commissioner General of Fortifications for Louis XIV, and he built a citadel at Blaye in the second half of the 17th century to protect the estuary from the threats of the English and Dutch fleets. As this fort did not give him complete control over the other bank of the Gironde, he also built Fort Médoc on the left bank and Fort Paté on a small island in the middle of the estuary.
This series of Vauban fortifications was given
Unesco world heritageSite status in 2008.
Bordeaux, which had been the second slave port in France, grew ever richer as a result of the trading activities and its quaysides became exceptionally busy with warehouses springing up all over the place. It is easy to see how rich these Bordeaux merchants must have been by simply looking at the ornate decoration carved into the old buildings which today arouse much admiration for their architectural qualities. Two of the finest examples which are well worth taking the time to visit are the Place de la Bourse and the Grand-Théâtre.
Over the past ten years, along a four-kilometre stretch of the Garonne, the huge sheds and buildings situated on the Port Autonome’s quaysides have been slowing making way as substantial redevelopment takes place. Bordeaux was listed as a
Unesco world heritageSite in 2007, due in no small part to the well-preserved riverside and the historic monuments of the city.
Vines and fishing
Apart from wine, the water in the Gironde Estuary is also a great source of something else to tickle the palate: fishing.
Among the fish found here are white prawns and sturgeon: the latter is the only natural species that can be found in Western Europe. Today it is protected because it is on the way to extinction, producing up to 5 tonnes of caviar each year in the 1950s.
Fishing for baby eels (often referred to colloquially as “pibale” or “civelle”) today is the most profitable for anglers in the Gironde as these young eels have been highly prized on the Asian markets since the 1980s.
Both banks of the Gironde are dotted with small houses on stilts for fishing with square fishing nets and the estuary is a haven for migratory birds, grey herons, cormorants, black-headed gulls and many other bird species.
Wine lovers are perhaps more interested in the meandering bends of the Dordogne and Garonne, which provide natural boundaries to the great Bordeaux region. The influence of the rivers, the magnitude of the tides and the prevailing oceanic climate have created an environment entirely conducive to grape-growing and have helped to define the different wine areas in the Bordeaux region. Thanks to the great variety of soil in the region, there are many differences between the styles of the great Bordeaux wine appellations : Médoc, Entre-deux-Mers, Premières Côtes, Côtes de Bourg and Sauternes. Many of these fine wines have been produced in chateaux built in the Middle Ages on the borders between English and French territories.
Red or white, dry white or sweet dessert wine; wine has been part of the rich heritage of this region since Roman times. Has wine not been the “golden liquid” of the Garonne since the beginning of time?
Taking a trip as a tourist along the estuary is filled with the delights of ever-changing scenery.
The Gironde offers a richly varied landscape between its right and left banks. On the left bank there are fields of vines in a rich alluvial plain. As we get closer to the coast and sea, the vines give way to dunes and marshes. On the right bank, great cliffs and hills provide a striking contrast to the vines on the opposite bank. Further north, the great marshlands are to be found. Finally, there is the discovery of a fascinating series of unusual Troglodyte cave dwellings located in the cliffs from north to south along the Gironde.
Adjusting its rhythm of life to match that of the tides which extend for some 150km up from the mouth of the estuary, the Gironde cultivates its natural resources with both energy and tranquillity.