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Cruising the River Loire

November 17, 2016

The Loire might be the longest river in France but right now the next few miles have the full attention of everyone on the bridge.
Our vessel, the Loire Princesse, is less than 50 yards from the bank and heading straight for it.
Then one of its giant paddle-wheels goes into reverse, the bow swings hard to port, and we resume course between the channel markers.
Two hundred yards on, as we pass a herd of cows drinking at the water’s edge, the red and green markers call for more zig-zagging, which makes for interesting navigation but all in a day’s work for the helmsman of a vessel specially designed for sailing this beautiful, but wickedly shallow, river of castles and wine.
The French owners of Croisieurope had this enterprising and handsome ship built in nearby St Nazaire, in the yard that turned out the Normandie and Queen Mary2, with a flat bottom and paddle-wheel propulsion.
“Just like the Waverley,” said a Swiss passenger who has sailed on the legendary Scottish steamer.
We are a mixed bunch of 80, including a large party of Germans, on a six-day cruise that is really only four days because the first and last days are just for arriving and departing. Passenger make-up varies, with a group of Swedes on the next cruise. Our onboard announcements were in French German and English.
It all starts in Nantes on the Loire’s Atlantic estuary. We had had come by car which allowed for a pre-cruise visit to castles a little farther to the east, such as Chenonceau and Amboise, and the Sancerre wine region.
The first morning Loire Princess stayed on the estuary to visit St Nazaire, where there was a good visit to the STX Europe shipyard, currently building two huge cruise ships. Nearby are the massive U-boat pens built by the Nazis, which withstood many attacks by RAF Lancasters and post-war attempts to demolish them. Now they shelter fishing boats and a tourist attraction called the Ocean Liner Experience, based on the beautiful Normandie.
Loire Princesse tied up between the pens and what turned out to be a popular seafood restaurant. The meals on board were excellent with quick, friendly service without menus but one night we had no difficulty swapping pork for steaks.
Wine flows freely, and there is no extra charge for spirits and beer in the dining room or lounge bar, the latter staffed by two smiling barmaids who could not have done better on roller skates. I have to say all of the crew, led by the energetic hotel manager Pedro from Portugal, were very hospitable, and the passengers mixed well.
It’s a relatively compact vessel (some European river boats have 200 passengers) with two passenger decks, the upper featuring balconies, and an open top deck with tables and umbrellas. Beware 247 tucked behind the bridge unless you are traveling alone.
The lounge was a comfortable place to relax, and stylish as well like the rest of the ship. An organist played singalong stuff like Blueberry Hill. Nobody did sing though, although there was dancing one night. Took me back to days gone by in Lancashire where the bigger pubs had an organ and jolly lads would say, “We’re all Nelson Eddys after a pint or two.”
The route took us back to Nantes for another night, a bus ride to the mighty castle of Clisson, a home the Dukes of Brittany, and an enjoyable wine tasting, then, finally, up the Loire with the paddle-wheels beating a muffled thud-thud through the lush countryside.
Another castle, this one built by Henry 11 of England, waited for us at Ancenis after a day of skillful navigation around sandbanks, some almost as big as you’ll find on the Irrawaddy in Burma, where they plant asparagus and peanuts in warm sand as the river recedes. Here wine, such as Muscadet, is the thing.
Not much local traffic is seen, other than the odd fisherman in small, flat-bottom boats.
Last day was a grand finale and well conducted by our excellent guide. We left early and drove for two hours, then as often happens later in the year, the sun broke through, this time at Azay-le-Rideau near the castle where the Duke of Windsor married Wallis Simpson.
After a lunch we carried on to the magnificent gardens of Villandry, then the enchanting castle of Usse and its nicely presented story of the Sleeping Beauty. It’s a bit of a climb up the round tower, but that did not deter Prince Charming.
We disembarked Loire Princesse at Nantes, but did not dash home, for this lively city – home to yet another imposing castle – is a springboard to explore the beguiling Britanny coast and places like Isle de Re, favoured by chic Parisians, and Marenne, famed for its oysters.
*In 2017, CroisiEurope will offer a number of 6 and 8-day Loire
itineraries with prices from £1,002 per person and £1,331 per person
respectively including all meals and drinks onboard. Call CroisiEurope on
020 8328 1281 or visit http://www.croisieurope.co.uk. It is the largest river boat company in Europe and has been 40 years in business.

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