An exciting voyage on the river and sea in Spain
There was palpable excitement in the air as La Belle de Cadix approached the mouth of the Guadalquivir River at the Atlantic Ocean. We were following in the historic wake of some of the world’s greatest navigators including Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan who set off respectively in 1492 and 1519 to discover the New World and complete the first circumnavigation of the world.
Our seafaring voyage of discovery might only be taking us 18 miles along the Bay of Cadiz and always within sight of the coastline, but it was nevertheless a big adventure as our vessel transitioned from the smooth river to the sea and caught the swell of the first small wave.
Although the Guadalquivir might fly below the radar as far as river cruising is concerned, it is historically significant as the country’s only major navigable river and a key route during the golden age of exploration. Nowadays you can sail the 50-mile stretch from Seville to Cadiz, but in Roman times ships could go further inland all the way to Cordoba, more than 70 miles away as the crow flies.
Taking its name from the Arabic ‘al-Wadi al-Kibir’, which translates as ‘big river’, the only way for modern voyagers to sail from Seville to the Atlantic coast is aboard CroisiEurope’s dual purpose river and ocean ship La Belle de Cadix. In addition to being the only hotel boat operating on the river, it also offers a unique itinerary combining several days in Seville with both a river and ocean cruise.
Having been to Seville before, on the day that fellow passengers headed into town on a walking tour we strolled in under our own steam, which was easy to do with the vessel moored on the main waterfront by Maria Luisa Park which is around a 10-minute walk from the grand Plaza de Espana and a little further to the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, whose Giralda tower is a good landmark if you lose your way going to or from the ship.
That said, part of the fun of strolling around the maze of atmospheric streets in Barrio Santa Cruz, formerly the Jewish Quarter, is getting lost. We stopped off for a tapas lunch in one of the many bars and restaurants and feasted on plump olives, Spanish omelette, fried anchovies and delicious goats’ cheese baked in honey. With a couple of beers and glasses of sangria it only came to around £12 a head and, suitably fortified, we found our way back to the waterfront and stopped by at the Gold Tower.
Built in the 13th century as a defence against enemy ships, it now houses a museum charting the naval history of the city. In the 16th century Seville was the trading centre of the western world, as all goods arriving in Spain from the New World had to first enter the city as it was the only place where merchants could purchase imports from the newly discovered lands, making the Guadalquivir was the main maritime route for Atlantic traffic.
Soon it is time for La Belle de Cadix, which carries 176 passengers, to follow this ancient trade route. Not long after leaving Seville the river opens up, each side flanked by rice and cotton fields dotted with remote farmhouses and the occasional ornate haciendas built as the homes for wealthy estate owners.
We stop at one close to the river bank to see an exclusive equestrian show organised especially for passengers. Two noble Andalusian horses, with distinctive crested necks and flowing manes, go through their paces and execute high stepping dressage moves and spins that date back to the time when they were used as war horses. One performs with a flamenco dancer pirouetting just a couple of feet from its hooves. Afterwards we sip sherry and watch more dancing before strolling back to our waiting vessel.
Back on the ship lunch was waiting, and being a French-owned line food and drink plays a central role in any CroisiEurope cruise. While many lines include complimentary red or white wine with lunch and dinner in the fare, we had a choice of three white, three rosé and three red with each meal.
Days started with pastries and croissants in the lounge for early risers before breakfast in the dining room, with baguettes and croissants on every table and hot and cold dishes from the buffet and omelette station. Aside from a themed Spanish buffet on one day, lunch was always a ‘proper’ served affair and dinner spanned four courses, naturally including a cheese plate. There is a set menu but dietary requirements, such as vegetarian, can easily be catered for. The week featured regional dishes, such as paella, and staff warmed to the theme, welcoming diners in red Spanish hats.
Coastal stops, weather permitting, are the tapering peninsular city of Cadiz and El Puerto de Santa Maria, part of the so-called sherry triangle. If you hold a stereotypical view of sherry as a yuletide or rather old fashioned tipple, this cruise will make you think again. The fortified wine is drunk year-round and virtually at any time of day in Spain, and a tasting at the Osborne winery – founded in 1772 by Thomas Osborne from Exeter – revealed surprisingly delicate, light tasting varieties opposed to the tawny drink often found gathering dust at the back of British cupboards.
A natural highlight was UNESCO-listed Donana National Park where the 200 square miles of marshland, lagoons and sand dunes are populated by migratory and native birds, including flocks of flamingos and storks perched on huge flat nests which they return to each year.
We might not have spotted the elusive and endangered Iberian lynx that inhabits Donana, but our week provided a wealth of sights and experiences on river and sea and in grand cities and remote landscapes.
CroisiEurope offers the seven-night Andalusia: Tradition, Gastronomy and Flamenco itinerary from £1,143, including excursions, all meals, wine with lunch and dinner, soft drinks and an open bar – excluding Champagne and wine on the premium list – throughout the day. For further details and departure dates call 020 8328 1281 or visit www.croisieurope.co.uk
Silver Travel Advisor recommends CroisiEurope