Truffles, the fruit of a fungus, are an acquired taste, which is much easier to acquire than the truffles themselves. These delicacies cost a pretty penny in restaurants, and finding their natural wooded whereabouts, hidden just below the surface of the ground, is a learned and lucrative craft.
So, when Viking River Cruises offered truffle hunting as an optional excursion (at about $120) from its Viking Forseti, during a one-week voyage in the Bordeaux region of France, the quick answer was “yes.”
Our “hunt” was a resounding success, as the excursion included the leadership of a master guide, known in France as the Truffle King, and his dog Farah, trained as a truffle sniffer. This would be no fishing trip without a nibble. Truffles awaited us beneath the soil at a farm near the village of Les Eyzies in the Dordogne region. Here, the owner and guide, passionate Edouard Aynaud, is an expert at attracting the truffle fungus to grow on the roots of his trees.
We came (by bus), we searched (where Farah scratched the ground), we dug (carefully), we discovered truffles, and we ate. A meal was prepared at the farmhouse from previous truffle pickings, flavoring buttered toast, scrambled eggs, pasta, and ice cream. Truffles can sell for as much as $1,200 a pound, so we ate appreciatively.
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Such an excursion is lure enough for a river cruise, which speaks to the primary reason that the popularity of river voyages continues to rise. Many river cruises in Europe and Southeast Asia are booked by vacationers more as transportation to destinations than vessels for lazing a week away.
Many of Europe’s cities, the ones that travelers want to visit for culture and history, lie by the waterways that long have been the most efficient way to move freight on the Continent. Now, new riverboats are sporting modern accommodations and fine dining, offering an increased comfort level.
Add to this vacation choice a nearly all-inclusive cruise rate — high by ocean cruising standards but a significant break on the cost of Europe’s city hotels and restaurants — and you can see why business is booming.
River cruising, traveling the interior of Europe with your bedroom and chef, typically fits the vacation goals of more educated, mature travelers. Torstein Hagen, Viking River Cruises chairman, likes to say that while ocean voyages are for drinking, river trips are for thinking (though presumably the cruises he is launching on the Viking Star, the first of his new Viking Ocean line, will be an exception to the rule).
That comparison is simplistic, but it’s his way of saying that most people choose ocean cruises to relax and be entertained, while most people choose river cruises to explore cultural and historic sites. Most group excursions off river vessels are included in the price.
River trips also provide extended time for getting to know your fellow passengers at unassigned shared tables and easy access to some destinations, as riverboats often tie up for the night in the center of towns, while ocean ships spend the night hours churning toward the next destination.
Keep in mind, however, that all river cruises are not alike.
Some scenic voyages can be quite sedentary and thus appeal to an older, less mobile crowd. On a slow barge cruise several years ago I got up early in the mornings for a long bike ride to combat lethargy.
Other cruises require mobility, such as the voyages on the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers of Cambodia and Vietnam, where passengers climb riverbanks and take long walks.
The 190-passenger Viking Forseti had a particular appeal for me because its weekly trips begin and end in Bordeaux, a city in the center of one of the world’s great grape-growing regions.
The Forseti floated by Margaux and vineyard-laden fields of villages with names that end in Medoc. One night, we tied up in Pauillac, home of Latour, Châteaux Lafite Rothschild, and Mouton Rothschild. Other days, guided tours slipped past Pomerol and Graves. We walked the medieval lanes of Saint-Emilion and Cadillac, and tasted the sweet products of Sauternes.
For wine enthusiasts, a vacation in Bordeaux is like letting kids loose in a candy store — so much wine, so little time.
Be aware that the flows of rivers and canals change with seasons, weather and tides, such as the tides on the waters of the Garonne, Gironde and Dordogne rivers of Bordeaux that can, in spring, reach 15 feet.
Normally, the Viking Forseti cruises each week from Bordeaux to Pauillac, Libourne, Cadillac and Blaye. During my April week aboard, the vessel was not able to motor to Cadillac or Blaye (some early startup issues on the route may also have been to blame), so passengers boarded buses several days while the boat stayed in Bordeaux. The bus rides were a bit disappointing, only because they were unexpected, but the destinations were not.
Bordeaux is a delight for walking along the river and into downtown, for gazing at historic markers and for shopping. Passengers returned with wine, cheeses and foie gras (to enjoy onboard), seasonings, kitchen and dining accoutrements, clothing and tales of meeting helpful shopkeepers.
From the citadel at Blaye, looking across the estuary that leads to the Atlantic Ocean, we could imagine the historic battles between France and England for ownership of the rolling hills along the rivers of Aquitaine, awash in vineyards.
Our cruise included a lavish French dinner at a chateau, numerous wine-tastings and good walking tours with passengers able to hear the guides through audio listening boxes that Viking provided.
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com.