Worldly, beautiful and high-spirited Eleanor of Aquitaine tested the durability of her two husband-kings who placed her in detention. One of these sorely troubled marriages – to Henry Plantaganet – nevertheless seeded prosperity for part of her French domain as the world's leading wine exporter.
Already extremely powerful and wealthy as the Duchess of Aquitaine, Eleanor became queen consort of England as a result of Henry's accession to the throne in 1154 as King Henry II. The union added the southwestern French province of Aquitaine to the Plantaganet kingdom in an emerging medieval empire.
Henry fostered trade between the port city of Bordeaux and London – and one of the couple's sons, King John (of Magna Carta fame), later exempted Bordeaux wines from import taxes, making them the cheapest in England.
A now uncommon Bordeaux red called clairet became gradually known in English as claret, a name still popularly used in Britain but with a wider application for other Bordeaux reds – and as a nickname for blood.
And blood flowed in a failed revolt against Henry's forces by the couple's elder sons, Eleanor's complicity (perhaps provoked by her husband's infidelities) earning her house arrest for 15 years. Released by son Richard the Lion Heart on his becoming king, she acted as regent during his absence on the Third Crusade. The amazing Eleanor easily outlived the much younger Henry and most of her 10 offspring, dying in her 80s.
Eleanor also easily outlasted "monkish" (her description) first husband Louis VII, King of France. As queen consort of France, she had accompanied him – on her insistence as feudal leader of Aquitaine soldiers – to the Holy Land on the Second Crusade. Disputes with Louis over military strategy earned her confinement, and the royal couple later returned on different ships. They had two daughters, their finally annulled marriage failing to provide a male heir.
Nowadays, a successful union is bringing visitors to Bordeaux wine districts in a week-long tour by luxury hotel barge and coach. Featuring gourmet food (foie gras, duck confit, magret, oysters included) with a personal barge chef, wine experts and English-speaking guides, it takes in charming villages, open-air markets, fortified castles, Romanesque churches, Gallo-Roman sites and prehistoric caves. Also offered are shorter and customised tours.
Pascale Bories, 40, manages this new business, having founded Aquitaine Croisieres, "a small family company", in late 2009. It followed the acquisition of Mirabelle, now plying the Gironde Estuary (the largest estuary in western Europe) and its Garonne and Dordogne tributaries.
The captain is Bories' partner, Denis Larrose, 48, whose father and grandfather were both Bordeaux bargemen.
The couple previously ran for 15 years the last freight system by barge in southwestern France until it became uneconomic. They had also operated the last diesel-carrying business on the water network until that was overtaken by new regulations.
"Since the 1970s, France has promoted all-road transport for economic reasons," says Bories. "That's why even if we [France] have the largest European river system, it is also the most poorly maintained and operated."
Downgrading of canal-barge networks involving historic conduits of the Industrial Revolution has also occurred elsewhere in Europe, but what remains is still a wonderful heritage of navigation and landscapes.
Navigation has become impossible in some instances, says Bories, in the southwest of France. Problems include bridges too low for a barge such as the Mirabelle. The 38-metre vessel also cannot proceed south of Toulouse on the famous Canal du Midi because of 30m-canal locks that are too small.
The Mirabelle was built in the Netherlands in 1942 and has been completely overhauled and modernised to provide accommodation for a maximum of 24 passengers, dining area, saloon, and 20m deck terrace. Each of the 12 cabins has two single beds with individual air-conditioning, and each with shower room/toilet.
Training in diesel mechanics and welding has made Larrose – always a sailor – the logical captain, with the venture bolstered by Bories' acumen. Graduate of a Toulouse business college, she has also studied viticulture-oenology and tourism.
Their son, Dorian, 13, who enjoys the sport of fencing and playing rugby, has a cousin, Matthis Marti, 9, whose father (Raphael Marti) is New Zealand-born. The two cousins, who are also good mates, teased each other by phone from different supporters' camps in France during the live telecast of the 2011 Rugby World Cup final between France and New Zealand.
"Everyone was delighted to see such a beautiful game," says Bories.
"We [Dorian's group] thought the victory possible, and he [Dorian] has had to resolve to [accept] defeat to the delight of his cousin Matthis. Dorian's conclusion was that in this game the Blues deserved to win, but on the whole competition, the All Blacks are by far the best – so respect." Dorian, although an avid fan of les Bleus, is also the proud owner of some New Zealand rugby jerseys.
Meanwhile, places such as the enchanting medieval village of St Emilion atop a natural amphitheatre await cruise tourists.
The prosperous city of Bordeaux (population 1.2 million) is a bonus, a major renewal of the graceful Aquitaine capital having restored its neoclassical architecture, pedestrianised its boulevards and installed hi-tech public transport. A 4km stroll along the Garonne riverside with its many boutiques is recommended.
After alighting from the Mirabelle on the Canal des Deux Mers, the Gironde Estuary, or the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, visitors can embrace the vineyards. The wine region is naturally divided by the waterways complex into Left Bank and Right Bank categories. The left is mainly cabernet sauvignon, with the right predominantly merlot. Southeast of the Medoc peninsula, Graves produces red and white wines from the sauvignon blanc and semillon grapes, while the Sauternes and Barsac areas are better known for botrytised dessert grapes.
Graves is considered the birthplace of claret, the influence from Rome to Oxford of Pope Clement V (papal reign of 1305-1314) assisting the medieval boom. As Raymond Bertrand de Got, he came from a Graves winegrowing family. After consecration as Archbishop of Bordeaux in 1297 he was given by his brother Berald an estate that became Chateau Pape Clement. Successive archbishops owned it until the French Revolution.
The oldest wine estate in Bordeaux, Chateau Pape Clement harvested its 700th vintage in 2006, but Pope Clement is most remembered for suppressing the Knights Templar and moving the Vatican Curia from Rome to France to begin the Avignon-based papacy. He also financed the building of five castles for five of his nephews, including Chateau de Roquetaillade just outside the Bordeaux region.
Of the hundreds of Aquitaine castles worth exploring, the Chateau de Roquetaillade is one of the most visited. Occupied continuously over the last 700 years by the de Got family and descendants, it was originally built for Cardinal Gaillard de la Mothe, one of Pope Clement's nephews.
It holds celebrated Renaissance interiors with magnificent furniture and 19th-century enhancement by architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. Ruins of this fortified structure's 11th-century predecessor are nearby, both being part of a natural defensive site over grottoes once inhabited by troglodyte man (Roquetaillade translates to "carved out of rock"). Stonework evolved from fortifications constructed in 778 by Charlemagne as he advanced towards the Pyrenees.
"Every time at Roquetaillade our passengers on a private English-speaking tour are amazed and amused to learn that their guide is a countess and English [by nationality] – she is the Countess Rosalinde de Barritault du Carpia," says Bories. "She married the count [now the deceased descendant of de Got family]. The Countess Rosalinde, her [titled] son and his [titled] wife and their children live in the castle."
Long before castles, grapes were being grown in Aquitaine, not only during Roman occupation but also by a Celtic tribe, the Bituriges Vivisques, founders of Burdigala (Bordeaux city) around 300AD, who controlled the tin trade from the port.
The Celts' Biturica grape was recorded in the Bordeaux region by Roman poet Pliny in 71AD, and is believed to be the ancestor of cabernet sauvignon. It's just another fascinating link in the legacy of the world's wine capital.
Exclusive Bordeaux luxury wine and gourmet cruise – seven days/six nights: six different wines each day, from 2215 (NZ$3690) a person (twin share), single supplement 1110 (NZ$1849); 10 different wines with personal wine presentation by experts 2820 (NZ$4698), single supplement 1110 (NZ$1849).
Covered are full board (including breakfast, lunch and dinner on the barge), all alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages consumed on board, trips and wine tasting, transport by air-conditioned bus, tourist guide, chef, full-time crew of 4 to 6, journeys to and from Bordeaux city (St Jean rail station or Merignac airport) to the Mirabelle. Internet connection is available on the Mirabelle, and bicycles can be stored.
Not covered are international airfares, transport to Bordeaux, tips, activities outside the confines of the barge, and insurance. See website aquitaine-cruises.com.