A unique river and ocean cruise in Spain
As the flamenco dancer’s heels clicked rhythmically her flaxen haired partner edged closer and closer, his own feet drumming the ground. We were spellbound as we sat in the warm morning sun watch the al fresco display against the backdrop of the Spanish hacienda that belonged to the owner of the surrounding rice-growing estate.
What made the dramatic spectacle even more unusual was that the other ‘dancer’ was a magnificent Andalusian horse performing dressage movements in time to the music, his hooves only inches away from the woman’s feet. It was another highlight in what has to be one of Europe’s most unusual river cruises, which is also a part coastal voyage.
The 408-mile Guadalquivir is hardly known for river cruising, and CroisiEurope is the only line to offer this unique downstream sailing from Seville along the 50-mile stretch of the waterway that is navigable today. Yet during the golden age of seafaring this river in saw great mariners such as Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan set sail on their voyages of discovery.
And although we weren’t heading for the New World or circumnavigating the globe, we certainly felt we were experiencing something very different aboard La Belle de Cadix as it approached the mouth of the river at the Bay of Cadiz and edged out into the Atlantic, the waves gently rolling the ship.
Unlike other river vessels, the sturdy 176-passenger vessel is dual purpose and designed to sail at sea, hugging the coast for 18 miles and mooring overnight at Cadiz and El Puerto de Santa Maria before retracing the journey along the Guadalquivir to Seville. It is only allowed to sail in gentle conditions, so if waves reach a certain height the seagoing itinerary will not take place. However, all daily excursions will continue as usual with coaches leaving from Seville instead.
And unlike some river cruises things never felt rushed with CroisiEurope. This cruise is ideal for anyone who wants the equivalent of a city break in Seville, on a floating home moored close the city centre, followed by the contrast of visiting a variety of lesser-known and big hitting sights which got underway on the first day with a visit to the beguiling sun-baked city of Cordoba, dominated by La Mezquita, the grand mosque built when southern Spain was under Muslim rule.
After breakfast the next day there was a guided walking tour of Seville, taking in the vast Gothic cathedral and labyrinth of streets in the former Jewish quarter, now known as Santa Cruz. The boat’s proximity to the city centre, moored on the waterfront near the city’s leafy green heart of Maria Luisa Park, also makes it easy to explore independently. So having visited Seville before we skipped the excursion to walk along the streets lined with trademark orange trees – although don’t be tempted to try one as they are incredibly bitter!
We stopped by at the landmark Torre del Oro, or Gold Tower, which was built in the 13th century as a defence and now houses a fascinating maritime museum telling the story of the Guadalquivir, the people who sailed on it and how it brought power and wealth to Seville. In the 16th century it was Europe’s most important port as all goods arriving in Spain from the New World had to first enter Seville and it was the only place where merchants could purchase imports from the newly discovered lands. At one time a thick chain ran from the Gold Tower to a similar stronghold on the opposite bank to prevent enemy ships from entering.
Thankfully there was nothing to impede our progress the following morning as La Belle de Cadix passed through the set of modern-day locks on the city’s outskirts and began sailing down the river. The industrial landscape was soon replaced by wide expanses of rice and cotton fields stretching towards the horizon. Herons and cormorants stood motionless on the banks and we shared the water with small wooden fishing boats with distinctive wide nets protruding from the bow, ready to catch eels that are a local delicacy.
Each day brought contrasting excursions led by knowledgeable local guides. In charming El Puerto de Santa Maria we visited the dark, cathedral-like cellars of the Osborne winery before sipping different sherries and learning that the drink that’s somewhat maligned in the UK is celebrated in Spain, drunk year-round and comes in a huge number of varieties.
More seafaring history came to the fore in the peninsular city and port of Cadiz, said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in Western Europe, and another day took us inland to the awe-inspiring city of Granada where the Alhambra palace is a fixture on the skyline.
My personal favourite was the trip to Donana National Park, a former royal hunting ground that is now a safe haven and refuge for thousands of migratory and resident birds that nest in the dunes and wetlands. We marvel at the scale of the giant storks’ nests that are up to 5 feet in diameter, and their equally large feathered residents, built on top of trees and pylons. Each year the birds return to the same nests and carry out DIY, adding sticks and twigs until some weigh in at an incredible 35 stone. Afterwards we visit a bird refuge and rehabilitation centre for a close up look at flamingos and other wild and domestic birds.
Back on board La Belle de Cadix time passes by very pleasantly, punctuated by delicious meals often featuring regional specialities and the eagerly awaited cocktail of the day which is imaginatively illustrated at the bar with novel animals and characters made from fruit.
Entertainment includes a flamenco show, once again showcasing the dance that was born in Seville, this time without a horse. Once again, it was impossible not to be impressed by the skill and the intensity of the performers and it was another captivating high spot on our voyage of discovery along the beguiling Guadalquivir River.
Tel: +44 (0)208 328 1281
Number of Facilities On Board: One restaurant
Number of Cabins: 88 cabins, with complimentary Wi-Fi available throughout the ship.
Price Band: Low
Insider Tip: Although CroisiEurope serves set menus, vegetarians and passengers with other dietary requirements are catered for very well. It is best to give notice at the time of booking.
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10
Factfile: CroisiEurope offers the seven-night Andalusia: Tradition, Gastronomy and Flamenco itinerary from £1,349, including excursions, all meals, wine with lunch and dinner, soft drinks and an open bar (excluding Champagne and a small number of premium brands) throughout the day.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs courtesy of CroisiEurope