On one of Europe’s more unusual river cruises, Jeannine Williamson delights in exploring the grand old cities and undiscovered landscapes of Spain
Explore Spain on a river cruise
We might have been sailing more than 500 years after Christopher Columbus, but as our boat MS La Belle de Cadix emerged from the lock outside Seville and began gliding down the increasingly wide river, we felt a real sense of travelling in his footsteps.
Flat countryside stretched as far as the eye could see, with rice and cotton fields giving way to the wetlands – home to storks, flamingos, wild horses and the rare, elusive Spanish imperial eagle and Iberian lynx.
Our sense of adventure had already been fuelled the previous day with a visit to Seville’s landmark Torre del Oro – or Gold Tower – built in the 13th century as a defence.
At one time, a thick chain ran from the tower to another on the opposite side of the Guadalquivir river to prevent enemy ships passing. Today,
it houses a fascinating naval museum filled with seafaring instruments and exhibits charting the voyages of great navigators, including Columbus and Magellan.
Our trip initially took us 50 miles along the river that forms the backbone of Andalusia, then on an exciting 18mile sail into the Atlantic, hugging the Bay of Cádiz.
Spain isn’t the first country that springs to mind when you consider river cruises, and CroisiEurope is the only cruise line that operates on the mighty 408-mile Guadalquivir.
The river rises in the Sierra de Cazorla mountain range and is Spain’s second-longest waterway and the country’s only navigable river.
The 176-berth MS La Belle de Cadix is unusual in itself, as the dual-purpose vessel was built to sail on the river and the sea. If the waves get too choppy at sea, the boat returns to the river mouth.
Unlike typical river cruises, we spent four nights moored in one city – in this case, Seville, the grand capital of Andalusia, where orange trees line the streets and rub shoulders with the vast Gothic cathedral.
There are sunny squares and the narrow, labyrinthine streets of the historic Jewish quarter, Barrio Santa Cruz, to explore.
Having visited Seville before, we skipped the included trip in favour of a stroll into the city along the waterfront and through leafy parks. There, we soaked up the atmosphere and lunched in one of the many cafes and bars.
Fellow passengers toured the cathedral and the Plaza de España in Parque de María Luisa – the huge, enduring symbol of the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition world fair, which mixes elements of Renaissance Revival and Moorish Revival architecture.
Seville is the birthplace of flamenco, and we enjoyed a passionate performance by dancers, a guitarist and singer in the ship’s lounge bar. In between the rhythmic clapping and stamping, we learned how the origins of flamenco lie in Arabic music, and how it evolved from the arrival of gypsies in the 15th century.
Other atmospheric, typically Spanish experiences included a visit to a sprawling hacienda on the banks of the river to see a breathtaking equestrian display starring proud Andalusian horses with flowing manes. Featuring classical high-stepping dressage moves set to music, at one point a flamenco dancer executed her own steps just inches in front of the horse.
On another day, we sipped sherry at the Osborne Mora Winery in charming El Puerto de Santa María – part of the so-called ‘sherry triangle’ formed with Sanlucar de Barrameda and Jerez. In Spain, the fortified wine is much more than a typical Christmas tipple, and is drunk year-round. We were amazed that more than 25 varieties are produced by the company, which was founded in 1772 by Thomas Osborne from Exeter.
A natural highlight is the UNESCO-listed Doñana National Park, covering 200 square miles of marshes, lagoons, scrub woodlands and sand dunes. It’s a protected, unspoilt habitat, and we marvelled at the sight of migratory white storks on nests, to which they return year after year.
Back aboard the boat, our days were punctuated with leisurely meals showcasing Spanish and Andalusian specialities, such as serrano ham, paella and local cheeses served with a choice of wines.
Our evenings ended with a nightcap in the bar, where we reflected on our modernday voyage of discovery in the wake of ancient sailors.
Osborne Mora Winery
MS La Belle de Cadix is built to sail on the river and at sea
Unspoilt Doñana National Park