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Discover secret Spain on CroisiEurope’s unique river and ocean cruise
Walking down the sandy path I stop to focus my camera on the far side of the saltwater lagoon and a flock of flamingos come into view. It’s our first birdlife sighting in the wide and seemingly empty expanse of Andalusia’s Donana National Park, but we don’t have to wait long for the next. by Jeannine Williamson
Suddenly the blue sky is broken by a fleeting shadow and we look up to see a white stork, its outspread 7ft wingspan taking advantage of the thermals to soar overhead. The former royal hunting ground is now a safe haven and refuge for thousands of migratory and resident birds that nest in the dunes and wetlands of one of Europe’s most important nature reserves, and it was one of many spectacular highlights on our unique journey combining a river cruise and coastal voyage.
Spain’s Guadalquivir is a river cruising secret and CroisiEurope is the only line that sails from Seville along the 50-mile stretch of the waterway that is navigable today. During the golden age of seafaring this river saw great mariners such as Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan set sail on their voyages of discovery.
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.
Unlike other river vessels, the 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.
In fact, 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 at the beginning of the week when we visited the beguiling sun-baked city of Cordoba.
Next morning our knowledgeable guide led a walking tour of Seville, taking in the vast Gothic cathedral and labyrinth of streets in Santa Cruz. The boat’s proximity to the city centre, moored on the waterfront near the leafy green heart of Maria Luisa Park, also makes it easy to explore independently.
When our cruise got underway the elegant cityscape was replaced by wide expanses of rice and cotton fields stretching towards the horizon.
Later La Belle de Cadix moored beside a grand hacienda and we sat in the warm morning sunshine to watch an al fresco display of fiery flamenco dancing organised exclusively for CroisiEurope passengers. What made the dramatic spectacle even more unusual was that one of the ‘artistes’ was a magnificent Andalusian horse performing dressage movements in time to the music and only inches away from the female dancer in beautiful traditional costume.
Each day brought contrasting excursions led by friendly local guides. In charming El Puerto de Santa Maria we visited the dark, cathedral-like cellars of the Osborne winery before sipping different types of sherry. It was fascinating to learn that the fortified wine that’s often only drunk at Christmas in the UK is enjoyed year-round in Spain - both before, during and after meals.
Back on board La Belle de Cadix time passed by very pleasantly, punctuated by delicious meals often featuring regional specialities and the eagerly awaited cocktail of the day which was imaginatively illustrated at the bar with novel animals and characters made from fruit and always proved to be a talking point.
On board entertainment includes a flamenco show, once again showcasing the dance that was born in Seville - only 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.