I will openly admit to being fascinated by Cleopatra, her power, her reported beauty and her lifestyle. Having admitted this, you can understand that when I had the opportunity to travel to France for a Rhone River Cruise, the mental image of lying on a sumptuous bed, relaxing and watching the countryside pass by my window really appealed to me. I was going to be Cleopatra in a kinda sorta way! Who needs the beauty, money and power? I had something ahead of me she did not….the south of France.
My husband and European travel companion of more years than we care to admit (we traveled to Europe as high school students many, many years ago on a school trip) headed three days early to Lyon for what was to be the only ‘dry days’ of the trip. Dry meaning no rain, certainly not dry in terms of no alcohol. In Lyon, we encountered a city of culinary giants and warm November sunshine. This city is widely recognized of late for its food, boasting restaurants and chefs that rival (and some say exceed) those in Paris. With the likes of Paul Bocuse, Nicholas Le Bec, Philippe Jousse and Jean Marc Villard, it is hard to argue its rise to culinary nirvana.
Lyon is a very walkable city and walk you should after eating in its marvelous Bouchons. You can also purchase a Lyon City card through the tourism office to get around quickly to the museums and old town section. Like many exquisite European cities, the architecture dates back to the 15th century and is breathtaking. Lyon certainly has a reputation for its city lights and it is a pleasure to walk the streets in the evening with the buildings aglow.
After three days here, it was time to travel to the city of Chalon Sur Saone to catch our river cruise. Excited with anticipation and eager to meet the other travelers that we would be with for the next week, we boarded the ship and headed for the first of many “lounge meetings”. Little did we know that the lounge would become the briefing room for weather that would steer the balance of our trip. We learned the itinerary in great detail, as well as the ship protocols, and met our ship mates (about 130 of them), all of whom were also waiting for their “Cleo moments”.
Day one started with rain and lots of it! We were undeterred and set sail for the first short leg of sailing to Macon. Some of our shipmates opted for an optional tour and would catch up with us at our first port. Sail, we did, and for a few short hours I perched on the bed in our cabin to watch the magnificent French countryside pass by. It was everything I imagined, but just too short. This turned out to be our only sailing time and the folks that took the optional trip never sailed at all.
The rain never stopped and the Rhone River rose to historic levels prohibiting us from traveling under the century old bridges. We never sailed again, but the story then became one of the hard work and professionalism displayed by the staff of the Viking Neptune. They were determined to provide their guests with a quality vacation under extraordinary circumstances.
Instead of traveling from Macon on board our ship, we docked for the balance of the trip and traveled by bus to our scheduled destinations beginning with Beaune (pronounced bone) and the Burgundy wine region.
Beaune is the wine capital of the Burgundy region and the town is quintessentially Burgundy perfect! Strolling through Beaune, you can understand its allure to international millionaires and celebrities who crave burgundy wines and atmosphere.
The Hotel Dieu, today a hospice museum, is an incredible sight. It operated as a hospice in the years after 1443. The eerie elegance of the facility is quite amazing and the history fascinating with its neat beds lying in a row where the dying lay side by side. The museum quality depiction of the life and death in the facility is palpable.
Each evening back on board the ship, we were treated to fantastic food created by Chef Magalese. She would march in to a clapping ovation and end her chat with a rally call for exciting deserts. It didn’t matter that the skies were gray; this chef from the Alsace region of France brought our sunshine each evening.
As each day passed, we traveled to destinations that were on and off the itinerary. One trip not on the scheduled itinerary was to the Beaujolais region and the famous Georges Duboeuf winery. Late that evening at midnight, the 2011 Beaujolais Nouveau would be introduced to the world and shipped at the stroke of 12:01. While I do not like the Beaujolais Nouveau that made them famous, I did love the facility and hoopla. They certainly know how to throw a heck of a party!
I have outlined separately (see next page) some great French wines and facts that speak to the wine splendor of both the Beaujolais and Burgundy regions. There is much more to the Beaujolais region than the Nouveau, and tasting in both regions was an extraordinary experience given the time of year – there were no crowds and lots of great wine available to enjoy.
Traveling midway through the week to Arles and Avignon was bittersweet. We did have to leave the ship we called home and board a bus to Provence. Keep in mind that traveling to Provence in any mode of transportation is well worth the effort. Throughout the region you are treated to wonderful cafes with outside dining (even in November), as well as towns with enchanting carousels, bakeries and a slow-paced life. Provence should be on every traveler’s bucket list.
Shopping opportunities are plentiful and truly priced right. The Euro is not in our favor, but the prices in the towns, off season, seem to reflect a generous consideration for that fact. I purchased two of the famous Provence oil cloths/table cloths as well as some great chocolate and food items that are hard to come by in the U.S.
Arles (Provence) has marvelous diverse architectural with vibrant colors that has inspired artists and writers alike. It is also home to impressive Romanesque ruins and churches. I must go back for the “nerdy” tour that some would appreciate and others would hate. As my traveling companions said when I explored too long for their liking, “We will meet you at the café.” Either way, Arles is not to be missed on any trip to Southern France.
Well, the cruise trip that was not a cruising trip was about to end and the best was saved for last…Avignon. Again, we traveled by bus and the trip was a long one.
For years, I have enjoyed Peter Mayle books about Provence. He is so comical and entertaining and always painted vibrant images of the people, food and environment that are truly Provence. For me, the books came to life in Avignon.
The Palace of the Popes is majestic. It is the palace that became home to the papacy in 1309 during a violent time in Rome. Tours are open daily and you have the ability to prowl for hours around this medieval masterpiece of architecture. You are allowed to enter the papal dining rooms, bedrooms and climb the stairs to enjoy the most spectacular views of Avignon. Everything is open to the public, unlike touring the Vatican.
At the time we were here, the city opened its quaint outside holiday market place. Tented kiosks were open all day and into the evening with crafters and artisans. It is France, so most everything offered was food related and fabulous!
Their streets are cobblestone, their bakeries are filled with the best breads and pastries that you will ever eat in your life and they drink early and often, but even that fact seems charming. It would not be viewed as “charming” here in the US, but in Avignon, these hearty folks never seem drunk. Only satisfied and happy.
I came away feeling that the people who live here are the luckiest on earth. Outside their doors they have the best the world has to offer, with the possible exception for what was heading their way in a few short days after we left for home…the mistrals. Mistrals are strong biting winds that blow for days and keep people in their homes and out of work and school, but before you feel sorry for them realize that they are walled in with the best of food and wine!
One early evening I was in Avignon resting in my hotel room and the scene was a relaxing one. An Edith Piaff song was playing on my computer and I was enjoying a great glass of Chateauneuf-de-pape. I could hear the chestnut vendor under my window and could smell the aroma of the roasting nuts. The street market below was lit with the first of the season Christmas lights and the town carrousel was chuck full of giggling children. Even on well-planned vacations, life throws us unforeseen obstacles. So even though I did not actually cruise on my cruise and never really experienced what I thought I would, life did hand me something much more. I experienced the south of France without pretense and crowds, but with the warmth of the French people in their villages. And it was spectacular!