Setting sail on the Saone, Provence awaits the Andersons and though they are salivating at the thought of the main course, there are lots of appetizers - Tournus, Chapaize, Lyon, Tournon, Tain l'Hermitage, Viviers, Avignon, Arles - on their way south.
Photography by the authors
On either side the river lie/Long fields of barley and of rye/…/And thro' the field the road runs by/To…Camelot…
Our river is the Saone. We will soon sail into the Rhone, the second longest river in France after the Loire, but at 500 miles that’s long enough. Our Camelot will be Provence and we are salivating at the thought. But although Provence will be our main course, we will have lots of appetizers on our way south.
We have just experienced a guided bus trip from our ship, Uniworld’s River Royale, through the villages of Burgundy and some of its castles and vineyards. We started by walking through the little town of Tournus to explore its abbey, Saint-Philibert, parts of which go back to the 10th century. The part causing most interest these days is the 12th century mosaic floor discovered in 2002 by electricians during renovations.
The abbey contrasts with the 11th century chapel in Chapaize that serves a hamlet of less than 200 souls. A guide book says the original drinking well was 5th century, but “the skeletons were 8th century.” This is not Disneyland.
The other claims to fame of little Chapaize include a priest from 1751 to 1785 who liked to hunt wolves and wild boar. He “spent 10 minutes on the Mass and ten hours on his horse hunting every day,” says our guide, “not a bad combination.” The church is legendary: the President of the Republic, François Mitterrand, brought Mr. and Mrs. Gorbachev here in 1995.
There are further contrasts ahead because, next day, our river boat noses into Lyon, a city of almost half a million, the third largest city in France and “the silk capital of the world.” It enjoys the paradox of being both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the international headquarters of Interpol. It airport is named St. Exupery, after the renowned aviator author whose books include "The Little Prince."
Lyon is, like Rouen in the north, a joy: a busy industrial city that is a pleasure to walk in. It reveals surprise after surprise; some we might not have found without our guide. Uniworld’s local guides speak into a microphone with the information easily heard in the iPod-like ear piece the cruise line provides passengers.
Perhaps the greatest attraction that we are guided to is the Painted House, one of 150 painted walls in the city, so many the tourist office has a map and a guide to them. All the murals are lifelike and life size and at times it’s hard to see who is a pedestrian and what is two-dimensional art.
Lyon’s St. Paul’s church is one of the oldest churches in the city and is actually mentioned in 9th century texts. Originally Romanesque it has had many Gothic additions; it is still used for services. Other attractions abound in Old Town where medieval cobbled streets, artisans’ shops and renaissance architecture compete for our attention and for parking spots for today’s scooters.
Our visit the next day to the twin towns of Tournon and Tain l’Hermitage, joined by the bridge over the Rhone and essentially ignoring each other, shows us how hard it is to put a date on a building especially when it is a merge of several centuries.
Ahead is the 5th century town of Viviers and beyond that the fêted Avignon. The mistral wind is whistling down the Rhone valley moving us impatiently south. Despite the wind, there is warmth in the air and that famous Provence light is sparkling on the trees in blossom evidence that spring has come. We arrive in Avignon with its Pope’s Palace and famous bridge of the song "Sur le Pont d’Avignon" although no-one has crossed the Rhone on the Saint-Bénezet bridge since 1668. Only four of the original 22 arches remain today.
The two most well-known and busy cities in Provence are Avignon and Arles. They are quite different; Avignon has the bridge, of course, and the Pope’s Palace although that cavernous building, the largest Gothic palace in Europe, is starkly empty, lacking in charm and chooses to celebrate a somewhat unsavory time in Catholic history. Avignon can be a bit stuffy. Arles on the other hand is entertaining. You can see, perhaps, why Van Gogh went there. Vincent wanted color, excitement and fun.
Well he got that in Arles, maybe more than he could handle. Tourists can get the same: bustle, noise, music, and laughter whether they go to the Espace Van Gogh, with its courtyard recreated just as the garden Van Gogh painted in "le Jardin de la Maison de Santé a Arles" or stand beside the festival bands playing in front of the Roman arena in this wonderful city.
It’s all memories to be shared that final evening when passengers sit around the table of their Captain Pascal Rech, get their final French lesson from their English cruise manager, Adrian Legate, and voice their satisfaction to each other about their Uniworld cruise.
Even the hotel manager, Eric Christophe, seems to have had a good time. He looks back on his years and years on ocean liners and his involuntary reaction on first boarding this 66-cabin vessel: “My God, it’s like a lifeboat! What can there possibly be to do on such a small ship?”
Now he knows. Plenty and it’s all well-organized fun.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the American Society of Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called "The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life."