Since our trip to Alaska’s Inside Passage in 2014 Noel and I have become fans of small boat cruising. In the fall 2016 we joined two other couples we enjoy traveling with for a seven-day cruise through Burgundy and Provence. We engaged the services of The International Kitchen to find us a small boat that offered a measure of luxury and an interesting itinerary. We had used the same travel company to book a fantastic culinary tour of Turkey in 2013.
The International Kitchen recommended Avalon Waterways. Avalon had just what we were looking for, a southbound “special interest” last cruise of the season on the Saône and Rhone Rivers. The “special interest” was wine appreciation with an on-board wine expert who would host a couple of evening wine and food pairings accompanied by multiple excursions to various vineyards as we slowly made our way down south. Avalon offered two days in Paris before boarding the ship, but we opted to do the cruise only and visit Paris on our own for three days before the start of the actual cruise. We made our reservations roughly seven months in advance which earned us an early booking discount that helped to offset the cost of an upgrade to a category A stateroom.
In Paris before the Cruise
Noel and I have been to Paris several times and have always found the hotels to be expensive (even in the off season) and the rooms and bathrooms small with dated plumbing. Karen at The International Kitchen recommended several hotels. We settled on Hôtel le Littré located on the west bank of the Seine in Saint Germain-des-Prés, a real neighborhood, and within sight of the Eiffel Tower. The hotel is a four-star gem. Our rooms were good sized with updated bathrooms. The lobby area is contemporary and open with a small bar suitable for evening night caps with our friends. Breakfast was included and quite adequate.
One of the best things about the hotel was Upul, the concierge. On our first night the six of us wanted to eat in what seemed to be a very popular small neighborhood bistro called Le Petit Littré across the street from our hotel. We couldn’t get in that night, but on his own initiative after his shift ended Upul went over to the restaurant, managed to convince the host we were VIP’s (!?), and secured a great table for the next evening. We had a terrific time with great food and real cocktails. The place was packed with locals.
On our first full day in France Noel and I decided we would visit Fontainebleau while our friends went off on their separate adventures. Dating from 1137 Fontainebleau was the so-called “hunting lodge” of the French aristocracy. It is located about 45 miles south of Paris, less than an hour by train. From the early 1500s on, the “lodge” was continually enlarged and embellished until it became a royal palace that surpasses Versailles. François I began the process by importing Italian Renaissance artists and artisans to do their magic in backward, medieval northern France.
Because we went during the off-season, we weren’t able to find a guided tour in English and had to settle for an English audio guide. It wasn’t bad but not the easiest to navigate. We left with two impressions – the outsized presence of the narcissistic demagogue Napoleon Bonaparte and the Renaissance glory of the François I Gallery. Needless-to-say, Napoleon brought to mind the US president elected shortly after our return to the States. In the 19th century Napoleon Bonaparte had the similar bad rep of Adolph Hitler in the 20th century. Let’s hope that our American democratic institutions are stronger than the 19th century French counterparts and we don’t suffer the way the French did.
The François I Gallery, on the other hand, is a magnificent tribute to the Renaissance artists and artisans who designed and executed the gallery. I was especially blown away by the walnut wainscoting on the lower part of the walls carved by the Italian cabinetmaker Francesco Scibec de Carpi.
On our last day in Paris, Noel and I visited La Fondation Louis Vuitton, the museum designed by Frank Gehry that opened in 2014 and is located in the Bois de Boulogne. We went to see the exhibit “Icons of Modern Art: the Shchukin Collection” based on an item I had read in one of our travel magazines. With a couple of exceptions the exhibit itself was a disappointment. Most of the art was pretty mediocre, but the Frank Gehry building is fabulous. We were privileged to see the building while it was encased with the in situ installation by the French artist Daniel Buren, “Observatory of Light.” Buren had encased the 12 “sails” of the building in stripes of colored filters alternating with black and white stripes running perpendicular to the ground. The stripes of colors appeared and disappeared with the time of day and the seasons.
One odd observation I made while in the Bois de Boulogne, a large, heavily wooded park, I didn’t see a single squirrel.
We all got up very early Saturday morning to catch the train to Chalon-sur-Saône, the town where we were to board our boat, Poetry II. The hotel management was considerate enough to have coffee and a small breakfast for us earlier than the regular breakfast time. The train ride was uneventful and pleasant, but there were no porters at the Chalon-sur-Saône station to help us with our very heavy luggage and no ramps for rolling suitcases. Handicapped accessibility hasn’t caught on in Europe the way it has in the States, but we managed the many stairs step by step. After a little confusion we were able to find a cab to take us to the quai where our ship was docked to stash our luggage until boarding time.
There was a really nice small bistro near the ship where we had an excellent lunch. Fish quenelles (dumplings) in a sauce americaine (a light tomato sauce). Yum! The town itself is quite charming and I would guess there is a substantial tourist business during the summer and early fall. We managed to pass the afternoon pleasantly wandering through the small shops many of which were having sales.
We finally boarded our ship and underwent the usual safety drill. Our luggage was waiting for us in our very contemporary stateroom with a French balcony and a good-sized, well-equipped bathroom. I was impressed by the incredible use of space for storage. We had no trouble unpacking and storing everything we brought with us. The size of our bathroom alone made the upgrade worthwhile. Our stateroom was the same size as the more expensive category P staterooms on the upper deck where I guess you are paying for the better view, but it’s not worth the extra cost in my opinion.
In addition to the large dining room, our ship had two public lounges – the large “party” lounge with an excellent bar and a piano where Gino entertained at night and the “quiet” lounge at the ship’s stern that had a make-your-own-coffee bar. Outside of the “quiet” lounge was a small sheltered outdoor seating area with heat lamps where smokers could indulge. Neither Noel nor I are smokers but we enjoyed sitting out there and watching the boat make its way down the river especially when it passed through the many locks. There was also a sky deck at the top of the ship, but it was too chilly at night to spend much time up there. I’m sure it’s hopping when the weather is warm because there were lots of lounge chairs, a whirlpool, a game area, an outdoor bistro and a bar.
We spent a couple of enjoyable evenings in the “party” lounge, particularly when a female impersonator performed as a very entertaining Edith Piaf. By and large, however, we preferred taking our drinks to the “quiet” lounge where we could chat up the day’s events with our friends both old and new. Our friend Pat celebrated his 65th birthday on board and we were able to have a little private cocktail party in the “quiet” lounge after a special birthday dinner.
The food on board the ship was superb. The dining room served large buffet breakfasts and lunches. At night we were offered multi-course dinners with the choice of appetizers, two or three special entrées along with soups, salads and dessert or cheeses. At lunch we opted for light local fare in the Panorama Bistro which was really an extension of the “party” lounge. There was a wide range of dining options from early-riser and late-riser breakfasts to a late night snack at 10:30 pm. Basically, there was almost no time when you could not get something to eat, or drink, for that matter.
Our cruise coincided with All Saints Day. So, secular as the French are, a holiday is a holiday and that meant the country was on a three-day vacation, Saturday through Monday. As a result, many of the shops in the towns along the river where we docked were closed. This was a bit of a disappointment but much of our daily itinerary was wineries which remained open for us.
American-style Halloween has invaded France, minus, alas, the trick or treating. We saw many small children dressed up in costumes with their faces painted. Can trick or treating be far behind? They took great delight in growling at us. Even the ship’s crew decked themselves out in costumes and performed a revue in the “party” lounge.
On our first full day on board we stopped in the morning at the Burgundy town of Tournus which is dominated by the Abbey of Saint Philibert, an important religious center built in the 11th century. The abbey reflects the most important historical and political developments in France up through the 20th century.
Because it was Sunday and a holiday weekend only a few of the “necessary” shops were open, but one included a small butcher and grocery store which specialized in selling poulet de Bresse or Bresse chickens. Bresse chickens are supposed to be the best table chickens in the world and have been granted the French government’s appellation d’origine controlée or AOC which translates to “controlled designation of origin.” Basically, the French government has established a bureau that guarantees the geographical and genetic authenticity of certain agricultural products like wine, cheese, butter and, in this case, chicken. All of this is based on the concept of terroir. Terroir assumes that crops and animals raised in a specific environmental habitat have characteristics that can’t be duplicated elsewhere. In the case of the Bresse chickens the AOC guarantees that the chicken is a white Bresse chicken raised under carefully proscribed conditions in the former province of Bresse, an area in eastern France of about 24 by 62 miles which includes the town of Tournus. Traditionally, the chickens are sold with the distinctive heads and blue feet still on the carcass. And that is how they were presented in the shop.
Our tour guide told us that the population of Tournus is declining because it had lost some important manufacturing, but it does have a small but growing artists’ community and four one-star Michelin restaurants. Noel fantasized about renting an apartment with a kitchen for a few days so we could cook some poulet de Bresse. At that time Avalon was the only river boat company that stopped in Tournus.
After lunch we boarded buses for our first winery tour, Domaine du Château de Pierreclos. The chateau itself dates back to the 13th century and is stunning. The owner Jean-Marie Pidault blends new and old techniques in the way he grows and harvests his grapes and makes his wines. His grapes are picked by hand and they are mostly organically grown. He experiments with new mechanized wine-making techniques but only if they do not affect the quality of the wine. We found this synchronization of the old with the new in the other wineries we toured later in the week. Back on the boat we had an early evening wine and cheese tasting hosted by our on-board wine expert Juliet Bruce-Jones.
I still didn’t see any squirrels even in the countryside.
For the most part, the guides hired by Avalon to show us around the cities and villages where we docked were excellent, but the guide our group had on our second stop, the celebrated city of Lyon where the Soâne and the Rhone meet, was quite irritating. He talked to us as if we were in kindergarten beginning each remark with a rhetorical question and then proceeding to answer it. Our tour bus took us to Fourvière Hill, the site of a 19th century basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary, where we had a great view of the city, but we didn’t stop at the Roman amphitheater and bath that we passed on our way up. I would have preferred to skip the basilica and even the view for the Roman ruins.
One of the most remarkable things about Lyon is the traboules. A traboule is a corridor through a building and its courtyard connecting one street with another. There are hundreds of traboules in Old Lyon. Our guide explained to us that the traboules played a significant role in the French resistance to the German occupation during World War II. They acted as secret passage ways for anti-fascist fighters to escape the Nazis.
That evening on our boat a young woman named Magali gave a presentation on the French Resistance during World War II. Only 1-2% of the French population actually participated in the Resistance. Most French citizens collaborated with the Germans for various reasons – some to secure their families’ survival, some because they agreed with the Nazi propaganda and probably most because they couldn’t believe that Marshall Pétain, the hero of the Battle of Verdun during World War I, was truly collaborating with the Germans. Pétain had to have a “secret plan” to free France. Where have we heard that before?! Lyon with its traboules was a center of the struggle against the Nazis.
One of our best bus trips into the French countryside was to the village of Oingt in the Beaujolais wine region near Lyon. The countryside is gorgeous in the fall with the grape vines as colorful as maples. Prior to this visit our experience with Beaujolais wine was not the best. I recall some salesman gifting me once with a bottle of so-called Beaujolais Nouveau like it was a long-awaited Malbec. It was horrible. It tasted like winey kool-aid. Originally, Beaujolais Nouveau was an early release wine aged only four to six weeks and consumed mainly by the vineyard workers as probably a cheap way to give them something to drink while they worked. In the 1960’s a wine maker named Georges Duboeuf began to market the stuff with a contest to see who could get the first bottle of the season to Paris. Like cheap jug Gallo wine, Beaujolais Nouveau caught on and Georges Duboeuf became the Ernesto and Julio of France. But in the process, he almost ruined the reputation of Beaujolais wine.
Like the first vintner we visited outside of Tournus, Dominique Guillard, the winemaker we visited in Oingt, combines new and old techniques in harvesting his grapes and making his wine. Throughout the winemaking region along the Rhone most grapes are pretty much organically grown without pesticides greatly aided by the “mistral,” a strong, northwesterly wind that affects all of the Rhone Valley from Lyon to Marseille and keeps the insect population down. We experienced the mistral when we visited Avignon a few days later. M. Guillard’s wine is not great but it’s very good. Beaujolais wine is not meant to age for a long time. A rule of thumb for Beaujolais wine seems to be two years for the white and five years for the red but definitely more than four to six weeks.
Still hadn’t seen a single squirrel. Maybe the mistral keeps both them and the insects away.
The town of Tournon-sur-Rhone provided us with terrific examples of red wines that would age well beyond the five-year Beaujolais rule with L’Hermitage wines made from grapes grown in a terroir on the other side of the Rhone on a hillside little more than half a square mile in area, roughly 340 acres. The hillside is famous as the birthplace of the Syrah grape and true oenophiles consider it a pilgrimage spot. We bought a couple of great bottles of L’Hermitage red to celebrate our friend Pat’s birthday.
On our last full day of the cruise we docked in Arles. Arles is where Vincent Van Gogh had one of his most productive periods but where he also suffered one of his worst mental breakdowns and severed his left ear with a razor blade after an altercation with Paul Gauguin. He lived in what became known as the “Yellow House” but was forced by the police to leave when 30 neighbors including his landlord signed a petition against him because of his very disturbing psychotic episodes. The Yellow House was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II.
Nothing really original to Van Gogh and his life in Arles (1888-1889) remains there, including his paintings. But it is possible to tour the mental asylum outside Arles in Saint Rémy de Provence where Van Gogh committed himself after a terrible series of psychotic episodes. The clinic, Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, is still a mental clinic but now only for women. However, as you tour the clinic and its environs, reproductions of Van Gogh’s paintings from the year he spent there are posted at strategic spots so you can see to some degree what the artist saw when he made a particular painting, the cypress and olives trees and the clinic’s garden, for example. It seems to me that the worse his mental health became, the better he painted. It has crossed my mind that the dynamic aura of shapes and color that so characterize Van Gogh’s best work is quite possibly what he actually saw because of his mental state, especially in a painting like “Starry Night.” That aura is present even in his portraits and still lifes.
A few months after he left the asylum in 1890, Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in the chest but a rib deflected the bullet. He was tended to by doctors, but the bullet couldn’t be removed. He died 30 hours later from an infection from the wound.
Leaving the asylum which is in a decidedly rural area with lots of trees, I raised the squirrel question with our guide. She told me that France definitely has squirrels but that they were probably just hanging out in the trees. I’ve had a lot of experience with American squirrels of all flavors and I know they don’t just hang out in trees. I let the issue drop. But when I arrived home, I did a little research. I read on-line that before World War II France had lots of small red squirrels. During the war, however, there was a huge meat shortage, because it was all going to Germany. As a result, the owners of cafes and restaurants throughout France started serving squirrel to the Nazi elites and passing it off as squab, thus seriously denting the red squirrel population which has never made a comeback.
This might be another example of “fake news” promulgated on the web, but I like to think it’s true. If it is so, it gooses up the percentage of French participation in the Resistance.
Trains, Planes and Automobiles
Noel and I spent our last night in France in a beautiful old five-star hotel in Avignon, Hotel d’Europe. Our friends had left earlier on the train to Charles de Galle Airport where they spent the night because they had early flights out the next morning. We relished the time to rest and clean up at a leisurely pace after a busy week of touring. The hotel has a really nice bar. We had an amiable political exchange there with a local patron who expressed his sincere hope that “Madame” Hillary would win the American presidential election. This was the Saturday before Election Day on Tuesday.
We were up bright and early the next morning for our train ride to CDG. The train ride was kind of an interesting backward review of our excursions into the French countryside during our cruise. We had a short 40-minute flight from CDG to Heathrow on British Airways to catch our American Airlines flight back to Chicago. Somehow, the flight attendant managed in that short time to serve what amounted to high tea to the 30 or so passengers in business class. Fortunately, our flight from Paris was on time because we only had an hour and a half to catch our AA flight home. It took us a good hour to make our way from the BA gate to the AA gate at Heathrow. I’ll remember that in the future when I book a flight through Heathrow.
From London I texted our driver Hamdi when to expect us at O’Hare and we were done. It had been a wonderful journey.