Rhône renaissance

Art, architecture, the food of Provence and the wines of Burgundy are among the highlights of a Rhône river cruise. Rob Ingram reports from the top deck of MS River Royale.

In the Renoir Lounge, Laszlo appears to be playing the piano. The emcee corrects this impression. Laszlo - featured artist of the "Easy listening with our onboard musician Laszlo" spot - is, in fact, "tickling the ivories". To be specific, he is tickling his way through "Misty". Welcome Night aboard MS River Royale already has a faint whiff of retro. But hell, we're here to be surrounded by history and heritage anyway.

It's November, and MS River Royale is on the last of a six-month program of Rhône cruises between Arles on the Provence coast and Chalon-sur-Saône in the heart of Burgundy. The cruises are operated by Uniworld, whose boutique collection embraces more than 30 itineraries on the waterways of Europe, Russia, Egypt, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Arles to Chalon-sur-Saône - billed as Provence to Burgundy - is an eight-day program. The Grand European Odyssey from Paris to Istanbul spans 31 days and 10 countries. Any 31-day trip through Europe that involves having to unpack only once gets my vote.

Uniworld's fleet has nothing in common with the intimate little barges that loiter around the canals of southern Europe. These are the long, low, swift barracudas of the Danube, the Douro, the Rhine and the Rhône. The average size of these still-intimate ships is 130 passengers and most are capable of 20 knots. Our ship entered service in 2006.

The cruise director's welcoming address contains some chilling warnings regarding a muster of Gypsies who have set up camp on the approaches to our docking location, seriously compromising Arles's chances of winning a Tidy Town plaque. As one with little experience of Romany mischief - but also only vague deference to political correctness - I am uncomfortable with the bollocking handed out to these free spirits. Eye contact, changing step when accosted, and small-change philanthropy are all forbidden, and one might gain the distinct impression that it would be sensible to have an armoured personnel carrier waiting at the gangway for excursions ashore.

The enduring significance of Arles is as the starting point of the 1000-year-old pilgrimage to the shrine of St James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, almost 1000km away in Spain. Each year, 2.5 million pilgrims visit the shrine, the most devout (and presumably the most athletic) having walked for weeks.

When I break the rules and speak to the Gypsies, they tell me that Arles is also on the route of their annual pilgrimage to Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue, the location of the shrine to their patron saint, St Sarah, whom they regard as the Black Madonna.

Arles itself was founded in the seventh century BC. It sits at the peak of the delta where the Rhône splits into two before flowing into the Mediterranean, so it was always well positioned as a seat of power and influence.

Its antiquity is not lost to today's visitor. A must-see is its surprisingly well-preserved Roman amphitheatre, which dates from the end of the first century AD, and where gladiators once fought in front of crowds of 20,000 spectators. Today it remains a venue for two great blood sports - bullfighting and opera.

Uniworld recommends our tour for "travellers wishing to walk through the countryside and villages that inspired the art of Van Gogh, Cézanne and Gauguin". Van Gogh painted some of his most famous works here, including Sunflowers, Vincent's Bedroom, L'Arlesienne and The Night Café. The night café - Café de la Gare - still operates, so we're off to Place Lamartine to snap our own images of it and to down "une noisette espresso" and "une verre de pastis", which we raise to Vincent.

There are plenty of clues to the affluence of modern Arles dotted among the history. Our local guide - and the guides are uniformly excellent throughout the tour - pauses at the window of an upmarket boutique and indicates a complex creation of sartorial whimsy. "Christian Lacroix," she says. "Such a difficult fashion. Difficult to wear… and difficult to pay for."

Back on board MS River Royale, it's the captain's welcome dinner, where the Caesar salad is fresh, the clear fennel soup with vermicelli is regional, and the fillet of halibut with pesto and glazed root vegetables is seasonal. Just as the marsanne wines here are delicately off-dry, the food of MS River Royale is delicately off-fashion. Certainly not neoclassical-preserved-in-aspic, but carefully behind the safety barrier. It is widely well received by our mixed complement of guests.

Laszlo has changed the pace of the show to a couple of Scott Joplin rags, but it's "big day, early night" for most of us and we drift off to our cabins. Tonight we sail. Tomorrow is Avignon.

If Arles is all about art, Avignon is all about architecture. But this was not always so. Early in the 14th century, the political climate in Rome had become so dicey that Pope Clement V fled Rome and took up residence in Avignon, which was regarded as an unassuming city to say the least. Successive popes stamped their own style - from sombre to glorious - on the Papal Palace, and generally transformed Avignon into a replica of an Italian fortress town.

Today it is something of an architectural theme park offering epic examples of every major period and style of architecture from the 12th to the 20th centuries. The Pope's palace is impressive even if only a few chambers are richly decorated, the best of the fixtures and fittings having headed back to Rome at the end of the Great Schism that split Europe, though Avignon remained in papal ownership for about 400 years after the papacy returned to Italy.

All this papal history threatens to distract the visitor from the fact that we are still in Provence - always a place to taste as well as to see. We wander the old streets hopefully in the direction of Place Pie and the covered market Les Halles. This is as traditional a Provençal food market as you'll find, and some magic maritime magnetism keeps drawing us to the oyster stalls. We pull up a couple of ancient chairs at La Cabanne d'Oléron in the corner of the market and consume a platter of oysters shucked for us as we watch. We eat them out of the shell with a splash of marsanne tipped from our glasses.

It's a taste, we decide, that will remain with us all the way back to the boat, but that resolution is sabotaged when we see a waiter in Place de l'Horloge serving warm chocolate soup with hazelnut tuiles. Minutes later we're outside, then inside, Chez Ripert. There is just time for a coquilles St-Jacques vol-au-vent, or two, then the foie gras confit with warm fig and herb oil, plus a box of macarons to go. But I digress.

A ploy of tour operators is to offer two tours at each destination. There's the "included tour" and there's the "irresistible optional tour", which isn't cheap, but hell, you've come all this way and do you want the whole experience or what?

So we're off to see the Pont du Gard aqueduct and to enjoy a wine tasting in the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We might be back to the influence of Rome, but for Australians weaned pretty much on single-varietal wines, the compelling fascination here is how the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are blends of up to 18 different grape varieties, usually dominated by grenache noir.

At 6.30pm we cast off, heading upstream to Viviers, where the next morning sees us up at the crowing of le coq walking through the ancient streets of a town that never bothered to disguise its social distinctions. The elevated part of town surrounding the cathedral remained an ecclesiastical domain for more than a millennium and is known as "le sacré". Gathered at its feet are the more humble residences of the tradesmen and artisans labelled "la profane".

Crowning the town is the Cathedral of St Vincent, which displays elements of Romanesque style construction dating back to the 12th century when Viviers was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Most of the building, however, dates from the 14th century, and the more ornate elements are 16th-century additions in the more flamboyant late-gothic style. Our guide, an elegant Englishwoman, has chosen to settle in Viviers, which she describes as "a town of relatively austere architecture as the locals were always reluctant to flaunt their wealth". But it has its attractions. "Good wine," she says, "costs just €2.20 a litre."

The exception to the architectural austerity is the Maison des Chevaliers, one of the finest Renaissance houses in France. It was built in the mid-16th century by an opportunist who started life as a commoner, became wealthy through salt trading and misappropriation of public funds, and ended life beheaded in Toulouse.

An afternoon sailing for the twin cities of Tournon and Tain l'Hermitage provides an opportunity to relax on the top deck and watch the Provençal countryside, whose colouring at this time of year is reminiscent of the tapestries decorating Viviers' cathedral.

Tain l'Hermitage is home to Cellar Ferraton, where we taste the Cotes du Rhône, St Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage wines produced from shiraz grapes grown on the slopes above the river. These tend to be wines for early consumption and so it proves. Our purchases are consumed before we reach Lyon.

Across the river from Tain l'Hermitage via the pretty Marc Seguin wooden footbridge is Tournon, one of France's oldest cities. Picturesquely poised above the town and river is Tournon's feudal castle, which dates back to the 10th century, although most of what is visible today was built between the 14th and 16th centuries.

Arriving in Lyon underscores the magic of river cruising as we glide into our mooring in the centre of the third-largest city in France. Lyon is at the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône rivers, and has managed to preserve many great moments from the various eras of its long history, while also embracing the ultra-modern.

It was built in the valley between two hills - Fourvìere and Croix-Rousse - and has the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city was founded by one of Julius Caesar's lieutenants, and a wealth of Roman antiquities has been preserved here. The Romans established a city at the foot of Fourvìere, and a museum of Gallo-Roman civilisation has been created near the site of two excavated Roman theatres dating back to the first century AD - they're still used for special cultural events today. Fourvìere is the location of Lyon's landmark basilica Notre Dame de Fourvìere, and Croix-Rousse is where the early silk weavers brought from Italy lived. The hills became known as "the hill that prays" and "the hill that works".

A coach takes us to the summit of Fourvìere Hill to reveal stunning views over the city, the merging of the two rivers, the city's impressive Renaissance mansions, colourful Vieux Lyon, and the Rhône Valley and the Alps beyond. And back down to the city to explore the traboules, a labyrinth of narrow passages and tunnels hidden behind the doors of Renaissance façades whose uses throughout history have spanned nefarious, judicious and eventually glorious, providing escape routes for the French Resistance during World War II.

Lyon is my disembarkation point but it impresses me as a vibrant and sophisticated city showcasing cultural sensitivity, Renaissance architecture, edgy art and design, legendary and progressive cuisine, and the energy radiated by a population of 100,000 students. Make that 100,001.



THE FINE PRINT

GETTING THERE
Air Austral operates three flights weekly from Sydney to Marseilles, Provence, via Réunion.

CRUISE
Uniworld's eight-day Burgundy and Provence river cruising itinerary takes in Arles, Avignon, Viviers, Tournon, Tain l'Hermitage, Lyon and Chalon-sur-Saône. In 2011 it departs almost every week until November and is priced from $2883 per person, including meals onboard MS River Royale, wine and beer with meals, some shore excursions, and airport transfers. For details on this and other Uniworld cruises in France and beyond, go to Uniworld's website or visit your travel agent.

THE FINE PRINT

GETTING THERE
Air Austral operates three flights weekly from Sydney to Marseilles, Provence, via Réunion.

CRUISE
Uniworld's eight-day Burgundy and Provence river cruising itinerary takes in Arles, Avignon, Viviers, Tournon, Tain l'Hermitage, Lyon and Chalon-sur-Saône. In 2011 it departs almost every week until November and is priced from $2883 per person, including meals onboard MS River Royale, wine and beer with meals, some shore excursions, and airport transfers. For details on this and other Uniworld cruises in France and beyond, go to Uniworld's website or visit your travel agent.

GT
Signature Collection

Find out more about the Gourmet Traveller Signature Collection by Robert Gordon Australia, including where to buy it in store and online.

Read More
Recipe collections

Looking for fresh dinner ideas? Not sure how to make the most out of seasonal produce? Or do you need to plan the perfect party menu? Our recipe collections have you covered.

See more

You might also like...

Best of Italy

Rome, Florence, Naples, the Amalfi... the list of our favour...

Best New Hotels 2009 slideshow

We’ve got the keys to the most fabulous new hotels in the wo...

Burgundy, France: Top soil

“Water can rust iron. Imagine what it does to your insides. ...

Bali's new high

It’s no secret that recent times have been tough for Austral...

New South Wales South Coast

Unsung hero Flashier holiday spots may steal the limelight, ...

Gourmet Barcelona

From the city's best sandwich bar to its favourite charcuter...

Greece's Mani peninsula

Greece’s rugged and bloody Mani peninsula was once a no-go z...

Venice in pictures

Read our story on what to do if you only have 24 hours in Ve...

Great Brittany gallery

Take a walk on the wild side. Follow Brittany’s windswept co...

South African safari lodges gallery

Travelling from the Great Karoo to the Kruger, Emma Ventura ...

Iceland photo gallery

Erase the images of that volcano with the unpronounceable na...

Happy holidays

They’re following the sun and chasing the snow, staying clos...

Kyneton and Castlemaine

Kyneton and Castlemaine were born out of the gold-rush era, ...

Insider's guide to Manly

Breath of fresh air The classic Sydney beachside neighbourho...

The best of New Zealand

Choosing from the bounty of New Zealand's holiday destinati...

get the latest news

Sign up to receive the latest food, travel and dining news direct from Gourmet Traveller headquarters.

×